Monday, 7 March 2011

The digital future of comics

It's kind of odd, as I'm not really that much of a tech-head. I've designed videogames, but I always had a team of coders to handle all the complicated techy stuff. And suddenly Leo and Martin and I are embracing all the new-fangled digital media - and the biggest surprise is that I find I'm really getting into it. Not just the tech side, but the whole big picture of how it's going to change comics.

Like collecting an armful of books every month. That's in my bones, been doing it since I was 9 years old, but more and more I found I was saving all the latest issues of Hellblazer or BPRD or whatever till there was a complete story to read. If you're doing that, you may as well just wait for the trade paperback, but of course that's not much fun for the publisher, who really needs the regular cashflow of monthly sales. However, the cost of paper has gone up and the number of places you can find comics on sale has gone down. Monthly comic books are never going to be on the shelves in Waterstones. Hmm, problem.

Now, I know a lot of old-school comics fans hate digital comics with a passion. They shouldn't, though, because digital comics are the answer to that problem. What's more, digital comics don't spell the death of print; they're going to rejuvenate it. Now I can dip in and try the first few pages or even the first couple of issues of a comic for free. If I like it, I can buy all the issues I want straight away, and I can read those on my iPad, phone or desktop. That's the kind of freedom Steve Jobs was talking about when he said:
"Your den, your living room, your car and your pocket: I hope that gives you a little bit of an idea of where we're going."
So that's cool, but here's the thing: I now buy more TPBs and print graphic novels than I ever did before. Digital isn't replacing the whole comics reading experience, it's just gradually taking up some of the slack lost to falling monthly sales. E-comics sales aren't (yet) at a level that Dark Horse are going to drop their monthly books altogether, but already we can see how e-comics can add to and enhance the raft of formats available for fans.

Our own toe-dipping with Mirabilis began with our dedicated iPad app - still the best digital comics reading experience for my money, and I can say that because I did actually have to pay to buy my own issues through the App Store! We've got an update coming for the app that will introduce social networking features, reorganize the in-app storefront and improve the UI. But a dedicated app for each title, even if that's the jewel in the crown, is not going to be the future of e-comics. We're seeing the rise of... are they publishers? are they stores?... sites like Comics+ and, who take a modest share of revenue for adapting and hosting your comic on multiple platforms. This week we launched Mirabilis on (iVerse's Comics+ will follow later this month) and that means readers can buy once and then read the comics on iOS, Android and PC/Mac, with Sony PSP not far off.

Why is it good for creators? Fifty to seventy percent royalties, and a means of cashflowing your work without having to sign away any ancillary rights. Why is it good for publishers? Digital sales can give a title a leg-up to the point where it's ready to come out as a collected print book. And all those digital outlets build the brand so there is a ready core market for the print book. Also, because comics are no longer tied to the narrowcasting inherent in selling via hobby comics stores, that means the end product actually can sit on a shelf in a store like Waterstones and not look out of place. Comics can be for everyone.

And that's why, most importantly of all, e-comics are good for readers - even for those readers who prefer to stick with print. Because digital editions will create more choice, lead to a more robust business, encourage creativity and innovation, and broaden the appeal of the medium. It's all good news for comics fans, so look forward to some exciting things coming your way in the very near future.


  1. I'd add that it's also good for space conservation Dave. I know this sounds almost boring but a lot of bibliophiles and comic hoarders get to the point where they are running out of storage space. It happened to me a few years ago and you then get very picky about what you add to your library - e-comics and iPads are the perfect solution to this, as well as a great way to sample the wares before committing to yet another chunk of shelf space.

  2. I'm in the same boat, Peter. Roz and I had to throw out hundreds of books a few years ago to make space. It got so the ladies running the local charity shop ran to put up the Closed sign when they saw me carrying in another boxload. And I really hate throwing away books and comics, so the iPad is a lifesaver.

    Ebooks aren't for for everybody, though. My friend John Whitbourn has instituted a policy of getting rid of two books every time he buys a new one, so as to gradually declutter. His wife bought him a Kindle for Christmas but he hated it and ended up sending it back. Nothing wrong with the Kindle, I hasten to add, just that some people cannot get on with ebooks.

    One guy on LinkedIn even said to me that he would not consider paying one cent for a digital comic. He literally couldn't see the point of them. Many comics fans have become so obsessed with collecting those "rare" issues (from print runs of 50,000 up!) that they forget the real point of comics is the content. And that is just as good if not better in digital form.

    I just bought all the early issues of Hulk, Spider-Man, Journey into Mystery and X-Men via Graphicly. These are comics that I had as a kid and sold when I decided at 14 that it was time to "grow up". If I tried to buy them back as print copies now I'd be at least $2000 the poorer, and anyway I don't want tatty paper editions, I want to see them sparkle as through the glad eyes of youth. And on the iPad and PC screen, they do!