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The State of Digital Comics: Censorship, Price, Distribution, and More

Digital comics are hands down the biggest story of 2010. The problem is that while pithy declarations abound, the digital comics revolution is a huge subject that isn’t easily summed up. There are a number of factors to consider when discussing them, from price to format to whether or not they’ll kill retailers.

We’re still in the infant stages of the digital comics boom, but there’s already a lot to consider. We’ve spoken to representatives from ComiXology, IDW, and Graphic.ly about digital comics, and sat in on several panels about the coming storm. After the jump are seven points of conversations we need to be having about digital comics before they solidify into their end form. Let’s put some intelligent design in the evolution of digital comics.

1. WHERE DO WE STAND TODAY?

Thanks in large part to Apple’s iPad forcing almost every comics publisher in the industry to sit up and join us in the future, 2010 has been the year that digital comics became a going concern. They existed before 2010, of course — Marvel was producing DVDs full of PDFs of classic comics at one point — but they weren’t something that was on the tip of everyone’s tongue, the subject of an essay or manifesto a week online, or quite as pressing an issue as they are now.

Right now, there are a few ways to acquire digital comics, and the majority of them revolve around Apple’s iPad and iPhone. Certain publishers, such as Viz Media, IDW, and Dark Horse, have introduced or will be introducing their own proprietary apps and accompanying libraries. The second, and currently most popular, method is to go through a middleman. The two main competitors in this arena are ComiXology and Graphic.ly, both of which have specific specialties and exclusive features. The third method is getting the file directly from the creative team, as in the case of Steve Lieber and Jeff Parker’s Underground. Of course, the elephant in the room is the fourth method: your illegal downloading method of choice.

In order to survive and thrive, legitimate digital comics have several hurdles to pass. One of the big ones is being convenient and attractive enough to beat “free, if you know how to pirate” as a purchase price. The other hurdles are more easily quantified, like price point or ownership, and more tangible factors like distribution and format.

2. WHAT KIND OF READING EXPERIENCE WILL DIGITAL OFFER?


Moving traditionally printed comics to a computer or phone screen results in an unavoidable change in terms of reading experience. Most comics book pages are taller than they are wide, while most computer screens are the exact opposite. The problem multiplies when you consider the various resolutions and orientations of new internet-enabled phones, netbooks, and other hardware. When you make the transition to digital, you also lose the tactile experience of flipping pages, and in certain cases, the layout of the pages themselves must change.

This is a huge issue, and one that can make or break digital comics. If the reading experience is too different, or unpleasant, then digital comics will be received just like the animated DVDs Marvel and Crossgen put out circa 2003, the grandparents of the much maligned motion comics. Remember them? Yeah, me neither.

The reading experience is still in flux. Viz Media’s iPad exclusive app takes advantage of the iPad’s size to replicate the comics page with no bells and whistles. You can zoom and swipe to turn pages, but generally, you get one page per screen. This is as close as you can get to the traditional comics reading experience. ComiXology and Graphic.ly both support mobile applications as well as iPad and desktops. As a result, both feature a mode that presents the comic to you in roughly a panel-to-panel format, rather than a page at a time. This allows users with smaller screen real estate to enjoy digital comics.

Every method has its own pros and cons, and while none of them are wrong, exactly, they aren’t quite right, either. Viz’s app is no different than pulling up a scan of a comics page on a web page, while ComiXology and Graphic.ly both fundamentally alter the storytelling and pacing found in comics.

3. HOW WILL DIGITAL COMICS BE DISTRIBUTED (AND CENSORED)?

Right now, the App Store is the main gateway to getting mobile digital comics, and also serves as de facto censorship board. Apple has certain guidelines that they require app publishers to follow regarding content, and this could be a genuine issue for comics creators in the future. Let me be frank here: Censorship sucks. If someone chooses not to partake of something, or finds it offensive, then they are welcome to their feelings, but that isn’t a good enough reason to remove something from the sight of all consumers.

I asked Micah Baldwin, CEO of Graphic.ly, about his experiences with Apple and censorship. Baldwin explained that there had been a few issues, but quickly went on to say, “There really isn’t… if you’re writing for major publishers or publishers in general, they have sort of the same restrictions, so it’s not as bad. At the same time, you can buy it through our desktop app through the web and it syncs anyway. So, no. Apple’s been really good to us. We haven’t had any of the problems that anyone else has had getting either our applications or comics approved.”

This sly distribution method of materials that Apple may not approve of is one that several companies are employing. ComiXology allows you to purchase digital comics via their web application and then sync your portable app to download your new comics. With the sole exception of their Marvel titles, you can have a full-featured ComiXology experience without ever going through Apple. In fact, Dark Horse’s upcoming digital strategy is geared specifically to sidestep any censorship issues coming from Apple by using proprietary technology.


