While comics on computers are now an accepted part of the comic universe, comics for mobile devices are still finding their way to accessibility and profitability. With its wide screen, high resolution and cultlike following, the iPhone has been hailed as the product that will provide a breakthrough for comics. However, the killer app for this killer platform hasn't quite been found yet.
uclick, the interactive arm of Andrews McMeel Universal, aims to change this with a new program bringing downloadable comics to iPhones and iPod Touch via Itunes and the iPhone App Store. Each issue of a comic costs just $0.99, although eventually longer stories may have higher price points. The uclick store already carries titles from IDW (the just announced The Thief of by Always by Clive Barker), Image (Elephant Men and Godland), Papercutz and Mirage, as well as comic strips—Pibgorn—and self published titles—Jeff Smith's Bone. By next year uclick hope to have hundred of new comics available on iTunes, says CEO Douglas Edwards, and creating original content is not out of the question.
"Our perspective is that this device has created a new opportunity to reach perhaps a whole new generation of consumers," says Edwards.
uclick has long been making comics content available for various mobile platforms, and Edwards is no stranger to interactive media, having arrived at uclick in May from Handmark, where he launched games and information apps, including the very successful Pocket Express. Although he didn't deal with comics at Handmark, the business is a natural for uclick , given their large library of comics and connections to Universal Press Syndicate and Andrews McMeel Universal, he says.
Although he won't give exact figures, Edwards notes that they are moving "thousands of units every couple of weeks on the best units." Given that the project is only a few weeks old, momentum is still building. However, he observes "I've been at the launch of many products, and this is extremely promising. I wish that everything had started this well." Bone has been the biggest success, but Papercut'z's Nancy Drew has also started out well, indicating that there may be a larger audience than thought for material aimed at a younger market.
For publishers, moving into digital distribution remains an exciting but mysterious frontier. IDW's president Ted Adams has been looking into digital distribution for over a year, and also has a deal in place with iVerse, another iTunes provider, but agrees that the iPhone's possibilities seem to have created the most excitement for a satisfying reading experience. As with most comics publishers, Adams has no intention of giving up print comics, but sees digital delivery as a way to reach people who won't go into comics shops or even bookstores. "They may not go into a store, but virtually everyone has a cell phone," he says.
There's also the question of how various formatted comics will work on iPhones. uclicks' v-p- of product development Jeff Webber observes that one of the reasons Bone has worked for iPhone is the way the panels flow. "We believe panel by panel storytelling is smoother than trying to scroll over a big screen. When you look at a big page your peripheral vision lets you see the end of the story—sometimes we have do little tricks of repetition or images to keep the story flowing." uclick has been testing their comics with different kinds of readers, and more casual comics readers seem to respond well to panel-by-panel storytelling. However, more free-flowing comics such as the fantasy Pibgorn, and Elephant Men by Richard Starkings and Ladronn have also tested well.
Webber also noted that with the iPhone it's not only the sharper resolution and bigger screen area, but the storage space that makes it useful for comics fans. "Some of the folks internally are getting all their comics into sequential order. It's much more of savable format that way."
While iTunes has long been seen as a potential distribution source for comics, and Apple has been very positive about the comics program, content issues remain a problem, say Webber and Edwards. "Apple's approval process is very strict," Webber says. "We can't use anything with strong language, nudity or violence. Any form of blood is not really going to pass." Although there's some irony in that any number of R-rated movies and TV shows can be downloaded from iTunes, for now, comics have their own rules. It's a process that Webber hopes will eventually become much clearer.
Although reading comics on iPhones is still a youthful enterprise, both Edwards and Webber agree that if the iPhone becomes an accepted platform for reading comics, creators might evolve comics that are specifically readable in the format. "But our job is to create the optimum experience for the device to that they can extend the longevity of this really valuable art form," says Edwards. Likewise, good storytelling is good storytelling, says IDW's Adams, who can nevertheless see digital delivery becoming more common for creator driven series, which currently have a harder time getting traction in comics shops. "Comics shops are risk averse to untested product, which I can understand, so this is a way to build an audience elsewhere."
Webber agreed that if the platform takes off, creating original material is a definite possibility. "Anytime you can start turning creators loose in a new medium, it helps drive interest. We're going to see some interesting projects."
Even with the current economic uncertainties, Edwards feels the venture has a good chance at success. "I want to believe that we fall into the large entertainment category that tends to be recession proof. In addition, 99 cents is as close to being free as something that's not free can be. Lastly, we see this economic situation as a real opportunity." With uclick in a position to put this strategy into place now, "when more people are buying expensive devices, we will have already created a giant portfolio of the graphic storytelling medium."
"Our intention is that there will be 1000s of graphic stories in this format at this time next year. It's a very big deal," he concludes.