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Has the time for digital comics arrived?

Digital comics, like digital books, have been around for a long time.  Just as e-books needed e-ink and the Kindle to finally go mainstream - comics have needed tablets and ComiXology to go mainstream.  Around the same time last year both DC Comics and Marvel Comics made a big push into digital comics as part of their partnership with ComiXology.  DC allows you to pay a dollar more for a polybagged physical comic that comes with a digital redemption code.  Marvel doesn’t give users a choice, it’s been increasing the price of all its marquee titles by a dollar and then including a free digital redemption code. 

ComiXology appears to have taken a page from Valve (the company behind the digital video game platform Steam) and offer constant 99 cent sales.  Every Monday, for example, is Marvel Monday and ComiXology picks a story arc or two and puts all the issues on sale for 99 cents.  Other times they pick a character for the “101” treatment and feature key issues that help tell the development of that character.  For example, they had a Nightwing 101 sale that started with his first appearance as Robin in Detective Comics #38 and went through various Nightwing, Batman, and Teen Titan issues showcasing his most important storylines.  These sales lower the barrier to get into a particular story or character because the individual issues are so cheap and if they can make new fans, ComiXology and the publishers will make more money on the monthlies and other back issues.  I know I’ve already purchased a lot of issues that I wouldn’t have otherwise because of the sales.

An extreme example of the benefits to to the publishers is what Image Comics did last month - offering all their #1 issues of their current on-going books for free on ComiXology.  It costs Image nothing because there are no printing costs (unlike the physical books that publishers send out for free comic book day).  And if the creators have done a good job creating a compelling #1 issue they will have sunk their teeth into those readers who will now be reading and paying for the issues monthly.

Digital comics are also great for getting back issues.  A lot of us who are into comics nowadays aren’t doing it for the collectibles - we’re doing it because we find the stories compelling.  The prices of the older issues on ComiXology are pretty well in line with this.  A lot of publishers lower the price of their issues by one dollar if you wait a month (which has resulted in me paying for more DC books than Marvel books - Marvel does not lower the prices of their issues).  So I was able to pick up Detective Comics #38 for 99 cents when the physical book would be thousands of dollars if it were even available.  

Detective Comics #38
ComiXology has even figured out how to make comics enjoyable on computers.  By allowing the reader to use a mode where they see one frame at a time, it works very well even though computers are horizontal and comics are vertically oriented.  It also works very well for me because it keeps me from accidentally spoiling an issue by flipping two pages at once or even just looking at the bottom of a page.

ComiXology panel by panel mode
And there are others who are being even more daring.  Mark Waid has the website Thrillbent where he offers his comic Insufferable online for free as both cbr and pdf files.  The comic is also in a horizontal orientation so it works just as well on computers as it does on tablets and phones.  He’ll be talking about this at Baltimore Comic-Con and I plan to ask him about how he plans to eventually monetize it - directly (eg subscriptions) or indirectly (eg ads).

However, there are still some issues I think digital comics have to work on.  They mostly revolve around the loss of control and benefits when buying digital comics.  With ComiXology there is currently no way to share issues.  I understand the need to encourage people to buy comics rather than have one person buy it and share it with everyone, but ever since the beginning of comics as a medium a huge draw has been the ability to share the experience with your buddies.  Because my younger brother shared Brian K Vaughn’s Y: The Last Man with me, I am now paying for Saga.  And because my brother lent me Chew, I am going to once again start paying for Detective Comics when Layman comes on as the writer.  So the inability to legally share issues will end up causing the comic publishers to make less money in the long run.

ComiXology also does not have a way to link accounts together as a family unit.  If I’m buying comics on ComiXology and then I marry someone who was also collecting comics on ComiXology there’s no way for us to link up our accounts.  So we’d have to sign in and out of each other accounts to access all the issues we own together.  Physical comics do not have that limitation at all.  

Finally, related to that, what happens when I die?  Is there a way for me to pass on my digital comics to my children?  I don’t think there is - yet I paid my fair share for those issues.  So it seems anyone who wishes to pass on their collections so that the future generations can experience it will be out of luck unless they collect physical comics. 

There is no doubt in my mind that the digital comics revolution is closer than it has ever been.  Mark Waid is exploring how the visual story-telling can change in a digital medium vs a paper one.  Thanks to ComiXology you don’t need a bunch of accounts to collect digital comics - pretty much all the major publishers are available on ComiXology.  Especially important to me is the ability to save a little money by waiting a month and then being able to actually buy more titles.  But there are still a few issues that are preventing me from going to digital for all of my comics - many of those issues revolve around the restrictions (DRM) that publishers have pushed onto ComiXology.  Were those to be fixed, I doubt I would continue trying to find space for boxes of physical comics.  Has the time for digital comics arrived?  No, but it’s very, very close.

ComiXology was contacted for this story, but did not respond by press time.


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