4. WHAT SHOULD DIGITAL COMICS COST?

The one price everyone loves is free. “Atomic Robo is a great example,” Steinberger said. “The first one is free, we have a couple of their Free Comic Book Day comics. Very popular comic on our app. […] They have done remarkably well with a free first issue because it’s a great comic, so the hook is there. If you don’t have a way to get people to know it at all, and everything is ninety-nine cents, even that is a barrier. It’s not a lot of money, but it’s a barrier for a new product.”

While free isn’t currently a viable price for digital comics, it does have a specific purpose in the digital ecosystem. It’s used as the proverbial first hit, and if the content is good enough, hopefully sales will follow.

Marvel offers hundreds of comics at a price point of $1.99 or higher. While two bucks is mostly reasonable for new comics, classic have the exact same price point. $1.99 looks a little absurd when the Stan Lee/Jack Kirby run on Fantastic Four costs 19.9 times what it originally sold for and you’re getting almost exactly what the kids in 1961 read. Two dollars a piece for comics that Marvel has surely made a profit on several thousand times over by this point feels like price gouging, and customers aren’t dumb enough to fall for it for long.

Companies are going to have to begin giving older books aggressively attractive pricing to hook new customers
. Some kind of tiered pricing system seems most reasonable, especially when combined with bundles of comics. Why not release an Essential Fantastic Four with the first fifty issues for ten or twenty bucks, or offer the classic Claremont/Byrne Uncanny X-Men for ninety-nine cents each? The specifics of the price in this argument are immaterial–what’s important is purchasing comics in a way that makes financial and reading sense.

Another aspect where Apple exerts control, directly or indirectly, is on price. There is the price of the iPad or iPhone, a fairly sizable investment for someone who just wants to read some funnybooks, to contend with, in addition to the specifics of how the App Store works. Apple gets a cut of every app and item sold, which means that prices almost have to be set at a certain level just for digital comics to be economically viable. The problem, of course, is that consumers obviously want comics to be as priced as low as possible.

The fly in the ointment is, once again, Apple. Baldwin explained that “you give 30% to Apple. $1.99, 30% of that goes to Apple. On the desktop, because we don’t have to share with Apple, we’ve given it back to users.” Marvel’s comics are cheapest on Graphic.ly’s desktop app, being priced at $1.49. Dark Horse has cut Apple mostly out of the equation, only offering their upcoming free bookshelf app on the App Store and pricing their comics at $1.49 for singles and up to $5.99 for trades. ComiXology and Graphic.ly are still under Apple’s thumb. Marvel’s comics on both iOS systems are priced at $1.99 or higher, and time will tell if that is reasonable for Marvel, the fans, and the middlemen themselves.

I asked David Steinberger if there was ever a point where he would tell publishers a price for a digital comic is too high. He responded, “Sure, we’re always in acts of discussion with everybody about the pricing. Obviously we have the most data out of anyone in the industry, and can give advice and commentary. It’s all a collaborative process.”

Another aspect of that process is exactly how digital comics are delivered. Currently, the standard is the equivalent of monthly issues, with a relative handful of companies offering trade paperback-style offerings of several issues at once. On the subject of trade paperbacks, or bundles, Steinberger said, “I would say I see us as having a mix of material. We do collect several series into trades.” He went on to say that “it hasn’t been as organized and as across the board as we’d like, but some people really like to consume their comics that way. We do find that people tend to read several of them in one sitting on the app.”

The benefits of having bundles of books is obvious to everyone involved. However, the question of price, how many issues can be bundled together since there are no printing costs to worry about, and even what constitutes an “issue” of a digital comic is in flux. Is it twenty-two pages? One hundred and twenty-eight? Do you count them by panels?

Everyone, including readers, is still feeling out exactly where digital comics pricing is going to go. My gut and my hopes say that two dollars will be the maximum price for a day and date-released comic book, ninety-nine cents for old books, and eight dollars or less for collections of comics. Time will tell.

5. WILL YOU ACTUALLY OWN YOUR DIGITAL COMICS?

The comics industry, as it currently stands, revolves around collectibles and collectors. The continuing presence of incentive-based variant covers shows that there is definitely a market for scarcity and collectibles, and considering the sales bump that variant covers can give a comic, that market is far from negligible.

With digital comics, scarcity is irrelevant. There are infinite copies of everything available digitally, so scarcity is no longer a selling point. At the same time, you don’t physically own the comics you’ve bought. You cannot print them out or touch them. They exist on your portable device, on a web server, or in the cloud. They’ve become intangibles.

