Last month, IDW Publishing begun releasing a new comic book series that will initially only be available through digital/mobile outlets such as IDW’s dedicated comics apps on various devices and comiXology‘s suite of readers for the iPhone, iPad, Android and web. This is not the first time a comics publisher is bypassing the print market, which still provides the vast majority of sales for most comics publishers despite rapid growth in the still-new digital space. However, it is probably one of the bigger marketing pushes behind such a move, and certainly the first in a year where it is expected to become more common.
The comic is Transformers: Autocracy, part of IDW’s licensed material based on the popular Transformers toys owned by Hasbro. (The Transformers characters were originally developed by Marvel Comics in the early 1980s.) Based on PR and the ads at the end of the issue, it’s clear that the comic serves as a promotional tool for two new Transformers books that are getting released simultaneously in print and digital, which is a smart move. Each issue of Transformers: Autocracy is 8 pages, priced at $0.99, and released every two weeks for 12 installments.
This is a great idea – a recognizable brand bringing in readers digitally, and potentially driving them to comics stores to buy more in print. Being a lapsed Transformers fan myself (the Marvel series from the ’80s got me into comics), this seemed like a perfect test to see if this kind of marketing strategy could pull me back in.
So with that, my thoughts on what I think worked and didn’t work about this digital exclusive comic/promotional tool. Keep in mind this isn’t a review, but a look at how the entire package and contents work together to encourage new readers. If you are already reading IDW’s Transformers comics and/or know Transformers backwards and forwards, the comic succeeds just by existing. The idea is: can digital exclusive comics work as a promotional tool to bring in new, casual or lapsed readers?
My initial thought was that 8 pages seems a little meager for $0.99, when you can get full 22-page issues for that same price or just a dollar more. But it’s bi-weekly, and Apple won’t let them deviate from having a price end with -.99 for whatever silly reason. So, that’s what we get.
Is it worth it? Do I want to read more? I fired up my Comics by comiXology app on my iPad to find out.
The cover, seen above on the iPad inset, is a striking red image featuring what basically looks like Optimus Prime. He’s the big red truck that turns into the good guys’ leader. He’s got to be the franchise’s most popular and instantly recognizable character, thanks to the cartoons and movies, so smart choice. Here’s part of the blurb you read when buying the issue:
Long ago, on the planet Cybertron… as dissident Decepticons rise up to battle the Autobot leadership, ORION PAX leads a counter-terror strike team. But when a routine mission goes awry, Orion starts on an incredible journey to the heart of Cybertron’s Autocracy.
Wait, who is Orion Pax? What happened to Big Red Truck Guy?
Here’s misstep #1.
If you only know the big Robots in Disguise from the current Transformers movies by Michael Bay, you would have no idea why everyone in this story keeps calling this Optimus Prime-looking robot Orion Pax. Considering that there are a number of Transformers movie tie-in comics available on IDW’s digital providers (I count at least 8 comics series that are either prequels or direct adaptations of the Michael Bay movies) and the high profile of these movies (currently the 7th highest grossing film series ever!) there’s a distinct possibility some people checking this out only know these characters from those movies. I myself, not a fan of the Michael Bay movies, still had to take a moment to remember one episode of the almost 100 episodes from the ’80s cartoon series where a flashback reveals Optimus Prime was originally Orion Pax before he became the leader of the Autobots. This bit of Transformers lore has also come up in the current Transformers: Prime animated series on The Hub cable network. Maybe they want to leave that as a story surprise later on, but I think if your point as a promotional tool is to get people to read about the big red robot on the front cover, you might as well make it clear that, yes, it really is the big red robot you think it is even though his name is different. And when there’s a recurring problem of not being able to tell characters apart, best to play it safe and make it real clear as frequently as possible. This could’ve easily been solved with a little blurb running down the cast of characters on the credits page before the story starts.
Otherwise, a story about the very early days of the civil war on Cybertron? Sounds good. On with the story. Here’s panel one:
Right away we’re hit with a memo that we should be reading something else first.
