SDCC Panel: Are Digital Comics Expanding the Market?

Posted by Admin on July 19, 2012 Under articles, conventions

SDCC 2012 – As I tweeted out over the weekend, I attended the Friday panel entitled Are Digital Comics Expanding the Industry?  Rob Salkowitz moderated with Ted Adams(IDW), Mike Richardson(Dark Horse), David Steinburger and John D. Roberts(both ComiXology) on hand.

The talk was fascinating, to say the least, especially because I have only limited plans to print our books in the near future and wanted to hear the numbers on how digital books were doing.  Also, at last year’s SDCC, the talk of the show was about how digital comics were going to wipe comic book shops off the face of the planet. My decision to go exclusively digital for Oort Coud books isn’t going to change anytime soon, not only for financial reasons but also it’s clear to anyone with 3 out of 5 senses intact where the future lies.  Still, I wanted to find out how guilty I should feel about contributing to my local shop’s demise.

And it turns out, not guilty at all. Rob Salkowitz set the stage with some surprising numbers.  Digital comic sales are up 450% over the last 4 years, but seemingly not at the expense of direct market print comics.  Comic shops have reported that sales are up 20% so far this year. The fear had been that if digital siphoned off even 10-20% of sales from brick and mortar comic shops, it could be enough to call the whole direct market distribution into question and cause many small shops to close their doors.  Instead, early signs show digital sales are bringing in more readers and driving at least some of them to the shops.

I hope this analysis is valid, but I wonder if it will stay true in the long run.  Mike Richardson added that the numbers predict that there will be 1 billion tablet devices in use worldwide by 2016.  That put a smile on my face.  Imagine having access to a marketplace a billion strong, all of which can find, buy, and read your book in less than a minute.

The next question naturally was “how is this happening.” Ted Adams posited that in previous years he could see a dynamic between comics and movies.  A popular comic would inspire a movie, which in turn would drive more people back to the comics.  Now with the advent of digital comics, an even stronger cross-pollination is happening.  People can do a search for “Transformers” for example and find out not only how to buy the toys or the movie, but also see a soundtrack, a game, or a comic also listed.  They are presented with new forms for the content they’re interested in that they might not even know existed.  This point makes sense to me.  Who besides comic folk knew Road To Perdition was based on a graphic novel even after the movie came out?  Through the magic of iTunes and the more fully developed search engine alghorithms, it’s almost impossible not to hear about or see the original material.

Apparently, the new industry buzzword for all these forms of content working together to provide consumers with a fuller, richer experience is “transmedia.” The panel universally agreed this was a horrible label.  Mike Richardson made everyone feel better by declaring that there’s a new word for the same thing every few years, so ‘transmedia’ will die out soon enough.

One aspect of the panel I’ve neglected to mention so far was the entertaining verbal jabs that David Steinburger from ComiXology and Mike Richardson repeatedly threw at each other.  The reason, of course, is because Dark Horse tackled digital head on and built their own platform while Marvel, DC, and others partnered with ComiXology.  Since ComiXology seems hellbent on nothing short of a monopoly for digital comics, it annoys them that Dark Horse is doing its thing without them.

That said, I’d put Oort Cloud on ComiXology in second, but that’s not going to happen yet, for annoying reasons I will explain in my SDCC wrap-up post later next week.

The conversation next strayed onto the topic of what the future of the  comic book format looks like now that it’s breaking free of the printed page and has true interactive firepower at its disposal.  Mike Richardson reminded the audience that the reason why comics look the way they do is because that specific size is what resulted when the original publishers folded newsprint paper down to size in the 30’s to reprint the best materials from the funny pages.  And we’ve stuck to the format ever since, even though there’s no longer any real reason to do so.

Essentially I agree.  Of course Mike speaks the truth, and his implied point that we shouldn’t be so constrained to an obsolete format is also correct.  But the aspect ratio works well for the medium, and we were all trained how to read comics at a specific size.  It’s comforting to follow an expected panel reading paradigm. I don’t want crazy sizes and panel layout schemes getting in the way of a good story and great characters. I think it’s could easily degenerate into being the foil cover of digital comics.  And then I thought about how great 300 is, and I stopped thinking about it.

The panel agreed that motion comics have failed to add anything to the comics experience. Ted Adams said he still hasn’t seen a motion comic he’s liked.  They’re expensive to produce, and still wind up looking like bad animation.  Adams said in the end no narrator can read you a comic as well as or better than you can read it yourself.  The panel touched on how motion comics have turned the active, stimulating experience of reading a comic into a passive activity.

My feeling is that motion comics alter the experience to a point where it’s a completely different medium.  Motion comics are not comic books.  The same idea was best described by Alan Moore in his book on comic writing when he talked about what makes comics a unique art form, differentiated from movies and novels.  In comics, Moore points out that the creators get to provide detailed visual imagery to the reader (which prose does not) without dictating the speed at which the reader consumes it (as movies do).  Existing motion comics aren’t comics under Moore’s definition.  They’re just expensive crappy animated movies.

There is a new motion comic concept coming that adds motion to individual panels which I think sounds promising.  For now however, I still prefer to let the readers do the work.

The panel agreed that digital tricks make a splash but the shine wears off quickly.  In the end, people are still just interested in the story.  John Roberts told a story of how cool it was to watch the intro to the X-Men 2 DVD.  He enjoyed  the 20-30 seconds of flashy hero animation the first time he watched it, and it annoyed the crap out of him to sit through it on subsequent viewings.

Mike Richardson and Ted Adams agreed that they thought the future of digitally enhanced comics lie in the area of complementary material… creator commentaries and other features that add to the core comic reading experience rather than trying to replace it.

To sum it up, it’s obvious that digital comics are the future. It was a future that came about much faster than anyone thought, spurred on by the gamechanging iPad and the other tablets that followed.  At least in the short-term it’s a future with exciting possibilities and hasn’t resulted the retailer apocalypse predicted last year.   Time will tell if that will continue.

This panel covered a lot ground in an hour and clearly deserved it’s own write up.  It was definitely the highlight of the show for me.  Many thanks to the panelists for sharing their time and knowledge.