While comic book stores were struggling (and in some cases closing) through much of 2011, the other major distribution outlet for comic books and graphic novels also faced a tough time. Book stores became a major outlet in the 2000s, primarily due to the manga explosion that brought a whole new audience back to sequential art in the United States. But with the dominance of Amazon.com and the rise of digital e-readers, book stores were forced to evolve. Unfortunately Borders, the second largest US book store chain and the first to usher in manga to American readers, failed to do so in time and went into bankruptcy this year and caused a ripple effect throughout the comics industry.
For some comics publishers, the effect was minimal, as previous payment issues with Borders caused some to shift their business away from them before the bankruptcy was announced. But others felt it more strongly, such as Los Angeles-based Tokyopop, the second largest manga publisher in the United States. In the beginning of the year, Borders stopped paying its vendors in an effort to avoid bankruptcy. This resulted in orders getting cut, and with Borders being Tokyopop’s largest customer account, income was severely damaged. Layoffs at Tokypop followed. Despite the late-entry hit manga Hetalia: Axis Powers, it couldn’t reverse the damage of a closing Borders, online piracy (and a digital strategy that amounted to too little too late), and the under-performing Priest feature film. By May, Tokyopop was holding a garage sale to empty out their LA offices. With their termination of US publishing, licenses were canceled, leaving a good number of manga series unfinished. It’s difficult to know how many casual readers of those series drifted away from reading manga and comics entirely after their favorite manga simply stopped coming out. In October, Tokyopop founder Stu Levy revealed that he is “continuing to explore any and all opportunities to relaunch the manga publishing operations” but it will require him having to renegotiate contracts with Japanese publishers. In the meantime, Tokyopop remains as a modest web-newsletter about Asian pop culture, in a partnership with GeekChicDaily.
It was clear that another distribution outlet was needed, and fortunately one has been steadily growing over the last two years. Digital comics allow people to read print comics and manga on the web or mobile devices such as the iPad, iPhone, Android phones and tablets, Kindle and Nook. Companies have been popping up to provide publishers with the service of configuring their comics to the digital landscape and selling them on these devices. The digital distributor ComiXology has pulled ahead as the clear industry leader, with an exclusive partnership with DC Comics and partnerships with almost every other major comics publisher and many smaller ones too. Other prominent digital distributors are Graphicly, with their focus on community-building, and iVerse Media’s Comics+. Some publishers have chosen to build their own in-house digital distribution systems, such as Dark Horse Digital and Viz Manga. Some publishers are even shifting entirely to digital or publishing digitally first, mimicking the successful web-comics model of building an audience to support print releases.
Most significant in 2011 is the near industry-wide move by comics and manga publishers to ramp up their digital output. This was most notable in numerous announcements by publishers to release digital and print versions simultaneously (frequently called “day-and-date”). Prior to this, digital comics were released erratically, sometimes as far out as 6 months after the print version, seriously undermining the ability of digital to be taken as a serious method for consumers to become engaged in specific titles. The brand new Kindle Fire tablet/e-reader, which had huge sales for the holidays, has available an exclusive set of 100 DC Comics graphic novels, along with a free, pre-loaded Comics by ComiXology app.
Before a lot of these digital announcements were made (and when most digital comics were only available through the iPad and iPhone), digital comics were showing significant growth as sales doubled for the first half of 2011. Prior to that, digital comics sales were estimated at $6 to $8 million for 2010. Print sales for the North American comic book industry were estimated at under $420 million for 2010. While still only a fraction of print, digital is still extremely young with immense potential to reach new and lapsed readers.
IDW Publishing made headway into semi-uncharted digital territory with their launch on Apple’s ebooks platform iBooks last week. The iBooks app comes preloaded on all Apple iPad tablets. With an estimated 20 million iPads sold, that makes for a significant potential readership.
