Unbound: Calling Riverdale on your iPhone

At first glance, most Archie comics look very much like they did when I was reading them, back in the days when you could still buy comics in drugstores. For a dime. (Yes, I’m that old.)

That may lead the casual observer to think that Archie comics are staid and old-fashioned and never change. Actually, the editors and creators do a lot of experimenting, both with characters (as with the Archie: Freshman Year comic) and with art (witness the New Look—in case you’re following along, Reggie is the latest character to go all realistic).

The Archie folks have also embraced digital media: They put a hefty preview of each issue up at the Archie News blog, for instance, and all the core characters have their own personal blogs. When Veronica announced her impending wedding, she got 184 comments. That’s pretty enviable for any publisher’s blog. (This backfired, as these things so often do, during the New Look controversy: Betty and Veronica used their blogs to complain bitterly about the redesign, and they even started rogue blogs off-site, which have since disappeared.)

Still, when Archie Comics inked a deal with iVerse to make Archie titles available on the iPhone and iPod Touch, I wondered exactly who they thought would be reading them. After all, how many seven-year-olds have iPhones? So I e-mailed some questions to Stephen Oswald, Associate Editor for Archie Comic Publications. His answers suggest that the Archie folks are jumping into this with both feet: They are already putting 7-9 issues a month onto the iPhone, with plans for that number to increase, and at least one title (one of the weaker sellers, from the looks of their ABC figures) will move away from print and become a download-only series.

Brigid Alverson: Why does it make sense for Archie to move into iPhone apps—does it extend your audience?

Steve Oswald: It definitely extends our audience, especially overseas. We hope that many people who haven't picked up an Archie comic in a while try out some of our free downloads and see how great our books are.

Brigid: Who do you think will be reading these? Kids or adults?

Steve: Kids are our main audience but our books overall have a great diversity in readership. Archie, Jughead, Betty, Veronica and the rest of the gang appeal to large spectrum of different age groups and people.

Brigid: How do you think the reading experience differs for readers on iPod/iPhone as opposed to flipping through the books?

Steve: It's not all that different, except that you don't see the entire page at once. Each comic page generally translates to 3-4 screens, depending on the arrangement and number of panels on the page.

Brigid: Which comics will you be putting in iPhones? How are you selecting them—will it be certain lines or just all new releases?

Steve: Right now we are working mainly on newer releases, but we are looking into diversifying and expanding the books being released.

Brigid: How frequent will the releases be?

Steve: Right now we have around 7-9 issues a month, significantly more in the future.

Brigid: Will you be putting up your back catalog?

Steve: Yes. more will be announced at the appropriate time.

Brigid: How are the comics prepped for display in this format?

Steve: The digital files for each book are sent over to iVerse and they take care of the production end for the iPhone and iPod Touch. Most pages translate very well, and iVerse has been doing a bang up job of turning our comics into apps. This is especially true with Sabrina Manga, whose page layouts tend to be more radical then the standard Archie comic layout.

Brigid: Going forward, will you be keeping the constraints of iPhone and Kindle in mind as the comics are designed?

Steve: The constraints will be kept in mind, but the artist shouldn't let it hamper their storytelling.

Brigid: Is there any plan to design comics specifically for the iPhone, with no intervening print release?

Steve: Yes, in fact we plan to continue our Betty and Veronica Spectacular title exclusively for download. The first exclusive issue will be available for the coming holiday season.

Brigid: What other digital platforms are you exploring? Android, Kindle, web subscription (like Marvel), downloads?

Steve: We're looking into all aspects and will announce them as we go forward.

Brigid: How are you making people aware of these—through the comics, ads in other media, any other type of marketing?

Steve: We are putting the word out in many ways. Press releases, links through our website and blogs, as well as print ads in our monthly books and other print media.

UPDATE: Just as we went to press, Steve sent me the answers to some follow-up questions. Here they are:

Brigid: You mention that Betty and Veronica Spectacular will become a download-only comic. Will it be available only for iPod or will you have a web version as well?

Steve: Nothing definite yet but we are looking into the possibility of a web viewable version as well.

Brigid: Are there any titles that will stay on paper only and not go digital?

Steve: I think every title will eventually have a digital version. It's like when a movie comes out in the theater, eventually a home version will be released, then it will air on cable and then broadcast TV.

Brigid: Do you see the iTunes sales as driving sales of the print version, or vice versa—or are they reaching totally different audiences?

Steve: Print is still the number 1 priority. As far as driving sales it's still a little early to tell, but I believe it will work both ways. iTunes sales will help generate interest in hard copies of the books and ads in the print versions will drive download sales. I think much of our audience will want to have a digital version as well as a print copy, similar in a way to how many DVD's now include portable digital versions for iPods and other devices. iTunes will most definitely make the Archie brand more available to our untold fans around the world where our printed books may not be as not readily available or at least not on a timely as basis.

Brigid: I read the press releases last week about the new co-CEO, Jon Goldwater. It sounds like he is coming from the music and entertainment biz and has plans to expand the Archie characters into different media. Was he behind this move to the iPod, or were plans for that under way before he arrived?

Steve: There were some thoughts floating around about iPod and digital downloads, but Jon is definitely the driving force behind them and the reason it is now coming to fruition.

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