MARVEL COMICS ON-LINE
The first part of this week's column is something I wrote up quickly last week as soon as Marvel's new digital comics initiative went on-line. It was going to be used elsewhere, but last minute changes meant I got to use it here, instead. I'll butt in with updates in italics, as necessary. The second part of the column will be my thoughts on the business model and the politics behind the site.
Let's take a look at how Marvel's new on-line comics initiative works from a user experience point of view, given what it is.
And what it is on Day One (and Day Two and Day Three) is swamped. The Marvel server is being crushed under the load of all the interest. I can't log in to create an account or sign up for the service. So this review will have to be limited to what I see without signing up for anything.
[Update: As I write this on Sunday night, things have finally calmed back down. You can get into the digital comics quite easily. I do have to wonder how big a hit it was to Marvel's business to lose all those customers who couldn't get their feet in the door last week in the first few days.]
You can get to the Marvel Digital Comics Unlimited site from a big button on the front page at Marvel.com. After specifying that I did, indeed, live in the US, I waited for the opening screen to show up. It was mostly an advertisement for the services, asking me to sign up and showing me all the comics it has to offer, specifically the first 100 issues of AMAZING SPIDER-MAN and FANTASTIC FOUR, along with the "1st original run of X-Men." Below that is a sampling of the 250 comics they have available for you to peruse for free, no membership required. After that is a list of the Top 5 Most Viewed Comics. Not surprisingly, they're all of a recent vintage -- NEW AVENGERS #18, IRON MAN #4 (the Warren Ellis series), NEW X-MEN #20, RUNAWAYS #25, and ULTIMATE FANTASTIC FOUR #33.
Each comic had a rating of 1 to 5 stars underneath it. Most of them were blank. I guess readers didn't care to rate the books as they read them, or the server load has prevented it. [Looking at the site today, I see that all the comics on the front page are rated, most in the 3 to 5 stars range.]
There's also an alphabetical listing of all the series in the on-line catalog to date. Owing to the different numbering schemes, it can get confusing. AVENGERS, for example, is listed as three separate series from three different time periods (1963 - 1996, 1996-1997, and 1998-2004.)
You can also browse the on-line comics by categories such as "Favorites," "Newest," "Creators," and "Characters."
I clicked my way through to AVENGERS #500, listed as one of the free comics for one and all. That brought me to the issue's home page, displaying the cover image, the star rating, a brief description of its contents, and the credits for the issue. Perhaps not surprisingly, the poor letterer and editor get the shaft there.
Below that is the "More Like This" tab -- a list of suggested comics you might enjoy if you like this one. For AVENGERS #500, that includes DAREDEVIL: FATHER #1, MARVEL KNIGHTS #8, NEW AVENGERS #3, SECRET WAR #5, and ULTIMATE SPIDER-MAN #24. Brian Bendis wrote three of those. Danny Miki inked -- I'm guessing here -- two of those. Only one is an actual Avengers title.
In other words, despite all the information the database contains on characters, these suggestions seem to be driven mostly by creator and maybe time period. It seems odd to me that only one Avengers title is recommended. Perhaps the sheer randomness of it all will lead readers to an interesting experience somewhere along the line. Or maybe the suggestions are purposefully disconnected to help a new reader branch out more?
I reloaded the page -- a painfully slow process due to the server issues -- and the picks changed to AVENGERS #503, SECRET WAR #4, SPIDER-MAN: HOUSE OF M #2, ULTIMATE FANTASTIC FOUR #5, and ULTIMATE SPIDER-MAN #22. Better selections, perhaps, but still a little odd in the Ultimate Universe area. The suggestion engine should probably treat those two universes separately, to help prevent new reader confusion.
The "Series Details" tab shows a list of creators who've worked on the series, whose names you can click to find their other works available on-line. Letterers are included here. Go ahead -- click on Richard Starkings' name or Chris Eliopoulos' to see if you can crash Marvel's server while it loads hundreds of comics off their database.
The "Collections" tab points you to the trade paperbacks you can buy with that issue in it. Inclusion of the Comic Book Store Locator 888 phone number is a nice touch there, and is seen frequently throughout the site.