IDW released nearly 20 graphic novels to the iBookstore, including the simultaneous print/digital release of Code Word: Geronimo, which details the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound by SEAL Team 6 as written by military insider Captain Dale Dye. Other graphic novels now on iBooks include IDW’s reprinting project of every Bloom County comic strip, and graphic novels based on True Blood, Star Trek, Transformers, G.I. Joe, and more. The San Diego-based publisher will continue to expand their catalogue in the coming weeks and months.
In addition to expanding comics into yet another digital marketplace, it’s also interesting to note that IDW has chosen to release graphic novels instead of single issues on iBooks. While ComiXology and other digital comics apps and services used by IDW and other comics publishers like Marvel Comics and DC Comics offer graphic novels, much of the focus is on shorter comic books, similar to most brick and mortar comic book stores. But with iBooks readers already expecting a book-length read, it’s smart to go for the longer form of graphic novels.
Currently Code Word: Geronimo is included in the iBooks store front under New & Notable, along with Jane Lynch’s Happy Accidents, Roger Ebert’s Life Itself and Michael Moore’s Here Comes Trouble. In fact, as of this writing, both Moore’s book and Geronimo have the same number of reviews, with the graphic novel rating slightly higher. Graphic novels appearing right beside prose books can be a powerful bit of messaging that comics are just as worthy a form of expression and literature as novels.
Of course, not everyone will receive that message. One of the two reviews is by a hoodwinked MikSud:
This is a comic. I thought it was a real story and account of what took place during the raid of Bin Laden. Utterly disappointed.
Maybe one day comics will be able to tell “real stories”. If they act nicely and don’t get too uppity.
Despite MikSud’s protests, more integration of graphic novels and prose novels in the digital space is bound to happen with the anticipated release of the first color Kindle, expected for a late November release. If comics publishers are smart, they will jump all over this with the deep Amazon and Android integration that could reach a lot of readers.
Digital Comics Update: Dark Horse launches Digital, NBM goes interactive, Nook gets Graphicly app, Archie translates digital to Spanish
Comic books continue their evolution into digital comics, where the sequential art form is available on mobile devices like the iPad and Android, game systems like the PSP, and web browsers. Expanding in distribution, getting more competitive with prices, and experimenting with interactivity – these are all good signs that digital comics might be growing from infant to toddler.
After some delays, Dark Horse Comics will launch their anticipated Dark Horse Digital program later today. The system was built in-house and uses a web-based system supplemented by apps for the iPad, iPhone and iPod Touch. The comics will be priced starting at
$1.49 $0.99 (versus competing apps that have comics starting at $1.99), and will be available in bundles as though you’re buying a full graphic novel collection. The app will be free and come loaded with the first issue of Hellboy: Seeds of Destruction by Mike Mignola and John Byrne. There will also be five free comics available: the first issues of Criminal Macabre by Steve Niles and Ben Templesmith, Joss Whedon‘s Fray, Mike Mignola’s Abe Sapien: The Drowning, Gerard Way‘s Umbrella Academy: Apocalypse Suite, and Mass Effect: Redemption. The app will have hundreds of other comics for download, including issues of Conan, Joss Whedon’s Serenity, Eric Powell‘s The Goon and more. An Android app will follow.
Meanwhile on the Nook Color, Barnes & Noble has launched a new app store which includes three graphic novel apps from Graphic.ly: Mouse Guard: Fall 1152 by David Petersen, Mark Millar and JG Jones‘ Wanted, and Mark Waid‘s Irredeemable. All of the apps have been specially optimized for the Nook Color e-reader, which uses Google’s Android platform. Graphicly also has digital comics from major comics publishers available on the iPad, iPhone/iPad Touch and Android, on the web, Adobe Air, and Google’s Chrome browser app.
