Comic Wars

Changing the way readers consume comics has sparked a new battle for relevance and readership in these digital times.



By Jeffrey Yip [contributor]

Courtesy of Terry McCombs // Flickr

In January 2010, an unimposing, unshaven, slight man stepped onto a stage and greeted his audience with a pleasant smile.

He moved about the stage with grace and confidence in worn, gray sneakers, his audience captivated by his every word.

Although he doesn’t look like a superhero, in his black, long-sleeved t-shirt, tucked into faded blue jeans, Steve Jobs, co-founder and CEO of Apple Inc., holds the iPad, a device that many expect is the game changer for the comic book industry.

According to Jason Thibault, the iPad will finally give readers a device on which they can read a comic book or webcomic without being disrupted simply because the page doesn’t fit on the screen. Apple’s tablet will do for books what iTunes and iPods did for CDs: Make them obsolete.

“Apple … has to put a sexy, practical device in your hands … and the device has to work just like how the iPod works for music,” Thibault said.

Thibault is the founder and co-owner of Optimum Wound Comics, a Vancouver-based boutique publisher, specializing in horror and “grim-and-gritty crime stuff.”

“We published REX in May 2008 and Optimum Volume One in September 2009. So I guess you could say we’ve only been in the publishing game for a few years now,” Thibault said.

Since then, Optimum Wound Comics has become an e-zine and online resource for comic creators, with how-to guides and interviews with comic book artists. Thibault hopes to get back into publishing and plans to launch a new comic in the coming year.

Over the past three decades, increased costs and competition have lead to steadily declining sales and readership of comic books.
In 1968, the average monthly comic book cost 12 cents and today, the top-selling comic book costs $3.99. The increasing cost has left casual readers hard-pressed to take chances on new titles, and with comic bookshops being among the few remaining places to find comic books, it has made it harder for the industry to find new readers.

Add to that the competition from a multitude of entertainment options available, and it’s no wonder the industry is suffering.

Thibault sees the evolution of the publishing industry as a war between netbooks, laptops and the iPad “or whatever slate-type device.”

“When they finally nail down one or two portable media devices that the universe is happy with and that you can read everything on it, then you’ll probably be comfortable with the idea of buying a PDF [portable document format] for $5.99 or whatever,” Thibault said.

Initial feelings about the iPad by some in the comic book industry were cautiously positive.

“I don’t think it’s the be-all, end-all for comic books. I think it’s a good start,” Ira Rubenstein, executive vice-president of Marvel’s Global Digital Media Group, said in late January. “It’s definitely something we’re exploring, but it’s not something we’re going to rush right out and do.”

But, two months later, Marvel sang a different tune.

In April, Marvel announced the launch of the Marvel Comics App for the iPad. The app is free and currently boasts a library of 500 comics. Each individual comic will cost $1.99.

“We’re excited to introduce an unparalleled digital comic experience to our fans with the Marvel Comics App for iPad,” Dan Buckley, publisher and CEO of Marvel Publishing, wrote in a press release. “The iPad is the first device that offers us a chance to present digital comics that are even close to replicating the experience of reading a print comic.”

DC’s comics were absent from the iPad release. According to Thibault, DC usually waits to see what Marvel does before making its move.

But, within a few months, DC not only announced its own app for the iPad, but also announced it’s partnership with comiXology and PlayStation Network “for two separate digital comics distribution deals,” according to a DC press release.

“At DC Comics, it has been a top priority that DC forges a meaningful, forward-looking digital strategy,” Jim Lee, legendary comic book artist and Co-Publisher, DC Comics, said.

ComiXology will be responsible for bringing the DC Universe to the iPad, as well as DC’s digital comics online.

According to the press release, “DC’s partnership with comiXology also includes a first-of-its-kind Retailer Affiliate Program, which will collect a portion of digital revenues to be invested back to and on behalf of comic book retailers in a variety of initiatives.”

