In an industry as old as comics, a few years may not seem like a very long time, but the disruptions in the digital marketplace between San Diego Comic Con 2013 from just a few years prior were seismic. Not long ago digital comics were considered a side story at best, and a likely net negative revenue threat at worst. Yet, the controversy at this year’s Comic Con about digital comics was that there is no controversy anymore.
"We are in the midst of the “dawn of a golden age” for digital comics, according to industry observer Rob Salkowitz. Digital comics are not radical or even unusual today, but rather an accepted—and accerating—part of the comics landscape. As leading comic retailer Joe Field put it, “the old notion of digital versus print does not even make sense anymore.” Speaking to over a dozen comics industry publishers, editors and creators, gave a few insights into where digital comics are today, and how they fit into the broader comics publishing landscape generally.
Almost universally, digital is viewed as “additive” to the comics industry, and not competitive with print. Digital comics are not cannibalizing print sales, but are in fact expanding the market noticeably, and at a time when sales are up for the industry across the board. As DC senior vice president Hank Kanalz put it, “the install base for digital comics is vastly larger than that provided by local comic stores.” Mark Waid, the popular comics writer and digital comics entrepreneur with his Thrillbent website, has been evangelizing for years about the need to break out from the distribution constraints of North America’s “1800” comic shops, and he found wide agreement at San Diego this year. Every publisher I met told me that sales numbers apparently confirm that there was a real untapped market for comics, just waiting to be addressed in a compelling and convenient way.
Art publishers go digital
Also unlike previous years in San Diego, there are essentially no longer any holdouts—even smaller more art-focused publishers are getting on the digital bandwagon. Many had resisted, fearing lost print sales and a loss of quality, but many of their own artists began to clamor for it. Creators could easily see what was happening on distribution networks like BitTorrent and perceive underserved markets for their creations.
A trip to a comic convention in Delhi, India convinced Jacquelene Cohen of Fantagraphics of the need to make international customers easier to address, and to do otherwise “left money on the table” for precisely the kinds of artists who could ill afford to do so. Fantagraphics is also excited about the prospect of offering massive back catalogues for sale in a convenient and easily stored format, easily making available decades of legendary print runs creators like Los Bros Hernandez of Love and Rockets fame. Prestigious Drawn & Quarterly is finally dipping its toes into digital comics as well, partnering with fellow Canadians Kobo. And Top Shelf is pushing aggressively into digital to help their readers amass what Chris Ross, their Director of Digital Publishing, calls “digital libraries of their own.” They are even experimenting with DRM-free offerings (see below).
Just a few years ago there were a number of tech start-up companies presenting at Comic Con, all of them vying to become the “iTunes of comics.” In rather short order, however, only Comixology is really left standing as the dominant force in digital comics (although iVerse is still launching some new platforms, notably their ComicsPLus library Edition digital lending program.) Outside of Dark Horse, virtually every single comic book publisher, big or small, has signed on to the comiXology platform for distribution, propelling the company to become the third highest grossing app on the iTunes store in 2013. Founders David Steinberger and John D. Roberts reigned over San Diego, and were seemingly everywhere, spreading the word about the promise of digital and their own specific contributions: cloud storage and accessibility on all devices, a great Submit program for independent creators, and their surprisingly effective Guided View method of reading.
The secret to comixology’s success seems pretty straightforward according to a number of comics professionals. Cohen from Fantagraphics puts it simply, “they made it easy for us” to go digital. Eisner Award-winning creator Becky Cloonan praised Comixology’s seamless integration into her previously established artistic work flow, while expanding her distribution “with no overhead” at all. And comixology’s vision as stated by Steinberger is an attractive one, to build “a comics marketplace like [the one that] exists in France, that is strong, accepted and appeals to every demographic group.”
New business models
Digital is allowing a number of ambitious independent creators to create new business models for themselves. Monkeybrain Comics, led by Allison Baker and Chris Roberson, has had an amazingly successful first year as a digital only imprint. Monkeybrain also spearheaded the new trend of creators publishing comics digitally for a relatively low price, and then later making deals with traditional publishers for the print versions.
The exemplar of the phenomenon is Bandette, a very popular Eisner Award-winning title from Colleen Coover and Paul Tobin that sells for 99 cents an issue digitally. The series was “aggressively pursued” by Dark Horse, eager to print it as a collectors edition hardcover. This “digital first” process is likely to only grow, as it gives self-described “risk averse” creators like Coover and Tobin a very inexpensive means to find an audience for more “challenging or personal work,” without the possibly ruinous sums necessary for a print run. And if demand is there, a print version can come out targeting both new and old readers.
In general, Baker sees digital as “the new newstand” or the place where a broad mainstream audience has access to comics that the industry has missed for so many years. And Monkeybrain’s emphasis on low prices makes the “entry to comics” very easy. As Tobin says, “99 cents doesn’t sound like money,” it’s an easy purchase to make with very little thought required. And once they get a taste of what comics can offer, they can get hooked. According to Topher Alford, Marketing Manager at Dark Horse, digital allows for a great deal of market experimentation, with prices changing over time, with aggressive sales and discounting, and for the targeting of “a whole new type of consumer” by focusing their digital efforts on #1 issues and other “easy entry points” for the curious.
For all its noted business innovation, Monkeybrain’s Bandette is a pretty traditional comic appearance-wise, yet the possibilities of digital for formal experimentation is spreading rapidly. “Everything is being tested,” according to Kanalz, from length of story to the manipulation of panels to even sound effects in the case of DC’s very popular Batman ‘66. As creators and readers become more fluent in the particular vernacular of digital comics, there will likely be even more innovation, although Kanalz does not want to lose the crucial elements that “keep a comic a comic,” regardless of distribution platform.
Waid loves the flexibility of digital comics, especially in getting away from the “iron necessity of 20 page stories” that require an almost “haiku” like precision. Too Much Coffee Man’s Shannon Wheeler enjoys the ability “to experiment, especially with more casual work,” while maintaining his ability to publish in a variety of print formats, including the New Yorker.
The continuing DRM controversy
Of course, some of the continuity at Comic Con with years past is not as positive. A topic that re-appears annually is the question of DRM (Digital Rights Management) on digital comics. As mentioned above, some publishers, most notably Image Comics, are testing the rules of online distribution by offering their digital comics without DRM. Whether DRM is a needed attempt to prevent casual piracy or is as Comixology's Steinberger says, “a value-add” by enabling convenience and cloud backup, the issue simply refuses to go away. Can Comixology maintain its relatively lofty perch in the comics world, or will threats from very large outside retail competitors, namely Apple, Google, Amazon and (still) Barnes & Noble threaten them? And who is actually buying all these digital comics? Large entities like Comixology and Apple have access to the crucial sells demographic data, but it’s much harder for anybody else to see it. According to Ron Richards, Director of Business Development at Image, even relatively big players like Image “struggle” to find out who precisely their digital customers are so they can fine tune their sales and marketing strategies.
So while the current good cheer among the comics industry reflects positive sales trends, other media industries such as music and books have demonstrated that the digital transition can create as many challenges as it solves. The demise of Borders and the fragility of Barnes & Noble presents a somewhat bleak future for print retail, and everybody I spoke to was a bit unsettled by the recent news that the online behemoth Amazon was going to enter the digital comics game. Was it merely an indication of the sector’s growth and future potential? Or will Amazon come in and disrupt an industry whose recent strength remains untested? As questions about DRM will become more and more prominent and new platforms emerge, it's likely that much of the digital comic status quo in 2013 will be anything but by Comic Con 2014.