The "Saga" of Digital Comics


Looks like it's time again for a primer on digital comics and how they work.

Apple cannot block you from loading digital media onto your Apple-made device based on its content. They can only "block" something by not supporting the format explicitly. If you want to accuse Apple of being a "censor," your only path to that is proclaiming the iPad's lack of support for Flash games as being some kind of anti-Constitutional move to limit the freedom of those poor unfortunate souls who chose Adobe Flash as their creative platform. Somehow, life went on without Farmville in your hands, though. And the rest of industry followed. Buggy, crashy, power-sucking Flash is all but dead, and nobody's missing it. Good riddance.

Apple cannot look at your local SSD/hard drive or flash memory stick, decide they don't like what you're reading/viewing, and remove it from your computer. They can only prevent you from not reading the material by not supporting the format of the media or the DRM it's encumbered by. Neither of those rises to the level of "censorship."

ComiXology offers its comics for sale through its web site as well as Apple's App Store. The latter is very convenient, but ultimately not as great a deal. Namely, it is subject to Apple's content guidelines. "If you want porn, buy an Android," Steve Jobs famously quipped. Apple is the gatekeeper and, on occasion, will prevent things from being sold on their store. In the case of digital comics, you can still go to the digital distributor's website and buy them. It's not that much work, actually. You can be 100% sure that the digital comics the publishers want to sell you will be there on comiXology's site. There's always a chance something might happen with Apple's approval process to prevent a comic from showing up through the App store. That's the way it is. You can still buy it through the other channel. Apple won't and can't stop comiXology from selling comics through its website. Nor can it stop you from buying them there.

Behind the scenes, your App Store purchase is subject to Apple's 30% fee. Apple takes that fee in exchange for a whole host of things, including credit card payment processing and the customer's ease of purchasing. Buying directly through comiXology on its website, though, circumvents that fee and theoretically means more money going directly into the comics industry. (comiXology assumes the responsibility for payment processing, for one major example.)

On the other hand, that exposure in the App Store has brought so many people back into comics that the 30% fee seems minor, if you ask me.

You can, of course, also read your digital comics from comiXology through their website. I do that a lot. On a 27" iMac screen, it's bigger than the printed page and looks great. No pixilation issues. Beautiful and easy to read.

The Apple iBookstore isn't subject to the same restrictions as the App Store. That's just the way things are set up. Material that might be "banned" from purchase via an App is easily available as an iBook. Apple views the two as completely different stores subject to different rules and restrictions. The iBookstore is more open than the App Store. (In light of some of the decisions last week, though, it appears as if that barrier is slowly being chipped away.)

Comics can also be loaded into your iPad through iTunes. If you have a PDF comic -- like, say, Brian K. Vaughan's "The Private Eye" -- there's nothing to stop you from loading it up and reading it through Goodreader or Comic Book Lover or whatever PDF-reading program you prefer. It could be the dirtiest, filthiest porn you could ever ask for (yes, the kind with Furries), and Apple can't stop you. It could be pirated material, and Apple can't block you. Only your own conscience acts as a block.

In other words, the best solution to any problems you might have with comiXology or Apple is a simple one: DRM-free comics. Then, no matter where you bought it, you can read it on any device that supports the format. (JPGs and even PDFs are pretty universal these days.) You could even read digital comics on an Android with DRM-free comics! Let everyone else do the hard work of developing the systems of their creation and funding. Then let the notoriously cheap and inactive Android users swoop in and enjoy the benefits.


The one thing I think this "Saga" event drove home is how big a fan base there is for comic books outside our immediate echo chamber. The tech blogs were all over this. Yes, they all got it wrong at first, too, but the amount of coverage and outrage from readers not directly linked to the Direct Market Wednesday Crowd is instructive, and a nice sign of hope for our industry. Digital comics are real and only growing.

It's also important to have an open market for comics. So long as comics are encumbered by their publishers' DRM schemes and fierce protectionist attitudes, that's not going to happen. As must always be pointed out in these discussions, see what happened with the music industry. Will the comics world ever follow that evolution, or will it be stuck alongside the movie and book industries?

To that end, we can't blame comiXology for DRM-ed up comics. Like Apple in its dealings with Hollywood, comiXology's hands are tied. If the publishers don't want to sell DRM-free comics, then comiXology has no other option. The distributor isn't subject to the whims of the content publishers. Without the publishers, the distributors are nothing. Right now, it appears that the fear of piracy is preventing publishers from wielding the one tool they have against piracy that's been proven to work in other industries. (Legal, easily available, cheap MP3s helped drive Napster into the ground.)

Two parts of this debacle, in particular, annoy me, though:

First, we're back to the tedious sex versus violence debate again. Different societies/cultures have different standards/mores. This is the world we live in here in the United States. It's different overseas. It's changing slowly over the course of time. Don't worry -- we're fast approaching a world in which nothing is taboo and there are no standards. We'll get there eventually. Let's move on. You can waste your time being outraged at violence over sex or sex over violence, but it's not changing anything today. These little flare ups of the discussion result in people talking in circles and going nowhere.