With MP3s, the closest cousin to the digital comic in other media, you have a specific file you can point to and say, “I own this and can do whatever I want with it.” With digital comics, with the exception of illegally downloaded ones, you don’t have that ability. You have a receipt and an icon in a program, but that’s it.

The majority of digital comics are currently locked up in proprietary formats and programs. You can’t move your copy of Fantastic Four #1 from one platform to another. Instead, you have to buy it again. If you buy a book on Graphic.ly, for example, it stays on Graphic.ly. Your rights are limited as far as what you can do with the comic.

In fact, if a publisher or distributor doesn’t want you to read a comic you’ve purchased, they can disable it on your device. A few weeks ago, Marvel and ComiXology accidentally released Jonathan Hickman and Carlos Pacheco’s Ultimate Thor #2 a week early. This is Marvel’s first major day and date series, and understandably a big deal. Once the file went out, it was quickly withdrawn. Benjamin Simpson of iFanboy wrote about his experiences with access to a comic he’s paid for being cut off on Thursday. He said that “this is akin to someone from Marvel breaking into my house to put a comic book sold early to me by my retailer in a lock box, with the promise that they would come back and open the box next Wednesday. No mention of a refund, in fact, after looking around, there’s no mention of Terms and Conditions in the Marvel App or on their website.”

What’s all this mean? It’s a huge step in the wrong direction, to be perfectly frank. Simpson paid for the comic and it was downloaded. Someone elsewhere flipped a switch and his access was removed, but the comic remained on his device. The lack of Terms and Conditions is also worrying. There is no document that details exactly what you can and cannot do with a comic, nor what a publisher can do to a comic you’ve purchased. If you buy a video game or album from a store before its street date, you can still play that game or listen to the music when you get home. Mistakes happen, but the consumer generally isn’t punished for someone else’s mistake. Why should it be different for digital comics?

More directly, why is anyone modifying something you have paid for without your permission? If the answer is “to protect the integrity of the story,” the only appropriate retort is a series of four letter words. This is a prime example of what not to do.

Desktop computer-based offline readers are rare at the moment, with generally portable devices supporting offline reading and desktop applications requiring an internet connection. When asked about the possibility of a Comics.exe, a standalone offline app, Steinberger replied, “The question really is “What do our consumers want?” […] Do we feel like, or do we know, that there’s a consumer demand for downloadable units on an application? So far, the answer is no, we don’t have that indication. People with their iPhones and their iPads–that’s the portable experience, that’s the important experience, that’s the important part of having it on the device, the comics. Whether that continues to be true or not, I’m not positive about that. We haven’t completely settled on it, so we don’t know yet.”

If a company goes out of business, or loses the rights to a comic, will you still have access to those books? If you purchase a book on one device, can you re-download or transfer that book onto another device? Are you free to pull images from the books for personal use or derivative works? Can the publisher dictate changes to books you’ve already downloaded?

All of these questions are going to have to be answered before digital comics really take hold. Is the answer an industry-wide standard format, like .CBR? Can you have an industry-wide format when the market is already fractured with proprietary viewing systems and formats? Will the digital comics we’ve already paid for become obsolete down the line, or will we be able to redownload them in whatever format becomes the standard?


6. HOW EASY WILL THEY BE TO BUY?


Convenience is key. If you’re going to beat piracy, and make money doing it, you have to be able to prove that your product has something over pirated goods. iTunes is a good example. While you can conceivably download any MP3 you like for free online, it may take a bit of searching, result in a few false starts, or be otherwise frustrating. iTunes combats this by having a large library of attractively priced MP3s all in one place. Instead of spending ten minutes searching for an album, you can spend a dollar on a single or ten bucks on an album and get it instantly. You can then take that file wherever you like, whether burning it to a CD or loading it onto an MP3 player.

For comics, the question is “What can I get, where can I get it, and how much will it cost me?” No online service has the depth of library that iTunes has for MP3s, though their inventory increases by around one hundred books a week. They’re competing against brick and mortar stores, whether bookstore or comic book shop, and Amazon. If you live near a comic shop, a simple phone call can secure the comic of your choice. Amazon makes getting comics as easy as it possibly can.

What does digital have to offer the modern comics reader? Instant gratification. If you decide to reread a comic you enjoyed as a perhaps Thunderstrike, all you need to do is sign onto your provider of choice, fork over some money, and wait for your comics to download. Generally, this process takes only a few minutes, including time spent doing the online equivalent of window shopping. You don’t have to dig through a longbox, you don’t have to visit that dusty corner of the comic shop where they keep Thunderstrike, and you don’t even have to get off your couch. You can do this from any computer or supported mobile device.

