What's in store for digital comics?

Finally eking out an existence in the nascent tablet market, digital comic books are poised for a stronger second year as publishers begin exploring what the format can do for them.

Music, movies, television shows, and books have all developed strong digital presences, but what about the comics from which so many of these other media take their story lines? Relatively new to the digital world, some comics publishers feel they finally have a delivery device for their content in the tablet, and they've got plans for how to develop digital comics. What's less certain is how readers will react to those plans, and whether digital comics will help reverse dwindling comic book sales.

Cover art to Batman Beyond #4, released the same day digitally as in print.

(Credit: DC Comics)

DC Comics, publisher of comics involving well-known heroes such as Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman, is hoping its digital goals for 2011 will result in the return of what Hank Kanalz, senior vice president of digital, called "the lapsed reader." At WonderCon in San Francisco last weekend, he explained that he's hearing from retailers that "former comics readers sample the story digitally, and then go into the store to buy the trade." Trade here refers to the trade paperback, the comics term for a softcover edition that includes multiple comics, often a serial with a single story line.

Kanalz credited this to the company's restrained but ultimately encouraging embrace of digital distribution during the first year of its Comixology app and DC Comics' availability on the PlayStation Portable. DC has been doing print and digital same-day publication for 2 of the more than 40 comics it publishes monthly. One is the biweekly series "Justice League: Generation Lost," which features members of that superhero team from the late 1980s and early 1990s. The other is "Batman Beyond," which stars a younger Batman and an older, infirm Bruce Wayne, based on the 1990s cartoon of the same name.

At least for those two series, Kanalz said that DC hasn't seen any decline in print sales, and that the digital sales jump between 8 percent and 12 percent with each issue.

(Credit: Comixology)

The company is looking to provide some digital-only comics, too, Kanalz said. Along with a comic book that will bridge the company's hit game "Batman: Arkham Asylum" and its sequel, "Batman: Arkham City," it will provide digital-only eight-page interstitial stories that take place between each issue of the Arkham City prequel comic. Eventually, Kanalz said, those interstitials will be collected in the trade alongside with the main comic, but at first readers will only be able to get them online.

CNET sister site GameSpot has a six-page preview of "Arkham City."

San Diego-based IDW is another publisher that says it saw a positive first year of comics on tablets, and has hopes to expand. The company is best known for handling licensed properties such as Transformers, GI Joe, and Godzilla, though it also hosts some creator-owned original work like the wide-formatted Tribes: The Dog Years, and currently is home to the "Bloom County" collections by Berkeley Breathed, who's most recent work is the children's book turned movie "Mars needs Moms." IDW CEO and publisher Ted Adams said that day-and-date aren't a big part of what his company is looking to do.

"We simply haven't seen a big consumer demand for day-and-date," he said, and he noted that many of IDW's comics go digital a month after they've been released to comics specialty stores. What IDW wants to focus on, he said, is providing richer content experiences. Through its partnership with iVerse, a digital comics app that competes with Comixology, IDW has been creating brand-specific apps. "Store-front apps for the big brands are doing well for us, and we're branching out into creator-specific apps for high-profile artists like Ben Templesmith."

Graphic.ly

(Credit: Graphic.ly)

Like DC Comics, IDW is available on the PSP. The company has been exploring adding enhanced content to the comics, although Adams was careful to add that he wants to enhance and not distract from the comics reading experience. "Like with DVDs, we've done audio commentary tracks for our Joe Hill comics." It's easier to do on the PSP rather than on an Android device or on the iOS, he said, because "the PSP has the tech built in." Many of the comics apps for Android and iOS don't yet support rich-media content.

He added that Android devices factor big in the company's goals for 2011, as does the coming Galapagos tablet from Sharp. Just as Marvel's Comixology app was featured on the first iPad when that tablet debuted in 2010, IDW's comics will be featured on Sharp's tablet when it launches, expected for sometime in the third quarter of 2011.

