It’s been a time of upheaval in the digital comics landscape. Amazon’s still recent purchase of Comixology continues to make waves. The San Diego Comic-Con international, the biggest single gathering point for the North American comics world, provides a useful snapshot of the current industry landscape and the developments likely to occur in the next year. PW was able to talk to most of the digital overseers at a number of companies to get a picture of how the channel is developing.

While the industry is, of course, no stranger to massive corporations entering the field—Marvel/Disney and DC/Warner Bros. are examples—but Amazon’s current dominance of both print and digital book sales does present a unique situation, particularly as digital comics are still such a new phenomenon. As Comixology CEO David Steinberger reminded the audience at the company's “Ask Me Anything” panel at Comic-Con, Comixology only launched at San Diego in 2009 with a rather meager 55 titles. And the company did not establish itself as the de facto digital comics standard right away. It took some time for the field to shake out, and see Comixology jump ahead of other early digital companies, among them iVerse, and Longbox.

Comixology has proven itself the dominant force so far in a digital comics marketplace estimated to be worth over $90 million in 2013, through partnerships with all the major comics publishers, aside from Dark Horse (DH has its own digital storefront). Comixology also has a very positive reputation among independent comics creators, fostered by their work with innovative digital-first publishers like Monkeybrain and from the quite successful Comixology Submit program, a self-publishing channel in which Comixology and creators split revenue 50/50.

The Impact of DRM-Free

It was clearly paramount for the new Amazon-Comixology entity to assure the comics world that they would remain committed to comics as a creatively vibrant and important sector, not just as merely one tiny line item in Amazon’s massive account figures. Steinberger and his partner John Roberts took a big step in that direction right at the start of Comic-Con, announcing that comics publishers could now distribute their titles without digital rights management (DRM) software. Without DRM, Comixology allows customers to retain copies of purchased titles on their own computers, without restrictions. Instead of being forced to read digital comics only through Comixology apps or websites, readers can now download comics from participating companies in either PDF or CBZ format, and read or catalog them in whichever way they see fit.

Comixology’s decision to allow for DRM-free purchases is a major about-face for the company. As recently as last year at Comic-Con Comixology executives generally dismissed questions about DRM as uninteresting and unimportant. In the past, Steinberger always claimed that readers vastly prefer having their collections stored in the cloud, freeing them from needing “stacks of hard drives” to maintain their digital comics. Steinberger maintained that it was only after Image and Top Shelf started offering DRM-free purchases from their own sites in 2013 that he began to get pressure from comic publishers to offer a DRM-free option, and that he could no longer, “with a straight face” turn them down.

Unsurprisingly, Image and Top Shelf are part of Comixology's initial DRM-free launch and they were joined by other independent publishers including Monkeybrain, Dynamite, Zenescope and Thrillbent. Eric Reynolds of Fantagraphics told PW that they would likely follow suit, and had only missed out on participating in the initial DRM-free launch because he had been on vacation while the launch was being organized.

The connection between the Amazon acquisition of Comixology and the DRM decision is not coincidental, and is clearly seen as a form of “re-assurance” to some wary comics insiders. Comics writer Mark Waid, founder of digital comics publishing venture Thrillbent, told PW that allowing DRM free backups demonstrated to him that Amazon-Comixology was not going to throw its weight around, but was still committed to allowing publishers to do what was in their, and their creators’ best interests. The publishers and executives involved in the DRM-free comics, including Waid at Thrillbent, Ron Richards at Image, Chris Ross at Top Shelf and Allison Baker and Chris Roberson at Monkeybrain have been among the most innovative in developing digital comics and pushing them to expand readership, promote new comics talent and play creatively with the format of graphic storytelling.

All the publishers involved recognize that DRM-free programs can be a valuable offering to customers, guaranteeing permanent ownership regardless of what happens to the Comixology platform long term. They also know that DRM-free comics signal to their readers that they understand digital culture, and are aware of the practical pointlessness of worrying about unauthorized distribution. They surely know that every comic published today is available for download for free from pirate sources on the day of release, and that it is likely a desire to support creators and publishers that gets readers to buy their titles from Comixology instead of downloading from the Pirate Bay.

Noticeably lacking from the DRM announcement, of course, were any of the larger, publicly owned comic companies or publishers of corporately-owned licensed properties. While there are rumors that Marvel is considering leaving the new Amazon-Comixology, and a revival of interest in digital comics vendor iVerse after their signing of Valiant, currently nothing has changed for Marvel, DC, IDW, etc when it comes to DRM.

In fact, we may be beginning to see a kind of bifurcation in the digital comics market, between companies tied to large global media conglomerates, that maintain a fervent faith in the need for some kind of DRM control for their multi-billion dollar intellectual properties, and the smaller publishers more concerned with creator autonomy and exposure.

Corporate Concerns for Digital

Hank Kanalz from DC Digital told PW that the mission of digital comics is bound by larger considerations for interconnecting characters across the media landscape. DC Digital is focused on tying digital comics titles to current WB TV shows, like Arrow and The Flash, or releasing titles like Batman ‘66 around the Blu-Ray release of the old Batman TV show. One of DC’s most popular digital titles is Injustice: Gods Among Us, a series spun off directly from a video game of the same name, that has proven popular with casual and first-time comics buyers. For Kanalz and DC, DRM-free is a non-starter, something that does not fit easily into the larger Warner Bros vision of highly valuable commercial properties, and to be fair, the same situation generally applies to Marvel and to independents such as IDW and Dark Horse.

