Comic publishers sketchy on digital future

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When Ethan Peacock moved to Vancouver from Edmonton nine years ago, he found that none of the local comic-book stores carried all the titles he sought.

“I was continually getting my stuff shipped from Edmonton every month or so, or I’d visit frequently and pick it up then,” the owner of Elfsar Comics & Toys told the Georgia Straight during an interview at his Yaletown shop. “Then it popped into my head to open a store of my very own.”

Distribution has always been a challenge for book and magazine publishers, and comics publishers in particular, since they serve smaller, niche audiences. And it’s something publishers are looking to digital comics and digital distribution to address.

“One of the things that digital distribution makes available is that someone in Eastern Europe can download the authentic English version of Witchblade and read it on their computer, where they might not have that available,” Filip Sablik, publisher of Top Cow Productions—which publishes Witchblade, Madame Mirage, and other titles—explained by phone from his office in Los Angeles.

While Web comics similar to those found in newspapers have been around for years, digital comics are still in their early days. Companies like Marvel Comics have experimented with selling CD-ROM and DVD collections of back issues as well as on-line subscriptions for viewing Flash-based versions of print comics. Software is available for reading comics on computers and mobile devices such as the iPhone.

However, many publishers are apprehensive about going digital. One reason is that the comics industry currently depends on small, independent shops—whose profit margins often aren’t particularly high to begin with—for distribution. If sales of digital comics cannibalize brick-and-mortar sales of print comics, these shops could go out of business. Then publishers could lose readers faster than digital comics win them new ones.

Graphic.ly is a Top Cow digital-distribution partner, and its platform, which is in beta testing, is one of several comic readers in development.

“Publishers today have not been comfortable with day-and-date,” Micah Baldwin, CEO and chief community caretaker at Graphic.ly, said by phone from his office in Boulder, Colorado, speaking about the release of comics simultaneously in print and digital form.

For Baldwin, publishers’ concerns about simultaneous releases are understandable. “We as digital comic providers have to make it worth the publisher’s while to give us day-and-date,” Baldwin said. “For publishers, they’re still making 99 percent of their money on print books—the digital market is infinitesimally small—so for them to do anything that would potentially hurt the print market is just not smart, businesswise.”

On his podcast Word Balloon, John Siuntres has interviewed some of the comics industry’s top writers, artists, and editors. In February, Siuntres spoke with comic writer and artist Jonathan Hickman, who created The Nightly News and Pax Romana, and is now at Marvel Comics working on titles like The Fantastic Four.

“Jon Hickman had a great quote on my show about how this year in particular there’s going to be a lot of blood in the water, and it’s true and I think it’s going to extend more than a year,” Siuntres said by phone from his Chicago home, pointing out that not every attempt to create a digital marketplace for comics is going to succeed.

The transition from print to digital worries Peacock. “What can happen is a total collapse of an industry, and that they [publishers] don’t want,” the storeowner said. But he’s realistic about the future of digital comics. “What it comes down to is cost,” Peacock said. “If paper prices keep going up and up and up, then it’s by natural selection that things will move to a digital medium.”

One thing most creators and enthusiasts seem to agree on is that digital comics should be approached as a new medium, rather than just replicas of print comics. Baldwin pointed out that the Graphic.ly reader doesn’t feature page-turning animation.

“I’m not doing an animation of a page turning because I’m not trying to create a digital book,” Baldwin said. “I’m trying to create a whole new experience, and I hope that publishers and creators realize that it’s a whole new experience and start creating things that are really unique.”

One approach is motion comics, which see some animation along with sound effects and voice acting added to a digital comic. DC Comics released Watchmen as a motion comic in advance of the debut of the movie in 2009, and Marvel has published both Brian Michael Bendis’s Spider-Woman and Joss Whedon’s Astonishing X-Men as motion comics. While Spider-Woman, the first title created simultaneously as a print comic and a motion comic, met with generally positive reviews, some say it’s something other than a comic.

“I think [comic-book artist] Ben Templesmith was pretty eloquent in saying, ”˜Don’t call the motion comics “motion comics”,’ because—if they don’t have the word balloons and it’s not art that stands still—once you put movement to it and add a voice track, that’s animation,” Siuntres said. “It could even be limited animation, but it’s not a comic book anymore.”

While the comics industry faces an uncertain future, with digital comics promising either increased sales or financial ruin, Peacock sees some reasons for optimism.

“People have been predicting the doom and gloom of the comic industry for many years now,” Peacock said. “Comics in a paper format are going to continue to come out. I just think that there might just be less quantities as things shift more to a digital or an on-line age.”

Comments (3) Add New Comment
john siuntres
thank you for clarifying my re-quote of Jon Hickman's point about the many digiital stores hoping to carve their piece of profits

That said, I must disagree with the general thrust of this article.

Digital comics, will only increase the sales awareness and audience of any given comic property.

I don't think publishers are "wary" of the format. They are already thinking about not hurting their weekly issue profits, by simultaneous release of books in a cheaper digital format.

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sleepswithangels
that poor poor dragon/demon on the Witchblade cover

doesn't know the world of hurt it's about to endure
SMBs
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Jason
Nice article! Interesting time to be a comic nerd.
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