“We look forward to working with our partners in the industry—the creators, the retailers and the fans—as we experiment with our digital strategy, in a manner that remains additive to our traditional business models,” John Rood, Executive Vice President, DC Entertainment, said.

Each distributor will have different libraries with some titles available from both distributors. Of course, some titles will be exclusive to each distributor. For example, Neil Gaiman’s Sandman will only be available through comiXology. Not surprisingly, the PlayStation Network will exclusively carry comic book titles based on videogames.

One hundred comics will be available for the iPad app and at the comiXology storefront at launch time, and 80 available on the PlayStation Network.

Unlike Marvel’s uniform pricing, DC’s digital comics will have what Lee refers to as “day and date” pricing. New monthly comics will be available for $2.99. After the comic has sat on the digital shelf for four weeks the price will fall to $1.99. Older titles will cost $0.99 to $1.99.

This announcement gives DC its first meaningful online presence.

“This innovative offering breaks new ground, and makes some truly great works available in digital form for the first time,” Thomas Gewecke, President of Warner Bros. Digital Distribution, said.

Days after its release, reviews of the iPad and the Marvel Comics App were mixed, as iPad owners who already subscribed to Marvel’s digital comics online were disappointed they couldn’t use the app to access their existing library.
Initial reaction to the DC Comics app is similarly mixed, with some fans questioning DC’s pricing structure and the small library, considering that the digital comics available are not simply from the DC Universe, but include titles from DC’s other publishing houses, Vertigo and Wildstorm.

“It’s going to be fun in the next year just watching all of this unfold,” Thibault said.

“They’ll be the e-book wars that people will be talking about 10 years from now when people are absorbing media with something that is way cooler than everything is now,” Thibault said.

“I’ve read comics online, but it’s going to take some getting use to reading comic books on a digital reader. This is what the future is going to be. You’re going to consume what you want in the format you want to consume it in or [comic book publishers] going to go out of business. You are going to demand to see it how you want to see it.”

And just as January 2010 gave the industry a superhero, it may have also ushered in the end of the era of the paper comic.

“One hundred per cent. And that’s coming from a guy who loves print and loves paper. It’s just too convenient. PDFs and digital documents all the way,” Thibault said. “I love the hardcover. The over-sized. I love paper. I love how it looks. But I read 90 per cent online now.

“You don’t necessarily want the hassle of ownership. You don’t necessarily want to build a new bookshelf. You just get tired of having to move and store like 3,000 pounds of books. All the content creators are starting to get that now.”
That doesn’t mean the paper comic is going to go away. According to the Chicago Sun-Times, the Big Two see digital comics not as replacement for paper comics but as a way to expand the market for print.

But, Thibault believes the reality is that as electronic portable reading devices, such as the iPad, become cheaper and more popular, the value of paper comics as direct market revenue will surrender itself to its digital brethren.

As a creator himself, Thibault is realistic about comic books in the digital age.

“It doesn’t matter how it’s done, as long as it gets read.

“In the future, when you’re reading digitally but someone puts out a limited edition over-sized, hardcover glossy version of it, it’s not going to be convenient at all, but the people who want it are going to buy it,” Thibault said.

“The people who buy in print are going to be like the vinyl collectors, I’m talking like10 years from now. Every time you put out a new product, the guys who want the vinyl are the same kind of guys who are going to want your signed hardcover. The people who want print are going to get it.”

The Big Two toyed with digital comics before the launch of the iPad.

Vertigo Comics is DC’s label for any titles that don’t fit nicely into their superhero universe. Vertigo’s titles range from crime and espionage to horror and the esoteric. It allows readers to download the first issue of selected titles for free.

Right now, previews are available for titles such as Hellblazer, which inspired the movie; Constantine; Human Target, a new TV-series on FOX; and The Losers, a movie released in April 2010.

The free preview has the benefit of attracting casual readers who may be reluctant to drop nearly four dollars on an unknown title. Publishers hope the reader will buy the rest of the issues or the collected edition, commonly referred to in the industry as a trade paperback.

