By Sven Larsen (@zemoga)
We’ve talked about the future of book publishing (hopeful), magazine publishing (a little iffy) and newspaper publishing (downright scary). But what about the red-headed stepchild of the publishing scene, the humble comic book? How are developments in technology and digital media impacting the future of this All-American medium?
At first glance, these should be salad days for the comic book industry. As I write this Marvel Comics’ THOR is dominating the box office. And with CAPTAIN AMERICA, GREEN LANTERN, COWBOYS & ALIENS and many other comic book inspired films and television shows on the way, it seems like the audience for comic book material has never been bigger.
Unfortunately, the millions of eyeballs tuned to the latest adventures of these four color characters have not translated in to a boom in sales for the medium that birthed them. In fact, just the opposite has occurred. The cyclical comic book industry is in a down cycle, with the top books selling under 100,000 copies and many titles selling much less.
Why hasn’t the popularity of graphic novel inspired characters been reflected in their source material sales? A number of factors enter in to play. As the hybrid offspring of monthly periodicals, comics suffer from some of the same problems as their magazine parents (newsstand comic sales are almost non-existent these days). Dedicated comic book stores are thin on the ground (only 3000 or so exist in the United States) and often unwelcoming to the casual buyer (Comic Book Guy on THE SIMPSONS may be a cliché but he’s still representative of many comic book stores). For a while, chain bookstores like BARNES & NOBLE looked like they would emerge as the alternative to these traditional distribution outlets but the recent bankruptcy of borders and the overall softness in physical bookselling has put a damper on those hopes.
Comics are also a handmade medium. While advances in technology have allowed for increasingly sophisticated graphics (particularly when it comes to their color palettes), the creation of comic book artwork remains an intensely laborious process. As a result, comic book artists must command a premium for their work and those costs are reflected in the price points of today’s comics. With baseline prices in the $3-5 range, comic books represent an expensive proposition in our struggling economy.
Enter digital media.
Digital presents an amazing opportunity for comics. The marriage of graphic and text is the language of the web as well as the comic book (there’s a reason why Scott McLeod’s UNDERSTANDING COMICS is considered a seminal work by leading UX design thinkers). Digital addresses almost all of comics’ distribution problems. Anyone with a device and an internet connection has access to the product. And several commerce platforms (most notably the iTunes store) provide easy payment options. Even more encouraging, Marvel’s purchase by Disney built a bridge between Apple and the company that allowed a Marvel Comics app to be one of the featured tools on Apple’s introduction of the iPad (with it’s screen size and portability, the iPad offers the closest replication yet of the traditional comic book reading experience). And digital also allows users access to the 70+ years of comic book publishing that have occurred since the early days of SUPERMAN and BATMAN. No longer do readers need to search high and low for hard to find back issues. The internet can serve them up with a simple click of a link. Theoretically, a user should be able to view the SPIDER-MAN musical and (if they’re so inclined), go home, log on and access any SPIDER-MAN story that’s ever been published.
So why isn’t your screen crawling with mutants, monsters and Archie’s jalopy?
There are several factors, holding back the Golden Age of online comics.
The first is legacy distribution. As one might expect, comic book specialty retailers are none too happy with the idea of digital editions being available on the same day and date as physical editions. Representing anywhere from 80-90% of most publishers’ sales, content producers are understandably reluctant to alienate their existing business partners. As a result they have experimented in a very limited manner with same day release. And online pricing has mirrored physical pricing, a significant drag on emergence of digital as a new revenue stream (would Kindle editions or iTunes singles have been as successful if their pricing mirrored physical counterparts). Like it or not, there is an expectation on the part of the online buyer that digital editions should be cheaper. And until pricing reflects this, adoption will be handcuffed.
Comics also find themselves with several technology challenges. While modern comics are produced in a workflow that easily lends itself to digital conversion, older material has traditionally been scanned from film, resulting in flattened PDFs that would need to be reconstructed for effective digital implementation. DC and Marvel, who represent the bulk of comic books published in the US have also gambled heavily on Flash, with the bulk of their digital offerings being powered by software that is incompatible with the most popular reading devices (i.e. any iOS powered machine). New solutions like the COMIXOLOGY iPad app are working around these problems but native development remains an expensive challenge.
Finally, digital comics (and digital rights in general) represent a battleground for many major corporations. Should they fall under the purview of a company’s film or publishing divisions? Or another division entirely? Just as PR, Marketing and Advertising companies fight the turf war for ownership of social media, these political struggles have yet to be resolved. And while they do progress on digital offerings often stagnates.
While these challenges are daunting, it’s clear that comic books are here to stay. A generation of American kids have grown up with unlimited access to comic book or superhero toys, clothing, games, television shows and movies. With more than half a decade’s worth of long tail content to draw upon, it’s only a matter of time before publishers see that the long term benefits of easy consumer access to content far outweigh legacy revenue streams. And when that day comes, everything from AQUAMAN to ZOT! will be at the fingertips of a huge audience of readers.
So, what do you want to read first?