Comics: The Digital Future

DC announced last week that they would be continuing Smallville in comics form. Like Firefly and so many other shows before it, Smallville had a lot of potential, but a cruel network didn’t cut it any slack and fans were left gasping for more.

This is, of course, sarcasm.

I am, god help me, quite fond of Smallville. Not so fond that I’m in any way tempted by the SIXTY TWO DISC boxset, but I ended up watching virtually all of it and enjoying most of what I saw. Don’t ask me to explain why using logic. Don’t ask me to suggest a great episode – although a dozen really bad ones just leapt straight to mind. The stories were corny, the dialogue consisted solely of random words along the broad theme of having to follow your heart. The serial storytelling and attention to detail were almost surreally bad. One of the regular characters lost their virginity on two separate occasions. Oh wait, did I say ‘one’ character? Make that ‘three’. I think part of the appeal for me is that Smallville was, even though I think the people making it were aiming in the exact opposite direction, a very faithful updating of the ramshackle, nonsensical, don’t-think-about-what-you’re-reading-for-even-a-second, psychologically bizarre, reset switch obsessed original Superboy comics from the fifties.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about the comics version of Smallville is that it’s a comic  that DC are planning to release digitally first, then collect into a monthly comic.

Is this the future? There’s an optimistic version of circumstances that says that it is. Smallville is, Zod bless it, a show that two million people were watching until recently. In story terms, it was always a gateway: it’s the story of how Clark Kent became Superman. It was on the CW and had more appeal to women and youngsters than the regular monthly Superman comics (admittedly you wouldn’t need a very long pole to vault over that particular bar). Add some good old fashioned corporate synergy and note that it means the franchise is still going, so it might prompt a few people to pick up that DVD boxset and next year we’re getting a big Superman movie, and … well, Smallville would seem ideally placed.

I’m sure that the DC people have put out a pitch like that. I’m equally sure that, deep down, they know that the Smallville comic won’t set the world on fire. That publishing it as a digital comic is a way of offsetting costs and trying a few things out. The market for digital comics is what’s euphemistically referred to as a ‘growing’ one. Or, to put it another way, if a print comic got 5000 sales it would be a disaster, if the Smallville digital comic does, then DC will be able to claim it as a great victory.

There’s clearly potentially a huge market for digital comics. Kindles and iPads are content-hungry little things, and comics can provide a visual bang and thoughtful entertainment.

Damn, that was meant to be the cover of Persepolis. Anyway, moving on …

There’s a fundamental problem with digital comics as they stand, which is extremely easy to explain in a sentence: You can not tap into new digital markets by creating a period reenactment of the printed comic book.

Up until now, digital comics have basically been PDFs of real comics. ‘Enhancements’ have been fairly basic animation or primitive sound effects. If – like DC – you’ve got 75 years of backlist, something in the order of 100,000 individual titles, then even if you manage only to get a few cents a week from each one, it all adds up. But this is not the future. This is the past, an intern and a scanner.

What printed comics do well, digital comics do badly.

Above all, what current comics fans have bought into is the fetishisation of the object. We have been encouraged to think of comics as limited edition art prints, as investments, as things … things that must be kept safe and treasured and stored carefully.

There’s some basis for that. If you bought the first year’s worth of The Walking Dead, say, then you can make a tidy little return on your investment.

Printed comics do have intrinsic value. Not always as much as we’d like, and the reality is that the market in the late eighties and early nineties was vastly bigger than now, so there are lots and lots of those comics out there, but even so, if you’ve got a longbox of comics that you enjoyed reading and didn’t manage to spill anything on, the chances are you’ve got a box that you can sell to a comic shop for a three figure sum. Any halfway discerning reader has a box of things worth many times what they paid for it.

How engrained is this reverence of the physical object, the collector impulse, to the comic reader psyche? Sales of digital comics are a closely-guarded secret. We have had snippets of information. One report concerns DC’s new ‘bundled’ comics where you buy a paper comic and a redemption code for the digital version.