Marvel Comics, which currently leads the monthly print comics sales charts, and Image Comics, which publishes "The Walking Dead," both declined to comment for this story.

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Though no publisher interviewed for the story would confirm plans to do so, it's not unreasonable to expect premium pricing for digital comics that come with extra features like audio tracks, or the ability to look at the black-and-white version of the artwork. Currently, digital comics have been priced as low as 99 cents each during discount sales, all the way up to $3.99 for some day-and-date comics.

The variance in pricing has a lot to do with Apple taking 30 percent off the top of any in-app sales, says Dark Horse's director of public relations, Jeremy Atkins. In fact, that's what's led Dark Horse to develop its own app, which will be available in a few weeks at digital.darkhorse.com. Dark Horse decided to develop its own app because, according to Atkins, "it's about control. We want the reading experience to be as similar to our print comics as possible. And frankly, we wanted to be able to pay our creators more."

In addition to Apple's cut, Atkins said that Comixology and iVerse take an additional 10 percent to 15 percent. From a digital comic that sells for $2, that means that the publishers and the creators have to share about $1.20.

"Digital comics represent a tiny, tiny piece of the pie," Atkins said, but he added that "digital comics readers are content customers, not 'comics' customers." These content customers may be driven to "Buffy" comics because they're fans of the TV show, or "Star Wars" comics because of the movies, not because they have any inherent interest in comics per se, he said.

Dark Horse plans on releasing an app for its comics that it developed in-house.

Dark Horse's app will still have to kick back 30 percent to Apple when readers buy their comics on the iOS version, though the company hopes to drive readers to buy from its Web site because the comics there will be cheaper than in-app. As with Comixology, which offers its apps and a browser-based comics reader, Dark Horse's books will be available to buy and read from its app and from a Web site.

Not all publishers are jumping on the digital bandwagon. Cory Casoni, director of sales and marketing for Oni Press, which publishes the successful indie hit "Scott Pilgrim," almost revels in his company's measured approach. "We have digital plans," he said amid the noise and brisk sales at the Oni booth on the WonderCon floor, "and we'll unveil them later this year and in early 2012. We are nefariously, giddily crafting things."

The big issue, he said, is what the comics community is going to choose when it comes to digital.

"Right now it's so cool to see everyone messing with digital formats, services, and different devices. But I don't think that any one company has a good sense of what its readers want. We know that there's a future in digital and that there's a need for it." In particular, he said, Oni's excited about using digital as a preview for readers to see if they want to invest in an entire book. However, he said that his company has had success doing that with print, pointing to the 2010 Free Comic Book Day giveaway of the comic "The Sixth Gun," which he says drew massive attention to the new comic and resulted in many readers continuing to buy it.

There's also the fact that many features people are used to with digital entertainment, such as social networking, have yet to be introduced to digital comics apps in a robust way. It's a lot easier to share something cool that you love over Facebook and Twitter when there's a simple, intuitive way to do it.

Along with Oni, some comics creators are also more measured about their digital enthusiasm than some of the publishers they work with. Richard Starkings, creator of the "Elephantmen" comic and a comics letterer who has been selling his fonts online since the mid-1990s, agreed that the publishers aren't concerned about digital versus paper. At least, he said, they're less concerned about it than they are about getting into the iTunes Store.

"Comics have broken out of the back alley that we had been selling from. iTunes is the new marketplace, back issues [of comics] are now continually for sale at cover price next to music and movies. iTunes is one-stop shopping, and it means that we're now in W.H. Smith's in a big way." He added, "iTunes will start dictating comics taste."

He's not worried about Apple's 30 percent cut, either. "Somebody will contest it."

Berkeley Breathed, who doesn't work in comic books specifically but whose "Bloom County" strip was read by 80 million to 100 million people daily during its heyday in the 1980s, and whose strips are being collected by IDW, said he got out of newspapers because they were collapsing. "I've always been behind new tech, instead of dismissing it outright...," he said with a wry smile. "There's a rush to having a massive audience, and that's not there in comics anymore."

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