Tuesday, May 31, 2011

There Is No Hyperbole Great Enough

DC Comics made an announcement today that should absolutely, positively, unequivocally stun everyone in the entire comics-reading world today. Seriously. There has never been news this big in my entire lifetime in the industry, not ever.

No, not the "We're relaunching everything at #1!" crap. That'll be retconned away within five years, max. (Geoff Johns and Grant Morrison have a collective Silver Age crush that makes Mark Waid look like Alan Moore. Their "reboots" are never going to last, because they're coming from the guys who undid 'Crisis' and invented a whole cosmology-shattering mini-series so that they could bring back the 70s Legion. Geoff Johns is psychologically incapable of true innovation.) No, I'm talking about the news of same-day digital distribution.

Or, as I call it, "Hey, comic book stores! F*** you sideways!"

Sure, DC is trying to downplay this. They're trying to say that they will have special incentives designed to get people into stores. (This is roughly akin to stabbing someone with a broadsword, hooking the open wound up to a turbine-powered exsanguinating vacuum pump, and then announcing that you plan to put some band-aids on the counter.) They're no doubt going to say that collectors will always want the print edition. (But in the kinds of numbers that can support an independent retailer?) They will no doubt point to their back-catalog of trade paperbacks. But honestly, that's all like spritzing the Hindenburg with one of those little plant misters.

Because this...this is in all likelihood the beginning of the end for print comics. Same-day digital means that anyone who wants to can go download their comics directly. No trips to the comics store, no waiting, your very own copy of a comic right there on the hard drive. And let's face it, the iPad has been regarded from the beginning as a perfect platform for digital comics. This is going to drain away a big chunk of the market from print.

And the profit margins for comics stores aren't great. Losing a big chunk of your DC sales is probably going to result in some retailers going out of business, especially for those stores that are going to have to try to guess how much their demand is going to drop and will be stuck with unsold copies if they over-order. (Personally, if I was a comic book store owner? Tomorrow, I'd have a sign outside saying, "DC Comics will only be available at this retail outlet if you pre-order them.")

And if stores start going out of business, Marvel is going to have to either jump on the digital bandwagon or lose money as they lose outlets for their product. And if Marvel goes digital, the death spiral continues...there's not a retailer running that can survive on solely its indie books. They need Marvel and DC to pay the bills, and they might not be there much longer.

Some might suggest that this is hyperbole. They might say that comics is such a tradition-oriented industry that this initiative will fail and leave comics back where it started, a niche market catering to nostalgia. (It's certainly the argument that I'm using regarding the "Every issue is a new #1!" BS.) Time will tell if I'm right or wrong.

But on the other hand...if MGM announced that it was making a new James Bond movie, and also announced that all their movies would be available on Netflix the same day as they came out in theaters...wouldn't you be talking less about who Bond is going to be and more about how hard this is going to make life for movie theater owners?


Mike From Nowhere said...

In the past, in your famous and spot-on "Vote With Your Wallet Fallacy" post, you said that the business model of the comics industry was insane.

You're right that the digital distribution segment is by far the biggest news today. The reboot? They'll keep what worked and cut what doesn't. But the digital distribution is an attempt to change the rules of the comics industry, by getting them potentially into the hands of anyone with a computer. (Not just an iPad or even an Android tablet - Comixology is fully viewable on any computer with a Flash browser.) DC deserves some big ups for that. They'll take heat for this but they might just have saved comics today.

I disagree, however, that this is the same as a movie coming to Netflix the day it comes into theaters. The closer, and more fitting comparison, is a Kindle edition of a book coming out the same day the book does. Which is actually not that exceptional, and in fact, is considered perfectly normal. But still a big deal because Amazon is selling more e-books than physical books now. The media world is changing and it's good that rather than sticking their heads in the sand, DC is acknowledging that.

John Seavey said...

Oh, don't get me wrong. It's great for DC. It's arguably necessary for DC. I'm just saying that it's terrible for comics retailers and for those comics fans who feel that there is a certain indefinable magic to a printed comic that will be lost to digital distribution.