In exchange, we lose the face to face aspect of the comics community. Word of mouth is huge for comics fans, and if no one is talking about a book, there’s a good chance that book is going to end up canceled. You lose the chance for a retailer to hand sell a book to you, offer suggestions based on your taste, or even just to sit around for an hour chit-chatting about comics. That experience will need to be found elsewhere–perhaps on blogs or forums, unless your digital comics provider has a robust social media feature.

You don’t need to worry about physical storage space with digital comics, either. You don’t need to bag and board your monthlies, or reinforce your shelves to support your complete collection of Absolute hardcovers. All you need is sufficient hard drive space for your collection, or the patience to redownload files that have been automatically rotated out of your collection once your space gets low. For those of us with small apartments or limited space for comics, this is a tremendous boon.

But on the flip side, you currently cannot simply give your friend a comic to read. While the major figures in digital comics are trying to work out exactly how lending will work, at this moment, there isn’t a true solution to that problem. If you want to let your friend read a book, you have to give him your username and password or mobile device.

All of these are factors that influence convenience. The specifics of what makes something convenient is different for everyone, but it’s fair to say that a convenient good is one that looks, costs, and performs in a way that doesn’t make you impatient or frustrated. Digital comics have to leap this hurdle at some point, and preferably sooner, rather than later.

7. WHERE ARE DIGITAL COMICS HEADING NEXT?

Digital comics, in their current form aren’t even two years old yet. We’re in the infancy of the revolution, but it’s not hard to look forward and see where things will end up. Day and date publication will happen. Publishers will offer a deeper and deeper selection of their back catalog. Books that died on the vine or lapsed into obscurity at one point may find new life online. The generation of readers who grew up with the internet at their fingertips at all times will expect entertainment that is plugged in and social media-ready. Comics will shift forms with the new found freedoms and restrictions of the digital format and result in something new, and hopefully great.

All of these are no-brainers, and I think you’d be hard pressed to find someone who would disagree on any of those points. On the timing of when they should happen, perhaps, but you don’t need a crystal ball to see the future of comics.

There are other, less obvious aspects to the digital revolution, as well. MP3s often come for free when you buy the vinyl version of an album. When you purchase a printed comic, why not receive a code for a free digital comic of that issue, or a related issue? When structuring a crossover, publishers can easily create a folder or playlist that includes every issue they want readers to buy, rather than depending on checklists or press releases.

More than anything, though, the future of comics is global. US manga publishers are experimenting with simultaneous release of comics in Japan and the United States. There is a market that is interesting in foreign works, and a portion of that market is interested enough to be willing to try new things at the same time they’re introduced. Producing comics in a variety of languages, as Alex De Campi has done with her digital series Valentine, is simply a no-brainer. For an extra expense, you vastly widen your possible market.

According to Jeff Webber, Director-ePublishing for IDW, an average of 40% of their digital sales come from overseas. IDW publishes a variety of digital comics four to six weeks after their print street date, from licensed comics like GI Joe to independent works from creators like Ben Templesmith and J. Scott Campbell. That 40% number tracks across their entire line, not just works that are based on major international franchises or movie tie-ins. The market exists, and digital comics have an opportunity to not just introduce new readers to comics, but also to service a market that’s segregated by geography. Essentially — globalize or die. These people want to read these books and spend money. If you can’t make money off them, you need to adjust your business plan until you can.

Right now, digital comics are like a rock sitting on top of a hill, just inches from tipping over the edge. Digital comics are full of potential energy that’s just waiting to explode into something new, but it will take nurturing, careful choices, and a willingness to break from tradition to make it work. Full penetration for the market is going to require relatively cheap reading devices, an audience that has been educated about the pros and cons of digital comics, a price point that customers and publishers find appealing, and some kind of standard format that scales across platforms and provides a chance for an open source solution to prevent monopolies.

We’re living in exciting times, and digital comics may be the most important development in comic books since Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster created Superman. It has the potential to change everything, but if handled wrong, it will change nothing. Staying educated about the risks, rewards, and vagaries of digital comics can only be a good thing, especially when you decide to take the plunge yourself.

We’re obviously very pro-digital comics at ComicsAlliance, but no one actually believes that digital comics will destroy print comics. What’s more likely is that the two would exist in a mutually beneficial relationship. Maybe some monthly comics will turn a profit digitally and end up in deluxe trades down the line. Maybe digital comics will provide an easy way to enhance printed stories. Right now, we don’t know. We can guess, but most of all, we can hope.

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