by Bruce Lidl | Pub­lish­ers Weekly

'Edison Rex' by Chris Roberson and Dennis Culver, available from Monkeybrain

Edi­son Rex’ by Chris Rober­son and Den­nis Cul­ver, avail­able from Monkeybrain

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.

Nocturnus Case File

A pan­el from Mark Waid and Peter Krause’s Thrill­bent com­ic ‘Insuf­fer­able’

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.

Moth City

Moth City’ by Tim Gib­son, avail­able at Thrillbent

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.

Avery Fatbottom

Jen Vaugh­n’s Ren­Faire mys­tery com­ic for Monkeybrain

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

Batman '66

The cov­er to ‘Bat­man ‘66’ writ­ten by Jeff Park­er and pub­lished by DC Digital

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.

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