Digital Comics Need To Be Smarter And I Know How

19 Aug
By Darryl Ayo

It’s Friday again, welcome back to my column. Before I get started, let me suggest that discussions around the topic of digital comics should hopefully bleed into Twitter with the hashtag #digitalcomics. I enjoy writing the blog and I view these posts as documents. Twitter is conversation, however; it’s talking. Let’s keep the dialog flowing, shall we?

Digital Comics

Here’s some background because I find that some folks still don’t understand it:

Comic Book Store

I live in North Brooklyn, New York City and work in Tribeca, NYC. Comic book stores in my physical vicinity are:

Desert Island – Williamsburg

Forbidden Planet – Union Square

Chameleon Comics – Downtown Manhattan

Midtown Comics – Downtown Manhattan (it’s a chain store)

Bergen Street Comics – Bergen Street, Brooklyn/Park Slope

Time Machine – West Manhattan (near Union Square)

St. Mark’s Comics – St. Mark’s Place

All of these stores are roughly between the 14th Street L train that cuts from Manhattan to Brooklyn (you can go from Desert Island to Time Machine  in a straight shot). And the other curve accounts for my work commute from North Brooklyn to Downtown Manhattan and back.

Now, I have visited and patronized each of these stores to varying degrees. But for a normal, week-to-week routine of picking up new gear, a person only really needs one shop. For most customers, one comic shop is all that they will ever need. Other customers will find that some shops do not tend to carry products that they want, so they will patronize multiple shops. Few customers will methodically visit each comic book shop in their geographic vicinity and examine the stock of each place they visit.

For those of you unfamiliar with how comic shops work, the process is actually very simple: when you enter a shop, you can select a comic book from the shelf and pay for it. The shops will have a clerk who will process the payment. At this point, the ownership of the comic book that you have selected legally transfers to you and you may read it at your leisure, give it to your friend, spill coffee on it, get it autographed by the artist or sell it to a person who wants it later. However, if you do give the comic book that you have bought away, or sell it, or spill coffee on it, you lose ownership (or, in the case of the coffee, usefulness) of that particular comic book. If you want to read it again, you’ll need to go to a comic book shop and buy that comic again.

Digital Comics Store

As I said, I live in Brooklyn, New York and work in Downtown Manhattan. However, I own an iPhone, so it really doesn’t matter at all where I am, I can buy and read digital comic books. Here are some of the stores:

Graphic.ly

Panelfly

Comics+ (iVerse)

ComiXology (“Comics,” “Comics 4 Kids,” DC Comics, Marvel Comics, Image Comics, Smurfs, Bone, RASL, Scott Pilgrim)

Dark Horse

Viz

All of these applications can be accessed from my iPhone device. However, unlike their paper counterparts, the buying a comic book as a legitimate digital document is very stressful and difficult.

First example: when you look at the list of comic book shops that I indicated above, with the exception of Desert Island which is an alternative-comics specialty store, you can walk into any of those shops and definitely, unquestionably get the latest issue of Hulk or Green  Lantern. You don’t even have to ask “if,” you know it’s there. Digital comics, there are no such assurances. So let’s take our two examples, two green guys, Hulk, Green Lantern.

How Hulk Do?

As of August 5th, 2011:

Panelfly has the Marvel Comics series HULK #77 – 112. There doesn’t appear to be a reason why that was the starting point, nor a reason why the run of available titles ended where it did. $1.99 each.

Comics+ has the Marvel Comics series Hulk (Vol. 1) #1-6. This is the original Hulk series. It says “The Incredible Hulk” on the cover. Comics + ALSO has what the app differentiates as “Incredible Hulk” from issues #77-111. But these numbers are listed out of order for some reason. $1.99 each.

Graphic.ly has the Marvel Comics series The Hulk (Volume God-Knows-What) #6-12. I’m not sure why this store gets a different Hulk series than the others. $1.99 each.

ComiXology 1: Comixology’s “Comics” app contains the following: 18 issues of Hulk Volume 2, the six-issue,  Hulk: Gray miniseries, Hulk: Planet Hulk Volume 1, Incredible Hulk Volume 1 (six issues), Incredible Hulk Volume 2 (23 issues), and not one, but TWO World War Hulk miniseries.

ComiXology 2: The Marvel Comics app. This app contains all of what you see in ComiXology’s “Comics” app. What’s the difference? Well, when you buy a Marvel Comic (like “World War Hulk”) in the Marvel Comics app, you do not see it in the ComiXology main app, even though ComiXology makes them both. You could own two copies of the same digital comic, essentially.