It also has the benefit of giving people who are only familiar with the movie or TV version of comic a chance to see where it came from. The free preview may be the gateway drug that turns someone who wouldn’t read comic books into a reader.

More recently, DC has found another avenue into digital comics through an online publishing arm called Zuda Comics. Zuda showcases webcomics by creators outside of the superhero mainstream. Anyone can upload a comic, if it meets DC’s submission guidelines.

Each month, DC selects 10 of the best webcomics to compete for an online publishing deal with Zuda. Fans and readers vote to select the winner and all of the comics that participate in the competition can be read on the Zuda website for free.
Like Vertigo, because Zuda is outside of the mainstream, the genres of the comics are diverse.

And that’s really the point. If you want spandex wearing, super-powered superheroes go to DC. But, if you’re looking for something different, there are the digital options at Vertigo and Zuda.

The current incarnation of Marvel’s digital comics has been around since late 2007. Readers can preview a limited selection of titles, but for the most part Marvel’s digital comics can only be read by buying a monthly subscription through the company’s website. Marvel’s online library of titles is extensive, spanning multiple titles from Marvel’s golden age up to the present. According to the website, the online library boasts over 5,000 comics.

Marvel has also gone one step further, creating exclusive content available for download at Apple’s iTunes store for $1.99.

The Marvel Motion Comic website debuted at the 2009 New York Comic Con, with two titles: Astonishing X-Men, by writer Joss Whedon (creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly) and art by John Cassiday (Planetary and Hellboy: Weird Tales) and a brand new story about Spider-Women, written as a motion comic by Brian Michael Bendis (Ultimate Spider-Man and co-creator of Powers) and drawn by Alex Maleev (Daredevil).

Motion comics changes the storytelling format of the traditional comic. No more speech bubbles. Instead, actors speak the dialogue. And, of course, some of the panels are animated.

Joe Quesada, Marvel’s editor-in-chief, believes that the motion comic is evolution of comics, taking “existing comic art, the flat static art” and animating it.

Still, the industry’s move towards digital goes beyond simply becoming cutting edge. Much like the movie and music industries, the comic book industry’s bottom line is being eroded by piracy.

“In a digital format, the second we’ve got a consumer society buying things in a digital format, the second it’s out there, it’s on the torrents. I’m not against it. I know some people are. I know that some people are very angry about it. I get that,” Thibault said.

A group of dedicated scanners, known online line as DCP, post new scans of print comic books every week.

“DCP stands for Digital Comics Preservation. Unlike mother nature and father time, we want comics to be around for a long, long time. Therefore, we work towards digitally preserving ALL comics we can find. This includes new comics, old comics, popular comics, small-press comics, and even a few fan-made comics that only a handful of people ever saw. If it’s a comic, we’ll scan it,” DCP’s mission statement reads.

A week’s worth of DCP scans can usually be found on most of the popular torrent websites. (A torrent is a peer-to-peer file sharing technique that has made digital piracy increasingly easier.)
DCP scanners make high-quality digital scans of each page of a comic book, sometimes including or excluding advertisements. The images are then archived, or “zipped,” together as a .zip or .rar file, which in the comic book piracy world are renamed .cbz or .cbr.

The industry’s argument against the DCP is that publishers’ intellectual property is being illegally reproduced and distributed.

However, the industry believes it can actually stem the tide of piracy by moving to a digital format.

In an interview at the New York Comic Con, John Cunningham, vice-president of advertising at DC Comics, talked about stopping piracy:

“I think the key is not to figure out how to ferret out the pirates, it’s to come up with a digital delivery system … where you can convince people it’s worthwhile to pay for [comics], because people don’t believe that digital stuff should be paid for,” Cunningham said.

iTunes has proven that even with access to pirated media, people are willing to pay for music, movies or TV. With iTunes, there’s no hassle finding the media you want or having files transferred to your computer, iPod or even phone.
Amazon.com has also proved that people are willing to buy digital media.

During the 2009 Christmas season, Amazon.com’s Kindle was its best-selling product and sales of ebooks surpassed sales of regular print books.

