With the year coming to a close, we take a look at some of the biggest comics industry stories of 2013, including the DRM and censorship controversies in digital comics, the growth of the graphic novel market, DC’s rough year in the public eye, and more.
2013 did not lack for big stories and announcements in the comics industry, but it can be very easy to miss the forest for the trees, so to speak, what with all the attendant hype and the echo chamber of social media adding noise to the discourse, obscuring the more important themes and the larger trends. Below, I recap and link to what I think are the biggest stories of the year, as far as their ultimate impact on the business of comics, comics creation, and readers’ ability to access comics content across different channels.
Digital comics distributors deal with controversies over DRM and digital censorship
What was supposed to be a groundbreaking promotional event turned into a technical and public relations disaster when comiXology and Marvel Comics’ plan to make 700 comics available temporarily for free led to a March 2013 server crash that locked out millions of comiXology users from the service for several days.
Here’s an excerpt from the March 13 edition of Leaving Proof, written about the brouhaha:
… this incident primarily served to highlight significant flaws in the digital rights management (DRM, also sometimes referred to as “digital restrictions management”) system used by a service like comiXology, and how the consumer experience is negatively and needlessly affected because of those flaws. Online DRM is innately built into comiXology’s way of doing business. When a user buys a digital comic from comiXology, what he or she is actually purchasing is a limited license to read the digital comic under a specific set of conditions defined by the digital comics distributor. ComiXology is able to enforce these conditions primarily by restricting—to a degree—the user’s access to the digital comic in such a way that the user can interact with the purchased content only in a controlled, online environment. Reading the comic on a personal computer requires a constant Internet connection: comiXology’s online reader runs through an Internet browser and asks the user to sign in to the service and the digital comic’s files are hosted on a remote server. The digital comic can be temporarily cached and read offline on a mobile Internet-capable device such as a smartphone or tablet running either the iOS or Android operating system, but the user must be signed into comiXology’s free third-party app to do so. This scheme allows users the freedom to read their purchases on multiple devices as long as they are logged into the service whilst at the same time blocking users from permanently downloading a copy of the digital comic onto their devices, theoretically preventing the illicit copying and distribution of the comic’s contents or at least making the process that much more difficult.
For almost all users and in the vast majority of instances, the arrangement outlined above is a perfectly reasonable one that works seamlessly and without major hassles. But when a major server snafu hits or a user is limited to an Internet connection that is unstable or intermittent (such as users on military deployment, for example), then the inconvenience wrought directly by the DRM scheme comes to the fore. As for its ability to curtail illegal copying and sharing of works under copyright? Curious users can find, either on their own or by researching online, any number of easy ways around comiXology’s restrictions preventing them from creating permanent back-up copies of their purchases.
While comiXology’s customers had to endure what turned out to be a temporary cessation of service, the unfortunate users of digital manga distribution service JManga had to deal with the permanent loss of the digital comics they purchased from the service with the company’s sudden closure.
From a special edition of the Comixverse News Round-up, posted March 15, 2013:
Digital comics distribution schemes also figured in one of the year’s biggest stories concerning comics censorship, one that saw issue #12 of the critically-acclaimed, best-selling, mature readers-rated comic Saga (written by Brian K. Vaughan and illustrated by Fiona Staples) pulled from the iOS app system. Here’s the recap, from the April 12 edition of the Comixverse News Round-up:
For the customers of digital comics distributor JManga, the distinction between licensing and selling stopped being an academic issue and became a question of practical concern earlier this week, when the company abruptly announced that it was shutting down its operations and that all digital content purchased from its site would no longer be viewable by users by the end of May. And because JManga uses a digital rights management (DRM) scheme that prevents its users from making back-ups of the digital comics they licensed from the distributor—all the content is stored on JManga’s “cloud” of servers—that means that whatever digital comics JManga’s customers thought they owned will disappear by midnight, May 30. We imagine JManga customers are now engaged in a mad frenzy of taking screenshots of their digital comics collections before they all go down the tube, but keep in mind that according to JManga’s Terms of Service, this behavior is in direct violation of the contract users agreed to when they registered for the company’s services (“you agree that you will not… circumvent, disable or otherwise interfere with security related features of the Sites, APPs or features that prevent or restrict use or copying of any content”).
