EXCLUSIVE: Inside Dark Horse Digital

Dark Horse Comics launches its digital app and web store today with a library featuring about 300 comics and plans to add 45 to 60 more on a monthly basis, according to Matt Parkinson, the publisher's director of online marketing. Among the titles available for readers to purchase and read are Mike Mignola's "Hellboy," Carla Speed McNeill's "Finder," Sakai's "Usagi Yojimbo," Joss Whedon and Fabio Moon's "Sugarshock" and the classic children's comic "Little Lulu."

The iPad app and online store operate somewhat differently, but prices are the same on both platforms: $1.99 for most comics, with a few first issues offered for free or for 99 cents, and a few comics, featuring more content, available at higher price points. The online store also allows readers to buy bundles of comics -- a six-issue story arc of "B.P.R.D.," for example -- at a discounted rate over the price of the individual issues. Parkinson told CBR News that at this point, the feature is not available on the iPad app because the iTunes store has no way to bundle purchases.

Users who download the iPad app or visit the web store will be able to read two comics, "Hellboy: Seed of Destruction #1" and "Mass Effect: Redemption #1," immediately. More free comics are available, but the user must create a Dark Horse account to access them, as well as to buy comics. The account allows the user to download comics to an iOs device, store them on the Dark Horse servers and sync between devices and the online store.

Dark Horse director of development Patrick Curtain explained that the iPad app (which also works on iPhone and iPod Touch) allows users to download comics into a bookshelf area for reading or store them "in the cloud" on the Dark Horse servers. The ability to download means users can keep their comics, even if the company were to go out of business and all the servers were to go dead. Curtain discounted that possibility, however, saying, "Everything in our infrastructure is held elsewhere, so we could go out of business and, aside from someone in the legal world making us take it down, it would be there still." He also pointed to the ability to store comics on an external hard drive as a distinct advantage over other comics apps, stating, "If your device is broken, you just get a new device, reinstall the app, and it's all there.

"I know it's a concern for hard core comic collectors, but we are kind of in the same boat as the Kindle," Curtain continued. "All the stuff is [in the cloud] as long as the infrastructure is still around. But if it's on your device, even if we go away, it is still there."

Another thing that differentiates the Dark Horse app from other comics apps is that downloaded comics remain on the device even if the user logs out. That means that several different users could put comics on the same iPad and share them without having to log in to their individual accounts. This is in contrast to other comics apps, which require the user to be logged in in order to read the comics.

"We made a decision that if it is on your device, and you are controlling the device, well then yes, [sharing your files] is fine," Curtain said. One reason is that comics, being graphics-heavy, take up much more disc space than other books. "With text books ,like on the Kindle, a big volume is still just 100 Kb," he said. "[Comic] books are a couple to 10 Mb -- some can be 50 Mb. You are not going to want to have 50 of these on your device and we don't want that to be what you are worried about. We don't want to build all that much effort into wiping your device all the time just because you logged out and someone else logged in."

Another component of Dark Horse Digital is the web store, which allows users to read comics on a computer screen or an Android device that is equipped with a standard web browser. Using the website as a reader does not work directly with downloaded comics, Parkinson said, so readers must have an internet connection to read this way.

Parkinson said the comics offered will be a mix of older and newer titles, and that plans are in the works for simultaneous print and digital releases. "We have a depth to our backlist," he told CBR. "Certainly, there are a lot of titles that we would like to make available to our readers, but at the same time, I would like to see a number of our more recent titles. There is a really nice balance between newer titles and tried-and-true classic titles. As we go forward, you will definitely be seeing newly released titles in the store. While we don't have any day and date titles out of the gate at launch, it is something we are planning on doing. We just haven't nailed down the specifics.

As for manga, which is still sparse on the iPad, Parkinson said, "We will be launching with a couple of volumes of"Lone Wolf and Cub," and we definitely plan on offering more manga as we continue to add new comics to our store and to our app. It's absolutely part of our plan to continue releasing those titles."

Much like other publishers, Parkinson sees the iPad and the digital store as having the potential to reach readers outside the usual comics audience. "We are trying to hit our immediate comics reader base," he said, "but I think one of the things we have seen a strong response to in terms of people downloading our comics are more general pop culture enthusiasts, a casual gamer, casual con attendee, casual 'Buffy,' 'Angel' or 'Dollhouse' viewer, and those are the people we are going after. The beautiful thing about electronic or online advertising is you can get very focused on hitting those groups specifically. I have spent a lot of time making sure we get word out to those consumers, the tech gadget users, making sure we are advertising on tech websites as well as Rotten Tomatoes and IMBD. It's the broader enthusiast, and that's where we see a lot of potential growth for digital comics. This digital distribution enables us to now reach that consumer who may not know where comics stores are but is really interested in the tech piece."

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