DC’ Comics’ big announcement last week revealed the digital comics territory has broken out from the in-app fences. The publisher no longer has to hope potential readers makes their way to the comiXology app or the DC Comics app within Apple’s iTunes app store. Now they just need to get to Apple’s iBookstore, Amazon’s Kindle and Barnes & Noble’s NOOK, and search. In one big move, DC has shortened the distance between itself and a potential audience. It may seem like a small hurdle, but in the Internet age of easy distractions, it’s an important and savvy move that’s likely to have a number of effects.
If other publishers follow suit, and I believe it’s all but guaranteed they will, DC has prevented digital comics from repeating the near-monopoly trap that exists in print with Diamond Comic Distributors. comiXology’s comparable dominance of digital distribution has been good for the growth and establishment of digital as a viable channel that doesn’t threaten but in facts supports print. However, it’s too limiting in the long term. By adding the three leading e-book readers to the options of the comiXology apps, it keeps competition alive. It could even help in bringing digital comics pricing more in line with other digital books, which tend to be cheaper instead of matching print. The digital/print pricing parity with comics is frequently cited as a breaking point for people considering digital.
Graphic novels have been on these platforms for about a year as a semi-extension of graphic novels in bookstores. Highlighting the arrival of single issues could be another step in helping reestablish the vitality and importance of the single-issue format, begun as comiXology specifically and digital comics in general proved themselves last year. Before that, the advent of the graphic novel/trade paperback in bookstores had shifted how stories were built over a number of issues. For fans of serialized entertainment, this launch increases the revenue-generating power of each issue, and should help return the focus on creating satisfying stories in individual issues even when they build to a greater narrative.
But no campaign is without its faults. There’s also the matter of exactly what is available. The mistake is that aside from Action Comics, Detective Comics and Green Lantern, and the digital-first TV tie-in Arrow, only the most recent issues have been released. Comics, especially DC’s comics, are most like episodic television in their storytelling structure. With DC’s New 52 just over a year old, why launch on such high-profile platforms so close but not from the beginning? It’s like HBO launching Game of Thrones on Netflix with Season 2 Episode 4. DC has made it clear they will be filling in their backlist over the coming weeks and months, but you can’t guarantee that someone intrigued by the initial press coverage is going to remember to check back every week to see if the comic they’re curious about has No. 1 available yet. If the goal is to attract new or lapsed readers right off the bat, start at the beginning of the New 52 and work up to the present, and then go backward to pre-New 52. It’s also strange that DC’s press release opens with a mention of Batgirl, but only Issue 14 was initially available, and not on the Kindle. In time these complaints will be moot, although it’s hard to tell how quickly they’ll fill in the gaps.
Another significant frustration is the incompatibility of the color download files with anything other than the color version of the Nook and Kindle. The press release addresses this (they’re considering black-and-white versions) but as a consumer it’s frustrating to give something a try and then find out your purchase was useless and you have to now fight for a refund instead of read a story. First impressions with new readers are crucial.
Curiosities and frustrations on execution aside, this is likely to change the landscape of digital comics for the better, creating a more healthy market with a wider reach. There were already a small number of translated European issues from Disney Comics already in the iBookstore, so this isn’t quite as revolutionary as the press release makes it out to be, but it’s certainly the most visible and aggressive. Place your bets on who will follow. Based on track record, I would wager Archie Comics.