DC Comics doubles down on digital

Purveyors of what used to be called four-color funnies, DC Comics makes a massive bet on digital comics as it relaunches its stable of superheroes.

Readers will see a landing page that looks like this when they launch the free DC Comics iPad app.
Readers will see a landing page that looks like this when they launch the free DC Comics iPad app. (Credit: Screenshot by Seth Rosenblatt/CNET)

Comic books--or at least, the superhero comics that have been a mainstay of American youth culture for 70 years--have been in a crisis. Comics sales were plummeting, direct market brick-and-mortar comic book shops that are essentially the only outlet to purchase the monthly issues of said comics were closing under the recessive economy, and the industry was in desperate need of new readers. With its new day-and-date digital initiative and line-wide reboot, DC Comics might've provided just that.

Or they might've killed it outright. It's hard to tell, on the first full day of their relaunch. Thirteen new titles launched today, and by the end of September the company will have published 52 new No. 1s. DC is calling this push the "New 52."

Mr. Terrific, page 1. Shared with CNET exclusively from DC Comics. (Click to see full size.) (Credit: DC Comics)

Last week, DC Comics published only two titles: Flashpoint no. 5, the last of the old line of comics, and Justice League no. 1, the first of the new. Justice League was also published at the same time in print as digitally, known in the comics business as day-and-date digital. Readers could buy the digital version of Justice League through Comixology's DC Comics-branded iOS (download) or Android app, on the desktop via dccomics.com or comixology.com, or in print, all at the same price of $3.99 for 40 pages. Most comics DC publishes are $2.99 for 32 pages.

"It's important to mix it up sometimes," said Jim Lee, DC's co-Chief Creative Officer and artist on Justice League, at the crowded, noisy DC Comics booth at July's San Diego Comic-Con. "Seismic changes are good on a creative level, on a retailer level, and on a reader level." At the point we spoke, nobody had seen the new Justice League. Seven days after its publication, as the first and only "New 52" comic published last week, the comic has set sales records. In print, it's the best-selling comic of the year so far, with more than 200,000 copies sold, and a second and third printing on the way. Lee wouldn't reveal sales numbers for the digital version, but he did tell Salon.com last Friday that it "set a digital record" for DC.

Today's push isn't DC's first foray into digital, but it is the biggest of any comic book publisher to date. Previously, the company had published only a few day-and-date titles that tended to focus on big-name characters, including a future Batman based on the decade-old cartoon "Batman Beyond," and ancillary Justice League heroes in "Justice League: Generation Lost." It has also published one title only in digital to date, a series of eight-page comics linking the "Batman: Arkham Asylum" video game to its sequel, both titled, "Batman: Arkham City." While DC wouldn't say how many digital copies it has sold, a common practice in the publishing world, Hank Kanalz, DC's senior vice president of digital, did reveal that DC saw its prior digital sales as successful.

Mr. Terrific, page 12. Shared with CNET exclusively from DC Comics. (Click to see full size.) (Credit: DC Comics)

"For Arkham City, we had an 8 percent to 11 percent increase week over week," Kanalz said, also while at the San Diego Comic-Con. "We've seen an exponential increase in sales since the "new 52" was announced," but before this week's publication of 13 of the 52 new titles.

From a digital perspective, the availability of a publisher's entire line from your desktop or mobile device means that you can purchase comics without having to leave your Batcave. However, it's no secret that the comics business has been on a steady decline, and there's a lot of healthy skepticism from inside the industry that DC's take on digital is the best way to go.

Mark Waid, a best-selling comics writer who has written nearly every major character at both DC and competitor Marvel Comics, commented on digital comics broadly at Comic-Con. "This is the future. But as an independent creator, it's not a way to make a living," he said, noting that the when it comes to the Comixology format, where publishers pay a cut of each comic sale to the app provider, "The current business model doesn't work."

Mr. Terrific, page 13. Shared with CNET exclusively from DC Comics. (Click to see full size.) (Credit: DC Comics)

The current business model contains an unusual twist endemic to the digital comics business: there is no widely-accepted standard comics file format. Unlike digital music, movies, and books, which are available in a wide variety of formats that players have had years to incorporate, the comics publishers have eschewed the best-known standard comics file formats of Comic Book Zip (CBZ), Comic Book RAR (CBR), and PDF in an attempt to prevent pirating. This is not an concern without merit; a quick jaunt to your favorite illegal torrent site will turn up most of its shared comics as either CBR or CBZ, which are containers of JPG files wrapped in ZIP or RAR archives. The vast majority of those shared comics are being shared illegally.

Comixology provides both a digital storefront and a reader, similar to iTunes, which allows publishers to simply send their files to Comixology. Also like iTunes, Comixology's cut is not insignificant, rumored to be somewhere between 10 and 15 percent per comic sold. So, if you buy a digital comic from the iOS Comixology app and factor in Apple's in-app sales fee, the publisher is out around 30 percent of the sale.

The digital storefront has its own controversies. Basically, it allows current comic book shops to sell DC Comics digitally from their store's Web sites as retailer affiliates. Any digital comics sold from them would give a cut to the brick-and-mortar store. While DC promoted the opportunity as a chance for stores to make some money off of the digital books that they otherwise wouldn't see, it turned out that the Comixology Terms of Use were skewed heavily in favor of Comixology. This includes waiving the right to join a class-action lawsuit against Comixology, should one be initiated; committing retailers to promoting the digital store in their real-world store; and relinquishing part of the rights to the store's trademarks so Comixology can use them in its promotional materials.

Mr. Terrific, page 14. Shared with CNET exclusively from DC Comics. (Click to see full size.) (Credit: DC Comics)

Currently, the Comixology app is fairly limited in scope. You can buy and read comics, and it syncs across your mobile devices and desktop computer. When it comes to the actual reading of comics, you can zoom using pinch-and-zoom, double-tap, or initiate an automatic scrolling that moves through panels for you. The last one is tricky, because it destroys the experience of moving from panel to panel at the reader's pace.

DC has plans to make value-added changes to the digital versions of its comics, not unlike DVD extras. Kanalz said that DC is looking at developing "a kind of Foursquare for comics," to give its comics a social element, as well as "innovating with its storytelling," although he wouldn't go into deeper specifics than that.

Whatever else happens with digital comics, there's little doubt that something had to be done. During April of this year, North American direct market sales were estimated below 100,000 copies for the best-selling comic book of the month, a shockingly anemic figure. Compared to only 20 years ago, when the top-selling relaunch of Marvel Comics' X-Men sold more than one million books. Admittedly, this was during a bubble, but even an issue of Batman from a few years before that era could sell more than 650,000 copies.

Kanalz feels that his company's move is the right one. "I would be shocked if we saw any poaching from print in the "new 52", he said.