Which may or may not be me. I do feel that ebooks are not the same as books, but I have long ago given up floppies for the trade.

Mike From Nowhere said...

Well, "it's bad for comics retailers" doesn't magically cause Comixology to vanish into the ether. There is a demand for digital comics and the fans and advocates of digital comics have a voice that should count too.

I don't see this as DC prioritizing digital over hard copy. It's not like us digital fans are getting it ahead of time. Right now digital comics customers are treated as an afterthought, with a limited selection of books that come out rarely on the same day, and more often, weeks late. There's no real reason that someone who prefers to read via a tablet has to wait weeks or months for a book - assuming the book ever comes to the tablet at all. (Roberson's Superman run is not available on the Comixology website, for example, and if there's a more Internet-friendly take on Superman that doesn't involve kissing Batman I'd love to see it.)

I don't really see this as a zero-sum game, with hard copy competing with digital for a slice of the pie - digital can go places that are beyond the comic shop bubble, seeking out new pies. Imagine being able to get the next Blue Beetle or whatever into people's hands without having to ask them to go into a comic shop and not ask what the stains are.

It's possible that digital will supplant hard copy, the way that horse carriages were supplanted by the automobile. But honestly: that's already more or less happened. You can still get a horse-drawn carriage the way you can get a comic book, but it has passed the average person by. There's a reason "they still make comics?" hurts so much when we hear it. I think print editions will survive - people pay for copies of Freakangels, a comic you can read for free online - but they might become less spur-of-the-moment and more aimed at the dedicated collector.

One final thought: I've never fully understood the notion that ebooks aren't books. They may not 'feel' exactly the same as a book, sure, but I'll wager that reading an ebook is more like a paper book than listening to a book on tape is. I've never heard a screed against books on tape that matches anti-ebook screeds, even though they use an entirely different sense. Someday someone will make an ebook reader that feels exactly like an old hardcover book and all this will fade away.

John Seavey said...

The reason you've never heard a screed against books on tape that match the anti-ebook screed is because they serve entirely different markets and are, for the most part, sold to entirely different people. Books on tape are for people who a) can't see well enough to read anymore, or who b) don't have the time to read and need to have someone read things to them while they're doing other things in order to have even tangential contact with literature. These people do not, as a whole, tend to care about whether BoT are an equivalent replacement for books because that's all they have.

You can't read a book while driving. You can listen to a book on tape. Ergo, it fulfills a purpose books don't.

Whereas ebooks...well, Douglas Adams put it best. "I never realized what an amazing invention a book was until I saw people trying to improve on it."

As I say...you might not see digital vs. print as a zero-sum game, but I guarantee you that comic book retailers do. :)

RichardAK said...

I agree with you that this will be bad for retailers, but that's good for everyone else. Digital distribution will hold down costs for consumers over the long term, and increase profitability for producers.

Also, breaking the power of the direct market retailers stands a chance of getting new fans in, something the industry desperately needs. The fact is that direct market retailing has been a major factor in limiting the size of the comics-buying market, as you yourself have pointed out.

I also disagree that this will be bad for independent publishers. On the contrary, I think this will be good for them. Digital distribution will put the indie publishers on a more or less level playing field with the big two.

The fact is, the printing press put a lot of scribes out of business. I feel bad for some comic-shop owners, but in the long run, I don't think the comic business as a whole can survive without going digital.

So I agree with you that this is huge news for the comics industry. I also think it's long overdue.

Anonymous said...

I don't see the digital versions taking off until their price point is significantly lower than print.

Jim S said...

I am of the old school. I like stuff you can hold, smell and taste, well not taste. I learned a long time ago not to eat my comics.

I'm not into the whole electronic gig. But then I am an old fogey. Having said that, I have questions of practicality. How easy will it be to bootleg same day stuff? Will DC find itself being jacked by bootleggers? How will the advertising work?

What about royalties? Will the artists and writers discover that jacked product equals lower royalties? How do you save your "collection"? I have a box full of floppy discs that I can't read anymore because computers no longer read them.

