DC Comics--home to pop culture icons Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman (and lesser-known characters like Jonah Hex and The Losers)--announced Wednesday that it would be distributing its comics digitally in a deal that resembles those of its competitors, but with some unique twists.
The publisher has partnered with ComiXology and the PlayStation Network to digitally distribute its comic books on Apple iOS devices and on all PlayStation Portable devices. ComiXology has now locked down distribution deals with more than 30 comics publishers, including the "big two" of Marvel Comics and DC, as well as Boom Studios, Image Comics, and Slave Labor Graphics.
DC Comics also announced that the company would be digitally publishing the 26-issue comic book limited series Justice League: Generation Lost simultaneously through the ComiXology app and in stores, known in the industry as a "day and date" release. Although Marvel announced plans for a day-and-date release of The Invincible Iron Man Annual No. 1, it won't be published until Wednesday, June 30.
The ComiXology app offers the same smooth reading experience as detailed for the Marvel app. The page movement is smooth; auto-zooming on panels makes reading them easier while preventing yourself from reading ahead; and the store puts relevant details like the names of the comics' creators and a story synopsis easily at hand.
Marvel also has a different pricing scheme than DC Comics does for its day-and-date release (the two are historic rivals going back to Marvel's reinvention of the superhero in the 1960s). The paper version of the Iron Man annual, which will tell the "unknown origin" of the classic Iron Man villain The Mandarin, will be 80 pages long and retail for $4.99. The digital version of the comic, available from Marvel's ComiXology-based app, will be split into thirds. Each one will be available on June 30, but each will cost $1.99, the standard price for one of Marvel's digitally distributed comics.
DC's Generation Lost is available in the app for the same price as the paper copy, $2.99. Meanwhile, the three already published issues of Justice League: Generation Lost are available for $1.99, the price of most comics DC has published through the app. These include superhero titles as well as titles like The Sandman, written by uber-popular author Neil Gaiman; Bill Willingham's Fables, about characters from nursery rhymes and the fables of myth coming to life; and Tiny Titans, aimed at kids. A smattering of comics has been made available at 99 cents; most of them seem to be from DC Comics' WildStorm imprint.
The publisher has also made available a number of titles for free. These include black-and-white Batman stories from several years ago, the Web comic Bayou, an adaptation of the TV show Fringe, and a preview of Superman No. 700, released Thursday.
The variable pricing indicates that digital comics sales are even more fractured than book sales. Unlike music, which has been locked into a 99-cent pricepoint since Apple's iTunes Store pioneered it, prices for digital books and comics are heavily dependent on the publisher. ComiXology, as the first digital distributor of comics that has secured deals with the two biggest comics publishers, as well as 30 smaller publishers, could be in a position soon to dictate prices as Apple did and as Amazon.com is trying to.
The PlayStation Network launched Wednesday as well with more than 80 issues from DC, including the first 25 issues of the Superman/Batman comic that debuted in 2003. But the system will work slightly differently for PSP users, as only a handful of those issues are for sale in DC iPad app. Comic book adaptations of video games that DC has been licensed will be available exclusively on the PSP, but DC plans to add 50 comics per month to their PlayStation Network catalog.
DC hasn't yet ruled out involving other systems. "Android is a very compelling platform and it seems to be catching on very, very quickly," said DC Comics' Co-Publisher Jim Lee. "Our goal is to be on the best platforms possible." To that end, the DC Comics Web site will soon add the ComiXology Web app embedded in the browser, making your purchased comics available from your desktop computer. However, John Rood, executive vice president of sales and marketing for DC Entertainment, DC's parent company, cautioned that the company was still being careful. "We've learned that more is not better and we've certainly learned not to be first."
The selection of titles that DC has made available so far represents a sliver of the publisher's output, and appears to be smaller than Marvel's initial ComiXology launch. Although Superman, Batman, and Green Lantern are represented, most of the best known characters, such as Wonder Woman, the Flash, and Aquaman, are not. What is included appears to be a broad stroke of what the publisher does: there are superhero comics, mystery comics, kids comics, horror comics, thrillers, war stories, and even one comic about zombies. (Frustratingly, it's not the new series from the publisher's Vertigo imprint with the horrible name, iZombie.)
Censorship remains a strong concern for digital publishers, especially given several high-profile instances of Apple censoring content. There are certain titles that Lee said he expects will be restricted, although this hasn't happened yet. "You won't be able to purchase some comics through the Apple Store, but you can get them from the ComiXology site." Even with the potential restrictions caused by Apple's policies, Lee was quick to add his admiration for Apple. "Apple has been a tremendous partner in this. I don't think this rollout would've happened as well as it did without the iPad."
DC Comics' also took pains to announce in yesterday's press release that the company was adding digital comics sales to its royalties program for comics creators. That's not necessarily unique among comics publishers, but making sure that it was called out served to let the small comics community know that the company wasn't pocketing all the cash from digital sales. It also struck a contrast with Marvel, which also has added digital sales to its royalty payments but hasn't publicly called out their program.
This marks the first time that one of the two biggest comic book publishers has made a comic available day-and-date, and the concept is a live wire for many in comics. Although they might hold a fond place in the memories of older comics readers, newsstand sales and drugstore spinner racks are now virtually non-existent. For nearly two decades, the American comics industry has relied heavily on direct-market comic book shops and burgeoning bookstore sales of graphic novels. While Marvel made its Iron Man announcement in enough time for retailers to adjust their order level, DC has instead made all unsold retailer copies returnable, which cuts down significantly on retailer liability.
One retailer in San Francisco sounded largely unfazed by the announcement. Brian Hibbs, proprietor of Comix Experience, said it's too early to gauge how the day-and-date release will affect sales, if at all. "We can't avoid day-and-date. It's going to happen, at least as experiments. But there's no evidence yet that they replace these are 1:1 replacement sales."
Hibbs, who is also on the board of the comics retailers advocacy group ComicsPRO, noted that DC's plan to funnel some earnings from digital sales back into brick-and-mortar stores represents an unusual path to trailblaze in online sales. "Think if we had the record companies doing that when digital music started selling. We might still have record stores."
Full disclosure: I have been buying comics from Comix Experience for 17 years.