Marvel and Dark Horse Comics recently announced their new online digital comics initiatives, the former pushing something they call Infinite Comics and the latter promoting a new motion comics channel on Youtube. I’ve written about the issues facing digital comics before, and for those of you who don’t have the time or wherewithal to read (or re-read) those articles, here’s a brief summary of the problems that have characterized major publishers’ attempts thus far to bring comics to digital devices and the Internet
- A distinct lack of hypertext and hypermedia functionality: In these days of electronic documents, it’s easy to take for granted hypertext and hypermedia functionality: the ability to instantaneously access additional information resources by simply clicking or tapping on an embedded text or image hyperlink. Imagine perusing a Wikipedia entry (or even this column) without all those embedded links to related articles and media files. It just wouldn’t have the same level of information depth and breadth. Looking for a specific word or phrase in a text article? A simple “Ctrl-F” simplifies the search. Hunting for a particular picture in a digital image library? If the library software supports image tagging and thumbnail previewing, the task becomes significantly easier. Hypertext and hypermedia have changed the way we access, read, and assimilate text and visual information on digital devices, and yet most digital comics have little to no significant hypertext or hypermedia functionality.
- Mistaking “perfunctory Flash animation” for “digital comics”: Chris Sims, writing for Comics Alliance, describes Marvel’s motion comics as existing in “this weird No Man’s Land between comics and animation; they’re essentially just the art from the comic being shown to you while a bunch of people literally read the comic out loud.” Ironically, motion comics are less 21st century New Media than they are a throwback to cheap, mid-20th century animation. While not all digital comics are motion comics, the continued peddling of the latter by major publishers betrays their leadership’s fundamental lack of understanding of the comic medium’s unique strengths and features.
- Proprietary file formats and exclusive digital distribution deals: I actually think that Marvel and DC have proven that, to a certain extent, sticking with proprietary file formats and giving companies like comiXology exclusive retailer rights on specific operating systems aren’t necessarily the regressive, near-sighted strategies they seem to be. It remains to be seen if DC’s decision to give comiXology the exclusive distribution rights to DC Comics-branded material on iOS devices (just one of several exclusive distribution deals comiXology has with publishers and IP owners) won’t come back to haunt it in the event that a superior, alternative distribution scheme emerges during the lifetime of the deal. Still, I’m always leery of exclusive distribution deals, as they can create an environment where monopolies can thrive and all sorts of problems can potentially arise: I think most industry observers will agree that at least some of the criticisms lobbed against Diamond Comic Distributors—a company that maintains what some observers consider a quasi-monopolistic hold on print comics distribution in North America—have some merit to them. With exclusive digital distribution deals tied to specific operating systems and hardware platforms, those same problems could be further compounded by the complications introduced by functional obsolescence and disruptive innovations in software and hardware.
- Uncompetitive pricing: Most 22-page digital comics for sale on comiXology and Graphic.ly are priced between 99¢ and $1.99. Even taking into account that what readers are actually paying for when they buy a typical digital comic book is a non-transferable, non-exclusive license to read that comic book using a proprietary application on a limited number of digital devices and that the license can be revoked remotely by the license-provider for unspecified reasons, the pricing seems like a bargain compared to the $2.99 to $3.99 their print versions go for. That is, until you compare their price to the non-comics entertainment that they compete with in the digital marketplace. A long-time comics reader likely won’t so much as blink at being asked to pay $1.99 for a device-limited, non-transferable, revocable license to read a 22-page digital comic with no hypertext or hypermedia functionality, but comics novices who are familiar with all the distractions the Internet has to offer will rightfully question the wisdom of spending that much on an item that doesn’t have the same amount of replay value (and in some cases, actual production values) as, say, any number of comparatively-priced or even free games and other digital entertainment options.
Marvel seems to be addressing the first two of the above concerns with their Infinite Comics line. I haven’t had the opportunity to try them out for myself, but as demonstrated by Mark Waid in this video recorded at the recently concluded Wondercon, Infinite Comics appear to have ditched the misguided motion comics approach in favour of using practical, minimally animated, interactive elements in the inconspicuous user interface: the media still requires the user to actively read the comic instead of passively watching it. And although he doesn’t show it in the demonstration, Waid hints at Infinite Comics‘ support of some manner of hypermedia capability. All in all, it seems like Infinite Comics are a (somewhat belated) step in the right direction in Marvel’s campaign to bring together the unique communicative features of comics and Internet-connected digital devices.
It is Dark Horse’s foray into nominally-free motion comics on Youtube that has me more interested though, despite my strongly negative opinions about past and current implementations of the motion comics format. What has me cautiously optimistic about Dark Horse’s plan is that Youtube’s Flash and HTML5 video technology already support hypertext and hypermedia. Given all the interesting things users have been able to do with that technology, it’s not very difficult to imagine that with a little creativity on the part of Dark Horse’s digital content producers, digital comics on Youtube that can be read much like print comics instead of watched like animation can be a reality while providing all sorts of rich internet application (RIA) capabilities. Just as importantly, Youtube, unlike the comiXology or Graphic.ly apps, is a universally popular, virtually platform-agnostic content-delivery system that can be readily accessed on most Internet-enabled devices—not just on PCs, tablets, and smartphones, but also on home entertainment devices that support Flash video like the PS3, Wii, and XBox 360 gaming consoles and certain browser-enabled, web-ready HDTVs, Blu-Ray disc players, and digital media receivers.
Beyond the technology aspect, the implications of offering free, advertising-supported digital comics on an entrenched, free-to-access media-sharing site like Youtube are staggering in terms of potential audience reach. Imagine a Youtube comic “going viral” and what that would mean not just for advertising revenue but also for the promotion of the publisher’s properties. Think of how much more appealing a free, ad-supported Youtube comic book from Dark Horse is compared to its $2.99 print brethren, its $1.99 digital comic counterpart, or its shady, scanned and torrented, bootleg doppelganger.
It’s early days obviously, but with Marvel’s Infinite Comics and Dark Horse’s Youtube comics, it seems like at least some of the industry’s biggest publishers are no longer content to treat the digital marketplace as just an extension of their print business that requires little in the way of new media design and business modeling strategies. Their success isn’t assured, but if it eludes them, it won’t be for lack of well-considered effort.