It would seem a no-brainer that "2000AD," the Galaxy's Greatest Comic, should join the digital world and be available online. Now that's finally coming to pass.
This Wednesday, readers from anywhere in the world with a computer connection will be able to purchase "2000AD" and download it from direct links at http://www.2000adonline.com or at http://www.clickwheel.net
The first digital issue will be the "2000AD Annual Edition," a 100-page special edition published at the end of every year that features the conclusions of long-running story arcs, the debut of new story arcs or series, and other bonus features. Unlike Marvel's Digital Comics Unlimited, where the comics can only be read online for a fee, or DC's Zuda Comics, where the comics use a Flash-based interface, "2000AD's" digital edition will be in PDF format, readable on PCs and Macs, on any browser, and smartphones, making it truly portable.
You could say the British weekly comics anthology "2000AD" was more than just a comic, it's virtually a cultural institution. It begin in 1977 and hasn't stopped publication at any point in the last 30 years, even in spite of changing owners and parent companies several times. It introduced seminal comic characters like the ultra-fascist future cop Judge Dredd, the pagan barbarian warrior-king Slaine, the genetically-engineered supersoldier Rogue Trooper, the mutant bounty hunter Strontium Dog, to name but a few of the hundreds of characters that have passed through the magazine's pages. While American comics readers may not be familiar with the characters, they would at least know about the creators - virtually every British comics creator of any significance in the last 30 years has worked for "2000AD" early in their careers: Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Brian Bolland, Peter Milligan, Dave Gibbons, Bryan Talbot, Grant Morrison, Kevin O'Neill, Simon Fraser, Andy Diggle (who was once the editor), Gordon Rennie, Simon Bisley, Glenn Fabry, Mark Millar amongst them, and stalwarts Pat Mills, John Wagner and Alan Grant make up a veritable Who's Who of the whole British scene. Even John Byrne drew a Judge Dredd story in the 1980s.
Alas, the magazine's visibility in the American comics market has been less than it should be. A deal with DC Comics to publish and distribute graphic novel collections had not been as successful as hoped and the rights reverted to the owners of the magazine, the computer games company Rebellion. The magazine itself, along with its spin-off sister publications "Judge Dredd Magazine" and "2000AD Extreme Edition," the latter reprinting entire arcs or rare and classic stories from the archives, are currently available from Diamond Distributors, but "2000AD" has become something of a cult or almost alternate comic in an already overcrowded marketplace. Many comic shops in America do not order comics not published by Marvel or DC, let alone "2000AD." Ironically, "2000AD" is better known to comics readers in Europe, South Africa and as far-flung as Asia, where sales have been steady and solid since it begin in the late 1970s.
Rebellion hopes to change all that with the downloadable edition. Starting this Wednesday, December 19th, the magazine will be available as a digital download for a lower price than the print edition, a week after the release of the print edition in shops in the United Kingdom.
We spoke to Kristien Wendt, Director of Character Communications and Tim Dementer, who runs Clickwheel, about the rollout of the digital edition.
What prompted the decision to launch a digital edition of the comic? Dementer said it was servicing their overseas readership better. "We have an incredibly loyal fanbase in the US, Europe, the Middle East and Asia, but over time shipping costs and delivery times have brought their own unique 'qualities' to the mix," said Dementer. "So, to ensure we don't lose our readers and to entice them away from other comics, the downloadable version was developed which was quicker to export and significantly cheaper to own."
According to Wendt, "2000AD's" parent company Rebellion had been planning to launch a digital editon of the comic for a year, and had bought the webcomics site Clickwheel in early 2007 in preparation. Clickwheel, being a leading provider of webcomics for Apple products like the iPhone and the iPod, has been well-placed to develop the interface and software needed to develop the best version of a downloadable edition.
"Our PDF downloads will read on many smart phones and we already have some dedicated mobile content available as well," said Wendt. "Clickwheel's specialty is distributing comics to iPods and iPhones and we are going to leverage that experience to offer completely new ways to read comics at home and on the go."
