After a hurricane, the sun usually comes out resulting in sparkling skies for the clean-up. As the East Coast attempts to clean up and dry off from a storm that could have been much worse (but was still pretty bad in spots) we wake up to a fairly epochal week in the history of comics. Because the internet wasn’t around, we didn’t know that the 1980 arrival of SUPERBOY SPECTACULAR or DAZZLER #1 — the first comics produced by DC and Marvel that were direct market-only — would mark the beginning of a whole new era for the comics industry, and — despite the protestations of imminent death at every turn — usher in a era of undreamed of creative fertility and energy.
Wednesday at 12:01 am the new era begins. Not the era of the New 52 — despite any declarations to the contrary, that’s really business as usual, just jump started in the manner of a car battery. No, it’s the era of digital comics. While everyone has been transfixed over whether GREEN LANTERN by Geoff Johns, Doug Mahnke and Christian Alamy will be better than GREEN LANTERN by Geoff Johns, Doug Mahnke and Christian Alamy; or how Tony Daniels’ DETECTIVE COMICS is going to vastly improve on his Batman comics, the real revolution has quietly been dawning on retailers and readers: DC’s decision to go with simultaneous digital and print release of their comics.
Everyone has been feeling the end coming, even if only as an instinctive notice of the drop in air pressure before a storm. Sometimes, it was a thinly-veiled metaphor for real-life happenings. Other times it was an obsession with grisly death — as Chris Eckert points out, the FLASHPOINT miniseries leading up to the DC reboot was a gorefest that would make a Grand Guignol play look like My Little Pony.
Regardless, it has one thing in common with those other stories. DEATH. GLORIOUS DEATH. Given that everything is going to be returned to The New Normal at the end of it, DC has gone hog wild with killing people off in Flashpoint. It’s not just “shocking” death scenes for beloved intellectual property: the Flashpoint Earth got seriously depopulated. It’d be Ra’s al Ghul’s dream, if he weren’t a little kid who only appears in one panel of World of Flashpoint for some reason. Forget boring decapitation of superheroines, Flashpoint has it all!
The whole list is way too long to reprint, but here’s just the Cs
Captain Marvel (Billy Batson): Depowered by Enchantress, stabbed through the heart by Wonder Woman
Catman: Killed by Grodd, skull and spine ripped out and paraded around
Cheetah: Killed and possibly eaten by Etrigan the Demon
Citizen Cold: Killed by Iris West
Clayface: Dragged into an ocean trench by Aquaman, presumably dies after having his skull collapse and eyes pop out from the water pressure
Cluemaster: Killed when Plastic Man bursts out of his throat
Cockroach: Recruited by Canterbury Cricket for his “Ambush Bugs” team, killed by Amazons on first mission
Congorilla: Beaten to death, head ripped off by Grodd during a sparring match
Count Vertigo: Pierced through the heart by an Amazon’s spear
And just in case you think this orgy of death is just a passing fad, just today the DC Blog is teasingThe New 52: “Wait ‘til they watch us kill him.”
While the contents of the comics were going out with the kind of savage frenzy that usually accompanies the end of the world, retailers were waking up to the digital reality. Retailer Brian Hibbs always shows up to correct me whenever I make a bad attempt to summarize his thoughts so I say just go read the damn thing. It’s an essay on Hibbs’ demoralizing realization that the new terms for digital comics sales via comiXology were not anything he could sign due to several onerous clauses, and that DC was at least partly to blame:
DC’s FAQ was very vague on the exact details: For instance, using language about “affiliate programs” at one point, but then also talking about “dedicated store fronts.” We were promised more hard information on or before July 20th. Almost an entire additional month passed, however, and details were finally released on August 17th for an August 31st launch. Yes, just fourteen days warning, if you want to be part of the launch of this program — not only to mechanically make it happen, but to read through and parse the (heavy) details.
Here’s what you really need to understand to get my core rage and frustration about how this is unfolding: Direct Market comic book retailers are DC’s customers. Even though Diamond is the one who facilitates the pulling and packing of books, I do not buy DC comics from Diamond — Diamond is “merely” the sales agent in the transaction. I am the customer, I am the retailer.
Hibbs’ discomfort with the comiXology terms is shared by many retailers — only a hundred have signed up to sell digital comics through a storefront on their websites thus far. Notably the Diamond system which is going to be rolling out a bit later this year, with fulfillment via iVerse, is a bit different, with stores selling codes. It’s much more like Diamond’s traditional method of selling comics. It will be interesting to see how this is received now that the comiXology model has been rejected, at least philosophically.
