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Everyone is Bleeding: Brian Wood on Dark Horse and Digital Comics

Dark Horse Comics announced last Thursday that it would begin offering digital versions of its comics and graphic novels on the same day they go on sale in comics shops and bookstores. The plan, which goes into effect December 14, brings the publisher up to speed with Marvel and DC Comics, but Dark Horse’s plan was distinct in that it was to offer those digital products for as little as $0.99 to $1.99 per issue, which is less than their print versions.

The announcement proved controversial for some members of the comics retail community, prompting Dark Horse Publisher Mike Richardson to issue a statement Monday night clarifying the reported pricing as a “miscommunication.” The writer of Dark Horse’s upcoming The Massive and Conan, Brian Wood confirmed in a thoughtful blog post that retailers reacted extremely badly to Dark Horse’s digital initiative as originally put forth, and offered more food for thought on the digital market as it concerns him as a creator.”I have access to the CBIA, a retailers forum, and the pushback [against Dark Horse's plan to sell digital comics for less than the print counterparts] was intense, and included overt threats of drastically lowered orders and even total boycotts of the line,” wrote Wood. The writer indicated that Dark Horse was consequently “compelled” to “clarify” its pricing plan, which breaks down thusly:

All new single-issue comics will be released digitally and in print on the same day. Digital comics will be priced at $2.99 for the first month, dropping to Dark Horse standard digital pricing of $1.99 after that.

Everyone I know loves comic shops. Everyone I know who makes comics, especially creator-owned comics, is hurting, financially. EVERYONE is bleeding, its a bad time. So to what extent does digital as a publishing format represent an additional revenue stream, one on top of print sales through shops, one that can ease some of the suffering?

Don’t know. No one knows, because we aren’t seeing true sales numbers yet. No one’s figured out what the magic price point is, because none of the big players have taken the risk and offered a 99-cent comic, or a $1.99 comic, etc., in a meaningful way. The price point is being kept artificially high out of deference to our retail partners. The price that fair-minded readers WANT to buy digital comics at is starkly different from what’s they are currently set at.

Wood’s remarks jibe with the sentiment of many digital comics pundits and proponents, whose most common criticism of the market seems to be the high cost of entry for the consumer. While many publishers like Archie, DC, Marvel and Image have or will soon be offering their new wares digitally on the same day as print, the prices for those items often remain comparable or even equal to those of the comics store product, which would seem to fly in the face of conventional wisdom — at least, conventional wisdom as defined by other industries like digital music and television.

As Wood reported, many comics retailers consider the growing digital space in threatening terms, but the writer of such titles as DMZ for Vertigo and Wolverine and the X-Men: Alpha and Omega for Marvel spoke not just for himself but indeed many creators when he wrote that digital comics represent not a replacement for traditional retailers, but rather a glimmer of hope that writers and artists can maintain a full-time comics career in the shrinking economy.

I’ve had series cancelled recently. I’ve had pitches rejected for financial reasons. I’ve seen my editors laid off. I’ve taken page rate cuts (a LOT of us have). My income from royalties have dropped. Most comic shops don’t carry my books. I have very good reasons to suspect my career in comics may be drastically reduced in the near future. Things just plain suck, but I’ve taken these hits, figuring that everyone else is having hard times too. I don’t mind bleeding a little, and one ray of hope has been digital, the potential it has to maybe, just maybe, keep some of us going through these lean times. But like I said, we can never explore that potential to even just see if its there, as long as current pricing stay locked in.

Wood continued, zeroing in on what most publishers have proposed in all their digital announcements: the market has the potential to bring new readers to comics, as opposed to merely moving the existing (dwindling) numbers to a new form factor.

No sane creator, or publisher, wants to see comic shops hurt. We all have emotional connections to them, to the idea of them, and we count owners and employees as personal friends. We aren’t looking for digital to steal customers away from shops, but rather to be an additive thing, to be an additional source of income. To simply switch a current print consumer to a digital consumer does not solve any problems! It benefits no one at all. It will not save us.

Fellow creators on Twitter have affirmed Wood’s remarks. Gray Horses and Chiggers cartoonist Hope Larson said she’s “no longer making a living from comics,” and frequent Wood collaborator Ryan Kelly (New York Five, Local) indicated he’s begun contemplating a life outside the industry. Wood himself Tweeted that he “took a 30%-40% hit last year,” and that he is “planning an exit strategy” from comics, echoing a point he made quite memorably in his blog post about the digital market’s deference to traditional retailers:

I’ll have to bleed a little more so that others can bleed a little less. The problem with that, to really keep abusing this metaphor, is that eventually I’ll just keel over and die from it.

For more digital comics commentary and news, stay tuned to CA’s regular Digital ComicsAlliance feature.

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