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Please, Just Kiss Digital Comics On The Mouth Already

When 2010 comes to a close, there’s no question what the biggest comics news story of the year will be: digital comics. It’s the only story that stands a good chance of affecting every publisher; no matter who you are or what you publish from superheroes to manga to art comix, the iPad and the pending flood of affordable tablet computers will let you sell all of it to a brand new audience. This may be the most important, genuinely new and viable development in comics since the advent of the Direct Market, and at the barest minimum, it has the potential to expand the audience for comics far beyond its current size.

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So why is most of the comics industry so afraid of getting it over with? Just kiss digital comics on the mouth already. We all know it’s going to happen.I get it. I really, really do. Retailers are a vital part of the comics food chain. But digital comics are fast, convenient, easy, cheaper, and (if we’re being completely honest here) sexier than a lot of retail stores. You don’t have to worry about Comic Book Guy behind the counter questioning if Mike Carey and Peter Gross’s “Lucifer” is “about gay stuff or what,” asking you if that volume of “Prison Pit” is for your boyfriend, little lady, or going off on you for buying “New Warriors” because it supports Marvel’s disgusting liberal, anti-troops agenda. (I’m not exaggerating on any of those, by the way, and the latter one happened directly to me on an absolutely absurd visit to a shop after work one day.)

Look, let me tell you a story. One day, a hot new girl moves into your building. For some reason, she is really, really into you. She has a fast car, a ton of money, and she keeps inviting you out for drinks. Your friends see the writing on the wall and they keep telling you to “just go ahead and get it over with,” but you can’t see the forest for the trees. You are totally smitten with your current girlfriend, who is perfectly fine to be sure. You’re so smitten that you look at this new girl, who everyone agrees is totally smoking hot, an eleven out of ten, and you go “Eh, she’s okay, I guess.”

Don’t think this is an apt comparison? Here’s a collection of quotes from various interviews about digital comics from comics publishers and digital comics purveyors:

“In fact, DC included a quote from Joe Field, president of the retailer organization ComicsPRO in its press release announcing the launch. “We’ve been working awfully closely with all kinds of retailers, not just in retailer organizations, but important retailer partners that are outside the retailer organizations, to insure that anything we do regarding publishing is seen as additive, that we are taking new consumers and closing the loop and incentivizing them to return to brick and mortar, and that we are doing all we can to make this feel additive,” Rood said.”

John Rood, DC Entertainment Executive Vice President of Sales, Marketing and Business Development, 02/19/10

“”In a lot of cases, the iPad looked like the weapon of mass destruction [to retailers],” said Jeremy Atkins, director of publicity for Dark Horse Comics, which has released popular titles “Sin City,” “300″ and “The Guild” for the iPad. “They kind of realize now — and as we try to make clear to them — that this serves as an opportunity.”

Jeremy Atkins, Dark Horse Comics Director of Publicity, 08/12/10

“We provide services for retailers so people who subscribe to our service we lead the people who’ve never been in a comic book store to their nearest one. Its already a boutique industry and a cultural center and we believe there’s actually an ability to help comic stores grow.

David Steinberger, Comixology CEO, 08/03/10

Again, let me reiterate, so far there is no evidence to show that people are stopping their purchasing of print comics for digital, and in fact most of what we have learned has shown that we’re capturing new and lapsed readers and sending them back into comic shops, a fact that has been confirmed by several direct market retailers.

Joe Quesada, Marvel Comics Editor-in-Chief, 06/08/10

As we pull those guys in we are going to see some more foot traffic in the brick and mortar store. I think it’s incumbent upon us to close that loop tighter and figure out more direct ways of enticing these new readers to find brick and mortar stores. That’s something we’ve been meeting retailers on. We’ve already had two meetings with a bunch of key retailers and talked to them about ways we could implement this, and we’ve gotten a lot of good feedback from them.

Jim Lee, DC Comics co-publisher, 08/24/10

“Digital comics? Eh, they’re okay, maybe they’ll work out, I dunno. But man, have you ever been into a comic shop? Have you seen those? Cause that’s what we really care about!”

Have you noticed how every conversation about digital comics from publishers includes a mention of driving buyers to comic shops? You can find several dozen more versions of “We’re really excited about how digital comics are going to drive customers into our brick and mortar partners” with a simple targeted Google search, because in every interview about digital comics — and I’m having trouble finding exceptions here — publishers and digital comics publishers are always careful to mention that the retailers are a priority.

Here’s the problem with that: Digital comics are not there to support retailers. They are a competitor. They are the new gunslinger in town to blow the head off the old gunslinger. They’re the person trying to break up your marriage. Netflix doesn’t hold back on content, let publishers set ridiculous prices, or send customers to Blockbuster, so why should digital comics do the same?