Given the success of iTunes and the Kindle, it’s not surprising that the comic book industry would begin to embrace digital comics and portable electronic reading devices.

But, can the iPad and digital comics really save comic books or will it simply be another crutch for an industry suffering from declining readership and rising costs and locked in a never-ending battle for attention.

With the success of comic book movies, it might appear to those outside of the comic book industry that the popularity of comic books has never been higher. But, the success of superhero movies has only translated into a slight increase in comic book sales for the title.

“I think movies are more the way the genre is going. Like Iron Man, that was the coolest thing ever,” Thibault said. “But, why would I buy an Iron Man graphic novel? There’s no point in reading superhero comic books anymore.”
And, according to Thibault, movies aren’t anymore sustainable than print comics.

“It’s a craps shoot. I mean you can’t bank on any of that. You don’t measure success by getting your comic book made into a movie. Then you should just be making movies if that’s what you want to do. You shouldn’t be making comics.”

One hope for the comic book industry is in the rash of lesser-known – or unknown – superheroes and non-superhero themed comic books that have inspired upcoming movies: Dead of Night, a supernatural thriller, was based on an Italian comic book series by Tiziano Sclavi; Priest, about a warrior priest who goes on a quest to find his niece who was captured by vampires, was based on a popular manga series by Hyung Min-woo.

The Losers, based on a Vertigo comic by Andy Diggle and Jock, about a team of elite soldiers who are betrayed by their leader, may prove to be better in converting comic book movie fans into comic book readers.

Despite the movies and video games, Thibault believes that the comic book industry is first and foremost a publisher.

“Video games and movies are awesome, but it means you’re just beholden to so many other powers that you’re no longer in control,” Thibault said. “If you’ve built an audience for your comic, you shouldn’t have to rely on movies or TV or video games. That’s all cherry-on-top-of-the-sundae-type stuff.”

Thibault’s lament is that the medium has almost entirely become the playground of superheroes.

“These characters are just icons. I don’t read a lot of that stuff. But, while I’m there, I’m caught up in the world they’ve created,” he said.

“If you’re writing a superhero comic book, you don’t need to bend all the rules, you just need to have fun. I mean these characters can seemingly do anything so have fun with it.

“Batman is stupid, if you think about it. It’s a guy running around in a cape. But what a fun movie,” Thibault said.

“A lot of people forget that a lot of it started off as black-and-white on newsprint. It was disposable. It wasn’t revered and bagged and boxed. It was for reading. You read it and you couldn’t wait to read the next volume,” Thibault said.

The acceptance and acknowledgement that its audience is becoming increasingly digitally-oriented means that the comic book industry is trying to be more in touch with their fans.

“What’s the old saying: ‘If you don’t like change, you’re going to like irrelevance even less,’” Thibault said.

Gimmicks to entice readers such as “Who will live?” and “Who will die?” this month storylines are clichéd. And complex crossover of titles have made it near impossible for casual readers, and readers returning to comics after a long hiatus, to understand what is happening without reading several years worth of back stories.

“I think they should try a little harder. They’ve done a lot of good things in the past decade and the argument is being made that there’s more relevant work being pushed out now than ever before, both in print and online, but now … there’s no excuse not to be trying to make statements and stay relevant.”

That’s what Stan Lee did when he introduced his X-Men in 1963, representing racial minorities and youth culture of the 1960s. The fictional “Mutant Registration Act” of the X-Men comic was social commentary on the U.S. Jim Crow Laws, which discriminated against non-whites.

Stories appealed to the youth of the ‘60s because they explored issues relevant to the times.

Lee pushed the envelope again in 1971 when he published three issues of the Amazing Spider-Man (#96-98), without the approval of the Comics Code Authority. The CCA regulated comic books in the U.S. to ensure that what was then deemed as inappropriate material wasn’t published.

Lee was approached by the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare to do a story about drug abuse.