On Tuesday, word had gotten around that Apple had banned Saga #12 from being sold through any iOS apps, apparently because the inclusion of two, postage stamp-sized images of—we’re using Rich Johnston’s turn of phrase here—”erect, jizzing cocks” violated some set of content guidelines or other. In response, Vaughan wrote that:
“This is a drag, especially because our book has featured what I would consider much more graphic imagery in the past, but there you go. Fiona and I could always edit the images in question, but everything we put into the book is there to advance our story, not (just) to shock or titillate, so we’re not changing shit.”
Anyway, torches were lit and condemnations of corporate-sponsored censorship were aired, charges that made sense in light of Apple’s recent banning of Joe Casey and Peter Kowalski’s mature readers Image Comics title Sex and a blanket ban on French comics that showed anything “revealing a breast, causing cleavage, curve, or evoking a suggestive gesture” from the iOS app system. And guess what? We all went and picked up copies of Saga #12 on Wednesday, anyway, either picking them up in brick-and-mortar stores or using alternative digital retail methods such as getting the comics directly from the Image Comics digital store. And it was pretty damn good. Funny, too. And now, thanks to the Streisand Effect, it’s quite likely that this clumsy attempt at censorship will draw even more attention to the content it was supposed to suppress. Case closed, and just about everyone—except folks who don’t understand that comics labeled for mature readers are just that and whose knee-jerk reaction to any portrayal of sex in comics is to go into “won’t anyone think of the children?” rant mode—is happy or at least inclined to forget the whole thing and get back to reading, making, and selling comics.
Except it’s not that simple.
As it turns out, it wasn’t Apple that made the call to take Saga #12 off the iOS app ecosystem but digital comics distributor comiXology, which preemptively took the issue off its iOS-based virtual distribution channels. As comiXology CEO David Steinberger explained in a press release issued on Wednesday:
“As a partner of Apple, we have an obligation to respect its policies for apps and the books offered in apps. Based on our understanding of those policies, we believed that Saga #12 could not be made available in our app, and so we did not release it today.
We did not interpret the content in question as involving any particular sexual orientation, and frankly that would have been a completely irrelevant consideration under any circumstance.
Given this, it should be clear that Apple did not reject Saga #12. After hearing from Apple this morning, we can say that our interpretation of its policies was mistaken.
You’ll be glad to know that Saga #12 will be available on our App Store app soon.
We apologize to Saga creator Brian K. Vaughan and Image Comics for any confusion this may have caused.”
So there you go. Still, we’re not exactly thrilled with the idea of entities like Apple and comiXology acting as the de facto moral arbiters of what is acceptable reading material for adults, and we imagine comics publishers aren’t very happy with it either. Image Comics Executive Director Eric Stephenson weighed in on the whole affair in an interview with Heidi McDonald and expressed some frustration over how the whole thing was handled by comiXology, although it’s clear he’s just ready to move forward from the incident.
The saga (ha ha!) didn’t end there, however. While comiXology did return Saga #12, along with three other Image Comics titles with explicit sexual content (Rick Remender’s Crawlspace: XXXombies, Joe Casey’s Sex, and Howard Chaykin’s Black Kiss II), to its iOS app in the immediate wake of the uproar over what the comics community saw as an act of censorship, the digital comics distributor subsequently took Crawlspace: XXXombies, Sex, and Black Kiss II off from its iOS app again after a repeat review of their contents.
Digital comics market diversifies, continues to grow
Of course, it wasn’t all DRM- and censorship-fueled controversy on the digital comics front. The larger picture was actually a positive one for comics’ continued relevance in the digital media marketplace. A couple of weeks after the comiXology server crash and JManga’s announcement of its impending closure, writer Brian K. Vaughan and artist Marcos Martin launched their DRM-free digital comic The Private Eye on their own Panel Syndicate platform, using a “name-your-price” business model that, so far, seems to be working for them although it’s probably too early to tell if Panel Syndicate’s maverick success is replicable or sustainable in the long-term.
