From Webslingers to Webcomics: Comic Book Publishers Online

In North America, superheroes dominate the comic book world and the two biggest publishers of superhero comics are Marvel and DC.  Marvel and DC are taking different approaches to webcomics so far.  We take a look at the online efforts of the big two plus a few other publishers of superhero comic books.

For myself, I haven’t bought comic books regularly since the 1980s.  So I’m not really part of these companies’ existing readership base, but on the other hand as a reliable consumer of webcomics perhaps I am the kind of person they might hope to attract through online publishing. 


Since the end of last year, Marvel has been posting some of its comic books to the web on its websitePress releases from Marvel at the time of the launch indicate that this effort will consist solely of repurposing its print comic book library to the web.  At this point it doesn’t look like Marvel will be commissioning original work specifically for the web.  Still given where its competitors in the superhero business are, Marvel looks pretty web-friendly.

Marvel’s webcomics are free, but you have to register to read each whole issue.  (In fact one of the most annoying things about my experience was the need to re-enter my user id and password a few pages into each individual comic book I read. It would be nice if Marvel would let readers enter the user id and password once for each site visit.)

Marvel has created a special flash-based "viewer" to read its comics online.  It’s an interesting idea, particularly relevant when you’re repurposing material originally created for the comic book format and not specifically laid out for the dimensions of your computer monitor.  

The viewer gives you the choice of reading the comics page by page or through a "smart panel" system that adjusts what you see to how large your browser screen is set.  The smart panel system essentially allows you to click through the comic on a panel by panel basis.  This works fairly well for smaller panels but does not work well for panels that run long vertically because for those panels the viewer doesn’t zoom in enough to see sufficient detail.  You can easily switch to the "page-by-page" mode in those instances and zoom around the image as needed.

Unfortunately though while the text shows up remarkably crisp, the images are unnecessarily jagged and from time to time I noticed some distortion in the coloring, almost as if Marvel had scanned the pages in as a low quality jpeg.  This is really frustrating when reading this work as, because let’s face it, a lot of the appeal to superhero comics are the visuals of genre staples like fights, explosions, and super-powered acrobatics.

Given these images issues, one suspects that Marvel might be trying to keep the digital version at least slightly inferior to its print versions.  And although I found the smart panel viewer a worthy effort, I wonder if Marvel also picked a flash-based approach simply to make it more difficult for readers to copy and save Marvel’s copyrighted material.

Although press releases from Marvel around the time of the launch of the new online comics effort promised that eventually new stories would be posted every weekday Marvel is clearly not there yet.  By my count there are 23 books available online with a mix mostly of Spiderman, X-Men, Fantastic Four and Avengers tales.  (There also hasn’t been anything posted since the end of February for that matter.)  But apart from a few #1 editions, it’s not clear how the selections posted fit together in terms of storylines.

Story selection of course is an issue for Marvel with its immense archive of characters and storylines.  If Marvel is simply interested in giving an online bonus to its already existing core of fans or providing a few examples of its comic books to curious fans of movies based on its characters then it’s current approach of cherry-picking issues to post is fine.  But if Marvel is seriously interested in appealing to a new audience for its comic book characters then it needs to be much more methodical in its approach.

Any potential new audience garnered through the web probably won’t have much in common with current buyers of comic books.  Marvel shouldn’t expect them to care about collecting anything (this is the web afterall, it’s about as disposable a medium as there is) and they probably won’t know much if anything about the "Marvel Universe".  To attract new readers via the web then it makes sense to assume these new readers won’t know anything about the characters.  Approach the web as a chance to attract readers to comics based on the quality of the current work rather then some kind of nostalgia for the characters. To do that, readers need to be able to get in on a storyline from the beginning and know that they can get the whole story right there on the web.



DC is easy to sum up.  So far they’re don’t seem much interested in the web as anything other then a way to sell comic books.  For several of its titles each month, DC offers pdf files with about 4-5 pages from each book. The pdf files while large, are generally pretty good quality.



Image does publish some superhero work and it does publish some material online.  Image seems to be somewhere between DC and Marvel in its attitude to the web right now.  Image has several #1 editions of its ongoing series posted at its site, but doesn’t appear to have any plans to publish ongoing material.  This gives readers the benefit of an entire book to read (a great deal more satisfying then DC’s previews) but ultimately the only way to read Image books is by keeping up with the series in print.