“Rood told ICv2 that the redemption of the digital codes in DC’s digital combo packs has been “astonishingly low,” a fact he attributed to the purchasers of those books being primarily interested in collecting a different edition of the material they like.”

In other words, virtually everyone buying digital comics this way is a comic fan completist who bought the bundled issue because it’s a rare ‘variant’ of the regular printed comic. They aren’t interested in redeeming. They want a limited edition art print to store as an investment.

This is somewhat ironic.

Digital comics are not, can not, will never be, those limited editions, keep-them-safe investments. Oh, they could be engineered to be. You could create digital ‘variants’ and control supply and so on. But it goes against the whole spirit of digital media, and comics fans are usually very cynical and suspicious of artificial scarcity. Usually.

You can’t fetishise a digital comic. You can’t lovingly rearrange your collection, or spend a few minutes wondering if Batman Inc goes in the Batman box or the Grant Morrison box. You can’t buy two copies, one to read, one as an investment. You can’t feel that agony of putting a slight rip in the cover, thus making it a Harvey Dentesque scarred parody of a comic unfit to be seen in public (I can actually remember the instant I did this to my copy of Batman 404 …. Nooooooooooo!!!!!). You can’t gloat that you bought a book before it was hot, or feel that pang of the one that got away. The impermanence, the fragility … it’s part of the deal.

And, good grief, that aspect of comic collecting is often far more fun than actually reading the things.

But this whole side of comic collecting is out the window for digital comics. I mean … you could simulate it. How about digital comics that develop folds and creases and fade every time you read them? How about designing virtual comic bags and boxes, and if you don’t buy them and put your digital comics in them, the pages start to go yellow?

Someone at DC just read that and read it again and muttered ‘brilliant!’. No, not brilliant. I mean, don’t get me wrong: it’s *my idea*. If you do it, I want money. I want a cut of the proceeds from each virtual mylar bag sold. Net, not gross. I said proceeds, not profits. But, no, it’s not a brilliant idea.

Digital comics have to play to their strengths, not try to reenact the strengths of another medium.

So … what does that mean?

There’s nothing sacred or artistically-driven about the format of the standard American comic book. The modern mainstream printed comic book did not come about for any reason except practical considerations. They are monthly publications, they have to hit a certain price point, they carry paid advertising and house ads, they are almost all sold through specialist comic shops to a five figure number of existing fans who buy multiple titles. You triangulate the number of pages an artist can draw month in, month out; the size of shelves in comic shops; the revenue you can expect; and you end up with what we have: quite a small magazine, with about 20 pages of story.

Everything points to standardisation of size – from what the printing presses are set up to do, to the retailers looking to plan ahead, to readers wanting to store comics in boxes.

Digital comics don’t have to be like that at all, as virtually none of those considerations apply to digital comics. This isn’t to say that digital is a polymorphous wonderland where anything goes. Websites have their own design constrictions and expectations. Success is usually measured by clicks, so you’ll have slideshows instead of putting all the pictures on the page. You improve your Google results by being mentioned on other websites, so you do what you can about that. You have to think how your page will look on a laptop, on an iPad, on a smartphone. There are still some of the same limitations – you’re never going to get [insert artist here] to draw many more pages a month than he’s already drawing.

I think digital comics do need to be longer. Twenty pages for $3 is not a very good deal. They take five or six minutes to read, even if you read them intensely. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that your Moores, Morrisons and Bendises are so popular … it physically takes longer to read their books. They often require a re-read. This is a good thing.

What the bold new digital comics of the future will look like is anyone’s guess. I think there are some obvious, if a little gimmicky, ways of telling some fun stories that way.

A Promethea style radicalism is coming, now we don’t need to start in the top left of page 1 and end on the dot of the bottom right of page 22. Comics that are huge virtual posters that you wander around, or which you can start on any page, or which are five pages long one issue and fifty the next. JLA comics where the team splits up and you decide whether to go with Superman or Aquaman and the comic seamlessly follows your choices.

That’s not really what interests me, at least not at the moment. Writers and artists will inevitably figure all that out, it’s what they do with every new medium. I’m interested, at the moment, in the business model and what niche digital comics will find for themselves. Why go digital?