Here’s what I had to say about their venture (from Leaving Proof 178 | On Vaughan and Martin’sThe Private Eye #1):
In bypassing traditional comics publishers, a digital distributor like comiXology, or even a third-party crowd-funding partner like Kickstarter or Indiegogo and soliciting financial support for their project directly from their audience via their “name-your-price” approach to selling the comic, Vaughan and Martin have appropriated and democratized the traditional patronage model of arts funding for the Internet age. They are not the first creatives to do this, of course, in comics or elsewehere, but to see two high-profile comics professionals commit to a way of doing things that leaves behind inefficient and redundant print industry-derived strategies as the age of unfettered information-sharing continues to take hold is an exciting thing that fills me with enthusiasm and hope for the future of comics.
Image Comics got into the DRM-free digital comics game as well, opening a new digital comics store in July that had me feeling better about the future of digital comics after the problems of the spring (from Leaving Proof 192 | iComics: On Image Comics’ DRM-free digital comics initiative):
Ultimately, the significance of Image Comics’ DRM-free entry into the digital comics sales arena is that it offers consumers another way to get and interact with their digital comics. I do imagine that most comiXology users are probably reasonably content with what they get for their money, freak occurrences like March’s catastrophic server crash aside. But for those of us who are looking for sufficiently different alternatives to comiXology, one that better aligns with our notions of pricing and fair consumer digital rights, Tuesday’s announcement was very good news, indeed.
Later that same month, the Mark Waid-led Thrillbent comics creator collective launched its own DRM-free digital comics store, offering a hybrid business model—some titles will be sold based on a “name-your-price” system, while other titles will be sold at a fixed price—while still keeping its popular free webcomics available for perusal on their site.
Popular anime-streaming site Crunchyroll, on the other hand, recently started up what it called a “manga-streaming service,” giving readers the choice of a free, ad-supported service plan (this free service does not provide access to back issues, however, and only allows readers access to the newest chapters), or a $4.99-a-month subscription that will allow them to read the comics without ads and provide access to back issues.
And comiXology, despite the early bad publicity from the server crash and charges of corporate censorship, just kept extending its reach, acquiring the digital distribution rights to numerous comics libraries (including that of Seven Seas Entertainment, Scholastic, Avatar Press, VIZ Media Europe affiliate Kazé, and BOOM! Studios) and breaking major ground in Francophone markets in Europe.
All in all, digital comics sales posted a growth of 25% over the first three quarters of 2013 across various digital comics platforms and services, a marked step down from the tripling of sales in 2012 (although sales growth rates were expected to fall with an increase in adoption), but still a significant expansion regardless of context.
The graphic novel market bounces back
Throughout the year, we here at the Comixverse followed the performance of “graphic novels” (which includes original graphic novels as well as trade paperback and hardcover collections of serial comics) in the bookstore market. What really struck us about the sales of graphic novels in bookstores is that month in and month out, it was titles from Image Comics, Dark Horse Books, and manga publishers like Kodansha Comics, VIZ Media, Yen Press, and Seven Seas Entertainment that consistently populated the monthly Nielsen Bookscan Top 20 sales rankings. There were multiple months, in fact, where there wasn’t a single Marvel Comics title in Nielsen’s Top 20 rankings and DC was represented only by a couple of 20+ year-old “evergreen” titles like Alan Moore’s Watchmen and Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns—a situation not helped by the lingering effects of a yearlong dispute between DC and chain bookstore Barnes & Noble over distribution practices that saw the latter remove the former’s graphic novels from its shelves in 2012, although the dispute has since been resolved.
Leading the graphic novel market resurgence—the market registered a 6% growth over the first three quarters of 2013, its first expansion since 2008—are Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead (published by Image Comics) and Hajime Isayama’s Attack on Titan (published by Kodansha Comics), and it’s probably no coincidence that both comics also have wildly popular TV spin-offs, and that fans of the respective shows can “get ahead” of the televised story by buying and reading the comics.