The story was written and portrayed drug use as, what the CCA code would later describe, “a vicious habit.” The CCA refused to approve the story because the story it was about drugs and drug use, calling the story irrelevant. Lee published the story. It was well-received and forced the CCA’s to revise the code to allow creators room to depict crimes, drug use and violence as storytelling devices as long as those acts were not glamourized.

In October 2001, cartoonist David Rees began publishing a webcomic called Get Your War On.

“Yeah, Get Your War On, that was amazing. That was one of the most caustic, offensive [comics], but it made a point about the second Gulf War,” Thibault said.

“He told it using these … generic-looking ‘70s pieces of office clip art … but they’re saying the most insane, poignant things about the Bush administration … cussing their heads off. The first time you read that it’s like you’ve found something new,” Thibault said. “I don’t think that could have been done in any other medium … it’s a political cartoon but could never be in a newspaper.

“There should be a few works [such as these] that are put out every year that are important in the same way that people talk about other media: ‘Did you see this movie?’ or ‘Did you read that book?’ Comics have no excuse for not becoming and staying relevant like that.”

In January 2009, Marvel Comics published a comic to celebrate the inauguration of President Barack Obama, in what Marvel called a “Spidey/Obama Team-Up.” The story takes place in Washington, D.C. on Inauguration Day and finds one of Spider-Man’s oldest foes attempting to thwart the swearing-in ceremony of the 44th president of the United States.

“That’s not being relevant,” Thibault said. “That’s more like forcing yourself on people saying ‘Hey! Look at us! We can talk about issues and whatever, too.’” Thibault said. “That’s not why people read comics.

“With Get Your War On, someone found a way to express their immense dissatisfaction in a way that we could laugh and cry all at the same time.”

In Thibault’s opinion, this type of pandering that the comic book industry has resorted to to sell comic books is obnoxious.

“They forget that with comic books you can get away with a lot more and experiment. ‘Cause if it didn’t really work, you’ll be back next month with something else.”

If comic books are to thrive they need to be relevant Thibault says.

“Why should a nine-year-old kid care about aging superheroes when the next big thing coming out of Asia is going to be way cooler and speaks to them? The only reason we like Batman, it’s not because we discovered him when we were 22, it’s because there was something about him that spoke to us when we were kids,” he said.

“But, when a kid can turn on the TV and can watch the next new anime and everything is all speed lines and lasers and everything is just epic … why should they care?”

According to Vertigo Comics writer Chris Roberson, “in the attempt to do the kinds of comics that will appeal to the mythical ‘mainstream’ audience while not offending the traditional fanbase … the risk that publishers run in chasing that strategy is to end up pleasing neither … The problem is that in the majority of cases, those two audiences are looking for different things.”

“It’s a war for attention,” Thibault said.

Even with all of the challenges that the industry is facing, Thibault believes that the industry can adapt and change.

“Comics will never go away,” Thibault said. “They explore sides of the self that you don’t get to do. It’s mythology. It’s power fantasy. It’s a slick storytelling device. The amount of information that you could convey in one page of a comic book, it would take half of a novel or movie to do.”

And the Big Two are hoping that portable electronic reading devices will help them continue to tell stories. The key is to find out how best to use technology to recreate the experience of reading a print comic book.

“I think the one advantage we have going for us is that people do put a premium on actually holding a comic book,” Jim Lee said. Lee understands that many of the faithful, have taken to torrents and reading comic books in a digital form simply because they can’t afford to buy multiple titles.

“But if you ask them: ‘How do you prefer reading it?’ they always prefer to read it on paper,” Lee said.

So, for now at least, the industry has taken a cautious, wait-and-see approach and continues to test the digital comics market. Until Apple or Amazon.com or whoever builds a device that the Big Two can say gives readers the full experience of reading a paper comic book, the industry will continue to limp along clinging to it’s paper past.

“I just think in 2010, we’re in this weird time, and I just want to keep marrying the old with the new. I don’t care how people read them, I don’t care if they hold them in their hands in paper,” Thibault said. “It doesn’t matter how it’s done, as long as it gets read.”

“Good comics is just good comics.”

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