Crisis On Infinite Platforms — Comic Book Publishing In The Digital Age

The digital revolution has savagely torpedoed the old print establishment. Newspapers are struggling, magazine circulation is in a downward spiral, and book publishing is trying to figure out digital distribution. Bobbing about the wreckage in these oil-stained waters is the comic book industry. Long past the heyday when a popular comic book could sell in seven figures, the comic book industry has circled their wagons and relied on a blizzard of limited series, character cross-overs, and contact buzz from blockbuster movie hits like The Dark Knight and Iron Man to sell their wares.

Last week, DC Comics announced a restructuring that saw their print-based comic book business remain in New York, while everything else — movies, TV, licensing, and digital publishing — will entrench on the west coast. It is news that either marks a new beginning — or the beginning of the end — for DC Comics, and it is certainly a watershed moment in the history of comics. Like all the print industry, comic books stand at a crossroads. Can comics adopt to this new digital medium, or will this art form follow silent movies and radio drama into the dustbin of history? What news and trends from the wider publishing industry also apply to comics?

Saving the comics business? This looks like a job … for Superman!

So there we were, Paul O’Connor*, Chris Ulm** and Tom Mason***, three comic book fans, IP generators and creators of companies, hovering over the digital picnic table, sipping our beer and Facebooking about our favorite subjects: comic books, the internets and digital comics. Fortunately, one of us was smart enough to save the text, and even more fortunately, the other two of us were smart enough to edit out all the mean-spirited fratboy/fanboy content. What’s left? What’s here!

PAUL: So the intertubes are perennially atwitter with news that print is dying, and as former print guys ourselves, our antenna always goes up when another canary dies in the coal mine. It’s already a fact (that we just made up) that no one under fifty has even seen a newspaper, and now comes news that Apple and the ink barons of the magazine publishing industry are trying to forge an agreement to bring magazines into the 21st century. At issue are the usual things — money, control, money, entrenched power bases, money, and money.

TOM: I think most magazine and print publishers are still under the belief that they can keep making a monthly magazine like they have since the 1920s and put it up for download just like they’d release it to the old fashioned newsstand. But people don’t read in giant chunks anymore, just like they rarely download whole albums.

PAUL: We just said no one under fifty has even seen a newspaper, and now you geezers are on about record albums? What’s next, rotary telephones?

Batman’s phone was rotary, but still cool

ULM (ignoring Paul): You’re right on about albums. It was an anomaly that albums became popular due to the changing nature of radio (album rock), the baby boomers and their kids, and the bands that creatively drove concept albums. Also, CDs helped to continue the domination of albums over singles as they were enormously profitable for the record companies, the bands, and the retail stores, and essentially were bought to replace an earlier format that was less durable, less convenient and arguably didn’t sound as good.

But, this practice of “bundling” is not so easy to do in the digital age when the cost of copying is free. Most people don’t like more than two or three songs on an album and when they suddenly could buy everything a la carte (thanks to iTunes), it destroyed album sales.

PAUL: I think you could argue that iTunes saved record sales after Napster destroyed it, but I take your point about bundling.

ULM: I think one of the big trends going on right now is “de-bundling” — more and more, we’re going to see cable companies and other media providers forced to allow consumers to buy only the channels or media they want rather than have to buy pre-chewed bundles organized by media companies.

PAUL: Do we think it’s a leap of faith that consumers still want magazine content at all? Will Apple (or whoever) build the pipeline to deliver periodical content to the hummingbird attention span generation only to find there isn’t a market, whatever the price?

TOM: I wish I could say for certain. A lot of what magazine companies are trying to do feels like it’s all too little too late for some of them. People — not all of them, but a big bunch and certainly the newer generation that doesn’t have a childhood based around print — don’t read 100-200 page magazines like they used to. My mom will, but once she goes and takes her generation with her, what then?

Comic book author Warren Ellis has a recent theory — as of last week — that comics may/should move towards digital publishing the way people actually read online or play games. Lots of folks will still play Halo for 100+ hours or read everything DC publishes, but more people on their smartphones will want a shorter game that doesn’t require them to give up the rest of their lives, and some webcomics thrive just putting up a few pages a week.

PAUL: So we rescue comics by making them shorter and more like games? Do they have to become interactive?

TOM: Not really, but instead of trying to force subsequent generations to retain the reading habits of the older generations, why not adapt the content for the way people actually read now?Comics don’t have to be interactive, but imagine if I’m reading The Fantastic Four on my iPad and there’s a panel referencing a scene from 10 years earlier, I’d like to click on that panel and have it link to that earlier scene.

Sue Storm prepares to read digital comics on her Space-Time Research Visi-Phone

ULM: We are definitely doing a lot of thinking along these lines as well in terms of the app business … its not really about games as it is about the digitization and monetization of content. Now, all content is interactive and games just focus on specific mechanics of interactivity. A game app has much more in common with a comic book reader than a traditional video game has with a printed comic book — and that’s where I think the opportunity is.

PAUL: Slow down, egghead. You gotta explain what you mean by that.

ULM: It all comes down to what you expect from a touch. If you touch a physical book or magazine, nothing happens. If you are reading a graphic novel on an iPad, you expect that your finger will be able to trigger a deeper relationship with embedded links, search boxes, the ability to select and cut and paste, etc. This expectation is fast becoming the new normal, and as hardware and software improves, the level of interactivity will become more relevant and involve more gestures. Add instant availability and cheap pricing and mass acceptance will follow.

Will Marvel and DC Comics lead funnybooks into the next century?

Have independent cartoonists already pointed the way toward a new paradigm on the wild, wild web?

Will Ulm and Tom talk more about the Economist than superheroic men in tights?

Tune in Wednesday for the pulse-pounding climax of our riotous roundtable, where our three peerless pundits identify opportunities in this brave new world!

*Paul O’Connor spent his youth emulating Captain America by frisbeeing trash can lids down the dusty alleys of the San Fernando Valley. He is currently Brand Director of apps publisher Appy Entertainment. In a past life, he wrote about a hundred comic books that few people remember or read.

**Chris Ulm is CEO of Appy Entertainment, but before that he was Editor-In-Chief of upstart publisher Malibu Comics. He achieved nirvana when childhood favorite Iron Man made it to the big screen but he’s convinced his next disappointment is just around the corner.

***The former VP-Marketing for Malibu Comics (and later Marvel) Tom Mason is an Emmy-winning television writer. He co-created a live-action adventure series for the BBC that will air in 2011 and is co-story editor on the upcoming animated series The Davincibles. He occasionally blogs at Comix 411. He is currently reading The Walking Dead Volume 1 collection because he is that far behind.