One key difference between Image and Marvel and DC, however, is that Image properties are creator-owned (Marvel and DC generally own the copyright to all of their work) and so individual Image creators may have radically different online strategies of their own. 


Dark Horse 

Dark Horse is also hard to pin down.  They don’t have a prominent focus on webcomics and they don’t seem to have a coherent online strategy (although many titles do have previews online).  Many of the books, however come from the web already (such as Penny Arcade or until quite recently MegaTokyo) so Dark Horse really can’t do much there.

On the other hand, they serialized online The War of the Worlds, and really they did an excellent job presenting that in terms of image quality and navigation.


How the Web Was Won?

Obviously there are other smaller companies that publish superhero comic books and there are countless others that are published independently.  But in looking at the largest publishers which represent an overwhelmingly high percentage of sales in the direct market, we can take a snapshot of the relationship between comic books and the web. 

Surprisingly to me, it’s Marvel and not Dark Horse or Image that has taken the firmest company-wide initiative to experiment with webcomics.  I will be watching Marvel this year to see if they continue or Marvel pulls back from its ambitious initial announcements for its online efforts.

Marvel could improve its effort, however, by looking at how Dark Horse published The War of the Worlds online.  Of all that I read online, only Dark Horse was able to publish something that really felt at home in its setting on the web.  Although Dark Horse always intended The War of the Worlds to go into print at some point (and it will publish that version this year) it did not stop Dark Horse from publishing a version online where the artwork was formatted for the web (avoiding the need for "viewers" of any kind), and more importantly, publishing it in serialized format and publishing original material (as opposed to repurposing existing print work).  Some may quibble with my point regarding serialization as a positive, but for many action-oriented superhero stories serialization of individual pages is a perfect fit and there is no reason not to use that to build a regular readership online.

Xaviar Xerexes

Wandering webcomic ronin. Created Comixpedia (2002-2005) and ComixTalk (2006-2012; 2016-?). Made a lot of unfinished comics and novels.


  1. Actually, you split the difference, Scott, if you don’t mind, which route are you finding is working best for you?

    Tim Demeter
    Reckless Life

  2. I wouldn’t be too quick to dismiss the idea that DC and Marvel could yet come to dominate the webcomic “market”. It’s not that long ago that people (audiences and business analysts alike) were writing off Disney as being too set in its ways to innovate. But it’s always bounced back. Whether through limited forays into the world of 3D animation in its own right (Tarzan) or through ownership of or partnership with an existing innovator (Pixar), the dominant corporations in any industry will usually find a way to adapt and come out on top.

    Just wait until the big guys (i.e. the money guys, not the anti-liberal brigade) start lobbying for more control over the net. Despite what current conventional wisdom would have us believe, there’s always a way to control content if the rewards for doing so are substantial enough.

    As soon as Marvel or DC believes it can make money from web-based distribution, it’ll lobby for the sort of controls that will exclude any real competition – like, maybe, content-provider licences that only major publishers can afford to buy and comply with (just as an example!) (It would be pretty easy for them to argue the case on the grounds that much of today’s web-content is irresponsible, harmful to minors etc etc.) It’s what any major company wanting to preserve its monopoly (okay, duopoly!)would do.

    Beware complacency, guys! Web-comics just aren’t a financially attractive target yet!

    Broken Voice Comics
    Because comics are not just for kids


  3. [quote=timdemeter]Actually, you split the difference, Scott, if you don’t mind, which route are you finding is working best for you?

    Tim Demeter
    Reckless Life[/quote]

    For me, the website and the daily strip feel like the heartbeat of PvP. Losing the comic book or the merchandise for any period of time is survivable. But if the website goes away, PvP dies. That’s what I feel.

    The comic book wasn’t some big plan. I just wanted to do one. And at the time I started self-publishing, it was a way to diversify my income. One more possible avenue for a check coming in. I didn’t expect printing a PvP comic would work. It was just another idea I threw against the wall and it stuck. It worked for me.

    So with Marvel and DC and Dark Horse, I think the print versions are the heartbeat. If Spider-man was online and not in comic book stores, it would feel as if Spider-man was dead. That’s where Spider-Man fans get their fix. Not on the web. Their ritual is every wednesday in those comic book shops.