Topher Alford of Dark Horse told me he respects what Image, Top Shelf and the rest are doing without DRM, but does not feel it is a model that could apply to Dark Horse and the properties it publishes currently, including Star Wars, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Hellboy. Dark Horse is an outlier in not offering its digital comics through Comixology, and seems to feel justified in that decision after the Amazon purchase. According to Alford, by staying independent, Dark Horse is able to control sales, promotions, data, etc. that would be difficult to organize through Comixology, and they have big hopes for a new version of their app that is coming later in the year, that was developed in-house.

By going it alone, Dark Horse also avoids paying the revenue percentages that would normally go to Amazon-Comixology, which are also shared with Apple and Google for sales on iOS and Android apps. However, in the first major change after its aquisition by Amazon in April 2014, Comixology removed the ability to make in-app purchases via iOS forcing purchases to go through the Comixology web store instead.

According to the numerous publishers contacted during Comic-Con San, despite initial fears, eliminating in-app purchase on the Comixology platform did not cause much disruption for their customers or decrease revenue significantly. And by eliminating in-app purchases, Comixology also left behind Apple's sometimes mystifying decency restrictions that have caused problems and accusations of censorship. A number of publishers said they were relieved to not have to worry about Apple’s capricious whims on decency. Avatar Press, a publisher noted for the rather aggressive use of violence in some of their titles, said the elimination of in-app purchases allowed them to participate far more fully in digital sales, which they had only started in October 2013. Avatar believes that digital release worked quite well for them in that it provided their customers with a bit of privacy, as purchases would not be scrutinized by store clerks.

The general attitude toward Amazon among comics people in San Diego was cautiously optimistic. This is based on both their ongoing relationship with the Comixology team, but also their experiences with Amazon as a distributor of their print books and graphic novels. As Allison Baker of Monkeybrain (and now IDW’s director of operations) put it at the Monkeybrain panel at Comic-
Con, “How is it bad to be working with the biggest bookseller on the planet!”

Other Digital Models

Amazon’s purchase of Comixology was not the only shift in the marketplace, as new methods of supporting, marketing and selling digital titles continue to emerge from comics publishers. Following its success for video game and e-book creators, Humble Bundle has begun including comics in their offerings of pay-what-you-want bundled digital downloads. Ross at Top Shelf, said their Humble Bundle was a “very big success” despite (or because) of its user-chosen payment model. Top Shelf, Image and Boom! have all announced plans to participate in more Humble Bundles in the future, and clearly value the cross-over potential between comics readers and video game players.

Monkeybrain continues to have success pushing its unique model of low cost 99¢ digital comics followed by print versions produced by a variety of traditional comics publishers. Thrillbent is also joining the digital-to-print trend with its Motorcycle Samurai to be published by Top Shelf and the excellent Damnation of Charlie Wormwood slated to be released in print from Dynamite.

The model of digital first, print second, has had some proven success, and initial digital release can demonstrate powerfully the popularity of a title or creators to risk-averse conventional publishers. However, many comic creators contacted at San Diego noted that the need to keep an eventual print version in mind can limit the range of artistic experimentation attempted in the digital original. Christina Blanch, the creator of Charlie Wormwood, realized that herself while preparing for the physical print run of her digitally conceived title after she discovered that some of her effective frame and click manipulation would have to be removed for print.

For someone like Mark Waid, Blanch’s editor at Thrillbent, who has evangelized in favor of creators using digital comics to play with form and structure, trying to think simultaneously in “both worlds” is very difficult. For both practical and aesthetic reasons some creators find that forcing themselves to retain a “print syntax” in their storytelling is very important. Bone creator Jeff Smith’s initial foray into digital first is the webcomic Tuki, which does not break the “rules” of comics storytelling, he said. At a digital panel at Comic-Con, Smith said that for Tuki, just as in traditional comics storytelling, he attempts to engage the reader in a “joyful collaboration” with the artist by forcing them to “jump over the gutter”--the gutter is the space between comics panels--in their imagination.

Author Chris Roberson, a Monkeybrain publisher and cofounder as well as a prolific writer (iZombie, Edison Rex), agreed with Smith and rejects any notion of digital comics as a “new form of storytelling innovation.” Instead he sees digital comics as purely a new distribution platform for traditional comics, and has no interest in seeing a new media emerge from them. For established creators like Smith and Roberson, digital comics are an area of experimentation but purely for business and promotional methods. The end goal is generally to monetize digital content through the sale of physical goods, or digital editions that are identical to the print versions.

Eisner award-winning cartoonist Terry Moore (Strangers in Paradise, Rachel Rising) found that digital sales help him to reach readers geographically unavailable to him previously, but he acknowledged that ultimately his comics still sell about the same amount they always have, roughly 9,000 copies per issue.

The digital landscape at San Diego this year was divided in a number of ways, between those who see digital comics as goods in and of themselves and those who consider them merely a part of a larger media property; between those who want to sell them as equivalent to physical copies and those who see their value primarily in promotional terms; and between those who want to explore their creative differences with print and those who wish to preserve the unique graphical elements of the physical comic.

The entry of Amazon into the field, even with the dominating market position held by Comixology, has yet to fully play out. For now the impact of Amazon's acquisition of Comixology has been rather limited. If anything, the removal of in-app purchasing--accompanied by the removal of Apple's decency restrictions--has simplified matters for both publishers and readers, even with the loss of some purchasing convenience.

It is likely we will see more skirmishes between the mega-companies who control commanding positions in the comics marketplace. At the same time, and perhaps more importantly, the smaller more nimble independents will keep exploring new ways to exploit the creative tools, convenience and consumer reach that digital comics provide.