Second, the way this was instantly rigged up to be a gay sex scandal was appalling. Brian K. Vaughan may have started it in his open letter, but others ran with it like the anchorman in a baton relay race at the Olympics. There was no questioning of the assumption, nor any thought put into it. We live in touchy times. I get it. People want to see homophobia in as many places as possible (don't argue with me if your Twitter avatar is a pink equals sign), and this was just another great spot to be outraged. Except it didn't pass an initial smell test at all. Painting Apple as a homophobic company is ridiculous, when it's a company headed up by a gay CEO, that signed on in support of gay marriage, and offers health care coverage for domestic partnerships. They've publicly donated money in support of such causes. It's a very weird definition of "homophobic" that got tossed around last week.

There was a more rational explanation at the time, even before we learned that Apple never saw the comic in question. Apple's review process on in-app purchases and apps are done by a presumably large group of people, some of whom get it wrong on occasion. There's a method by which a submitter can protest a ruling and get more information about it. Apple will often cite the rule in the contract the submitter signed with Apple in the first place. (See the recent case of AppGratis.) But mistakes happen. The same person doesn't review every issue of every comic. When this story broke, I figured that one person on the review team at Apple had a bad day, and that the decision would be overturned on review. Because, as everyone else has pointed out, all the other issues sailed through.

That all said, how cool a job would it be to be the App Reviewer in charge of comics, where your job every week is to read all of the comics comiXology wants to sell? And you get to read them days in advance of publication!


Leave it to Mark Waid to be the cool-headed voice of reason in this whole blow-up. His theories on how the whole thing could have happened even with the best of intentions is enough to defuse a few bombs. It's all well and good, but it too easily excuses a lot of very bad decisions and errors in judgment that should come at some kind of cost, but probably won't.

Well-respected Mac developer Daniel Jalkut (MarsEdit, amongst others) heads in the opposite direction, explaining how libel laws might be considered in Vaughan and comiXology's actions in the whole matter. David Brothers is left to ask the hard questions that Eric Stephenson, much to Image's credit, steps in to answer.

Let's just hope somebody learned a lesson somewhere about all of this. Maybe they did. Look at the other titles recently added to the App Store, like "Black Kiss II" and "XXXombies."

One thing's for sure: I have to think Apple built a special doghouse in Cupertino last week just to stick comiXology's name on it. There's a phone call I would have loved to have overheard. . .

Notably quiet in all of this? Diamond Digital and iVerse. Is it a "There but for the grace of God go I?" kind of thing, or a tacit acknowledgement that they have no hope or desire to beat comiXology at this particular game anymore? If they were truly competing, they missed this moment. They also stood quietly by when the Marvel #1s promotion brought the whole site down a couple weeks back.

There's a reason comiXology is a de facto monopoly; everyone else has given up.


  • Four and a half years ago, Marvel ignored my sensible advice to publish a hardcover of "Elektra: Glimpse and Echo." I thought it was an easy sell because I gave them the obvious marketing angle. It's an angle that's only gotten stronger since then: "By Pixar's Scott Morse."
  • If WizardWorld followed through with their plans, I'd be attending the fourth annual WizardWorld: New Jersey this year.
  • If Tyrese Gibson's "Mayhem" had maintained a monthly scheduled, Gibson would be a Guest of Honor at Comic-Con International: San Diego this year, where he'd be announcing his plans for October's big 50th issue.
  • Don't laugh; Jim Lee could hire Gibson for a DC book at any moment now. Wouldn't that make for a great WTF comic?
  • A couple of weeks ago, we celebrated the third anniversary of the launch of the iPad. What a different world we live in today, technologically. For starters, remember the rumors that Steve Jobs would demo the Longbox app during the iPad unveiling? Or were people too busy complaining about the lack of Flash? (HA!) I wish I could go back to that day and tell everyone not to worry, that "Saga" #12 will be available through the App Store, just a day later than usual. We could have saved an awful lot of high blood pressure pills.
  • These "Epic" collections that Marvel is doing serve as a changing of the guard in publishing. We've moved past the point now in the "trade paperback economy" where we have classic material coming back into print for the first time in decades. Now, the only money to be made is in finding new formats to repurpose previously reprinted material, even if it's just with a new title. It's more than in just changing the size of the page or the stiffness of the cover. Now, it's about mixing-and-matching content. I feel old again.
  • My daughter recently turned four and a half years old. (See The Pipeline Birth Announcement. It doesn't seem so long, except she's never seen a new comic in that time with art by Tim Sale. "Captain America: White" #0 was published in September 2008. I miss Sale's stuff, and hope he comes back to us someday.

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