At the top of the page is a row of Web 2.0 icons. If you really wanted to, you could Digg AVENGERS #500. Or Stumble Upon it. Or Reddit it. There are nine different Web 2.0 services you can link it to.
Bloggers, meanwhile, won't be happy to see that you can't link to individual pages, which has been a complaint against Zuda. You can, though, find a link to the specific comic book you want to talk about. The URLs are pretty easy to decipher. (Avengers #500 has a Marvel.com URL that ends "Avengers.1998.500," for example.) This might be a big boon for a reviewer writing for people who have accounts with this new service.
I opened the issue by hitting -- what else? -- the "Open" button, which launched the Flash player you use to read Marvel Comics on-line. These are not downloadable PDFs. You need to have an internet connection to read the comics.
The Flash player defaults to double page view, showing you facing pages at the same time. Unfortunately, this renders the pages too small on my laptop screen to be able to read the lettering. I immediately switched to single page mode, which gives me an image about the same size as I read comics PDFs on my own computer at. You can scroll down the page with the up and down arrow keys, skipping across the pages with the left and right arrow.
The art looks great. I've only looked at some modern comic book examples so far, but they really jump off the screen at you. The coloring is as bright as we all wish the printed versions could be. The lettering is crisp and clear, with no bad jaggies. I have no complaints on the scans here so far.
The big deal in this Flash player is the "Smart Panel Mode," which shows you the comic one panel at a time, by zooming and panning across the page to inflate each panel to fuller screen size. It's a neat little gimmick. While all the automated scrolling starts to give me motion sickness at a certain point, I can admire the programming necessary to pull it off. If a panel is full page, it'll show you the whole page at once, and then zoom into the area where the lettering is, so you can read it. On the pages I looked at on a couple different titles, it zoomed appropriately in so I could see the lettering and the person doing the speaking. This is impressive.
To help cut down on the motion sickness, there's an option to change the panel transitions from "smooth" to "jump."
In either case, there is an annoying white flickering as the new screen portion comes into view, showing you where the last "smart panel" was. I imagine there's a team of people manually putting in those boundaries for the Flash reader to follow. That's going to add to the time it takes to bring all of Marvel's library to the web.
It's also less visible in older comics with a more standard six panel grid. Modern comics must have driven the programmers nuts. The panel transitions are all over the place to follow the dialogue while still including enough of the art to make it understandable.
There's an "Auto Forward" option, which I presume is a timer that will automatically move you to the next panel after a given time frame. It just isn't working for me right now. It looks like clicking it brings up a slider to set the time you want to have between transitions, but the slider isn't visible.
I had one technical problem on my MacBook. First, if I hit F11 (a Mac feature called "Expose") while reading a comic to look for something on my Desktop, my cursor disappears. It's as if the Flash player for the Marvel Comic ate it up and won't give it back. I have to go back, click outside the Flash player, and then hit F11 again to see the cursor at work.
Here's where Marvel really runs into trouble: The "free" 250 comics Marvel touts on its home page aren't free at all. After you get six or eight pages into each issue, it stops you dead in your tracks. You're not allowed to read on unless you type in your user name and password.
Not a good thing, at all. If you offer free comics, you should show free comics, not free samples, outtakes, portions, or bits.
(Correction: It's been pointed out to me that you only need to log in with your free Marvel.com user ID/password to read the rest of the comics, not the DCU password. This would be a major annoyance on launch day, but not a big deal now that the servers are steadier.)
If you do choose to subscribe when the initial madness dies down, here's a scary warning:
"All subscribers get the hassle-free advantage of the Marvel Digital Comics Unlimited Automatic Renewal Program."
They call it convenient because it means you'll be charged for the renewal without asking for it. If you don't want to renew, the onus is on YOU not to spend the money, not Marvel to not take it. It's all-too-common business practice these days, but it should be opt-in. I couldn't get that far into the registration process, but I hope it's a check box opt-in, or else people will be grousing about this policy next month when that one month they thought they'd sample the service turns into two on their credit card bills.
For now, though, I'm very happy with the quality of the Flash player, and the images inside of it. I find the single page mode the most natural for me. The pages look bright and crisp and the scrolling is quick and responsive. It looks like the web site is headed in the right direction. This is a 1.0 product at this point, but I thought it was interesting that they thought to add the Digg buttons in there and included multiple ways to search through the catalog to discover new comics.
