Digital comics come calling on mobile phones

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With an increase in apps, there may be changes ahead for the print-comics industry as the medium moves into the digital world.

Even superheroes are having a tough time weathering the recession. To pump up sagging sales, beleaguered indie and mainstream comic-book publishers are turning to digital products to distribute their tales of misunderstood mutants, do-gooder vigilantes, and villains. For example, at the New York Comic Con in February, industry mainstay Marvel Comics announced that this spring, it will begin selling two “motion comics” (semi-animated comics)—Spider-Woman and Astonishing X-Men—via the iTunes Store.

With the growing popularity of mobile devices like the iPhone, Michael Murphey, the owner of Texas-based iVerse Media, couldn’t resist the opportunity to develop a bridge between the print and digital comic worlds. The company launched its first titles in November.

“We go in and take traditional print comics and original content, depending on the situation, and convert those into mobile-formatted comics,” Murphey told the Georgia Straight by phone.

The company distributes mobile comics through the iTunes App Store as individual applications for the iPhone and the iPod Touch. It also releases them through the Android Market for Android-based smartphones like the T-Mobile G1.

According to Murphey, iVerse decided not to make its comics available through a single viewing app partly in response to Apple’s strict regulations for App Store vendors. This gives iVerse more breathing room in terms of the kinds of titles it chooses to develop.

“If we were to create just one application, and then Apple was to not like one of the things we published in that application and was to then remove our application from the iTunes Store, then we’re out of business,” Murphey said.

Many of iVerse’s comics sell for 99 cents, and some first issues are free. Among the more than 60 titles the company has released through iTunes are issues from the Atomic Robo, Oz: The Manga, and Star Trek: Countdown series. The latter is the official comic-book prequel to the movie Star Trek, which hit theatres on May 8.

One downside to reading comics on the iPhone is the device’s small screen size. In transferring a full-page panel of a sprawling cityscape from a print edition to the iPhone, a lot of graphic detail is lost. However, a number of iVerse’s comics have been created for mobile-phone screens.

Murphey’s company isn’t alone in the mobile-comics universe. Uclick distributes comic books for the iPhone and the iPod Touch, AComic Viewer displays titles on Android phones, and PictoPocket is a digital-comics reader for Windows Mobile devices.

Of course, not all comic-book fans have smartphones, so Murphey and his team are working on comics-viewing software for Windows and Mac operating systems.

“Basically, if there’s a screen on it, we need to put comics on it for people,” he said.

Murphey doesn’t see this as the beginning of a war between print and digital comics. But he conceded that there may be changes ahead for the print-comics industry.

“We may not see as many monthly issues printed,” Murphey explained. “Instead, we’ll see the trade paperback printed, and the monthly issue will just go digital. But I don’t think that print will ever be completely replaced by digital, and I don’t think it should be.”

He estimates that Japan’s digital-comic-book industry brings in about US$270 million a year, and that the North American market could match that by 2011.

It’s a significant shift that Michael Rea, manager of Golden Age Collectables, isn’t welcoming with open arms. A retailer and reader of traditional comic books, he won’t be in the market for a mobile device anytime soon.

“I don’t see the need for it,” Rea told the Straight, surrounded by a plethora of comic books in his shop in downtown Vancouver. “I don’t need two telephones that nobody calls me on.”

Although he’s concerned about the state of the traditional comic-book industry in the digital age, Rea remains cautiously hopeful that a distributor will step up to support small-run print comics, since a number of companies are cutting back on their commitment to distributing such works.

Sean O’Reilly, owner and CEO of Coquitlam-based publisher Arcana Comics, told the Straight in a phone interview that his company is creating digital comics for mobile devices. Arcana is developing Creatures and Monsters, a new series that will straddle the digital and print markets.

“It basically allows for a new distribution channel for our existing library of content,” O’Reilly said of digital comics. “It allows us to get a readership and a user base that we ordinarily wouldn’t have access to.”

To O’Reilly, digital comics are complementary to print comics, rather than being a replacement.

“We will always publish books,” he said. “I just don’t see that changing in my lifetime.”

Comments (2) Add New Comment
Erik Loyer
Hopefully the ultimate effect of the rise of digital comics will be a cumulative one--would hate to see brick-and-mortar comic retailers fall by the wayside any more than they already have. Kindle and the e-book scene may offer a preview of what's to come in the comics world.

Shameless plug: Some authors (like me) are also creating comic-inspired works that take advantage of the unique sensors and interactive capabilities of the iPhone and iPod touch: see "Ruben & Lullaby" (http://opertoon.com).
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matbaa
Shameless plug: Some authors (like me) are also creating comic-inspired works that take advantage matbaa of the unique sensors and interactive capabilities of the iPhone and iPod touch: see
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