iVerse Expands Digital Comics in All Directions

iVerse was a pioneer in the digital comics field, creating some of the earliest comic reader apps for the iPhone, but over the past two years, the other digital distributors -- comiXology and Graphicly -- have gotten a lot more press. That's about to change. iVerse CEO Michael Murphey spoke with CBR News, outlining ambitious new plans for the months ahead, including a digital partnership with Diamond Comic Distributors that will allow retailers to sell digital comics on their websites and in their stores, a new subscription model for Archie Comics' classic Red Circle superhero comics and an ad campaign designed to bring new readers to the comics medium. And beyond his plans for the company, Murphey revealed a surprising perspective on who is reading digital comics right now -- not men with iPads, but kids with iPhones.

iVerse recently secured $4 million in outside funding, which Murphey said will go toward experimenting with new models and promoting comics in general, not just the iVerse brand and their signature comics app, Comics+. Comics are a natural next step for someone who is playing video games or watching an Avengers movie, Murphey reasons, and the job of digital is to bring the comics to this new audience.

"We are going to plaster comic books all over everything imaginable," he told CBR News. "With iAds on iOS, we get a feature-rich ad. [The users] see 'Atomic Robo,' maybe think it's a cartoon show or a video game, then they touch it and they discover the comic." Google ads will also be part of the campaign, Murphey told us, with plans to place ads on popular sites and apps such as Words With Friends and Facebook.

With the goal of attracting new readers to the medium, advertising on non-comics sites is a key part of the iVerse strategy. "Not everybody is born into the comic book industry," said Murphey. "My father bought me my first comic at a convenience store -- I saw Spawn #1 and I thought it looked interesting. I want to recreate that for kids today. They are all on iPod Touches, iPhones, iPads -- that's where they live, and we can be that thing they find on the virtual candy aisle."

Indeed, Murphey said, children make up iVerse's biggest customer base right now. "We make more revenue on the iPhones than on the iPad," he said. "Our largest selling products are kids' products. Kids get the hand-me-down phones and iPod Touches. As they start getting the hand-me-down iPads after Christmas this year, that will evolve." One of the company's biggest successes is the iVerse-built "Pocket God" app built for Ape Entertainment, which is one of the top grossing book apps in the iTunes store. "The unsung hero of digital comics is 'Pocket God,'" Murphy said. "I would love to see some numbers from any other publisher that come close to 'Pocket God.' I thought -- a lot of people thought -- that this would be a novelty, a miniseries, but we are 10 or 12 issues in. Sales are as strong as they were two years ago on the first issue, and they continue to sell thousands and thousands of copies of every issue every month."

Murphey sees properties like "Pocket God" and iVerse's new Peanuts app as having appeal that goes beyond the traditional comics-shop customer. "When we think of comics, we think of X-Men, the Fantastic Four, Speed Racer, but Peanuts is an amazingly huge brand," he said.

While putting part of its resources toward bringing comics to the mainstream, iVerse is also working with comics retailers as the digital side of Diamond Distributors' new Diamond Digital program, which Murphey says is in beta now and will be unveiled shortly.

"We want to enable retailers to sell digital products, both in the store and on their website," Murphey explained. "When they sell on the website, we think of ourselves as a distributor. We will not have our logo plastered all over. They should be able to control it, they should be able to have a simple interface if they are not technically inclined, or customize it to the gills if they are so inclined."

The program also allows retailers to sell a code for a digital comic along with the print copy for a small additional amount. Marvel has begun including download codes for free digital versions in copies of some of its comics, but Murphey said he isn't worried. "This thing is going to evolve," he said. "Once the mechanics are there, the economics will change based on the needs of the market. I wouldn't want to speculate on where it will be six months from now, because how much digital comics have changed in the past 6 months is unbelievable."

iVerse is set to change the world of digital comics themselves as the company rolls out a new subscription format for the Red Circle superheroes line, which will feature the iconic superheroes originally created by MLJ, the publishers of Archie Comics, in the 1940s. The characters have gone through a number of different incarnations through the decades, and the iVerse product will combine new and vintage comics. Subscribers will receive a new, six-page comic each week featuring the super-group known as the New Crusaders, along with access to an extensive back catalog of Red Circle comics, going back all the way to the first appearance of Red Circle's debut hero, The Shield. While the subscription price has not been finalized, Murphey said the monthly cost will be comparable to a single-issue comic.

The twist is that while the back catalog is available only to subscribers, readers can keep the new comics after their subscription ends. "If you subscribe to a magazine, you get to keep the issues of the magazine," Murphey said. "That's what we are doing with the new story, but in addition to that, we are also giving you access to all this back material that you have access to as long as you subscribe."

The newer comics will have a lot of story to them, Murphey said. "In the Lee and Kirby days, you had compressed storytelling -- you had three or four chapters in each comic. We are going to have re-compressed storytelling. In six pages, you will get a very fulfilling story, every week." The stories, according to Murphey, will be part of an ongoing series that will be arranged in seasons.

"With Apple's Newsstand, we are seeing that people are very receptive to subscription pricing when it is affordable," Murphey said. "[With the Red Circle subscription,] you are not getting a universe of comics for $150 a month; you are getting the whole universe for the price of one comic a month. The main thing is to provide people with unprecedented value for a comic that is not like anything they are getting today."

The promise of digital is that it will grow the comics audience by acting as the new newsstand, and iVerse is working towards that goal in a number of different ways, through new apps and new ways to buy comics, and by reminding people that comics exist in the first place. "There is no reason the adults that are waiting in line for 'Modern Warfare 3' shouldn't be reading BOOM! titles," Murphey said. "We have got to make sure they know it's there and deliver it in a way that is convenient for them and at a price point where they feel they are getting value for their dollar. If we can do that, there are lots of people out there who are comics fans -- they just don't know it yet."

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