As noted by ICv2 in its annual White Paper on Print and Digital Trends however, there’s more to this than just cross-media sales synergy: All-ages books, collections of comics that have a reputation for strong writing like Marvel’s Hawkeye and Image Comics’ Saga, and manga titles that don’t have the contemporary, popular anime tie-in appeal of Attack on Titan continue to sell well. The manga subdivision of the North American graphic novel market is actually outpacing its Western comics counterpart in terms of growth. Will the graphic novel market be able to maintain this positive movement? As a fan of the bound comic book collection format, I certainly hope so.
2013: The year DC’s reputation took a beating online
I don’t want to come off like I’m piling on DC here, but an overview of the past year’s biggest stories would not be complete without some mention of how DC’s public standing with readers, comics industry professionals, and retailers took a real beating in the public discussion space. A lot of it, in retrospect, is the usual tempest-in-a-teapot nonsense that gets amplified in blogs and comics news sites for want of anything better to talk or write about, but there were some genuinely significant stories with real commercial, creative, and cultural implications.
There were writer Paul Jenkins’ allegations of heavy-handed editorial interference, misrepresentation of work, editor incompetence, and what he flat-out described as bullying in an open letter he posted on Comic Book Resources in June, a subsequent interview with Bleeding Cool’s Rich Johnston, and online postings in public message boards and social media. A lot of what Jenkins wrote and said wasn’t exactly new—similar complaints from creators like George Pérez, Joshua Hale Fialkov, Andy Diggle, and Rob Liefeld had been making the rounds since 2011—but the detail he provided in his descriptions of the situations he endured at DC made it look like the relationship between freelancers and editors was particularly contentious.
Further painting a poor picture of the relationship between DC’s editors and its hired creatives was the very public resignation of Batwoman writers J.H. Williams III and W.H. Blackman, over what they described as drastic, last-minute, editor-mandated changes to stories planned and plotted over a course of a year or more that left the writing team “frustrated and angry.”
Then there was fan-favorite artist Kevin Maguire, posting on the Bleeding Cool message boards during the summer about being taken off Justice League 3000 even before the first issue has shipped (emphasis ours):
This is, as I tweeted, very humiliating. Obviously, I was looking forward to working on a fairly high profile book. I haven’t had a top ten book since the 80s and I thought this would finally be my shot at doing one. But it’s DC’s book, it’s their property, they can do whatever they want with it. They don’t owe me anything. I’ve been told they wanted a book that was “dark and gritty”, so I’m perplexed as to why they chose us for that. We did exactly the kind of book you would expect from us. Lots of action and humor. AND I turned down a Bendis X-Men project to do JL3K.
And who could forget the racket that was raised over the announcement of sci-fi author and notorious anti-LGBT rights campaigner Orson Scott Card as the writer of the opening story-arc on the all-ages Adventures of Superman title. If you did, in fact, forget about the whole thing, here’s the recap from the February 15, 2013 edition of the News Round-up:
We pretty much expected something like the current media firestorm over science-fiction author Orson Scott Card’s hiring on Adventures of Superman to erupt when we first reported on the book’s reveal last week.
As regular News Round-up readers may or may not know, Card has been quite the vocal opponent of gay and lesbian rights for many years now. In an essay published in The Mormon Times in 2008, Card wrote that:
“Regardless of law, marriage has only one definition, and any government that attempts to change it is my mortal enemy. I will act to destroy that government and bring it down, so it can be replaced with a government that will respect and support marriage, and help me raise my children in a society where they will expect to marry in their turn.”
Card also has a curious (to say the least!) explanation for the origins of homosexual behavior, writing in a 2004 essay that:
“The dark secret of homosexual society—the one that dares not speak its name—is how many homosexuals first entered into that world through a disturbing seduction or rape or molestation or abuse, and how many of them yearn to get out of the homosexual community and live normally.”
Anyway, as expected, there’s been the usual Internet uproar over this whole thing. Petitions calling for Card’s firing and counter-petitions have been launched, Twitter skirmishes have been waged, some retailers have announced boycotts of the book, pundits have been burning the midnight oil cranking out thinkpieces, that sort of stuff. There’s also a hilarious parodic take online on how Card’s first issue might look like.
DC Comics has defended the hiring of Card in a statement released Wednesday saying that:
“As content creators we steadfastly support freedom of expression, however the personal views of individuals associated with DC Comics are just that—personal views—and not those of the company itself.”
