SXSW: Marvel Brings New Formats, Video & 700 Free #1s

As everyone from music heads to tech geeks gather in Austin, TX this weekend for the annual South By Southwest festival, Marvel Comics is again carving out its own spot in the proceedings at SXSW Interactive. Today at the tech industry event, the publisher announced a new wave of initiatives and products from its "Marvel ReEvolution" branding of digital offerings.

On the back of last year's announcement of the tablet-ready "Infinite Comic" format, probably the biggest news for regular Marvel readers is word that the publisher will produce weekly Infinite comics starting this summer - a product presaged by some 52 hash mark teasers. The Infinite offerings will serialize 13-issue story arcs across the year, starting with "Wolverine: Japan's Most Wanted" by Jason Aaron, Jason Latour and Paco Diaz. Read CBR's interview with the writers and Editor Nick Lowe now.

But the publisher also made another set of announcements with less new story significance if not more muscle in expanding its digital footprint overall. These include new technology called "Project Gamma" which will add music and other audio cues to select digital comics, the already-revealed revamp of their "Marvel Unlimited" digital subscription service as a iOS-based system in addition to its desktop form, a new suite of Marvel video products online including documentary series on the companies history and a "Marvel #1" promotion that will see the company offer over 700 first issues in its line for free for the next two days.

CBR News spoke about all these moves with Editor-in-Chief Axel Alonso and SVP & GM of the Marvel Digital Media Group Peter Phillips in advance of their reveals on stage in Austin.

"Last year, it ended up being, in retrospect, a big coup for us to be at SXSW," said Phillips. "I have nothing against the comic cons or any of the traditional shows we go to. They're fabulous. They're well run. They're great opportunities for us to talk about our brand. But the problem for somebody like me is that everybody [at those shows] is saying the same things I am or speaking to the same audience. To go to a SXSW where we're a little bit different is what we tried last year. We get a ton of mileage out of San Diego and New York and all the other key comic shows, but we wanted to go somewhere where people would see us and just for a second go 'Who are you again?' That's what last year was about.

"I come from a digital/online background and an entertainment background, so I was definitely leading the charge for us to go there, and I think we all felt like it was really successful. We wanted to talk about the fact that we were an innovative digital company and that we were continuously trying as the House of Ideas to get people to enjoy our content - and our publishing content especially - and that's why we focused on the Marvel Augmented Reality app and the Infinite line that we brought out. I wasn't there to say 'This is going to change your life.' I was there to say 'We're trying some new stuff. Tell us what you think, and then we'll move it forward from there to keep innovating.'"

Phillips went on to explain that this year, Marvel had prepared more and more announcements because of how their perceived their successes last year, but the message for this SXSW was still not one of a total victory lap on digital. "The great thing is that we've got more announcements this year," he said. "We've invested much more heavily in Augmented Reality, and we're not even talking that much about it this weekend because it's just become part of the mainstream for us. We've got a weekly Infinite line coming out in July and then we've got all these other digital initiatives because our fans have been very vocal about what they like. I don't doubt that in a year, we'll be talking, and I could say, 'From last year, these three things turned out fantastic, one or two of them were so-so, and this one tanked.' I don't know."

Unlikely to tank is the weekly Infinite Comics program which is an expansion of a format that Marvel appears to have had some success in. However, previous Infinite Comics were tied to major event stories from the publisher such as "Avengers Vs. X-Men." This new set will have to stand on their own. Phillips would not directly comment on how individual sales were for the past Infinite Comics outside their free download status with select Marvel print titles, but he did say, "I can't give you sales numbers, but I can tell you this is definitely a profitable endeavor."

Tying the first story in spirit to the upcoming film "The Wolverine" will give Marvel a promotional leg up with fans, Phillips hopes. "The learning curve has always flattened after we do things for a while," he said. "And the reaction from fans has been great. Our digital publishing business has grown so rapidly that we wanted to do something more frequently."

"We're hoping to use the story of the movie to carry some of that excitement over to the comic books. The fact that this story is set in Japan was calculated," Alonso explained about Editorial's goals for the book. "But that said, the Jasons had to come up with exactly the right pitch to tell the story, and they had to run the gauntlet to get there. What we're trying to do is deliver a comic book that first counts for the long term fan and they'll understand how it's woven into the continuity, and secondarily is exciting to the new or lapsed reader. We want to make sure we use all the bells and whistles and props available on this new canvass to excite people. The Jasons and Carlo have done an amazing job taking advantage of the pallet and all the tools. At the end of the day, you're left with a very cinematic comics experience. There's a sense of motion that the new technology allows for that makes for a completely different experience, but the reader still controls the pace of that experience."

