To hear many comic publishers and creators explain it, digital distribution is the brass ring of 21st Century comics making. The argument goes that comics on devices like the iPad open up a “new newsstand” – an outlet for new and lapsed comic readers to come back to the form en masse rather than a space for current fans to abandon print comics for a different method of reading. And while both DC Comics and Marvel have made moves towards releasing their monthly comic lines in digital the same day they hit comic shops, one prominent creator is making the case against the widespread practice of day and date: Mark Millar.
Today, with the fifth issue of his best-selling Millarworld series “Kick-Ass 2” with John Romita, Jr. hitting stands along with a special “Kapow! Guinness World Record Special” issue of he and Leinil Yu’s “Superior” comic, Millar is drawing a line at where readers will see his comics and when both with print ads voicing his take and right here on CBR.
“I think digital could be a useful tool, but I’m increasingly concerned for friends in retail that they’re going to get shafted here,” the wrier explained. “I really think day and date release is a disastrous idea and makes no economic sense at all to comics as a business. It’s potentially ruinous for comic stores, and in the long term it’s not going to do publishers any favors either. I see the attraction on a very superficial level. They think they’re cutting out the middle men and all the guys taking a piece of their gross, but there’s an equivalent number of hidden costs in digital too, and it’s short term thinking to obliterate the life-blood of the medium. Retailers are as big a part of comics now as the characters or the creators. They’re not just an outlet. These are carefully crafted communities and owned and staffed by people with a genuine passion for what they’re doing in a way that the ‘Amazon Also Recommends’ box isn’t quite going to match. I’ve got an awful lot of friends on the retail side and so many of them are hanging on by their finger-nails right now. Even a five or ten percent dip could be enough to put huge numbers of comic stores out of business. I know two huge American retailers, like really famous stores, in this position, and once they’re gone these guys are gone forever. Retailers stuck with us through the ’70s collapse and the ’90s post-speculator boom. Shouldn’t we be showing them a little loyalty now? Everything from the chair I’m sitting in to the keyboard I’m typing on has been paid for by royalties that retailers have made me, so I feel quite passionately about this.”
Millar did say that there is a place for digital sales in the comics business, but not as a primary outlet. “A more sensible approach to digital comics, I think, would be the look at the model used for movie distribution for the last decade or so,” he said. “The primary phase of selling would be comic stores and theatrical. This is where the bulk of the investment is recouped or maybe even recouped entirely. The secondary phase is DVD or, in comic terms, the collected graphic novel sold in book stores as well as comic stores. These fans aren’t as hardcore as the first group, but they’re a great place to recoup any money lost in the initial phase. Digital comics are like TV rights to me in that they’re the tertiary phase of all this. These are for the most casual, mainstream readers or viewers and much cheaper than the primary or secondary waves. They’re a great way of pulling people in for the next product coming out in theatres or in comic stores, but absolutely not the bedrock of your business. The fact they’re not on paper doesn’t matter as these guys aren’t collectors as such and the lower price point is very attractive to them. But release comics digitally on the same day as a higher price point print edition is basically sentencing the latter to death. It’s like a movie studio bringing out ‘Avatar 2’ on TV at the same time as a theatrical release. Studios have talked about day and date for a while now, but everybody gets out the calculators periodically and realizes they might not be able to afford to make any more movies a couple of years down the line. They’d destroy cinemas, their primary source of income, in much the same way I think day and date could be devastating for comic stores.”
The writer explained that part of his stance comes from the results he’s seen when he’s given retailers preferential treatment for his books – offering things like ads in his Millarworld line of titles and other in store promotions to help spread the word on his creator-owned offerings. “I like to work in partnership with retailers. Creator owned books rarely do more than 15K. That’s a huge hit in creator-owned terms, but our first issue of ‘Kick-Ass,’ even before the movie, sold over 125,000 copies over seven different printings. That’s because I appealed directly to retailers and created posters they could print for their stores and gave dozens of them free ads in my books. We did the same on ‘Nemesis’ and four printings of issue #1 did something like 83,000 sales. It was crazy. But retailers are the best friend a comic creator can ever have. They are the guys putting your work into the hands of your audience and to eliminate our base now means we have nothing to build on a few years down the line when publishers might need them again.
“This decision I took not to release ‘Kick-Ass 2’ or ‘Superior’ or ‘Nemesis’ or any of my upcoming books digitally every month isn’t based on nostalgia. Yeah, I’ve hung around comic stores since I was 13, but this isn’t just because it affects the bread and butter of a huge number of friends (though that’s a pretty damn good reason). I just think it’s bad for the industry as a whole and since the Kick-Ass books in particular sell very, very well I hope it draws attention to the problem and encourages other creators to do the same. Speaking purely in business terms why would we want to marginalise or eliminate our greatest asset for the past thirty or forty years?”
