Digital Comics: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

For Christmas I received an Amazon Kindle Fire.  Ever since its announcement, I had been looking forward to the new tablet.  Specifically, I was hoping it would deliver its promise to provide a practical way to read comics digitally.  I decided if I was really going to test the Fire, I had to commit to buying and reading ONLY digital comics.

I could pretend that I've spent a lot of time reading comics this year as research for this article, but the truth is I love comics and have been able to rediscover them in a new medium.  I so far have not regretted the commitment I've made.  Here's my thoughts on the matter.  If you're not a comics nerd, you may want to skip this and read another blog about some useful topic such as quantum theory or the hidden subtext of Tolkien's Silmarillion.

Comixology and the Kindle
Comixology is unarguably the largest database/store for purchasing comics digitally.  Basically, you set up a free account and buy a license to view specific digital comics for the remainder of the Earth's life cycle or comixology goes out of business, whichever comes first.  Comics are stored on a cloud drive and you simply download the issues you wish to read on your device.  Because you're logged in to an account, comics purchased on the web, tablet, ipad, etc. are availabe on all your other devices.  You can buy a comic on your kindle, then read it on your smartphone.  Nearly all publishers now publish "Same Day as Print" through comixology.  You never have to leave your house on new comics day!

Additionally, comixology features a smart-view option, which allows you to scroll panel to panel through the comic. This is essential on smaller devices and works well.  I find that I rarely use this option on my Fire, as the comics appear a little larger than an Archie Digest.  I spent much of my childhood reading those, so it doesn't bother me at all.

There is one aspect to the Fire that drives me absolutely bonkers, however.  The Fire comixology store does not stock DC Comics (and no explanation is ever given) and the daily sale prices of comics are not reflected.  The workaround is to just buy DC and sale titles on the web, but I do find this inconvenient when I'm already browsing on the Fire.  Incidentally, DC titles do indeed sync on the Fire once purchased.

Marvel Comics
Marvel's doing one thing really right in the digital medium.  They offer a digital copy at no additional charge for their high-value print titles.  So, purchasing the latest issue of Avengers Assemble gets you the print comic, a free digital comic version, and your local comic store gets a sale.

The digital version is redeembable through Marvel's comics app.  It's a customized comixology app, but is completely separated from comixology and your comics can't sync over from Marvel.  Because of this, any comics redeemed from a print comic code have to be read through a different app.  The Marvel app isn't currently vetted for the Fire, but I installed it anyway.  It works fine, but it's annoying to have to load another app.

DC Comics
DC takes a different approach to digital.  Very few print DC Comics are available with a digital copy code, and those that do are limited edition, bagged with the code, and cost an extra dollar.  They gain back some of the points in the fact that comics redeemed or purchased through the DC Comics app DO sync with your comixology account.

There's more pricing difference between the big two, but I'll get to that momentarily.

Dark Horse Comics
For some reason, probably lack of a solid contract agreement, Dark Horse has eschewed comixology and uses their own app.  Even though I'm a fan of many of their titles, I have completely stopped buying Dark Horse Comics due to the app they're using.  It isn't based on the comixology format.  Buying comics through the app doesn't work, it simply takes you to a web store.  There's no panel to panel view.  By and large, I think Dark Horse has a long way to go if they want to become competitive in the digital comics market.

Pricing structure is where I think digital comics can really shine.  A savvy consumer can make their dollar stretch MUCH further buying digital.  Every publisher offers an assortment of free titles, some do so weekly. DC, Archie, and most of the second tier publishers discount their issues by $1.00 when the next issue comes out on comixology.  Anyone willing to wait an extra month can save roughly 1/3rd of their money.  Comixology has some sort of sale every single day, with many issues listing for 99 cents.

The exception is Marvel.  Marvel already has a higher average print price than DC, and they do not discount their comics on any sort of schedule.  Instead, they have a sale every Friday and Monday that usually revolve around a theme.  Frankly, in eight months I've only been enticed by one sale.  With the average price of a Marvel book $3.99 and DC at $2.99, it's amazing to me that Marvel is still the holdout for more reasonable pricing.

While I've faulted Dark Horse's app, they have one of the best free comics sections out there. Archie's app, which also doesn't sync with comixology, also offers some great freebies.  I tend to purchase my Archie titles through comixology, however, because they follow the $1 discount schedule for previous issues.

With all the pricing differences and options, I've seen two things change in my buying patterns.  First, I buy far less Marvel titles than I used to.  Second, I've discovered a lot of new titles that I would never have given a chance had I had to find them hidden in the Mogwi sales section of the comic shop.

Overall Thoughts
I don't think digital is going to threaten print any time soon, but I don't think it's a viable option for anyone like myself that's sick of storing a small warehouse full of comics.  I love taking my Fire on the train to work with fifty comics loaded and ready to be read.  I thought I'd be more nervous, as a collector, not having print issues.  However, the resell market for comics is virtually dead and I've traded it for a copy of my favorite comics that will remain in pristine condition forever.

I think the industry is on the cusp of really exploding into the digital market.  I'm thrilled that companies are embracing digital.  I'm very interested to see if smaller independent comics will begin to make their way on to the comixology app.  If Marvel can start offering better discounts and syncing options, they'll do great.  If DC and Amazon figure out their nonsense and offer DC comics on the Fire store, they'll be in a prime spot as well.  Even these are minor kinks.  But Dark Horse needs to, frankly, give up the dream and use comixology.  Their not even competitive at this point.

Let me know your thoughts!  I love talking about this and hope to hear more of you are discovering digital comics as well.  (Also, let me know what you're reading!  I need more titles in my shopping cart!)


n8sumsion said...

Surprisingly, most of the digital comics I own are Dark Horse comics. I agree, it's irritating that I have to use a separate app to read them. But I had to have my Hellboys. And they have had a few sales of 99 cent BPRD issues that were too good to pass up. I also started picking up some Lone Wolf and Cubs.

I have always been a Marvel fan. Granted, the first comic I ever bought when I was 5 was an Action Comics starring Aquaman. But the next was Spider-man and I never went back to DC.

But I have been very disappointed with Marvel's digital offerings. I tried out their online database of comics for a couple months. It's a fairly expensive subscription ($10.00/month) and there are some frustrating gaps in their offerings. Individual issues would be missing in story-lines, or cross-over titles would be missing from story-lines. Or huge gaps in a title. Not satisfying. And nothing remotely new was there, they still wanted you to buy individual new issues. But the new issues are expensive. They want the best of both worlds (subscription and single purchases) and ended up driving me away from both.

I bought a few of the new 52 issues from DC through Comixology. I like them, but I've found I'm extremely reluctant to spend more than 99 cents on a single issue.

So while I like being able to put several issues on my iPad to read, I love the thought of digital comics, it's still not quite there. And the last time my favorite artist came to town for a signing, I realized I only had digital issues of his comics... I couldn't really have him sign my screen. So I don't think print issues are going anywhere soon.

Adrian Ropp said...

Yes, Marvel's subscription based web comics leave much to be desired. If I could read them on my tablet, I might be persuaded.

I hadn't thought of the signing angle. I don't get issues signed, I usually commission a sketch if I'm going to meet an artist.

Thanks for weighing in, Nate!

city said...

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