How fares the Green Lantern?

Panelfly: DC Comics are not sold through Panelfly.

Comics+ : DC Comics are not sold through Comics+.

Graphic.ly: DC Comics are not sold through Graphic.ly.

ComiXology/DC Comics app/Green Lantern app: I chose “Green Lantern” to illustrate a very particular point that is baffling and silly: You can only buy DC Comics through ComiXology. No other digital distributor has a contract with the second-largest publisher of North American comics.

Unlike the Marvel Comics above, comics that you buy in the DC Comics app DO in fact show up in the ComiXology “Comics” app, and vice versa. Once you buy the comic, you have the comic, no matter which app you happen to be looking at. Which is nice. But why would DC also insist on a hyper-particular GREEN LANTERN app? Okay, that was a rhetorical question. It’s obvious that they were trying to make it easy to tie into the Green Lantern movie. Nobody at DC actually expected the movie to bomb and curse the name Green Lantern. Hypothetically, an interested person could look up “Green Lantern” and find that there’s an app through which s/he could buy Green Lantern comics. I can see a value in that. What I can’t understand is how this is valuable enough to warrant creating a new application which would then need to be maintained and updated for perpetuity.

This should be streamlined.

I understand why there are different apps. They are different companies. Different stores. What I cannot seem to figure out is why ComiXology finds it in their own best interests to keep developing dedicated apps for each of their client publishers.

Marvel has a ComiXology app, which is strangely segregated from the rest of ComiXology.

DC Comics has a ComiXology app, AND a little “DC Store” button at the top of the main ComiXology app.

Image Comics has a ComiXology app.

The Walking Dead series has a ComiXology app. Even though there is an Image Comics ComiXology app.

Cartoon Books has two ComiXology apps, one for BONE, the other for RASL.

Scott Pilgrim has a ComiXology app.

Oni Press, the publisher of Scott Pilgrim, however does NOT have a ComiXology app.

Boom! Studios has a ComiXology app.

Dynamite Entertainment has a ComiXology app.

There’s more. There are more.

I do not understand this at all. Look, listen, learn:

Pretend you’re a normal person. You like listening to music. You like the stuff your parents played when you were a kid, you liked the bands you “discovered” as a teen, you follow the blogs and get into new trends today. You’d never consider yourself “hardcore,” but you like to check out new stuff when it perks your interest. When you like a band, you go into your iTunes app on your iPhone and download a song or maybe the album. There is just the one iTunes app (disclaimer, I realize that there are other legal digital music options, I’m just talking about the most popular one). In the one iTunes app, you can find music from major artists, switch to a search by genre, or check out the top 40 charts. You have an entire record store at your fingertips and it all goes into one place, your personal library. THE FUTURE IS PRETTY NEAT, HUH. I mean, seriously, I don’t know what the fuck record label Lady Gaga is on. But I know that I like that song of hers, it makes my feet tap.

Now. Let’s pretend, Normal Person, that you like the idea of reading a comic book. You think to yourself, “Self: how can I get those amusing picture stories that I am keen on buying?” So you find the store with the widest options. That store is ComiXology, by the way. The other stores don’t even have DC Comics. That’s no fault of their own, but the customer isn’t going to know the specifics, necessarily. Now ComiXology is pretty nice, it’s even laid out very similar to the iTunes app. You feel pretty comfortable that you can find what you like. Note: for various reasons, Dark Horse Comics are largely unavailable through ComiXology. Long-running manga publisher Viz is not on ComiXology, neither is the publisher IDW. All three have elected to work completely independently of ComiXology.

As I was saying, Normal Person, you’re most likely going to end up on ComiXology, and unless you’re into Hellboy, Star Wars or manga, you’ll likely find what you want (assuming that what you want has been put up for digital sale in the first place). You buy the digital comic and at last, long last, you can read a comic book. Glory be!

Yes, well it was quite the ordeal. Yes, I’ll hug you. Just let it out. Shhh. It’s okay, baby. Don’t worry, it’s almost over.

Differences Between Different Distributors:

ComiXology is the easy winner, controlling an almost unfair amount of the digital comics marketplace, running completely unopposed for DC’s affections and holding the majority of Marvel’s digital treasures as well. But you have to keep in mind that ComiXology like all of the other apps are just a combination distributor and retailer. So when you are a superhero comics fan, your digital needs will be mostly covered by ComiXology. But there are some things that the other distributors do that ComiXology doesn’t. And as a shopper, I do not see why the other distributor/retailers shouldn’t be just as well-serviced.

