Comic Fodder

DC Comics - Digital Strategerie

I believe Travis is still honeymooning, so as long as I have the Comic Fodder keys, I'll take this site for another spin or two before we get back to our usually scheduled programming.

Oh, DC Comics. How we've dealt with change leaves something to be desired.

Looking Backward

DC Comics hasn't ever done a phenomenal job of understanding the interwebs. It took until around 2003 or so before they realized they shouldn't just own a website, but that they should maintain the thing with stuff like regularly maintained release schedules that reflected the actual ship dates for comics (not just what someone told the intern with their copy of DreamWeaver at the semi-annual meeting when there was time for discussion of the web site).

Its hard to even say when DC finally got a half-way decent website, but in the last four years, they seem to have started figuring it out, including "hub pages" for events, putting Segura on duty as their Social Media manager, and maintaining a daily web presence.

However, when DC announced their "online" effort with the launch of Zuda, it was clear that the higher-ups at DC were either not taking web content seriously, or were so concerned with what might happen if the content the wider world actually associates with DC comics hit the web, that they delivered something less than a token effort, and developed a product which actually seemed to work against the open and viral nature of the internet while completely failing to bridge the print and new media industries for their primary business.

Simply, creating an environment that eliminated choices and material through weekly competition not only strangled perfectly good concepts in the cradle, it meant that Zuda seemed to be set up to lose a portion of their audience on a recurring weekly basis. If I was enjoying Strip A, and Strip A did not advance from week one to week two, why would I continue to return to the site to see what was going on with Strip B? I have to assume that DC believed the American Idol competition idea might apply here, and that the inherent drama of watching kids get their dreams quashed each week might apply in an online comic forum as well, but instead, it felt more like watching perfectly good comics get canceled week after week, and likely pushed smart artists to just strike out on their own or join a web comics site where they could grow an audience, not cut them off.

Meanwhile, DC not only watched dumbly as a generation became accustomed to reading pirated DC Comics online at no cost, they flatly failed to discuss or address the problem as sales continued on their decline.

The wisdom of letting Marvel beat DC to the punch on the digital comics front is a bit debatable. It is true that it has cost DC nothing to sit back and watch Marvel experiment with putting PDFs on CD-Roms, then Marvel's "Digital Comics Unlimited" effort (ie: DCU, a sure tweaking of the nose to the Distinguished Competition). I have no numbers as to subscribers for Marvel's "DCU", but its hard to believe that its not at least helping to offset some of the cost of maintaining the digital copies of their product (even if their strategy of rotating out stock was so unappealing, I never joined). And, of course, Marvel was more than ready for the iPad.

Current Moves

Most should know about the recent shake-up at DC Comics as DC became "DC Entertainment", publicly acknowledging what we've known all along: the publishing wing of the business is small potatoes when you can sell and re-sell Batman to put on t-shirts, appear in cartoons and movies, and sell sugar drinks to kids.

It was interesting that it was unclear in the new shake-up whether Digital (let's call it that) was under the purview of publishing (now with two publishers!), or from marketing, as John Rood seemed to suggest in an article in February:

At Disney/ABC, I had a fun 10 years in the Digital space, working on some exciting web, social networking, promotional, and multiplatform windowing strategies. One of my missions is to work with the new executive team to take DC storytelling and promotion to the next level. We see it as a sacred obligation to you – to unleash our characters and stories and news across all platforms that matter to you. You’ll soon see us at DC Entertainment making big news in Digital, in the short- and long-term, from mobile strategy to a suite of publishing products. Digital is a dialogue, so I look forward to keeping in touch with you during this crucial evolution.

February wasn't all that long ago, and in all fairness, the iPad hit around the first of April, so that's about 45 days that Rood had to get his ship righted. With as much entropy as it seems DC had in the digital arena, if we start seeing digital product in 2010, it will be a shock.

Its worth noting that at the end of April, however, Zuda officially announced the closure of the competition, and a new direction for the Zuda imprint. Its hard not to believe that this may be step one in the new digital strategy.

It can't have made Rood, Didio or Lee's jobs any easier that somehow the coverage of the launch of the iPad included such heavy coverage of the Marvel IPad App. I've played with the app, and it certainly makes a compelling case for the device.

Curiously, the math still doesn't work out particularly well for the switch to digital at the moment.

Let's be generous and say the cost of an iPad will run you about $600. I've run numbers for the largest, fastest iPad with the dataplan, and it could run you more than $1500 in 12 months if you buy accessories, but let's be generous. $600 is still 150 full price Marvel comics at $4. That's not to mention the $2 price tag per comic for the app, so its not as if you're eliminating the cost of the comics.

