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The ComixTalk 2010 Roundtable

The biggest story in digital comics this year has to be the announcement of the iPad this past January and all of the various digital comic apps for it, starting with Comixology.  How many of you have read comics on the iPad?  What about another tablet or e-reader device?  What do you think about the experience?

Heater:  I’ve read -- or attempted to read -- comics on a number of devices, thanks to my day job at PCMag. In fact, whenever I get my hands on an eBook reader or tablet device, it tends to be the first thing I check, both due to my own personal reading habits (not to say that I don’t also read prose, of course) and because comics tend to be a better indicator of the limitations of the device -- creators of sequential art generally have more invested in the way a work appears on a page than prose writers.  [For this reason] I’ve long eschewed PDF review copies of books. I could never really read the things on my laptop -- trying to consume an entire book through endless scrolling and mouse clicking is a nightmare. After all, the work really wasn’t designed to be consumed in that format.  

Compared to a PC, the first generation Kindle et al, are a bit of a step backward. When it comes to comics, those devices were really defined by their limitations -- small screens, absence of color, poor resolution.  Smartphones like the iPhone always seemed to present a ray of hope, but these were also constrained by their tiny screen size. I wasn’t particularly excited by the prospect of the iPad, until I held on in my hands when our magazine was given an early look at the device. Frankly, I was won over the moment I loaded the Marvel (Comixology) app.  Stunning colors and a dynamic navigation system -- there were still limitations (splash pages, for one thing), but as artists and writers really begin creating content with these different platforms in mind, we’re really going to see some great boundary pushing.

Alverson:  I bought an iPad about three weeks ago and it has already become my preferred medium. Everything looks beautiful and bright on that backlit screen, and it's great for manga because the screen is a touch bigger than the standard manga page. It has a very rich, luxurious feel, and the vertical orientation makes it seem more natural. I also prefer it to my computer for reading PDFs (which is the format more and more of my review copies are coming in these days). It's a bit taller, and the vertical orientation feels more comfortable.

I have an iPod Touch and an Android phone as well. When I first got the Touch, I loaded it up with comics. The advantage to that is that it is always with me, so if I'm stuck waiting somewhere, I always have something to read with me. Since I got the Droid, though, I'm more likely to just surf the net with that. There aren't many Android comics apps, so that's not what I'm reading on my phone these days.

Cruz:  I don’t have an iPad.  My wife’s been pushing me to get one, but if I’m going to plunk down that much money for it, I think I’d rather sink it into a new laptop. I have, however, tried to read digital comics on my humble little iPod Touch.  It’s not the most ideal situation.  I have to squint a lot, and the zoom-in transitions from panel to panel make me turn the iPod more than I’d like.  I suspect my experience would be better if I were reading the comic on the iPad’s bigger screen.  However, when all’s said and done, digital comics are not quite the killer app that will make me rush out an plunk a bunch of money on an iPad.  If I want to read print comics, I still prefer hanging around the comic shop, browsing the shelves, and flipping through a random comic.  No early adopter am I, no sir.  I read an article recently where the biggest benefit to digital iPad comics is instant gratification.  Unfortunately, I’m not in that much of a hurry to read new comics.

Davis: I had my first experience playing with an iPad over Thanksgiving, and that was mainly limited to endless rounds of Plants vs. Zombies. But I’ve heard good things about the experience of reading printed comics on the iPad, and I can definitely see the appeal of reading all my comics untethered from my laptop.  I’m curious to see what adjustments webcomics creators end up making as tablet computers become more popular. I could definitely see a company like Topatoco making the move from retailer to digital publisher, if that’s something they’re looking to pursue.

MacDonald:  Unfortunately, I have not had access to an iPad throughout the year. As I mentioned above, technology has had a HUGE impact on how I read digital comics. The comics I have seen on the iPad have looked great however, and I am eager to buy a 2nd generation one and start getting rid of a lot of paper comics which I keep around for research purposes but don't really have space for. I've had an iPhone for years and sometimes read comics on it, but I find the small screen experience is not as comfortable, even with the pan and scan.

I am hugely excited by the opportunities for comics on tablets and other handheld devices, but I think we're only on the verge of the capabilities of the devices, and creators are just coming around to the potential for things that go beyond what we have now. I think the static comic image is as powerful a storytelling device as humans have ever devised -- its continued survival and reinvention in almost every culture on earth shows that -- but the digital interface, as it has for video and the written word, will have an effect for different and very effective storytelling.

Marshall: I don't own an iPad, but if I do buy one (and I plan to), it will be because of the comics-reading capabilities. From what I've seen, it's the best argument for digital comics over print comics that's been made thus far. Personally, I'm not a fan of reading comics created for print on smaller mobile devices like my Droid, and I'm even less of a fan of reading them on a laptop or desktop computer. The iPad is actually the first device I've used that presents print-format comics in a way that I'm comfortable reading them.

 

There have been major changes in the North American comic industry this year from corporate changes at DC and Marvel, to continued business issues in the newspaper industry.  More specific to digital comics one of the biggest stories was DC closing up its Zuda webcomics shop. ComiXology, Graphic.ly and many comic book publishers released iPad apps and put more of their comics online.  I guess I should also mention Longbox -- another digital comics application that debuted this year.  Was this the year comics took digital publishing seriously?  There are so many things in flux right now -- from format to price to distribution to ownership.  What’s the path forward for publishers and creators to navigate a world where comics jump from screen to page to screen and back again?

