I recall hearing an anecdote about Jack Kirby back in the 1980s. He was at lunch with some other comic professionals, and one of them asked, “Jack, what do you think will be the next big thing in comics?” His answer was, “Well, if I knew that, I’d be doing it myself!” He had, after all, reinvented the industry more than a couple times already. But he went on, “I’ll tell you what, though. The next big thing in comics isn’t going to come from me or you and it’s not going to be published by Marvel or DC. It’s going to come from some guy you’ve never heard of, working away in his basement or attic who’s got nothing to lose by doing something different.”
I don’t know whether or not this conversation actually took place, but the sentiment in the tale is true. People don’t experiment when they’re comfortable with the status quo; they experiment when they’re trying to redefine the rules of the game because they can’t win with things the way they are.
In the last weeks of 2011, we saw hype around both Apple’s and Amazon’s great holiday season. Apple is holding on to some of their specifics until their quarterly earnings call, but they have noted that 4.2 million iPads, iPhones and iPods were activated on December 25. Amazon has said Kindle sales were over one million per week throughout December, and three versions of the device are also their top three best sellers right now. Great news for Apple and Amazon, of course, but it’s also great news for independent creators -- those folks trying to create the next big thing in their basement -- trying to get their work out digitally. That’s another 6-7 million more potential readers, based almost exclusively on holiday sales.
Back in September 2011, I heard David Uslan talk about what he and the Graphicly team was striving for. He was very clear that he wanted he wanted to see more kids reading comics, and doing so on whatever portable electronic device they preferred. He wanted to see them browsing through stacks of comics while they were stuck waiting on whatever boring adult stuff their parents were doing. Right now, Uslan said, a lot of them are playing video games. Why can’t they be reading comics?
I was asked to focus this piece on comics made expressly for digital delivery, and not those that are simply provided digitally after a print run. But that’s a difficult focus when the top sellers on Amazon, Graphicly and comiXology are almost exclusively Marvel and DC superhero books. Though it’s been noted recently that the independent How To Be A Super Villain tops Amazon’s list, that’s really illustrated prose and arguably not a comic. In comiXology’s top 150 best sellers, I couldn’t find any books that weren’t printed first and, while not as focused on superheroes, Graphicly’s biggest draws were primarily from The Walking Dead. The only real digital comic I could find that seemed an arguable success (by being able to compete with already well-established characters) was Action Double Feature by Dennis Hopeless, Mike Norton, Tim Seeley and Ross Campbell. The question naturally arises: what are they doing?
First, as you might surmise from those names I just rattled off, they’ve got some talent there. Rule One of any endeavor: do it well. Second, they’re giving readers complete stories. So far, they’ve been fairly short -- two stories in every issue -- so readers, particularly casual readers, don’t have to make the repeated decision of whether or not to get the next installment. As they say on publisher Four Star Studios’ own site, “Because DoubleFeature stories are short and digital, our creators have the freedom to spitball new ideas that couldn’t work anywhere else.” It’s the old notion of throwing everything at the wall to see what sticks.
But third, and most importantly, is that their books are geared for everyone. Adults, kids, men, women, anyone who might be interested in comics. While they’re still serving niche interests (with a sci-fi themed book and a horror themed book, for examples) they’re ensuring that any reader who picks up an issue gets something they were looking for.
It doesn’t hurt matters that they only charge 99¢ an issue either.
Of course, the issue of price remains one that tends to bog down the discussion of digital comics. I’m sure many of those 6-7 million more potential readers, to Uslan’s hopes, were indeed kids, but I strongly suspect the majority were adults who could afford an iPad for themselves. But even disregarding the initial device cost, what are digital comics worth? Since digital comics can be device agnostic, that’s actually been a question as long as digital comics have been around. Currently, you can find them starting from free and continuing on upwards from there. I don’t know that there’s a consensus on that point yet, due in part to vocal third parties who often aren’t either buying or selling digital comics in the first place, although 99¢ and $1.99 seem to be the most often suggested “ideal” prices for 20-30 pages of story.
Where digital comics land is a continuing debate that I sincerely doubt will be completely resolved in 2012. As suggested in the Kirby anecdote I started with, it’s the people who are willing to stick their necks out and take some chances throwing new ideas out there, in terms of formats, styles, genres, business models... It’s those people who feel like they’ve got nothing to lose and everything to gain that are leading the way, even if you don’t know them yet. Is that comiXology and Graphicly who’ve been around for less than five years? Is that Four Star Studios who only really got started in 2011? Is that someone or some group that hasn’t shown up on anyone’s radar yet?
Is it enough to just have a good comic out there? Do you need additional features like animation or an audio track? Four Star includes creator commentaries and production art. What about social features, integrating a book to sites like Google+ and Facebook so you can share samples of what you’re reading with your friends? What about a way for readers to annotate comics like a YouTube video or Flickr image?
The state of digital comics is still in a pretty constant flux. The marketplace is changing rapidly (recall that the iPad is still less than two years old) and new entrants to the market can make significant impacts from publishing, technology or storytelling perspectives. There continue to be a lot of small experiments going on and, like any business, people are beginning to see what is and isn’t working. Creators, publishers and readers will begin coalescing around certain standards and that will provide more guidance to up and coming creators, who won’t have to play with all of the variables that are still up for grabs in the digital comics environment.
But we, collectively, have not yet figured out what works best. Which is why we’re still having these discussions and, sometimes, heated debates. Digital comics are not just electronic versions of printed comics, nor are they simply longer versions of webcomics. Digital comics are their own medium, a medium which we’re still trying to sort out. From my vantage point, Four Star seems to be heading in the right direction, but we’ll still need to see if readers and other publishers agree.