That little asterisk and white box are like a big stop sign to casual readers. Sure, some will ignore that little note to “See Transformers Vol. 5: Chaos Theory”, or maybe they’ll look into it later. It’s not necessarily a deal breaker. But for the merely curious who think they’re starting at the beginning of a story, or enough of a beginning to pick things up as they go, why interrupt the story with a note to go do something else? Why put any stumbling block between yourself and a potentially new regular reader?
A search on comiXology of the terms “Transformers” “Chaos” and “Theory” pulls up nothing. A Google search pulls up an Amazon listing with no product description of what issues might be in this story, if I wanted to go search for them individually on comiXology. I suppose I could buy the print version so that I could read the digital version at a later date, which seems like the most backwards use of the internet and online marketing ever. I see a 2-part Chaos Theory story covered on the Transformers Wiki. I assume this is what’s being referenced? If so, this helps somewhat. But do I just need those two issues, or is there more, such as the story right after it, simply titled Chaos? I suppose I could just read a bunch of Wiki entries. But if that’s how we’re going to do it, why even bother buying comics at all? Just wait for Wikipedia to get updated and read dry synopses. Sounds awesome. So now I’ve spent 15 minutes not reading the comic I just bought that’s supposed to get me excited about Transformers again. This seems to me to be a huge failure in the understanding of using digital as a promotional tool. Unless it’s promoting my Googling skills, in which case, success!
So whatever, I’ll ignore it and hope I don’t run into anymore hurdles.
Despite some slightly muddied character blocking in an early driving scene, and an outright mistake of which characters go with who when the team splits up, the rest plays out well enough. The Autobots (usually the good guys) end up feeling like the 1%, and the Decepticons and unaffiliated robots the 99% and/or rebellious freedom fighters (or domestic terrorists, if you prefer). Having the good guys start out as the oppressive force may seem a little disjointed to more casual readers, but considering the sub-title of the series, that’s probably the intent and something that will be explored and played out over the remaining chapters. There’s also some drama with Orion Pax being a little too hardcore in bringing down the bad guys, and altruistic yellow Bumblebee talking him down (left). Despite the early confusion, it was good to see some familiar characters. The art was moody and stylized, probably more so than one would expect for a comic about alien robot toys, and while the political thriller element and related drama might be heavy-handed, it’s an interesting angle. Younger readers may find the art too messy, dark or unclear, but the emotional crux should play out.
The last three pages of the issue are ads. There’s one page each to promote the two new series, Transformers: More Than Meets the Eye and Transformers: Robots in Disguise, each getting a good blurb to explain how the two are unique. The only problem? No release dates. No real information about when and where to find them or how to find out more beyond the website IDWPublishing.com. Not even something like “January 2012″. And then the last page is a catch-all ad encouraging readers to buy some random assortment of Transformers graphic novels at their local comic shop. The Comic Shop Locator phone number and web-site are included. It would be great if comiXology could find a way to make websites clickable links within the comics, since we’re on the internet and all.
So did it work on me? In the end, I’ve decided it’s not quite done well enough for only 8 pages at $0.99. But one of the Transformers series sounds like fun, and I’ll keep an eye on comiXology to see when it’s released digitally. I’ll probably wait for a $0.99 sale but might splurge if the issues are $1.99 per issue (but then I’m kind of cheap and might be a bad barometer).
So I guess it mildly worked considering some of the problems. I applaud IDW and other comics publishers who use this strategy. I think it’s a great idea and can really give people discovering comics through digital something to get excited about. But simply doing it isn’t enough. As with everything, execution is key. If it’s not thought through from the newcomers’ perspective or the casual reader’s perspective, it’s not really a promotional initiative. It’s just something else for your pre-existing readers to maybe buy. I would hope at this point in the game, we’re all trying to reach a little further than that.
Transformers: Autocracy #1 was written by Chris Metzen of video game developer Blizzard Entertainment and animation/video game screenwriter Flint Dille, and illustrated by concept artist Livio Ramondelli.
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.