The Future of Digital Comics According to SXSW 2013
At various times during the past 24 hours I’ve tried to log in to ComiXology on my tablet with no success. That was, of course, because of a recent announcement Marvel made at SXSW. The comic book company was making 700 issues from its catalog available for free. The site crashed almost immediately as a result.
Last night the company sent me an email stating that, “We had believed ourselves prepared – but unfortunately we became overwhelmed by the immense response. We’re still struggling to keep our systems up.”
The give-away was suspended as well. By this point I’m no longer sure whether to be surprised by failures to prepare like this, or if I should expect them. Even EA failed to properly launch SimCity last week, despite the publisher’s size and the game’s strong branding and wide appeal.
The more interesting part of all this is what it signals for digital comics though. The big two, Marvel and DC, are hardly known for being innovative or groundbreaking. They’re extremely conservative, iterating only slightly, rebooting constantly, and relying all too often on stock characters and grotesque sex appeal. Even if their content is usually abysmal though (and I say that as a lover of comic books and a serial collector–read: addict), where the two companies matter most is in the market trends they set for the rest of the comic book industry. They are drivers of the market even as they attempt to lead from behind, and how they address the growing market for digital comics matters.
ComiXology has been the one actually leading in this regard, only growing in significance as DC and Marvel have begun to roll out day-and-date releases for both their digital and physical products (spurred on in part by ComiXology’s success).
Now though Marvel is trying to get out in front of these other outlets by doubling down on the Infinite Comics format, a multimedia approach to comics that introduces movement and music to specific spin-off series (like, for example, the new Wolverine: Japan’s Most Wanted). The approach is meant to make comics more accessible to children and the otherwise uninitiated by both making them similar to animated movies and relieving new users of the need to actually figure out how to read comics (the order panels go in, the conventions of text bubbles).
ComiXology on the other hand is trumpeting its ComiXology Submit, a platform for publishing original comics digitally. Creators maintain the rights to their work and permission to sell them elsewhere while the split for issues sold via ComiXology is 50/50. Interestingly enough, unlike Marvel, ComiXology’s President David Steinberger is much less bullish on the multi-mediaization of comic books, telling Time, “It’s almost cognitive dissonance, throwing active and passive together. It throws your brain into a weird spot. It doesn’t service the story.”
I tend to agree. I like reading comics at my own pace, and to my own music, if any. And I like seeing the entire two pages at once. At this point I’m unclear on how exactly panel-by-panel readings would affect the content itself and how it’s produced. In effect you’d be making every panel the same size, and yet one of the most liberating things to happen to the form was the idea of splash pages and panels that vary in size and the space that distinguishes them.
Also, while I sometimes enjoy listening to music while reading comics (I listened to Bob Belden’s “Before” on repeat while reading Batman R.I.P. and all of Final Crisis), I’m not at all confident in Marvel’s ability to select the right music for each sequence, especially when the emphasis making it like video game soundtracks: less passive and in the background and more interactive and in the foreground (Thor will, for instance, have a theme associated with him, played whenever he shows up in a panel–bleh).
Overall, I think ComiXology’s approach is the right one, and I hope they’re able to maintain a sustainable economic space in which to experiment with pseudo-independent publishing. Marvel, a lucrative appendage of Disney, is already dominating the market, mostly through blockbuster movie releases, and I’d hate to see them consolidate even more with their own successful digital distribution platform.
ComiXology’s approach, to their credit, is to try and expand the market for comics by offering more products for more people. Unlike Marvel, which is trying to sell people on superhero-based comics by making them more accessible to the movie-goers who flock to something like the Avengers, ComiXology is trying to draw in more readers by opening the medium up to more storytellers. I think we’re more likely to see the next Brian K. Vaughan come out of something like Submit than from a project like Marvel’s Infinite Comics.