Also, figure in how often your laptop or iPod have died... so, that's a new iPad or similar device every 3+ years (we'll assume the Marvel App is transferrable from device to device), or a minimum of $200 per year just to get in the door. Now add back in the $2 per comic (your mileage will vary), and you may be right where you started.

You may feel that its a wash, and the benefits of the eReader outweigh the lack of a permanent artifact.

But... don't expect for DC eComics to be available for you any time soon as they say they're still "evaluating".

"Our sense is that digital comics will grow and complement the businesses we have already built up through the current network of your local comic book shops and mass market bookstores," says Jim Lee, co-publisher of DC Comics, which publishes Batman, Superman, and other popular franchises.

The problem, of course, is that Lee seems to believe that digital comics serve the audience that hits the local comic shop instead of building a new audience, and that the digital ship is pulling up anchor, if it hasn't sailed already.

Its unlikely that the iPad is the last device that will make a nifty reader, but still evaluating..?

Furthermore, Lee himself was making a big to-do over the iPad as creation device instead of as delivery vehicle, seemingly missing the point as Gizmodo, Boing Boing and everyone else on the web were showing off Iron Man: Extremis as a viable way to read comics on he iPad.

This isn't to say DC can't catch up, but Marvel is clearly way, way out ahead of DC at this time.

Kids! Future!

If you told me 12 years ago we'd more or less have the technology of The Diamond Age's "Young Lady's Illustrated Primer: a Propædeutic Enchiridion" available, I'd have burned you for a witch. In fact, I might still do it just for fun.

As of today, there's no remaining technological barrier. Nostalgia and "there's just nothing like having a comic in your hand" are a reason to find ways to keep the print side of the business going, not to avoid planning a digital strategy. How those running the companies originally purchased comics hasn't been a model in at least 15 years (buying comics at the drug store news rack), and with the explosion/ implosion of comic shops, Diamond, etc... its time to start thinking of how the publishing of comics will work by 2020.

A generation of kids has come up reading comics online (and for free). They've grown up wearing light up sneakers and constantly staring at their Nintendo DS. Picking up comics off a spinner rack fits somewhere in there with leaded gas and rotary phones. That doesn't mean that they, too, won't want to buy some comics off a shelf somewhere, but why not meet them where they live?

And, not every comic is a collectible. We all know that the reason some comics grew in value was due to the scarcity caused by the perceived disposability of the product. Its a possible side effect that the back issue market will see some effect, and that brick and mortar retailers will see some side effect, but I have a feeling comic shops have a long life ahead of them as boutique specialty shops, fed by those who came to love comics, no matter how those readers come to comics.

The game isn't over. Marvel's online efforts have not exactly had them looking to get out of the paper/ print business, and the iPad debuted just a bit over a month ago. As we said, its the first device in a new way of interacting with media, and it sure isn't likely to be the last. Other devices may also encourage other methods of payment, from the iTunes pay-per-comic, to a subscription model akin to Netflix. We'll have to wait and see.

DC must know the clock is ticking. With the convention season, we may be in for some announcements, not just about WB's slate of DC movies, but on diversifying their publishing strategy. One can hope that Rood is looking to make a big impact in his first year, and even an announcement should buy him some time.

Also, it might tell me what device I should be looking at.

Piracy. (pause) Yarrrr!

The elephant in the room is, of course, piracy.

The music industry hasn't rebounded from the appearance of Napster. Once that genie was out of the bottle, you weren't ever going to get it back in, but iTunes and other services have made inroads to at least giving users an opportunity to pay.

However, ignoring that digital market has meant that the audience long ago parted ways from DC's digital efforts, even if they wanted to pay.

DC has to know that once their material is out there, even in some specialized viewer, its going to wind up copied and shared. Unlike musicians, comics don't have the option of a live performance and $40 a ticket to try to make up the difference.

But they do have other products, and if they can get Batman on a t-shirt, whose to say they can't get Blue Beetle? Or G'Nort?

It doesn't completely solve the problem, but Marvel is at least making an attempt to give a bit of extra value with the reader on their iPad app, and that's probably a good starting place.

Looking Forward

Diane Nelson has an opportunity to not just build and sustain DC, but to grow it into a 21st Century entertainment company on the backs of franchises that are true Americana.

If they don't start making announcements at Comic-Con, we can likely start to worry.

So what do you think?

Questions? Comments? Hate mail?

Come on, I can take it.


Ryan is an Op/Ed columnist for Comic Fodder. He keeps his comics and himself in Austin, Texas where he manages his new blog, The Signal Watch.

He likes Superman.

You can reach Ryan at The Signal Watch email