NBM Publishing and their all-ages Papercutz imprint has teamed up with TWP Interactive to produce what they are billing as the first interactive graphic novel, Dinosaurs Across America by Phil Yeh. (It’s not the first, but it’s still cool.) Dinosaurs Across America was first published as a traditional graphic novel in print in 2007. It was named one of the best 25 graphic novels of the year by School Library Journal and has won acclaim for its ability to teach geography to children. The new interactive edition allows the reader to zoom in on individual states, learn fun facts and play with puzzles. The interactive version is now available for $9.99 as an app for iOS devices (iPad, iPhone, iPod Touch), and for $4.99 as an e-book on Koobits.
And finally, Archie Comics continues its aggressive pursuit of digital, launching Spanish language versions of some of their digital comics Monday. The comics are available on Archie Digital, as well as their iOS app for the iPad, iPhone and iPod Touch provided by iVerse, and the Sony PSP. An Android app is coming soon. Further translations into French and Hindi are planned as well.
Who would have thought? A publisher often viewed as very traditional and conservative like Archie Comics is leading the way toward digital comics.
The New York-based publisher announced yesterday morning that starting April 1, all of their comic books will be available on their Archie Comics app the exact same day and date that those same issues are on sale at comic book stores and newsstands. Print comics will remain at $2.99 an issue. Digital versions will be priced at $1.99 each. The app, developed by iVerse Media, has been downloaded from iTunes nearly 1.8 million times for use on the iPad, iPhone and iPod Touch. That number is expected to grow significantly when Verizon carries the iPhone next month. A version for Android phones and tablets is planned this March.
This is definitely a big deal. Archie Comics is one of North America’s oldest publishers, right alongside DC Comics and Marvel Comics. Like the two superhero publishers, Archie has iconic characters with a huge recognition factor both nationally and internationally. That a major publisher like Archie has made the jump to simultaneous releases is a huge vote of support for digital comics. Most have felt that for digital comics to truly work, this would need to happen. Marvel, DC and other publishers have toyed with one-off day-and-date releases, usually pricing them equal to or more than their print versions.
There is a lot of concern amongst comic shop retailers that digital comics will steal away their business. So there has been a lot of careful walking on eggshells on the issue because publishers don’t want to damage their relationship with retailers. Archie having the courage to do this probably has a lot to do with them not having as big of a reliance on the comic book store market as other comics publishers. Archie has had a strong presence in grocery stores and other newsstand outlets for some time, and their comic shop sales have been historically weaker due to that market’s preference for superheroes. Archie primarily publishes comedy and teen romance comics, although they have some adventure comics, such as the licensed Sonic the Hedgehog comic.
Reflecting their forward-thinking approach, one of the first comic books to be released simultaneously will be the first issue of Kevin Keller, a mini-series starring the first gay character in Riverdale. Also confirmed for simultaneous print and digital releases: Archie, Archie & Friends, Betty, Veronica, Betty and Veronica, and Jughead. There will also be a digital exclusive release, Reggie and Me.
Archie’s press release states “all Archie titles” but some news reports have stated that may not translate to their entire publishing line. It’s unclear at this time whether Archie’s licensed comics, namely Sonic the Hedgehog and the upcoming Mega Man, will take part. There is also the Life with Archie magazine, which continues two what-if story lines of Archie living a married life with Betty and Veronica.
Also no word yet on whether the same release schedule will apply to ArchieDigital.com, a subscription-based digital comics platform for desktop reading instead of mobile devices.
Speaking to the retailer fears of losing business, there’s also this article from Comics Alliance’s David Brothers on exactly who is the audience for digital comics and what they’re buying. There’s still a lot of unknown but initial information seems to suggest that they are not the same people going to their local comic book store every Wednesday. Whether this data and Archie’s bold move will encourage other publishers to adjust their release schedules will remain to be soon, but general consensus is saying it’s a matter of when, not if.
For more: The Archie news was picked up by the New York Times, USA Today, MTV and the Associated Press, which has been picked up by ABC News and other news organizations. Interviews and coverage naturally occurred at all of the comics news sites like Comic Book Resources, Comics Alliance, iFanboy and IGN.