Digital comics have been growing in popularity for years. But when comic fans found themselves reliant on digital access during the pandemic, digital comics in libraries really took off. So too did Comics Plus, the digital comics platform that has roared back to life as a service to libraries and schools as part of upstart provider LibraryPass.
Library Pass’s Comics Plus service offers readers access to more than 20,000-plus digital comics, graphic novels and manga through schools and libraries. For readers, the service is easy: users can access the full collection via phone, tablet, or browser with a school ID or library card. And there are no wait times or holds lists, just log in and start browsing and reading. For librarians, the service is proving to be an excellent resource: robust, well-curated, age appropriate, and, perhaps most critically, the service doesn’t punish usage—Comics Plus offers unlimited access to its content for one annual fee.
“We’re making good progress,” says LibraryPass CEO Ian Singer, a veteran library market executive who spearheaded the revival of Comics Plus after taking the helm of LibraryPass in the spring of 2020. A pioneering service when it first launched in 2012, Comics Plus was languishing before being acquired by LibraryPass. But with the pandemic boosting digital resources, Singer saw the service’s potential. “My first three or four months were spent shoring up publisher relations and paying publishers. It was kind of a mess,” he says. “But I really believed the time was right for the service to take off, especially because comics were getting strong adoption in the K-12 market.”
Once aboard, Singer rounded out his team, bringing on former LJ & SLJ colleague Guy LeCharles Gonzalez as Chief Content Officer, educator Raquel Ryan as Chief Experience Officer, and librarian Moni Barrette (president-elect for American Library Association’s Graphic Novel & Comics Round Table) as director, of collection development and publisher relations. He then set his sights on the K-12 market, offering five months of free access to the New York City Department of Education, which serves more than one million students. Feedback from that trial backed up Singer’s belief that the school library market was hungry for digital comics. So Singer struck an exclusive deal with respected K-12 provider Mackin to reach the K-12 market —a move he says has taken the business to a new level.
With pandemic restrictions easing and schools and libraries open again Comics Plus is continuing to see strong growth, as the demand for digital comics shows no sign of slowing down. The company is adding new customers in the school and public library market as well as new publishers. And the service is getting solid reviews—including being named one of Library Journal‘s Best Databases of 2021 this past March. In its announcement, LJ editors praised the service as a “tremendous value for school, public, and academic libraries.”
Librarians PW reached out to agree. “I love how much they've grown in just a few years,” says Adam Wall, librarian at Prince George’s County Memorial Library System, in Maryland. “We used to have access to hoopla comics, but we could only allow six checkouts per month and customers became frustrated because they would blow through all of their checkouts in one day. With Comics Plus our customers can get the titles they want and they can access them as much as they like. There's usually something new to check out and read.”
Stella Bromley, a librarian with Austin (Texas) Integrated School District says the feedback on the service, which the school accesses through MackinVIA, has been excellent from both students and educators. “Our middle schools especially are seeing great usage across the board,” Bromley told PW. “The titles available create connections between current TV shows, movies, and games. And the reader is also much easier to use than in other services. [The students] love it.”
Bromley also praised the service’s features. “The ability of our campus librarians and teachers to create a permalink to a specific title has been great for our curriculum writers since everyone can be on the same title at the same time,” she says. “There are many award-winning titles that can be linked for curriculum purposes such as Cells at Work for Biology classes; They Called Us Enemy for American History; or the Dekko Comics that include math and language development. And the My Shelf feature is important, enabling students to see where they left off in a particular title, what they have on board for their next read, and their history as a reader.”
Both Wall and Bromley also singled out the service’s curation.“We've not had to double-check what gets added to Comics Plus,” Wall told PW. “They really seem to be on the same page about where the line is for public libraries.” Bromley agrees, and says the ability for school administrators to easily tailor their collections is appreciated. “The fact that campus librarians and administrators have control over what is in the collection is a bonus,” she says. “They can truly curate the collection to fit their campus needs.”
Quality curation is an important feature of the service, says Library Pass Chief Content Officer Guy LeCharles Gonzalez. Unlike other digital services which tend to market the number of titles available, Gonzalez says it’s not only size that matters.
“We draw a really clear line about what is appropriate for a K-12 or public library audience,” he says. In today’s red hot book banning climate Gonzalez is quick to point out that the service’s collection development policy is firmly rooted in the ALA’s Library Bill of Rights. The service is dedicated to offering quality books that may be controversial in some locales—such as Maia Kobabe’s critically acclaimed graphic memoir Gender Queer, for example, which has become a lightning rod for book banners nationwide. But what won’t get into the collection, Gonzalez says, is the kind of “malicious” material from questionable sources that caused controversy earlier this year when it was discovered in other popular digital library services.
“You may or may not think Gender Queer is appropriate for your library or school, and that's your decision to make. Yes, you can turn that book off or on. That's your choice. But we're not going to keep it out of our collection because some people think it's inappropriate for certain readers,” Gonzalez explains. “But Holocaust denial? Vaccine misinformation? Actual pornography? No. We take the time to make sure these things do not get in the collection, efforts that other platforms don't necessarily make perhaps because their business models are built around offering as much content as possible, as if scale alone means something."
Meanwhile, Comics Plus continues to add new publisher partners to a large and growing catalog that already includes many of the biggest names, including Kodansha, BOOM! Dark Horse, Tokypop. Just this month, Comics Plus announced the addition of “early reader” titles from ABDO, Capstone, Cherry Lake, and Lerner Publishing Group. Last month, comic pioneers Valiant signed on. In April, all-digital comics publisher Europe Comics joined. And unlike trade e-book publishers, who insist on “friction” in their digital library lending, many comics publishers appear to readily appreciate what libraries bring to the table, offering their content for unlimited, simultaneous use.
“I think what's unique about comics publishers is that comics by design go in and out of print and they are always creating new editions,” Gonzalez says. “And, because a lot of comics are series-based or driven by popular creators, many comics publishers recognize the value of keeping their backlist content fresh and discoverable and they are happy to take advantage of libraries and the curation we bring to the table. We actively work to showcase those backlist gems.”
While the demand for digital comics is surging and Comics Plus is in growth mode, Singer says the company is focused on growing its customer base and its publisher offerings over its profits. The operation remains lean. There is no corporate headquarters: the team works remotely. And without the pressure of shareholders or private equity there is no pressure to turn a quick buck.
“We are building a company that is mission driven,” Singer says. “That's reflected in everything we do, from how we curate and present the content to the tools and resources we develop, the customer service, all the way through our pricing. We don’t charge maintenance fees and there’s no baked-in annual price increase. We want to be good partners with libraries and librarians because we believe in the mission.”