From Ink to the Internet: Comic Books Evolve

The image of a bedtime-avoiding youngster huddled under blankets with a flashlight and comic book might soon be joined by that of a kid thrilling to a superhero’s latest adventures on a laptop tucked under the covers.

Just like music, movies and TV shows, comic books are going digital. But unlike other media migrations, the jump from ink to bits significantly changes the nature of a comic book. “Ours is different from video because their final product looks exactly the same,” said Dan Buckley, president of publishing at Marvel Entertainment. “The DVD is the same as if you downloaded it.”

Comics, however, must go from a tactile, paper experience to a hands-free digital one, and unlike text-only books, comic narratives are told through sequential art; how the panels are laid out is just as important as what’s in them. Both Marvel and DC Comics are experimenting with different approaches to presenting comics on the web as they try to figure out what consumers want — and what they’ll pay for. [digg=]

While sales of traditional entertainment forms like music CDs and DVDs have decreased or flattened, there hasn’t been a similar sea change forcing the comics industry to go digital — the paper-based comics business is still doing well. Combined sales of graphic novels and comic books in the U.S. and Canada hit $705 million in 2007 — a 10 percent bump up from 2006 — and sales of graphic novels have quintupled since 2001.

So if demand is still high for print, what’s driving the digital moves? Opportunity. “We want people to see these stories through as many distribution points as possible,” Buckley said. So Marvel is trying out a number of different digital formats for its properties. Last year, the company launched Digital Comics Unlimited, a subscription-based service that charges $50 a year for access to more than 4,000 (soon to hit 5,000) comic books online. Since launch, Buckley said Marvel has learned quite a bit. “The print and digital businesses complement each other,” he said. “One is not cannibalizing the other.”

The company is also trying its hand at so-called motion comics, which use existing comic panels but give them an animated feel through pans and zooms or by giving characters simple movement; voice actors provide the dialog. Marvel created a 25-episode motion comic out of “N,” a short story by Stephen King, as a promotion for “Just After Sunset,” his upcoming collection of short stories; free episodes are being released every weekday until August 29. The company has also tested motion comics out on some of its bigger-name properties like Ultimate Spider-Man.

Rival comic book powerhouse DC Comics and parent company Warner Bros. are jumping into the deep end when it comes to motion comics, releasing two high-profile properties, Watchmen and Batman Adventures: Mad Love, as motion comics. Watchmen, which will promote the upcoming feature film version, debuted exclusively on iTunes, with episodes costing $1.99 a pop, while Batman Adventures is available on Microsoft’s Xbox Live Marketplace (in high-definition) for roughly $1.75 per episode and on Verizon VCast as part of a subscriber’s plan.

Both digital and motion comics could help companies monetize their rich back catalogs for a relatively low cost or promote upcoming film properties and printed collected works of a particular title. But in a time when consumers can watch ad-supported TV and movies for free online, will people pony up for digital comics?

Neither Marvel or DC would provide any sales or subscription numbers. Marvel offers some digital comics online for free, but says it’s proceeding cautiously. “We’re still quibbling about what the primary form of revenue will be,” Buckley said when asked about ad-supported offerings. Marvel is also concerned about the impact of the move on the niche retailers like hobby shops that still sell comic books. “We don’t want to do anything to hurt anybody in the short term,” said Buckley.

But James Sime, owner of the Isotope comic book store in San Francisco, isn’t too worried about the impact of digital comics on his business. Sime says he believes there’s a great opportunity for comics retailers and publishers to learn from mistakes of the ailing music industry.

According to ICV2, a trade publisher that monitors the business of comics and pop culture, trade paperbacks (collections of single issues in one book) generated $375 million in 2007 and single issues did $330 million that same year. Though Sime doesn’t think single issues sales will go away, he envisions a scenario in which they are moved from print to online as promotion for the trade paperback.

“I’m all about it,” said Sime. “People are excited about comics. The more people get them into their hand, the more they read them — the Internet is a great facilitator for that.”

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Slideshow: Comic book heroes go digital