It’s a common talking point precisely because digital comics are a huge threat to retailers, and since the Direct Market depends on retailers to sell comics, they don’t want to anger their biggest business partners. That’s totally fair; you don’t want to bite the hand that feeds you, and you don’t want to count your digital distribution eggs before they hatch. But at the same time, (and to continue the increasingly ill-advised New Girl In the Building comparison): if you keep holding back and selling yourself short, you’ll eventually be left with nothing. If the digital effort continues to be a half-effort, the failure of digital comics will be a self-fulfilling prophecy. At some point, you need to either make your move or give up.

Marvel Comics and DC Comics keep stressing that the digital market is different, and doesn’t line up with the tastes of the Direct Market. If it’s so different… why the hesitance? Sure, retailers will lose a certain number of sales, and maybe some customers will flip over to digital instead of print, but that’s how business works. Consumers go to where the consumption is easiest and cheapest. Doing things like delaying day and date releases or pricing digital comics higher than their print counterparts? That’s stupid, and the sort of thing that will make digital comics fall flat on their face. It’s an attempt to throw a bone to retailers and convince them they’re going to stick around. It’s also self-sabotage, pure and simple.

The idea that prospective digital consumers consider everything they haven’t seen before as “new” is intellectually dishonest to a fault. Sure, I haven’t read, say, 99% of Will Eisner’s “The Spirit” or any of about a three-year period of “Amazing Spider-Man” from the ’90s, and that makes it new to me. But, I’m not so stupid as to think that they are actually new comics, fresh off the presses. If I start picking up comics, just like anyone else, I’ll read a mix of old and new. If all I ever get is old works, or books that are perpetually six months behind the current stuff in print, I’m not going to go to a comic shop and catch up. I’m going to wait and forget to buy the books or just stop reading them.

Or pirate them.

Remember Napster? Music piracy ended up being a huge deal for the music industry, in part because consumers — the people who want to buy things — realized that rootkits, DRM, and various other ways companies attempted to lock down their content were keeping them from doing what they wanted to do, which is listen to music. If comics continue down this path of talking about digital comics but not actually being about them, then these potential consumers will turn into actual pirates. You can download almost any comic within a couple days of release in fantastic quality. If you’re consistently being told, “Well, we don’t want to release this yet,” it becomes easier and easier to look at piracy and go, “Well, I don’t really want to wait…”

Downloading pirated comics is just as easy as downloading pirated mp3s, and if you don’t provide an alternative, people will find one, whether it involves paying or not. Ask any publisher — pirated comics downloads often outpace the sales of comics to an insane degree. Comics piracy is already a problem, and the longer you wait, the bigger of a problem it will become. It is vitally important to catch these new readers in the infancy of the digital comics boom, because If you don’t, once that boom passes, you’re left with a tiny audience of consumers and a whole lot of people who read your books without giving you one thin dime.

It’s fine to try to avoid wrecking retailers right out of the gate. In fact, it’s extremely smart. Retailers are what makes the comics industry move right now, and there are plenty out there doing a fantastic job. But digital comics and the Direct Market are not allies. The comics industry is a business, the dopey and mythical “Team Comics” philosophy notwithstanding, and we’re not all in it together. By favoring one revenue stream over another, you simply make one stream into less than it could be. Your bias for one destroys the other, rather than cultivating two separate sources of fat cash.

Digital comics, as a concept, could go either way right now. In the best case scenario, digital comics will make comics available on a variety of mobile platforms at a low price point and cultivate an entirely new audience. Superheroes and indie comics are on the same playing ground in digital comics, because the selection bias of comic shops isn’t present, print runs are irrelevant, and crowding the shelves isn’t as simple as publishing fifteen “X-Men” comics a month. In the worst case scenario, digital comics remain a marginal aspect of the funnybooks business, merely something used to advertise new print books or somewhere to dump the stories no one cares about.

Retailers aren’t going anywhere, and I’m certainly not advocating their destruction, but the comics industry is on the cusp of genuine, sweeping change. If, and hopefully when, digital comics are a large part of the business, retailers are going to have to adjust to the new status quo just like they did when the Direct Market evolved and the ’90s boom crashed. On the other hand, if publishers keep pussyfooting around digital comics for the next year or two, we’ll end up with a comics industry that’s just like it has always been. Would you rather have that, or do you want a healthier industry where superheroes aren’t dominant, indie creators are on a nearly level playing field with the Big Two, and if you want to read some classic tales that are out of print, all you have to do is press a few buttons?

There are obviously certain economic and logistical hurdles to overcome before going all the way in with digital comics, but Marvel and DC, among others, have both had promising starts that soon gave way to… business as usual, false starts, six dollar comics that cost five in the store, and hedged bets. Gross.

What I’m saying here, and the point of that New Girl in the Building example, is that the comics industry needs to be more flexible. Don’t choose one over the other; just hook up with digital comics and the Direct Market at the same time. They both serve different audiences and have their own benefits and downsides. It worked for Billy Paul and Mrs. Jones. It even worked for William Moulton Marston.

Go poly, comics. Share the love. It’ll be better for all of us.

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