CCI: New Frontiers for iVerse's Digital Comics

Comics distribution via subscriptions, Kickstarter, torrenting and even a physical transaction were all on the table during the "iVerse Media: New Frontiers in Digital Comics" panel at Comic-Con International in San DIego, as panelists from a variety of backgrounds discussed different ways to get comics into the hands of old and new readers alike.

The panel kicked off with three announcements from iVerse CEO Michael Murphey: iVerse is launching a Kickstarter-type crowdsourcing platform called Comics Accelerator, a set of digital publishing tools for creators and DRM-free downloads.

The web-based publishing tools will allow creators to take a PDF and publish it on the iVerse platform in one to five minutes, Murphey said. The tools will be open to creators of all experience levels and will be available in the third quarter of 2012.

Comics Accelerator is a crowdfunding platform designed specifically for comics, Murphey said, and it differs from other fund-raising platforms such as Kickstarter and IndieGoGo in several ways. "I'm a 90s kid; I grew up with the Image-way of thinking about things, and I kind of wanted to do with that with crowdsource funding," Murphey told the audience. "We have done a couple of things to add value to crowdsourcing and make it easier for creators to just think about creating. One of those is digital content delivery. If you are making a project and you want to immediately deliver digital rewards to your backers, you can do that. All you have to do is send us the material that you want and we will take care of that for you"

In addition, iVerse's share of the pledges will be capped at $2,500, he said. "Kickstarter takes 5% of everything creators bring in, then you have PayPal or Amazon fees on top of that. We are going to do 5%, just like Kickstarter does, and when we hit that $2,500 cap, we wont take any more out. If you have a big hit, like a 'Sullivans Sluggers' or 'Order of the Stick' or something like that, when people back those things, they are backing them to back the project, not necessarily to keep the website functioning." Comics Accelerator can be used to fund physical projects as well as digital, and to use group buying power in a Groupon-style situation to back special projects such as variant covers.

The audience applauded Murphey's third announcement, that iVerse would offer comics that are free of Digital Rights Management (DRM) and can be read and stored on any device. "Publishers get to decide this on a case by case basis," he said. "The publishers can have the option of a PDF download that will be available on our website, that will be available to you after you make a purchase. You can still download it within our app and take advantage of all the native features of our applications, but the PDF download is available to you to view in whatever you like. It will have an invisible watermark of your email address on it, so don't put it on a torrent site, but there will be no DRM on it."

With the announcements over, the panelists began a more general discussion of digital comics. Archie Comics president Mike Pellerito started with a description of Archie's New Crusaders app. A subscription to the app costs 99 cents per week; for that, readers get a new, weekly chapter and access to a library of the original Crusaders comics. "Michael [Murphey] had this great idea: Let's do it as a subscription and get it in increments every week so you have something to feed that addictive comic book reader mentality that we all have, and then offer the full book," Pellerito said. The app is curated, so if the new chapter features The Comet, the older Comet comics will be highlighted as well.

"What happens when I let the subscription lapse?" Waid asked.

"You get to keep every issue of the New Crusaders, and all that back catalog stuff, you have the option of buying," Murphey replied.

Filip Sablik, VP Publishing and Marketing at BOOM! Studios, asked the audience how many go to comics shops regularly, and only about 20 hands went up. "I think the power of digital, whether it's subscription or what Mark [Waid] is doing with Thrillbent, offering free content, is that it opens up distribution options," Sablik said. "Everybody here, I would assume, has a computer or an iPad or a phone. It's so much easier to access all that stuff." Top Cow, the company Sablik just left in order to accept his new position at BOOM!, is about to start a Kickstarter campaign to offer the first five issues of its relaunched Cyber Force comic for free, both in print and digitally. "What got me really excited about that is I wanted to do a big, grand experiment to see how many people we can make into comic fans if we just give them the content," he said. "Any way you can make it easier to read this entertainment, the better, because the more people we have reading, the less expensive we can make the content, and that is ultimately the goal." "Cyber Force" will be free in print as well as digitally,

"Churches are for the faithful," said Josh Elder of Reading With Pictures. "If you want to share the good news with the people out there, you have to go where they are. You have to go to the streets, to where people want this content but night not necessarily have it." That means schools and libraries, where the marginal cost of trying a new comic is free. With that in mind, iVerse is about to roll out a digital comics service for libraries.

Cheryl Sleboda of Diamond addressed the Diamond Digital program, which is due to launch later this month. The program allows retailers to sell digital comics both via their websites and in a brick-and-mortar store, via a download code. "A lot of people have a great relationship with their local comics store," she said. "If they don't want to let their comics store down or buy online without giving their comics store the ability to sell the book to them, the Diamond Digital program becomes a nice way for the store to participate and you the reader to be able to go to your comics store and still buy digital comics."

Waid, a relative newcomer to the world of free digital comics, came down hard on DRM. "DRM is evil," he said. "DRM is the devil. I know evil... Just beyond the fact that I don't believe in punishing your paying customers with burdensome technology like that just because of scofflaws who want to get it free -- they will get it free anyway -- I'm not a believer. In fact, I'm the opposite -- I believe in free content driving people to your material." Waid 's webcomics site, Thrillbent.com, offers free comics, but it is pirated anyway. "We knew that it would be on torrent sites the next day," he said. "I was fine with that because it is traffic. It's eyes on the property... You can't stop people from file sharing... You can try, but it's a complete waste of time. It's like trying to push the tide back with a broom. It seems to me like the smarter way to do it is to embrace what file sharing gives you, embrace the fact that it breaks all sort of barriers for you and gets a new audience sampling your work." On Thrillbent, Waid provides a high-resolution file of the comics for anyone to download, with the Thrillbent web address on the final screen. "Within the next couple of weeks, every single torrented version of that file was the one we gave them," he said, noting that the torrenters had not stripped the final screen out. "They are not all evil thieves who just want something for free; a lot of them were guys who don't have access to a comics store." The first step toward making money from Thrillbent is to get eyes on the page, Waid expleined, and to reach out to readers through social media to let them feel like they are part of the club; those readers will support the comic.

"If I were a print publisher right now, I would be scared out of my mind," Waid said. "My entire 70-year business model has been to be the middleman between customers and content creators, and now they are cutting that out."

Ultimately, digital is on the rise. "It's almost like somebody finally flipped the switch," Sablik commented. "When you look at comics and startups, there's always your early adopters, then there's the next 10% of people that kind of come on board, and when you cross that tipping point, the great divide that is 10 or 15%, all of a sudden it just goes through the roof."

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