Tyrrell: Most important thing? Stop pissing off the customers. The stories of vaults and retroactive embargoes have made me wonder if the publishers get digital in the least -- comiXology, I think they understand, but they're just the technological enabler. I think the business decisions of the publishers are going to have to see about five years worth of improvement on the sophistication scale in the next six months if they really want this to be as seamless an experience as reading a dead-tree comic.

MacDonald: At the start of the year most publishers were still hemming and hawing around about digital. It was all Whuh, huh, well maybe...by the end of the year, virtually every significant player had announced their strategy. That said, nothing I have heard indicates that anyone is making significant publishing revenue from their digital initiatives. Every publisher I have talked to, and Milton Griepp's figures, indicate that right now it is still around 1-2% of publishing revenue -- hardly a significant amount.

What's important for digital is, I think, for comics publishers to actually glimpse the future, something not a lot of them are able to do.  I don't mean that entirely as a slam -- comics is traditionally a chronically underfunded industry, and it sometimes takes money to ride into the future. Unfortunately, in the Bronze/Chromium/Platinum ages of comics, few publishers have really thought about getting the next generation of readers. Digital comics are going to be the primary exposure for future generations of comics readers -- that is until we run out of energy and go back to an agrarian pantheistic society living with torches. One thing publishers need to do is just stop hemming and hawing and go for it, making their catalogs available and so on. The marketplace is going to change - and people are going to HAVE TO CHANGE WITH IT. That's something I face in my business every day. The idea of a secure business model is gone.

Alverson:  Yes, this is the year comics took digital publishing seriously. How do I know?  (1) They started releasing comics regularly, a good handful every week;(2) They started toying with day-and-date releases; (3) Some publishers (Dark Horse, Yen Press) started working on their own digital comics apps, rather than just signing on with comiXology or iVerse; and (4) Brick-and-mortar retailers started getting disgruntled.  Publishers are finally figuring out how to make serious money from digital comics as well. ICv2 devoted their entire pre-NYCC conference this October to digital comics this year, and I was there when Marvel VP David Gabriel commented that the revenues they were getting from digital comics were going to allow them to lower prices on their print comics. At the same conference, Mark Siegel from First Second said that he had recouped the costs of the webcomic Zahra's Paradise by selling the foreign-language rights by the time the comic reached its fourth chapter.  

Publishers also took off after another form of digital comics: Pirate sites. There were two big takedown efforts, the coalition that took down HTMLcomics.com and the manga publishers who banded together to gang up on scanlation sites. I think this comes not only as a recognition that pirate sites cut into their sales (although by how much is debatable) but to eliminate the competition as they prepare to roll out their own digital comics initiatives.

Heater:  I think that plenty of publishers have their respective heads up their arses, in terms of digital -- I don’t think I have to name any names. Like record labels and magazine publishers before them, they’ve generally dragged their feet in terms of launching digital initiatives as anything beyond a mild amusement, a fact that really helped generate momentum for the rise of creator-owned online properties, many of whom have opted to entirely circumvent the old publishing model.  I will say that some seem to have learned from their initial hesitation and have attempted to get out in front of this mobile thing for fear of falling behind again. Perhaps 2010 will be seen as the year that mobile consumption of comics was legitimized -- or at the very least, kickstarted.  After all, comics are meant to be taken with you -- read on the go or while lying in bed, under the covers. PCs aren’t great at replicating that experience.

Cruz:  Have publishers ever not taken digital publishing seriously?  Every year, you hear how one of the brick-and-mortar types are putting big money into digital or how there’s a new webcomic partnership.  Marvel and DC aren’t run by fools.  They too can see newspapers folding left and right, magazines going online, comic sales going down, and the foundations of the publishing business changing irrevocably.  They know how dire the situation is on their end.  I think the real question isn’t so much “Are they taking digital publishing seriously?” and more “Have they finally hit the right business model?”  To that, I think most will agree that the current format still needs a lot of work before it can be viable.

Davis:  I don’t closely follow mainstream comics publishing, but it seems that, with so many people reading everything on digital devices, comics couldn’t afford to ignore digital publishing. I’m not sure, though, how much difference there is between selling your issues on the Comixology app and selling them in a store. I was saddened by the shuttering of Zuda because, even though their Webcomics Idol experiment didn’t work out, I think it was an excellent opportunity for DC to explore building an audience online – especially an audience that isn’t necessarily reading DC comics.

Marshall: I think print publishers are taking digital publishing more seriously, but they're still having a difficult time wrapping their heads around how best to make money off the medium. Unfortunately, many of their methods involve trying to force traditional print publishing and media practices on the online medium, rather than finding ways to match their properties to (and learn from) existing, successful, online publishing practices.  Publishers also need to change the way they look at creators and audiences in the print and online comic worlds. Creators who have success in one world and have become a brand in and of themselves in that world aren't guaranteed success or a similar reputation in the other, and the audiences for each medium don't respond/act the same way, either. As much as we talk about print and online comics sharing the same world creatively, they're two very different animals in just about every other way - and I think the first step for publishers hoping to translate success in one to the other is recognizing that difference.