Like the makers of any product with aging, loyal consumers, the people who publish comics are a little worried. They want new readers. Now, in theory, something like an iPad storefront puts digital comics a few clicks away from everyone with the device. DC relaunched their entire range with, in large part, that in mind, creating dozens of jumping on points for new and more casual readers.

So … what happened?

Here’s a statistic for you from this survey of readers of the DC relaunch titles:
5% of readers were new to comics, 7% were women, 2% were under 18.

If I was a comics publisher, I’d look at that and see three panic buttons. Personally, my first instinct is that there’s something flawed about the survey. I’d be surprised if only 2% of the audience was under eighteen. But … I’d be equally surprised if it was more than 20%. Same with women. More women read comics than that … but not many more. As for that 5% … I’m going to be honest: that could have been worse.

I imagine it’s the first one that worries DC most.

Marketing people love to tell stories about their ideal consumer. I bet they came up with a New 52 ideal consumer, and I bet the story went something like ‘Dan’s a young man, in college or a recent graduate, and he’s not got vast disposable income, but he’s got enough to buy the latest video game. He spends three hours a day reading content on his iPad. He came across the DC Comics storefront while surfing and said ‘wow, yeah, Batman. I recognise the name Batman. And that cover makes it look great. And it’s only a few dollars. Sure – I’ll give it a go!’.

DC want to be publishing something that’s the equivalent of Top Gear magazine, say. Something with great brand recognition, something eye-catching, fresh, an impulse purchase. You won’t necessarily know the day the new issue comes out, you won’t buy every single issue, but you’ll buy it more often than not.

What comics publishers actually have is more like a whole range of magazines like Carburetor Monthly, and a bunch of readers who’ve bought that magazine for decades and secretly resent the fact it’s now published on glossy paper. They’ve already read the solicitations for May and know which they’re buying and which they might buy. They’re hobbyists and effectively subscribers.

The current quest is to find a way to sell Carburetor Monthly to casual readers.

It’s never going to work. The existing comics format has been designed for print comics, to sell to established collectors, via specialist shops. More to the point, every single person writing, drawing and editing DC Comics is a fanboy. And I mean ‘boy’ – virtually every single creator is male. They all eat, drink and breathe comics. They all have the same blind spots, the same preferences, all live in the same walled garden.

There is nothing wrong with that, if you want to keep things as they are. There is nothing bad about dominating a small niche. You want to read about Carburetors, Carburetor Monthly can not be beat. What no one in mainstream comics seems to have grasped is that digital is not just the same garden, but with no need to cut down the trees to make the same comics.

Traditional comics publishers are completely failing to recognise and exploit the strengths of digital comics.

Try answering this question: which comic has the biggest readership, Superman (the flagship character of the biggest comics company) or Penny Arcade, (an online strip created and run by two videogame fans)?

Now, you may have guessed – correctly – that it’s a trick question and the answer is Penny Arcade. You’d be right. How close a fight is it? In 2010, say, how many regular readers did the Superman comic have, and how many did Penny Arcade get?

In 2010, the Superman comic averaged about 35,000 regular readers. Penny Arcade got 3.5 million and –

… needle scratch, sentence abruptly ends.

What?!

Yup. Penny Arcade had one hundred times as many readers.

This is not just better than printed comics now, that’s ten times what The Uncanny X-Men was selling when Claremont and Byrne were on the book. That’s insane, Image boom years numbers.

Yes. Penny Arcade is free, and a click away. Superman is $3 and in a comic shop. We’ll get back to that.

While I said that the new medium of digital comics demands new storytelling forms, I have to concede that digital has been brilliant for one of the more old-fashioned, discredited sections of the comics market. The three or four panel gag strip is thriving. It’s a great match – a new strip every day or so means a new hit, then ten or fifteen minutes clicking on the Random button to see some previous ones. They’re easy to read, easy to fit on an iPhone screen. It’s the perfect way for a writer and artist to make a short, sharp point. You can get topical humour up within an hour of the news breaking. If you asked me, I wouldn’t say I sought that type of comic strip out, but … wait: I check out xkcd, Penny Arcade and PhD Comics every day. That’s more than I do with most sites. Old favourites, like Doonesbury, are now syndicated on websites. More importantly, there’s a vibrant new generation of younger, edgier creators.