As Wendt said, "2000AD" isn't just a comic, but a lifestyle. The stories have a snarky, more cynical attitude towards governments and authority that has shaped the views of at least one whole generation of readers since 1977, who learned the joys of questioning authority from the comic. The stories have always been harder, darker, nastier and snarkier, more fearless in its social commentary than American comics, and that makes it uniquely British.
With sales of the comic, and comics in general, lower now than before, there was now a need to reiterate the "2000AD" brand. Fortunately, there has been a great deal of goodwill towards the comic and its characters because of their long history in the cultural landscape. The magazine still enjoys a hardcore readership that buys it every week, and the spinoffs and graphic novel collections continue to sell well. Part of the comic's success has to be its status as a cultural fetish object, a part of the readers' lifestyle. The digital edition is aimed at overseas readers who might otherwise have trouble getting a hold of the comics.
"Our primary objective is global outreach," said Dementer. "First to our existing readers then out to the rest of the market. There is a lot of great stuff coming out of '2000AD' right now, but distribution channels are what they are and it's just not that easy for some people that we know would love the comic to get their hands on it. Now anyone with a computer can get his or her copy anytime, anywhere."
There have been instances of readers scanning and uploading "2000AD" and "Judge Dredd Magazine" on torrent sites, even the entire runs of the comics from the first issues. Some readers are even scanning and storing the entire runs on DVDs. Wendt said that they were well aware of the internet piracy taking place, but unlike Marvel or DC, they see no real point in issuing legal writs and cease-and-desist orders to torrent sites, since uploaders will only go to other sites to post the comics.
"Of course we'll be doing our level best to restrict piracy," said Dementer. "Everyone is, but at the same time music piracy gave birth to it's now thriving digital delivery methods. With things like this, if you can't stop it completely you need to find ways to turn it around and make it work for you."
And Wendt believes that the books' proliferation on illegal download sites is merely proof of their popularity, not to mention a good way to keep readers aware of the books and characters. He does not feel that offering a downloadable edition of a book would cut into the sales of the print edition.
"The print version is now, and will continue to be the core of '2000AD's' business," said Dementer. "The digital version is not designed to replace it, but rather augment it. We know that for many fans that experience of holding something in their hands is irreplaceable, and those fans are equally as irreplaceable to us. The digital version of '2000AD' is there to reach out to potential new audiences who may not be able to readily get the printed edition in their area or to younger readers who are used to getting the better part of their entertainment online. I know retailers lose sleep at the notion of comics online, but we feel the fans currently enjoying '2000AD' in print will continue to do so and moreover we expect that the influx of new readers the digital version reaches will result in some of them opting to read the comic in print, actually increasing print sales."
And the 100-page annual edition is really just a beta launch. It will be followed by the release of the weekly editions with some bonus material, with additional campaigns to raise awareness of the comics. There are also plans for further expansion, like offering older issues from the archive for sale as digital downloads, and downloadable editions of "Judge Dredd Magazine" and "2000AD Extreme Editions" being considered.
The price for the downloadable edition will be somewhat less than the cover price of the print edition, with various payment and subscription plans being finalized.
"Ultimately, we will have several payment options available," said Dementer. "Primarily iTunes style ala' carte purchases, as well as long-term subscriptions, but there too our subscriptions will have more in common with a TV season pass on iTunes than what Marvel is doing with DCU. The difference is our content is downloadable, so you actually purchase the file, whereas with DCU you're essentially renting it. You can only view the comic at the DCU site and only with an active subscription. With '2000AD,' you make one purchase and that comic is just as much yours as if you picked it up at your local comic shop. They're just different business model with their own strengths and weaknesses."
With the current stories at the strongest in years and creators like John Wagner and Pat Mills enjoying a creative resurgence with their sharpest stories to date, full of allusions to the War on Terror and overt political commentary, and career-best work from artists like Clint Langley and Carlos Eszquerra, now is a good time to raise '2000AD's' public profile.
And sell more copies.
"Obviously, any comic book publisher wants more customers, but not at the expense of longer waiting times or higher shipping costs, so in this instance a digital product makes more sense. Greater exposure to '2000AD' in North America for instance will dramatically readdress its perception to many."