When things calm down and the whole of the internet is done looking at the site, it might be a fun place to get lost in for a little while.
THE BUSINESS OF DOING COMICS ON-LINE
It's not something I've ever had to rant about here in the pages of Pipeline, but it is something I've blogged about in the past: I'm sick of monthly fees. Why does everything in life have to come out of my pocket every month? I understand the business model. It's so simple to charge someone's credit card every month or to process their payments on a monthly basis now, thanks to technology. Why not? Businesses love "revenue streams" which, by definition, have to flow regularly. Monthly seems to be the sweet spot. So we pay every month for everything from video games to cell phones to DVD rentals to digital music providers.
Now, we have comics. CrossGen did this first a few years back with a basically nominal monthly fee to access their entire archives. Now Marvel has splashed onto the scene with a very loud "MOM! LOOK AT ME! CANNONBALL!" off the diving board. Unfortunately for Marvel, Mom looked. And so did Dad. And Grandma and Grandpa. And Uncle Joey and Aunt Joyce and all the cousins -- including that annoying little brat who ruins every Christmas -- and the next door neighbors and the local police department and Scrappy Doo and THE BRADY BUNCH's Oliver. Everyone came and literally crashed the party. After drawing the attention of every mainstream media outlet you could name and every major web site that tracks technology and the web, Marvel.com was useless for days. Being Dugg and Slashdotted in one day is bad enough. Marvel did all that and ten times more last week.
Let's talk about the business model and the bigger picture. (Read Todd Allen's column first. He's knee deep in this kind of stuff. I'm an observer. I'm playing armchair quarterback.
The big thing to me is the monthly fee, because it dictates who this web site is aimed at, what the business model is, and who will be most ticked off by it.
Let me just preface all of this by saying that I am neither a Luddite nor a hardcore traditionalist when it comes to reading comics. In the past year, I've grown to enjoy reading comics on the computer screen. PDF review copies are invaluable things. The best thing about them is that they're not printed -- the color never has the chance to be absorbed into paper, muddy up and destroy the fine line work. On the screen, everything is just easier to see. And after 18 years of reading comics, I've collected quite a backlog of books that are long past unmanageable. I only wish my collection could be expanded with the judicious purchase of an extra hard drive every year or so, rather than the monthly fee (there it is again!) I throw away in self storage every year, on a collection I'm afraid to get rid of and paralyzed to give away. I want easy access to all those books. Today, that means digital comics. They're easier to store and sort, and cheaper to save forever.
Marvel's not letting you do that, though. They're offering you access to read an ever-increasing library of their titles, so long as you're connected to the internet and looking at their web site. You can't take their comics on the plane. You can't save them on your Sony or Amazon eBook reader. You can't unplug the modem from your computer and then turn the page. Marvel owns your collection, but you're more than welcome to take a peek in whenever you like, so long as you continue cutting them a check every month.
This almost wouldn't be a problem for me, for a nominal fee. But when it comes to cutting a check or charging a credit card to the tune of $60, I have to stop to think about it. That's not an insignificant chunk of change. Sure, it's only two Marvel oversized hardcovers, but those sit on my bookshelves to be read anytime, not on Marvel's. It would make sense to me, financially, to pay that money if the books arrived on the web site day and date with their dead wood versions. I could easily save $60 a MONTH by reading Marvel Comics on their website instead of paying for the dead wood versions. But Marvel isn't offering that, either. New comics won't show up for at least six months from their day of release. This is, of course, the bone they throw to the Direct Market retailers that they still rely on and cling to. This isn't to say that comic shop owners should feel safe and unthreatened by this move. It's a major wake up call to them and their business model. This is only the first step. Eventually, monthly comics will go digital as people grow used to sitting in front of their screen for the five or ten minutes it takes to read a comic. Where the Direct Market needs to step in is in the collected editions, the customer service, the gift-giving (Aunt Petunia might buy her nephew a graphic novel from the comic shop, but probably won't send him a gift card or comic rental through Marvel.com), the ancillary items, the community aspects, etc. That's something neither Marvel nor DC could ever compete with.
I'm digressing already, aren't I?