The internet allows niches to thrive. Nowadays, it doesn’t matter how obscure your interests, you’ll find a community online who are at least as into it as you. Every little quirk or kink or angle. A local paper would never publish Penny Arcade, because most of its readers would find the strip utterly baffling. The gaming community get the jokes. This is a strip by people like them, for people like them. Every person in the world in that community is a click away. Time Magazine thinks the Penny Arcade creators are more influential than the President of the USA, and the fact that says more about the decline of print journalism shouldn’t distract from the point that people will read digital comics, if it’s the right comic.

DC (and Marvel) are in a different market, to the point where you have to do a little mental gymnastics to remember that, yes, technically Penny Arcade and the Smallville comic are ‘the same medium’. But there are lessons they can learn. Here’s the main one: not one single person, ever, stumbled across the xkcd or Penny Arcade or PhD Comics sites while they were casually browsing the internet.

Every single person who reads those sites first saw one of those strips on another website, or their Facebook or Twitter feed, or a friend emailed a link.

The internet is the perfect medium, for SHARING pithy images and short joke strips.

The future of digital comics for a company like DC is not a storefront where you buy PDFs of printed comics, or bundles of PDFs of printed comics, or can buy printed comics by mail order. It’s not a blog with a few preview pages and press releases.

The future is the creation of a new  community for comic books fans. A new way of being a comics fan, of sharing that experience. A place for comics fans to gather.

Now, I don’t know what this promised land looks like. I do know that, if nurtured, it would be the hub for all – in this case – DC related activity on the internet. It would be what got linked back to, the place people headed. There would be levels and levels of it, it would be fun to explore, but very easy to find your way around.

Follow the Penny Arcade model – for each title, put up one new page a day, with a note from the writer or artist that’s about the page, or what inspired the page, or the challenge of creating that page, or … whatever. But something interesting and personal. Make that connection. Encourage people to share.

The selling point of digital, perversely perhaps, is that it allows content that’s immediate, new, fresh, instant. It’s where you get things that are hot off the drawing board, the latest news.

It wouldn’t have a forum, but there would be an area where fans can share the cool stuff they’ve been reading. It would include an update of the old letters pages, where only the most incisive comments and best questions are printed. It would be all about word of mouth. It would be a way for comic readers to go ‘hey, look at this’ and tell their Twitter followers, Facebook friends and put on Tumblr. Dc would reward them for funneling people their way by giving them free comics. Encourage them to be creative – to draw, to make videos, to mash things up, to parody.

If Penny Arcade can get 3.5 million people reading four panels a day, how many people would come when the whole of the DC Universe is there? Well … if it’s done right, plenty more.

Now, most companies pay good money to have the people who use their products sit around and say what they like and don’t like – it’s called a focus group. DC could let people in for free and listen carefully and understand that people don’t always mean what they say and that consumers have underlying motives and desires. The result would be comics that people liked better and bought more of. It would pay for itself. But if they’re not buying that as a business plan, there are other, more direct, ways to pay for this –  there could be adverts on the page, or sponsorship, you could redeem codes from printed comics or get a day in the community for every comic you buy from the website. Comics already have brand loyalty and the ability to create avid fans.

Don’t use digital technology to push stuff at consumers, use digital technology to draw consumers in.  Harness those nerds. Don’t sell the features, sell the benefits, sell the experience, sell the personal connection. Let people mill around, take their time. Be generous. Make it somewhere people want to go. Because if it’s somewhere people want to go, the people who are there now will start telling their friends to go there, too. The DC website feels like Best Buy. It should feel like the Apple Store.

One response to “Comics: The Digital Future

  1. Pingback: Short Break From Blogging – Plus Linkblogging « Sci-Ence! Justice Leak!

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