ComiXology and the Future of Digital Comics

I wasn’t able to attend the ComiXology panel at the Baltimore Comic-Con, as I planned, so I’m thrilled and honored that Julia Linthicum was willing to provide this writeup.

I attended the “ComiXology and the Future of Digital Comics” panel on Saturday, August 28th at the Baltimore Comic-Con. The panel consisted of David Steinberger, CEO of ComiXology; David Gallaher and Steve Ellis of Box 13; and Chip Mosher, marketing director of Boom! Studios. Mosher was a last-minute panel crasher.

Steinberger opened up the panel talking about ComiXology’s history, including their popular Pull List service. He said comic book stores have loved having the service available, especially since they can readily see what is available each week. When they shifted to the digital platform, Comixology encountered its share of hurdles, only working with smaller publishers before the wave of bigger names jumped onboard. Now they work with Marvel, DC, Boom, and more recently Image. Before ComiXology had to negotiate with each individual creators for Image titles, so the new Image app was considered a strong improvement.

Then the panel shifted to ComiXology’s foray into comics publishing with Box 13. The series was intended as content to bring users to the ComiXology app. David Gallaher and Steve Ellis talked about the constraints designing for the smaller screen. The biggest challenge for writer Gallaher was conveying the most information in a small space, but still making it interesting to readers. For Ellis, the iPhone screen limitations moved him to go old-school with his layouts. The more traditional gridded approach impacted the pace of Box 13, making it fast and high-powered, likened more to an animation storyboard. Readers could almost control the pacing of the story depending on how fast they tapped the phone.

The issue of page layouts cropped up again in discussing adapting existing books. Every comic book on ComiXology is reformatted and optimized for their applications. The ones with the simplest layouts were not surprisingly the easiest to adapt. Steve Ditko and Jack Kirby were both cited as favorites of the ComiXology development team. Whereas with a Top Cow book, they’d be struggling to find where a panel began or ended. In an age of quirky and intricate page layout, it’s interesting a high-tech toy is encouraging people to look backwards at older-style comics.

Steinberger showed some sample images on the projection screen from the ComiXology app, including Walking Dead and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep: Dust to Dust. The latter showed how sometimes the images would layer in new and interesting ways, almost like an old-style flip book. Panelists likened it to Sergei Eisenstein’s film work with montages.

Discussing the effect of digital comics on the general market, everyone seemed more optimistic. Steinberger talked about going around to the various conventions and trade shows earlier in the year to allay people’s fears of digital comics. What he’s noticed is the opposite. He’s heard stories of someone going to a local comic shop and buying every Walking Dead trade because they’d read part of it on their site.

Chip Mosher seemed to think the market would ultimately decide whether digital comics had a future or not. Right now, everyone is trying a bunch of different things and seeing what works. He didn’t think that was a bad approach necessarily, but it would take awhile to coalesce.

Mosher also went on an interesting tangent on comics reading. Best estimates right now have regular month-to-month comics readers at around 300,000. Comics aren’t sold in the corner drug store or 7-11 anymore, so they’re not as ubiquitous. Aside from television, there aren’t that many examples of serialized stories these days. Serialized novels are fairly rare, aside from Stephen King’s more recent experiments. So new comics readers frequently don’t have a frame of reference.

The counter question came up: what happened when those readers discovered they had to wait a whole month for the next part of the story? Would these newfound readers stick around or would they return to other media? When someone asked if webcomics could tide these people over, some of the panelists didn’t think there were many webcomics with continuing storylines. Examples cited were Girl Genius and Freak Angels. My own counterpoint is there is a world of back issues and other series to explore. It’s not like there’s only one comic published.

Worldwide rights would become more important. Boom Studios cited the example of the Darkwing Duck comic book. Boom only has the rights for Darkwing in the US and Canada, prompting some irate emails from UK and Australian fans. Likewise, Scott Pilgrim had a separate app in Comixology because they couldn’t secure the UK rights.

When the panel was opened for questions, Steinberger gave away ComiXology t-shirts and Box 13 trades to the first four people. Gallaher and Ellis were asked about the work load involved with Box 13. They managed eight pages a week, but they also cited the positive experience of Zuda where they were producing regular material for High Moon.

There was no news to report on a future Android application for ComiXology. Users with Froyo OS may be able to access the web application on their phone.

Asked if ComiXology would consider publishing other materials besides comic books, including art books, Steinberger said they were dipping their toes in that sphere. The “NeoIntegrity: The Comics Edition” exhibit from the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art (MoCCA) exhibit catalog ran over 800 pages and featured donations from over 200 artists. ComiXology would be providing a digital version of that catalog. However, ComiXology was quick to add their focus was first and foremost comic books. They still thought they had a long way to go on that front, before they expanded too much.

I also stopped by the ComiXology booth on the convention floor. A big screen showed the web application, while iPhone and iPads showed off the application in their respective platforms. Having only access to the web version of ComiXology, I wanted to see what the difference was like. The reading experience was comparable between iPad & web versions; the biggest difference was the lack of navigation bar. With an iPad, tapping the screen brings up the next page. Steinberger did admit they needed to educate people better on the navigation bar and how it was used. He also said they listen to all of the feedback online, so if there’s an issue or question, raise it and it will get answered.

I certainly left the ComiXology panel curious and encouraged for the future of digital comics. I do wish some of the other platforms had been represented to provide the bigger picture. But ComiXology is definitely taking the ball and running with it.

2 Responses to “ComiXology and the Future of Digital Comics”

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