And you're right about the whole undoing thing. I bet within two years, Superman and Wonder Woman will go back to their traditional costumres. (For one thing, just read the critiques of the recent WW suit. The ones done by people who know fashion. Being a great artist doesn't mean you design good costumres. Plus, think of all the birthday cards and coloring books as well as the cartoons that use the old costumres. Branding and marketing are powerful.)

My complaint is that DC has spent time and money getting me to like characters like the new Batgirl. Well it worked. I love Stephanie Brown. She's a truly charming character in a business that's written by cynical old men who are embarassed by charm and fun. (See the Ed Brubaker column he recently wrote about David Milch, Deadwood and how Ed wants to write dark stories and not silly comic book tales).

Am I going to read the new Batgirl if she is Barbara Gordon. No. The character has grown in changed in the last quarter century. Killing character growth essentially kills good stories in my mind. We go back to 1975 when a Superman story that was printed that year could have been printed in 1965 or 1955. Heck, Curt Swan drew the character in those years, you would have the same artist for decades.

Worried about excessive continuity? Do what they used to do in the old days. "Wow, villain X again. That last Time I fought him was when he stole the sun*" *Villain X stole the sun in issue xyz of Hero Y true believers. There might have been a couple of panels dedicated to flashing back to issue xyz. That gave me the incentive to seek out that issue, and let me know just enough of the history to not feel left out. That made it very easy for me to get into new books.

Yes I'm old. I believe the old ways worked better than today's fads. Heck, I used to buy my comics in a smoke shop and an independent drug store. Remember those places?

Anonymous said...


Just had to jump in on a couple of points:

How easy will it be to bootleg same day stuff?

Marginally easier than it already is. Emphasis on "marginally". Day one scans are already online for most comics you can name. Whatever ridiculous DRM companies try to cook up will be cracked in short order, so I imagine the time gap will go from "an hour or two after the scanner gets his copy" to "a minute or two after the pirate downloads his copy."

Will DC find itself being jacked by bootleggers?

Not much more so than it already is. Scans are readily available for anything from the latest releases to the 1980s Justice League.

How will the advertising work?

Certainly no worse than it already does, as scanners skip ad pages when they do their scanning.

Sooner or later, modern content producers are going to have to admit that no matter how much they spend to prevent piracy, it's a waste of money. Pirates will copy their content. What they need to do is make the legal acquisition of that content as easy and simple as possible. They will always be competing with free - to do it successfully, they need a model that hits a reasonable price point in a simple process, and is thus more appealing than surfing shady internet sites and hunting through forum posts for uploads and torrents. No amount of investment in DRM and litigation will pay off like simplicity and appeal.

Carlos Futino said...

@Jim S,

As for saving your collection, the digital market is still a work in progress. For now, the model that's
been more widely used is the one used by Comixology: You don't keep your comics on your HD, you pay to gain unlimited access to a given comic through their site or applications.
For example, when I bought Immaginary Boys #2 on the Comixology site, I gained access to read the comic. If I had an IPad or an Android tablet, I could read it on those.
The advantage is that my collection isn't tied to a device. The disadvantage is that it's tied to a given company.

j$ said...

You hear that, Mister Anderson? That is the sound of inevitability.

A decade ago I helped several photo labs update their equipment to accept digitally-friendly storage devices and to show them how to use things like photoshop for digital touch-ups. The last thing I did for all of them was shut down their websites and help them offload all their hardware. Once digital photography became user-simple it made film photography unnecessary except for a tiny niche of nostalgic users and artists, which wasn't enough to keep the labs open.

Fans of comics strike me as already being largely technology capable, so there's little learning curve necessary to implement a direct digital offering which operates at a fraction of the overhead of printed media. I'd expect Marvel to announce that they are following suit soon.

Anonymous said...

Well,I don't have a computer, so how is digital good for me? If I want to read a comic at 3 A.M. Sunday morning, will they open the library for me? Will they let me have more than two sessions a day because I want to read for more than two hours? No, they won't. Digital is useless to me.

j$ said...

"Digital is useless to me," said one anonymous drop in an ocean of exploitable consumers.

Anonymous said...

It's nice to know I'm not exploitable.

www.encontactos.com said...

Thanks for your article, very useful information.