Overall, the Editor-in-Chief said that many creators in the Marvel lineup have been picking up the tools developed for Infinite Comics. "What happens is you build. You build upon what came before. When you see an innovation that your peer made, the natural tendency is to try and top it or learn from it. 'If he zagged left, what if I zag right?' You'll see that every new innovation gives birth to another one. This is true of music as well. You don't go straight from R&B to modern hip hop. There are stages in between...it's the same with Infinite Comics now. We're continuing to evolve. And we hope that however good our efforts are this year, we'll exceed them next year. That's always the goal."

Core comic consumers with digital tech will also be curious at Marvel's new plans for its "Marvel Unlimited" service which will soon offer thousands of back issues to subscribers via iPads and iPods...and eventually on other devices as well. "The impetus for this is that I'm a product person in my background," Phillips said. "I focus on user experiences. And this product was built years ago, and at that time, it was built on a Flash player. We didn't envision that being such a hurtle for us. There was no such thing as a tablet in 2007. And so now we've built this HTML 5 player so the program can be cross-device. We built an app so that it can live on any tablet or smart device. The Android app is coming imminently. I don't have an exact time, but we're not talking about, like, October. We're talking a matter of weeks.

"The reason we have an app is in part so some people can enjoy the subscription service wherever they're reading, but it also gives us a function where if you're disconnected, you're allowed to store up to six comics offline." Phillips added that this app and Marvel's comiXology-powered sales app won't be synched by single user accounts, but they are linked in the sense that subscribers to Marvel Unlimited will be offered links to comiXology-formatted copies of the same books if they wanted to buy them directly for digital ownership.

While those other announcements are very much in a wheelhouse that digital comics consumer are used to experiencing, Marvel's "Project Gamma" audio enhancements are new territory that some readers may balk at. But the publisher stressed that the way the music and other audio cues in Project Gamma enhanced titles will appear will not be invasive or distracting, and they will not alter the way comics are experienced in the way that, say, motion comics have.

"I would definitely say that in part this is a 'You've got to see it to believe it' thing because that's what has happened to all of us here," Phillips said. "We talked about music as an opportunity, and we struggled with it. The impetus came from the fact that a lot of us know that having music playing while we're doing things - whether we're reading graphic fiction, working out or doing our daily chores - can enhance the experience. But we needed to find a technology that went with the graphic fiction reading experience and enhanced it in a special way."

Marvel's goals on this were met by working with tech company Momentum Worldwide and CORD, part of the Cutting Edge family of companies that has worked on music products for films from "The King's Speech" to "Drive." "What this is is an adaptive experience which is really cued up to the storyline," Phillips said of the final product. "If you and I are sitting side-by-side reading the same story with adaptive audio and I'm reading at half the pace you are, I will get a different experience than you. I'll get a music playing on a slower pace, I'll get different music cues as I hit certain moments in comparison to yours. This is thematic based so certain characters and certain storylines have their own specific music. Think of it kind of like a video game. That's kind of how this music system works, but it's very unique."

"I was skeptical myself until I got my first taste of this, and then I got it," Alonso said. "Who out there hasn't had that moment when you've been reading a comic book with your iPod on or the radio on, and you found that the music has changed your reading experience? I know that's happened to me countless times. This is an extension of that. This is music where the reader will listen to an adaptive, non-lyrical score that is seamlessly integrated into their read. And there are also keyed-in, event-driven audio effects to enhance the experience. But it's a very organic experience. It's not music in a loop."

The adaptive music will work both going forward in the comic and going backward. So if you flip back to a certain scene in a series you've read, previous themes will reestablish themselves in the audio as you go. The Project Gamma product does not yet have a launch date.

On the video front, Marvel has already built out a system of promotional trailers, news roundups and animation projects online including the popular "Marvel What The?" stop motion series. But moving forward, the company is planning on a number of new shows to be produced in house including "Marvel's Earth's Mightiest Show," a lifestyle program led by former "Attack of the Show" host Blair Butler, and behind-the-scenes documentaries on Marvel's history. "With the proliferation of availability and connectivity with all the different devices and all the great content we put out in theatrical and animation, there's still an opportunity to tell non-fiction stories about our brand and the stories behind our brand," Phillips said. "There's a lot to talk about about our brand, and the ability to capture people's attention with all these devices [that play video] and connectivity, we just think we're missing an opportunity by doing so."

Lastly, fans or curious readers in Marvel's comics in digital form will be able to sample an awful lot of the line as a wide range of #1 issues will be free on the Marvel Comics app starting today and going through Tuesday night. "We're constantly trying to get people in to read our series," Phillips said. "This is an opportunity to really introduce people at the ground level. We're having over 700 #1s available for about 48 hours for free, and that's really about trial. Everything, to be honest, is about trial for us. We want people to try these things, and if they like it we can build a business partnership. That's how I look at it, and it's how we all look at it. We're trying to create a great experience that people are excited to engage in."

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