Discounting Viz, Dark Horse and IDW’s digital apps which are uniquely publisher-specific, you have a group of alternate digital storefronts who suffer mainly from lacking the sweetheart deals that ComiXology enjoys with DC and Marvel.

Panelfly…well, frankly I don’t know anything particularly special about this service.

Comics+ (Comics Plus) has the fairly obvious idea of including a “Comics News” tab in their app, which allows a Comics+ user to feel keyed into essential comic headlines. Just installing a blog into the app, is just as obvious and necessary as the traditional Comic Shop News pamphlets that are distributed through brick-and-mortar comic shops. It’s not a comprehensive investigative news portal, but it’s something to give a casual browser some sense of cultural and business context.

Graphic.ly has the most interesting idea in all of digital comics which is to allow for HTML-embeddable comics-readers that can be copied and re-posted anywhere. It is patterned after YouTube’s modular concept and functions in much the same way. Unfortunately, as of this writing, the Graphic.ly website isn’t optimized for iPhone viewing, so while the application works, it isn’t very readable. Graphic.ly needs their site to collapse into a mobile site the way its spiritual ancestor YouTube does. Optimize, optimize, OPTIMIZE.

In addition to that Graphic.ly has its own built in social network. You can create a profile for yourself and start up a friends list. You can see what your friends are buying and interact with them. My great passion in comics is community and human bonding through art. So knowing that about me, you can imagine how excited I am about this feature of Graphic.ly. Yet, so far I find the tools pretty challenging to dig into. I’m fairly determined, but what about the casual fan who may be interested in social networking, but isn’t going to sit with the app for minutes and minutes on end, trying to figure out how to optimize it.

Also: Graphic.ly’s iPhone app is geared toward a comparable experience, but is highly awkward when it comes to executing that experience. The search is strangely limited in parameters compared to ComiXology’s search, there isn’t a clearly separated area to find free comics and previews, which are essential for building reader confidence (all of the apps have free, sample and preview comics that are easy to find and use to test those apps’ functionality).

The mobile version of Graphic.ly is an entirely different world than the web version. The two are so different that the two seem to almost have two different focuses. The mobile and web versions don’t even have the same comics on them. It doesn’t appear that the mobile app has been updated since I saw it earlier this summer. The same comics have been listed on the “Featured” page for months. The social stream is present in both but the embeddable functions don’t have that vital conversion to the mobile experience. Even the simple act of reading the comics that you’ve downloaded is a chore. Often trying to slide to the next image speed-slides through every page of the comic, landing the reader on the last page of the file. It’s even hard to exit the comic-reader in the mobile version.

Mobile is crucial in the real world, comic people.

I know that I’m laying into Graphic.ly pretty hardcore, but please believe that it’s because I want them to become the service that they say they want to become. I can see that they are demonstratively NOT there yet, and I sorely want them to reach that goal.

At Long Last:

I’m disappointed in the selection.

I’m disappointed in the exclusive contracts that most of the top publishers have with one or a handful of distributors.

I’m disappointed in the counter-intuitive, self-defeating and plain-confusing functionality.

I want to read digital comics. I want to be able to tell people who don’t have a near-encyclopedic knowledge of the comics industry that they can buy comics with the ease that they buy music. I want to be able to use any major app to buy any comic book that exists as a digital purchase. I want to select my favorite service based on my needs as a customer and not be hamstrung by needing to know which publisher is betrothed to which distributor.

When I go to Comic Store X or Comic Store Z, I can easily buy all of the major comics at either. No digital store even comes close to coming close.

I just want to read comics. Let’s do this.

3 Responses to “Digital Comics Need To Be Smarter And I Know How”

  1. James Harvey August 19, 2011 at 10:37 am #

    This was very good and needs to be read by as many high-ups as possible

  2. Micah Baldwin August 21, 2011 at 3:54 am #

    Great post! Most of the criticisms of our applications (ok, all criticisms) are highly valid. I would love to chat with you about our plans, and get your feedback. Micah@graphicly.com or 720-248-8499.

    Thanks for writing this.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Let’s See What The Latest Talk is About Digital Downloads | Strip News | ArtPatient - September 12, 2011

    [...] And wouldn’t it be nice to be able to tell people that comics can be bought like music? The only thing is that we need a singular place to shop from. [...]

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