But Hibbs smells the storm of digital coming — and from DC, the one publisher that has always stood by the direct sales market come hell or high water. Perhaps I am reading too much into this (and again, I know Brian will be right along to correct me) but I sense a feeling of betrayal in this column. The retailer’s friend is going over to the other side.
It’s a side whose potential impact Hibbs is not impressed by — he feels that day-and-date will not expand the audience for the periodical comics that form his bread and butter:
And that’s why I think that, largely, a significant portion of the day-and-date audience will merely be conversions from print readers, rather than entirely new readers. There’s a bunch of people that digital is great for: people overseas, or, say, in the military, people with New York-sized apartments, people who don’t want to drive an hour to get to their “local” shop, or people who are served by local stores that (illogically!) won’t stock the comics they want to buy, and so on.. Those are just some of the people who will love digital, but that isn’t entirely all new dollars; and if they’re not new dollars, that probably means they’re being siphoned out of the existing print market — a market where it is increasingly hard to muster a profitable print run in the first place.
The Hibbsian view is backed up by Tom Spurgeon, in his analysis of the piece
The second half of Hibbs’ essay, where he doubts that digital in and of itself will drive anyone to a comics shop, also seems rational to me. I would add a few things. Hibbs seems to get to his conclusions by characterizing the likely audiences and casting aspersions on the exposure model as a general theory. I think he’s right that exposure as a driver across a product group tends to be a dubious proposition, but I think a potentially more fundamental key is that the digital experience is going to be different than the comics shop experience to the point that there’s no reason for anyone to link them on some sort of continuum. Buying stuff on-line has never driven me to a shop; it’s replaced a kind of buying or maybe supplemented a kind of consumption — and that’s with a consumer good that’s exactly the same.
Right off the bat, I think Tom and Brian are wrong on this account — I know people who religiously peruse online stores in anticipation of the day they can see the real thing — I’m one of them. Granted, I live in a vertical city where getting out of the house is always a bonus. Also, I’m a girl and I love to shop. So my experience is far from universal, but the relationship between online and in-store is a complex one. For tangible goods, like clothes and toys, the online catalog is definitely an advertisement for the store. Is a comic book a tangible good? Not any more — it’s a pamphlet, a floppy, a loss leader. But books are still considered both decorative items and entertainment — tangible.
Among publishers who have gone aggressively into digital comics, there is much anecdotal evidence that digital exposure has actually increased print sales. Analysts are also fond of pointing out the Wimpy Kid Paradox — the books are available in their entirety online right now, but the books are some of the best selling kids books of the decade. The whole argument that digital can only steal smacks strongly to me of the old “this is going to kill comics!” alarm bells over previous revolutions. Hey, I could be wrong — maybe any new readers will be offset by those who want to switch to digital or digital distribution will only siphon off people in the short term. But I think it’s an overly gloomy forecast.
Yet, looking at the long-term forecast, I can understand the gloom. While housebound due to my hurricane vacation, I played around with my mom’s iPad — when I could steal it away from her. This is the sexiest, shiniest platform yet for contemporary comics. Quite simply, comics are colored on Macs and no matter what they tell you, they are calibrated for digital display — colors that look like shit on paper are vibrant and dimensional on the iPad. The pages pop and shimmer.
But a crappy comic is still a crappy comic whether on paper or retinal display. Stories that connect and entertain will flourish in either format. The Marvel and DC zombies who walk into their stores every Wednesday to sate their numbed, overloaded senses are dying off. Rick Grimes is picking them off one by one.
The next era of comics will be spearheaded by stories/experiences that are digital in nature. Just like everything else in our culture. The iPad is currently an expensive gadget for upscale households, but the iPod was once the same thing. Now it’s a has-been. So while I think Hibbs is wrong to dismiss the potential for a crossover audience in the short term, he’s right to feel the cold snap blowing in.
I really really want comics shops to be around as long as I am and long after. I love my locals, and the many retailers who have nurtured and sustained the comics business. DC made the decision that embracing the future was the only way to be a part of it. I’m optimistic that the comics retailing community will be able to find a way to do the same, even if the way forward isn’t immediately visible.
Heidi MacDonald is the founder and editor in chief of The Beat. In the past, she worked for Disney, DC Comics, Fox and Publishers Weekly. She can be heard regularly on the More To Come Podcast. She likes coffee, cats and noble struggle.