In 2010 I came to my first Comic-Con with a lot of an enthusiasm about how the newly-released iPad could change the comic-book world for the better. I left with the realization--in hindsight, not a surprising one--that the comics world was full of fear about technological-driven change. Some publishers and all retailers were convinced that the iPad was going to lay waste to their industry.
"It was all torches and pitchforks--it was scary," comics writer Mark Waid told an audience at Comic-Con. "But the data bears out what we were saying--it's an additive process and all evidence seems to be that it's helping, so hoorah!"
Print comic sales are up and all major comics are released simultaneously in print and digital formats. In a surprisingly short time, the comic world seems to have stopped worrying and started loving digital technology.
"As of last October, there was a tectonic shift," said David Steinberger, CEO of Comixology, the company whose app drives the bulk of digital comic sales these days. "Nobody was freaking out anymore."
It turns out that comic shops are doing okay. In an industry that never had a Borders or a Tower Records, the small comic shops with good communities have survived and even thrived, rather than being destroyed by competition from digital comics.
"[Comics retail] was kind of already destroyed," Steinberger said. "The newsstand is gone, there are just very small shops. We didn't say, 'Let's get a bunch of Silicon Valley money and disrupt comics!' That's not us."
Comixology, which recently released an update to its Comics app that provided new reading options, has a to-do list a mile long, Steinberger said. The CEO repeatedly told Comic-Con crowds that his company was hiring developers in New York City. To-do list items include more personalized reading recommendations "in a Netflix style," because comics apps tend to bring in more new readers than traditional comics.
Digital, then print
Print comics aren't going away anytime soon. When the moderator of a panel discussion at Comic-Con asked writer (and digital comics entrepreneur) Mark Waid how he'd feel if print comics went away, he shot off a simple response: "That's not gonna happen."
"It's a way to show your personality, up there on the bookshelf," Steinberger said.
Publishers are using digital-first comics to gauge the success of a work before bringing it to print. DC Comics, for instance, released the new "Batman '66" as an enhanced digital comic, but it will follow it with a printed version. Similarly, DC debuted a "Smallville" comic that's digital first.
"A publisher like MonkeyBrain Comics can build something that wouldn't get picked up by [comics distributor] Diamond, can prove it has an audience, and then get distribution," Steinberger said. The Comic-Con show floor was littered with small publishers showing off printed books that began life as digital-only comics.
"Digital has made us rethink how we fulfill books into the [print] retail market," said Chris Ross, director of digital publishing for Top Shelf Comix, during a Comic-Con discussion panel. According to Ross, using digital sales to gauge print distribution has made the print market more efficient than it was before.
Readable, not collectible
When I was an adolescent, I was trained that comic books weren't just items to be read, they were collectible objects that might one day have great value. Sometimes I wonder if the comics medium wasn't deeply damaged by them being conflated into something that was both a book and a trading card. I still can't bear to recycle a paper comic book when I'm done with it--I put it in a box. With digital comics, all of the noise about comics as collectibles goes away and you're left with the work itself.
As Steinberger pointed out to me, Comixology's sales include far more older issues than the print market, which sells an initial run before converting to back-catalog sales. Now there's an infinite number of old issues, so someone can hop on whenever they want.
A major difference between Comixology customers and the regular comic reader, according to Steinberger, is interest in runs of issues by a particular artist or writer. Many comic collectors will collect different runs like, say, the Chris Claremont/John Byrne run on "Uncanny X-Men." Digital comics readers, Steinberger said, are "all about the story." There's no impetus to collect a bunch of issues, just to read a good story.
There's a generational aspect at work, too. "Our generation was the first video game generation," Steinberger told me (we're both in our early 40s). Comixology users our age are constantly telling him that they've rediscovered comics after a long layoff. But the slightly younger millennial generation doesn't have that same story. "They never felt it wasn't okay to be a fan and to read comics," Steinberger said. There was no need for millennials to return to reading comics, because they never left.
The torches and pitchforks have been stowed away, and Steinberger seems relieved to no longer be the villain of this particular technological shift. Instead, he's constantly talking about ways his company can improve its app and reach new audiences who aren't consuming comics right now.
"We need adult comics, children's comics, political comics--we need everything," he said, pointing out that in other cultures (most notably France) the per-capita readership of comics is far above that in the United States. "Risk aversion from book publishers and retailers compounds the problem... but digital completely changes that."
It's a feeling that was shared by almost everyone I spoke to at Comic-Con--that comics is a medium that suffers from a lack of exposure and understanding. And if iPads and other digital devices make it easier for someone (young or old) to try a comic, all the better. In the end, "it's about telling people how great comics are," Steinberger said.