  4. Like i said– it’s not that they would swoop in and all of the fun we’re having would die off… but form a business side of things, they could very easily swoop in and DEFINE webcomics, which would totally leave a bad taste in some creators mouths who feel they have some flag in “webcomics” as pioneers. — That’s just business though.

    Man, go look at the Bendis Board forum, which is VERY large and rabid– they would all EAT UP a daily webcomic written by Bendis. Believe it. Even if he did Wolverine Daily, you’d see it fast become one of the most read webcomics online, and the books would sell like hotcakes too. It’ll totally work for the big guys if:

    A. They play to their own strengths.

    B. They hire the right people who KNOW the web. Know the ins and outs of delivery systems, online promotion, etc.

    Ad dollars would be… jesus.. ad dollars alone would make it worthwhile for them to do it. I mean, you might be reading a Bendis Daily along with an Adidas shoe ad, but still…


  5. that last part about them getting their fix weekly in the stores? It’s true, but.. WOW it’s been rapidly changing as entire legions of comic fans have been flocking to places like the Bendis board and Warren Ellis’s Engine— those same people would eat up a webcomic by their favorite creators or iconic characters.

    believe it.

  6. I think it would be a big deal, and really awesome, for some well known, professional comic book guys to do web-exclusive stuff. But that’s not going to happen unless they believe in the experiment, can find the time or are paid for their efforts.

  7. How difficult would it be for Marvel/DC/Whomever to create a webcomic “imprint” like they did with Epic or Vertigo? New artists, new web exclusive comics. Seems simple enough. It’d only take a few good titles to create a stir. And it would be a good portal to sell their print stuff. There’s surely money to be made. Or at the very least it’s free adverts for their print stuff.

    Only, I doubt there would be much networking with “outsiders”, and that’s a lot of what makes webcomics so accessible, right?

    Fabricari – Sexy Robots and Violent Cyberpunk Comics

  8. I recall DC and Marvel’s first attempts at webcomic content by putting previews of certain print titles up on their respective websites. Marvel’s tried to utilize Flash in order to give it a “real book” feel that really just took too damn long to load and made for a slow and clunky reading experience. DC’s online content required you to download the pages to your computer and read them with Adobe Acrobat. If they’re really going to get into doing webcomics, they’ve got to be willing to do them a LOT simpler.

  9. With all the disadvantages mentioned by the posters above regarding big companies taking over, I’m quite convinced that they won’t be entering the webcomic market fighting attention with independent creators very soon or if so with any major effort at all. The nature of creating money from the web and from print is so diffrent that I doubt a lot of these companies would bother with the trouble when they could just watch the webcomic scene closely and find out which webcomic have potential then swoop in and offer the more popular ones publication rights. (Megatokyo/Penny-Arcade etc)

    If I was a big Publishing company like Marvel/Dark Horse/DC why would I waste my time and money trying to create a new series on the web when I could just pick from the thousands of popular/ potentially popular webcomics already exsisting on the net? Why should I waste my resources trying to find out (or create) which is popular/what will sell and which wont when the webcomic scene is already doing all that “field testing” for me?

    I’m quite sure that only a very few people will ever refuse a publishing deal with Darkhorse/Marvel/DC.


  10. It sounds like you’re describing Warren Ellis and Colleen Doran’s Superidol. I think they put that up in about 2002?

  11. Jesus, that’s an incredible webcomic. But I don’t think that’s the degree of effort he’s talking about. A 13 page story that could safely be reprinted in a standard comic book doesn’t seem much like a mainstream artist making their home on the web. Perhaps if Superidol had regular updates for a year, then there would be a substantial buzz around it. It seems like the kind of comic that would carry on quite well.

    I think it’s pretty tough to market 13 pages and build significant hype around it, even if they’re some of the most beautifully rendered pages I’ve seen online. (I’ll have to learn more about Colleen Doran’s work.)

    I don’t see it happening until they can quantitativly measure a loss of money because of webcomics. To be honest, aside from graphic novels, I don’t even bother with pamphlet books anymore – webcomics fill that need for me.

    Fabricari – Sexy Robots and Violent Cyberpunk Comics

  12. I’ve been around for a few full moons and yet I still like to read the old comics. Why doesn’t someone tell DC to make their collection avaiable to internet readers?

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