As you may have read on the Mothership today, there’s an awful lot of discussion regarding digital comics and alternative distribution. And what you might have already read in the past few weeks is that struggling series — like Spider-Girl or Blue Beetle — are bravely trailblazing new means of reaching out to new readers and retaining the die-hards.
The question is — is it viable?
Let’s look at Exhibit A: Going digital. You probably saw the article which says that, according to an open poll by the Mothership, there’s a great many people out there who are willing — nay, anticipating — making the shift to digital comics. And it’s clear that Marvel is making some progress towards getting that growing demographic. The online debut of Spider-Girl is a great example of all this: this is a title that has been saved several times from cancellation. But of course, resources are limited, and if a book doesn’t work and isn’t tied within the framework of your larger universe, you gotta try something new (even if that something new doesn’t necessarily work). Innovation is the name of the game!
But that said — why lose the obvious zeal of the readership of a Spider-Girl or a Blue Beetle? So you take that character, keep aboard the best of the creative talent associated with the character — and you put a series up with a far cheaper platform. Printing ain’t cheap, and putting books online cuts out the middleman of publishing and distribution, so to speak. If they love the title enough — and, more importantly, you can’t get it anywhere else (so Wolverine, arguably not as great an investment unless done by a top-tier creator) — wouldn’t people flock to the product, no matter what the format?
That’s Marvel’s bet — and it very well may set the foundations of a strong online product. But here’s where I’m going to digress: while I do love my mighty Rama readers, I know we are but a subset of the comics-buying crowd. One might say more tenacious with our comic-acquiring abilities. The two problems that come up with an online model: platform and payment.
What do I mean? In the case of platform, it’s not terribly dissimilar to an argument brought up with motion comics — control of time. Online comic platforms aren’t quite as streamlined as holding a book in your hands, and for many people, that’s enough to divert their attention elsewhere. (And when you put everything online, you also have to worry about the ADD of computer users — with Hulu, computer games, YouTube, and Pandora [and Newsarama, pluggity plug!] competing for your screen, if you don’t have the most user-friendly product, you’re in the dust.)
Some online outlets, like Zuda, have a loading time between pages — Marvel’s platform, which is arguably a bit more refined (and has the added benefit of using recognizable licensed properties), still forces you to click to “turn” the page, as well as zoom in to read smaller text or really absorb a detailed image. One might argue that, despite the controversy surrounding its demise, the user interface used by the late web site scans_daily might be the most viable option. Ignoring the price debate and the illegality of the site for the purposes of this illustration, the described interface works because it is pretty darn simple — scroll down a standard, unadorned Livejournal web page to see more images. Regardless of one’s politics on that issue, it certainly cuts down on the sort of disconnect one can have by having to click rather than just get engrossed by the story.
The other problem, of course, is that of payment. Yes, the online model certainly works for working adults — but it’s not as universal as cash. There’s a younger demographic here that is going to miss out on this new revolution, and it’s because they don’t have access to credit cards. In this way, the middle man actually helps — if Mom and Dad take Little Johnny to a book store, it’s a lot more likely that either (A) the folks will take pity on their poor kid and buy him Spider-Man, or (B) the industrious tyke will actually have cobbled up some money of his own, and buy the book like the mini-Trump he’s going to become in a few years. Going online, though, well… it makes it a bit harder. The untapped kids audience simply won’t have a credit card to buy issues online, and parents are a lot less likely (at least from my experience growing up) to repeatedly drop hard-earned plastic on that scam artist/133t hacker paradise known as the World Wide Web. So can online comics keep some diehard readers? Probably. New readers? We’ll have to wait and see.
Now let’s take a look at Exhibit B — the co-feature. DC Comics is taking a similarly pragmatic approach to their critically acclaimed/lower selling properties, albeit in a more conservative fashion: they piggy-back a smaller feature on top of a full-length story. Calling this approach “new” is actually a little bit of a misnomer: DC used to do back-up features all the time, with Firestorm jumping on back of the Flash, just to name an example. (Marvel introduced X-Men to a new generation of kids with X-Men Classic, which had back-ups by Chris Claremont focusing on individual members of the X-teams.) But for years, the back-up feature has been long neglected. (I’m not counting the back-ups in Trinity, which almost certainly were done to not kill any individual artist with a 22-page, 52-week beat. Mark Bagley is one tough mother.) But just like with Spider-Girl, DC is using characters that, while not selling enough books to carry their own series, are popular enough in their own right to bump up new and medium-selling series.
For example — if some people are on the fence about the continuity-hopping Booster Gold, DC is banking that the small-but-devoted cohort of Blue Beetle readers will bump the series’ sales numbers. Another example is giving readers even more incentive to try out the upcoming Detective Comics arc — if you dig J.H. Williams III but aren’t too sure about Batwoman as a character, well, now you’ve got Renee Montoya as the Question, with all the feel-good feelings from 52 that come with it. Just like with Spider-Girl, these are the only places you are going to get solo adventures with the character — and the companies are banking that if you are devoted enough to the franchise, you’ll pick it up no matter what.
But here’s the question with DC’s approach: will it work financially? In the past, they’ve done pretty well for themselves in terms of keeping prices steady, but as Dan DiDio explained, titles with co-features will be making the jump to $3.99. The industry’s top-selling books, like New Avengers and the Stand, have gotten some flak for raising prices — can even the combined forces of Booster Gold and Blue Beetle, both great stories in the own right, convince readers to drop the money? There’s also accounting for taste: if, for example, readers universally hate the new writer of Teen Titans, even a Sean McKeever fanatic might not pick up the book. And if there’s more pages to print, it’s a more expensive gamble all-around.
Anyway, readers, what do you think? Are co-features your purchase of choice? Online comics? Sticking with the standard 22-pager? Let us what you think!