Writer Mark Millar, who’s made a sport of trolling DC online, actually backed DC in this regard, posting on Twitter that
Of course, the argument can perhaps be made that Card’s publicly hostile stance against the gay and lesbian community and those who support them isn’t so much a “social view” as it is an incitement to hate. But making that distinction is no simple matter for all sorts of reasons that involve the freedom of speech and expression.
Ultimately, we find ourselves agreeing with and echoing the sentiments expressed by openly-gay comics writer Jim McCann to USA Today:
“A company has the right to hire whomever they choose … and Mr. Card has the right under the First Amendment to freely speak his beliefs, no matter how hateful and archaic they may be. In turn, however, the fans have the same right to express their disappointment and outrage against his hiring.”
Some of the fallout from all this controversy was artist Chris Sprouse leaving Adventures of Superman and the Card story being shelved indefinitely, although DC Entertainment co-publishers Jim Lee and Dan Didio have both said that they will still publish the story in the future, as soon as they find a suitable replacement artist.
DC wasn’t just busy pissing off freelancers and the LGBT community and its supporters. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, the American Psychiatric Association, and the National Alliance on Mental Illness all decried one of the synopses for DC’s artist talent search contest, which asked prospective artists to portray the character of Harley Quinn naked in a bathtub, contemplating suicide. Here’s the original text of the scenario description:
Harley sitting naked in a bathtub with toasters, blow dryers, blenders, appliances all dangling above the bathtub and she has a cord that will release them all. We are watching the moment before the inevitable death. Her expression is one of ‘oh well, guess that’s it for me’ and she has resigned herself to the moment that is going to happen.
DC did eventually issue a public apology “for not clearly providing the entire context of the scene within the full scope of the story.”
And just to make sure everybody had an ax to grind against it, DC’s handling of the Final Order Cut-off dates for its “Villains Month” titles had outspoken comics retailer Brian Hibbs calling out the company for what he calls its “staggeringly epic incompetence” in its handling of its business relationship with comic book shop owners.
If it sounds like I’m engaging in a bit off schadenfreude, well maybe it’s because I am (but only a little). It’s really a shame that all these negative stories have placed DC under a cloud, at least as far as its public profile goes, since it has overshadowed some genuinely good things the company has done over the past year, not the least of which is that it has, in my opinion, reaffirmed the Vertigo imprint’s reputation as a leading forum for creator-owned sci-fi, fantasy, horror, and crime comics, despite my doubts that they had the maintenance of the imprint’s independent and creative spirit in mind after Karen Berger’s departure late last year.
Disputes over Ghost Rider and Superman ownership highlight the importance of creator’s rights
The resolution in 2013 of two, long-running, high-profile legal disputes over the ownership of superhero comics characters reminded us that the rights of comics professionals responsible for the creation of Marvel and DC’s most popular and profitable intellectual properties continue to be an issue, even as many of the older writers and artists have since retired or passed away.
In January, Judge Stephen Reinhardt of the 9th US Circuit of Appeals ruled that a 2001 oral agreement between Warner Bros. and the heirs of Superman co-creator Jerry Siegel granting the former full commercial control of the Superman property is legally binding. Reinhardt’s ruling effectively does away with a previous 2008 decision by Judge Larson of the US District Court for the Central District of California awarding Siegel’s estate an unspecified share of all Superman-generated earnings compiled by Warner Bros. since 1999, when Siegel’s wife and daughter attempted to reclaim his share of the Superman copyright by filing for a termination of copyright notice.
In June, an appellate court overturned the decision granting Marvel ownership of the Ghost Rider character co-created by writer Gary Friedrich. In what can be viewed as something of a victory for Friedrich, Marvel decided not to continue the litigation and instead opted to settle with Friedrich for undisclosed terms.
It is perhaps because of stories like these that many of today’s most successful comics creators are looking to do creator-owned comics, if not exclusively, at least as a very significant part of their professional portfolio. After all, it’s in their best long-term interest to ensure that their creative energies and most original ideas are used for work that, at the end of the day, they fully own and get to profit directly from in terms of royalties, licensing, and merchandising.