The point is, the fee is too high. Make it a couple bucks a month and $20 for the year, and I think you lose that barrier to entry that so many people will have at $60. What's $20, particularly over the course of the year? Chump change. For some, a week's coffee budget. A month's credit card bill insurance charge. A pair of movie tickets. A half tank of gas. A couple months of World of Warcraft.
I don't have studies and scientific surveys here, but I bet they could more than triple their subscription base if they cut the subscription fee by 2/3rds.
Marvel's first major digital comics initiative is aimed at one market -- the extant comic readers. This is Marvel hoping to cash in on those who are already reading comics and want fast access to all the comics they lost when Mom threw out their collection, when they sold their collection to afford a wedding ring, or when they realized their organizational system wasn't worth a dime.
They may also get those who are in areas of the country without easy access to a comics shop. There's still a frightening percentage of this country that doesn't have a good comic shop within a half hour's drive. For those people, this site is worth it. It's a large supply of comics for $5 a month. If you're not spending any other money on comics, $5 looks good really fast.
But will this site, as it stands now, act as a feeder? I doubt it. People who are curious about comics for the first time are more likely to read the first issues DC and Marvel already offer up for free, borrow a friend's copy, or download a quick Bit Torrent. At best, they might pay for a month as a novelty thing.
Who will be most ticked off by this move? The retailers. This might impact some back issue sales, though those who "collect" back issues are in it for the thrill of the chase and completing a collection, more than they are after a missing issue they wanted to read.
This is, though, about the least offensive on-line initiative that Marvel could make without ticking off retailers. They're not offering downloads. They're not offering new comics. They're not offering collected editions, like some on-line retailers do. They're offering older issues that have flown off the retailers' shelves already. They're offering comics in a form that's not commoditized. And they're linking to the Comic Book Store Locator Service 1-888 number all over the web site.
If this is going to be a successful long-term business, though, that's going to have to change. The comic book market is due for a major disruption. Since the Direct Market last disrupted the market, what else has? The bookstores and on-line retailers? Maybe, but I don't see the Direct Market appreciably changing in the face of either of those. They carry more manga and collected books, but very few have radically changed to drop the single issue format or anything crazy like that. I can't blame them, but I wonder what it'll take before there is a radical and wholesale change in the comics distribution world. If that's the terms of my argument, though, I would have to say Marvel's purchase of Heroes World and all the changes from that would be the last wholesale disruption in the comics industry. You could argue that Diamond's virtual monopoly (the CBR lawyers appreciate it when I use the word "virtual" there) could be blamed for a large chunk of where we are today and all the attendant problems.
I'm digressing again, but I can't help it. Comics distribution is the most important part of the industry. It's what drives the readership and the popularity of comics. The lack of comics on every pharmacy magazine rack and supermarket check-out line is what has pushed the industry into a corner of its own making. The reliance on the Direct Market -- often (but not always) run by fans without any sense of business -- has encouraged a monoculture of comics production. The predominance of a single distributor stymies advances in the system. It's 2007, and only now are we talking about modernizing the ordering and distribution system, a la the way Marvel pushed cash registers into comic shops in the 1980s.
Digital Distribution has the potential to solve all of those problems. The internet is a completely level playing field with near-ubiquitous availability. The computer screens we use today are so large and so detailed that reading comics off them can be a pleasurable experience, if not a perfect one. Broadband availability -- while not ubiquitous yet -- is widespread enough to create a much larger market than what the Direct Market can give us today.
Marvel's DCU is not disruptive enough yet to change the world, much in the same way that those licensed 40 Years Of. . . DVD collections of their titles haven't stymied the production of trade paperbacks of Spider-Man, X-Men, Avengers, etc. runs. It's an interesting first step. While I have serious concerns about its long-term health given its current business model, I think Marvel has the potential to disrupt the entire comics marketplace, if they evolve this initiative with the demands of its readership and the general market forces.
That's an awfully big IF, though.
For now, the website is impressively built with some great content, but I doubt the business model will have any long-term sustainability.
Next week: The 100 [sic] Comics of Christmas. The reviews begin there! That's right -- I still review stuff!
More than 800 columns are archived here at CBR and you can get to them from the Pipeline Archive page. They're sorted chronologically.