At the same time, Millar has also had noted success in the digital realm. When industry leader in digital offerings comiXology released a rankings system for its non-big two offerings last year, Millar books like “Wanted” and “Kick-Ass” took many of the top positions. Asked how those results fit in with his business model, the writer had this to say, “I’m glad you bring this up because it gives me a chance to explain that I’m not against digital as a concept. It’s not really worth a lot of money yet, but it has the potential to be at some point and as a creator it’s obviously in my interests to have my work reach as many people as possible. We just have to be sensible about it. I don’t think the casual readers that digital comics are hoping to reach will mind getting the stuff a little later. I think releasing our comics, releasing the collected editions and then finally releasing digital editions seems like the most sensible approach. A guy who picks up the digital version of ‘Kick-Ass,’ for example, might get so into it that he goes into a comic store and buys the hardcover for ‘Kick-Ass 2’ because he can’t wait six months for the digital edition. I’d just like to see the release dates co-ordinated more sensibly and that’s my plan for the Millarworld books. ‘Kick-Ass 2’ wraps in January with a double-sized #7, the hardcover will be out in May and the digital version probably out around the end of next year for the casual readers.”
In the meantime, the entire line of Millarworld books should be hitting comic stores on a regular basis, starting with this week’s offerings. “Nobody’s happier than [‘Kick-Ass 2’] coming out every month or so than me, believe me,” Millar explained. “Matthew Vaughn was like, ‘What’s up with you guys? There’s been two issues in a year.’ But he didn’t realize Johnny is under contract at Marvel and had stuff he had to finish there first. But since issue #3 we’ve been on a great schedule. Issue #4 came out last month, issue #5 is out [now], issue #6 is out in three weeks, and issue #7 (which is double sized) should be out at the very end of January. Johnny’s drawing all that up right now.”
And in the finale of the sequel series, readers can expect the story to toughen up Dave Lizewski as his girlfriend has been brutally attacked by the series villain, and his father has gone to prison after taking the heat for his son’s superhero activities. “Things just get worse for Dave,” the writer said of issue #5. “This middle book is the ‘Empire Strikes Back’ in the trilogy and the shit just gets poured on him in every page. It makes his triumph all the more exciting, of course, but it’s also a logical examination of what happens when you’re a homemade superhero and a bad guy figures out who you are. Red Mist (or The Mother-Fucker as he’s rechristened himself) is tapping into all the teen anger out there, the hatred of money and greed and celebrity culture that our system seems to support and basically turned himself into a modern Charles Manson. Kick-Ass and the superheroes are their targets, but so are the rest of us. They’re super-criminals in every sense of the word.”
Of course, on the fringes of the series stands break-out starlet Hit-Girl. “I’ve found it funny since she hung up her guns at the end of volume one that she’s essentially the retired gunslinger, despite still being young enough to watch ‘Wizards of Waverley Place,'” laughed Millar. “She was Dirty Harry in Book One, but now she’s Clint in ‘Unforgiven’ or ‘Gran Torino.’ We KNOW she can kick everyone’s ass and we suspect she’s going to, but the fun is in the teasing. Every time we THINK she’s going to reach for her gun again I like to throw another curve-ball. It’s all teasing. But what makes her special is that she’s the real deal. Kick-Ass, Battle-Guy and all their friends became a hero because they wanted to be Bruce Wayne. She essentially IS Bruce Wayne. Even though her father was lying to her, she was raised thinking she was wronged and it gave her the drive even in a fake believe system to have an edge they don’t have. She essentially lives in a comic book universe, even talking like a comic character, because she was raised in a fake environment. so it’s fun juxtaposing that innate self-confidence with characters who will literally turn and flee if they see a gang coming at them.”
Also on sale today through Marvel’s Icon imprint is the “Kapow! Guinness World Record Special” #1 -Â a special issue of “Superior” that was created in record time by a team of collaborators at Millar’s Kapow! con last year whose profits will go directly to benefit a charity close to the creator’s heart. “Oh, this was a cracking day. The world record happened at Kapow! earlier in the year, and over 60 creators basically sat down and created a comic book in under 12 hours. The irony that me and Frank Quitely worked on a comic book that was put together faster than any other in history was not lost on us,” he recalled with a laugh. “But it worked out pretty good, and it all makes sense, and it’s got Leinil and Frank and Dave Gibbons and Johnny Romita and Duncan Fegrado and Olivier Coipiel and a ton of other great guys all in here. It’s $2.99, and the money we’d normally make off the book goes to a sick children’s hospital in Glasgow called Yorkhill. We’re going to auction all 20 pages as a single lot in December, and the cash raised will also go to the hospital just in time for Christmas. What’s cool about this is that you don’t just get original pages from the biggest comic book guys in the world, you get to own an actual Guinness World record. I hope we raise plenty of dough with this. The hospital has touched pretty much everyone’s lives here in my area at some time or another. It’s hard to think of a better cause.”
Stay tuned for more with Millar this week on his next major Millarworld title.