Monday, November 14, 2011

The Digital Comic: Droids, Chrome, Brick and Mortar

If you read comics or are simply interested in economics and technology, these are interesting times.  Marvel Comics recently announced a plan to synchronize the release of digital versions of their comics with their paper counterparts.  The implications of this move has led many business analysts and comic fans to wonder what the future holds for print comics and the brick-and-mortar stores that sell them.

Some people collect comics, some read them with no thought to their future value, and some do both.  For the reader, digital comics may hold attractions--they save trees, and when you're done you don't have to store them.  But for the comic book store owner, this may mean people not coming to the store to pick up their usual 'pull service' of titles they purchase each month, plus impulse buys, and related items like trade paperbacks, T-shirts, DVDs, games, sleeves, boxes, etc.

Currently, DC Comics offers a wide range of their titles in digital format that can run in Microsoft's widely used Internet Explorer.  The titles are priced from $2.99 to .99, and the site is well organized for browsing.

DarkHorse Comics also has individual issues for sale, from $1.99 to 4.99.  Their setup allows you to read online or download to your iPad or iPhone, and Android devices will be added soon.  Dark Horse has a "My Collection" feature, but in the FAQ area explains that you do not own a digital comic, rather you are licensing the right to read it. 

This brings up some interesting questions of ownership, something that is not a problem when you buy a paper copy.  There is also the issue of where your digital collection is stored, as well as its security and ease of access.  And will the increasingly large digital footprint of the big companies like DC and Marvel affect the readership of independent creators of webcomics like WannabeHeroes and Atomic Terrier?

MarvelComics offers various ways to go digital--you can buy individual issues or subscribe to their digital catalog for $4.99 per month on a one year plan (for a total of $59.88.)  Issues can be read online, but only in Google's Chrome browser, leaving out those who use Firefox or Internet Explorer.  You can also download issues to your iPad, iPhone or Android device using the Marvel application.  However, it did not appear that very many of Marvel's numerous titles were available in digital.

In an interview with Newsarama's Michael Doran, Marvel's VP of Sales David Gabriel talked about an incentive program designed to help comic shops.  Marvel is experimenting with a program where paper comics have a code inside that gives the reader access to a digital version.  The code is also linked to the individual store that sold the paper comic, and Marvel is apparently providing some incentive to these shops for each issue sold.

Digital comics are still in the very early stages of development, and comments online reveal readers' frustrations with poorly functioning applications and clunky interfaces.  The hope of all comic companies is to gain new readers by appealing to people (especially younger people) who are comfortable reading on tablets, phones and computer screens.

Whether this will actually encourage these new readers to enter a comic shop and buy physical comics and comic-related items remains to be seen. 

Comic book shops are one of the few places left where you can share your enthusiasm for something you've read with fellow readers, make new friends, and talk with the actual owner of the business.  Comic readers create a unique brand of community best experienced in person, so please support your local comic shops.

(The Superman pic is by Alex Ross.)

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