The ‘Iron Man’ Annual and the Downside of Digital Distribution [Review]
This week's release of Matt Fraction, Carmine DiGiandomenico, Matt Wilson and Joe Caramagna's "Invincible Iron Man Annual" made history for Marvel. Not just because it's an excellent comic (it is), but because it was the first Marvel book to be offered for same-day digital distribution on the iPad. It was originally announced to be the first same-day digital release from any major company, but was beaten to the punch when DC announced they were putting out "Justice League: Generation Lost" on their own iPad app, though I have to wonder if that was a direct response.
Regardless, it's a pretty big deal, and it's something that I've been looking forward to ever since I got the iPad, and while I absolutely loved it, it leaves an awful lot to be desired as a pioneering step in the digital distribution of mainstream super-hero comics.
Don't get me wrong: As a comic, this thing is darn near perfect. It is unquestionably the high point of Matt Fraction's run on "Iron Man" so far, and has a pretty good shot at being the best super-hero comic he's written. The entire structure of having the Mandarin kidnap and torture an award-winning director in order to make a film of his life story is one that allows him to show the depth of the Mandarin's vanity and the roots of his hatred. This is a guy who's been beaten by Iron Man time and time again, and his solution is to change the past, rewriting a more favorable history.
As strange as the "super-villain makes a movie" plot may be and as much as it could easily lend itself to comedy, it's pulled off here incredibly well. It's genuinely thrilling the way that the Mandarin is established almost immediately to be an incredible threat, but he only becomes more dangerous, more sinister and more unstable as the story unfolds. It's an origin that simultaneously humanizes him and makes him even more dangerous.
In effect, this is Fraction's "Killing Joke," redefining an established villain in a way that both builds off of what has come before and takes it to the next level. It's clear from this issue that the goal is to make the Mandarin the Iron Man villain, the guy that shows up and the makes readers start to worry about what's going to happen next. And on that front, it succeeds in a way that should make other writers jealous of just how good it is.
It's not just Fraction, though. Like I said, this is a story that could very easily go off the rails if everything wasn't done the right way, and Carmine Di Giandomenico steps up to knock it out of the park. His style's a marked change from what Salvador Larrocca's done on the main title -- art-wise, it feels more like an issue of "Iron Fist," but that probably has a lot to do with the subject matter and the fact that two of Fraction's past Iron Fists appear in the story -- but that's not a bad thing. He manages to pull off the almost palpable sense of menace that permeates the issue, and his faces are far more detailed and expressive than they appear on first glance.
Even the more technical aspects are done exceptionally well. If he's not already, Matt Wilson's quickly becoming one of the better colorists in the business, and Joe Caramanga (who recently provided the amazing lettering for the "Shed" arc of "Amazing Spider-Man") pulls off some great tricks here, too. It's even tailored for the digital audience: I doubt it's a coincidence that this is a story that lacks double-page spreads, as they're one element of comics that just doesn't look right on the iPad screen.
Simply put, it's one of the best comics of the year, hands down.
Unfortunately, the experience of buying the digital version doesn't match up to the product. The first, biggest, and most obvious reason for that is simple: The download costs more than the physical comic. When the paper comic hit shelves at comic book stores today, it was priced at $4.99, but for digital distribution, it was split into three parts...
...which cost $1.99 each, totalling $5.97. Again, don't misunderstand: All told, six bucks isn't a bad price for 68 pages of comics, especially when they're 68 of the best pages I've read all year. The issue here isn't the price, but that the price was raised.
It's not as though Comixology can't handle larger comics with a bigger price tag; I've mentioned before that they've got entire four- and six-issue volumes of "Mage" and "Atomic Robo" for three to four bucks each, so why not do something like that?
On one level, I can sort of see the logic. Unlike DC and the independent publishers that have signed up with Comixology, where the offerings range from 99 cent single issues to $9.99 "graphic novel" collections, Marvel seems set on keeping a standardized price point for everything they've got -- a flat $1.99. And since the issue is written as three chapters that are essentially the length of a normal comic, it works structurally. But again, it works out to an increase for a digital version, and that absolutely mystifies me. I can understand charging the same if they didn't want to undercut the direct market, but charging more?
Added to this is the fact that the issue wasn't available on the iPad until after 2:00 PM EST. That may seem like a petty complaint (and on one level, it is), but consider the fact that by the time this issue was available to download, I could've already gone to a store and bought it for less money. Two of the major advantages of digital distribution for the customer are the instantaneous availability that comes from not having to deal with store hours and a lower price point that comes from not having to manufacture a physical object. If you take those away, what's left?
In his Cup O' Joe column, Marvel Editor-in-Chief Joe Quesada talked about how the hope here was that people who didn't read comics could download this issue and then be driven to comic book stores, but if the goal is outreach, why make it less convenient? The timeframe might not matter to someone who wasn't planning on going to a comic shop anyway, but in charging more for the download, any incentive there might've been to buy online has been removed. There's simply no reason to go with the download.
And that leaves me conflicted. Not only did I absolutely love this comic, I'm someone who really wants to see same-day digital distribution succeed and become the norm, but if this is the grand experiment, it's almost explicitly designed to be something I don't want to support.
I'm still overwhelmingly in favor of digital comics -- even Marvel's digital comics; they did a great release this week of stuff to catch readers up with "Young Allies," including a free issue of the amazingly underrated "Gravity" -- but this seems like a big step back, when it could've been an even more amazing experience than reading the comic already was.