Comic Books in the Digital Age

I can’t draw.  There was a time when this would have been something of an impediment to the DIY production of a comic book.  I’m also not rich, famous, connected, a creative team, a publishing house or a marketing department.  I do, however, have a camera, a computer, a graphics tablet, an internet connection and the Adobe Creative Suite.  Burger Force comics are brought to you by the democratisation of technology in the digital age.

Burger Force is the story of a pop culture detective agency located beneath a fast food takeaway. To avoid drawing it, I have combined film and photography techniques with sequential art storytelling to bring you the world’s first professionally cast comic.

The equipment at my disposal – even in my relatively impoverished state – is favoured by many of the stars of ‘the big two’ (Marvel and DC). To produce an issue of Burger Force, I take photographs of real people and places then transform those photographs into line art via Photoshop.  I design the pages and add fonts in Illustrator then assemble those pages in InDesign. From this point I produce a flash file to upload to the website at www.burgerforce.com and a pdf that I email to my printing company.  It is feasible to produce a physical copy of the comic courtesy of advances in digital printing and the subsequent affordability of a small press run [1].

Accessible and affordable technology has removed so many of the hurdles to comic book production that a number of owner/creators are eschewing, even leaving, traditional publishers.  Scott Kurtz, of PvP webcomic fame, recently wrote about his decision to leave Image Comics:

…I now do all pre-production on the books myself. All Image really does for me at this point is [send] it to the printer. So every time I print a collection and do most of the heavy lifting when it comes to sales of the book, Image still gets a fee and Diamond still gets a hefty cut despite not working at all for the benefit of the book as far as sales in stores go.

Monopoly comics distributor Diamond is the long term nemesis of comic book publishers, pocketing up to 60% of the cover price of a comic.  Publishers who make individual arrangements with comic book stores can negotiate that percentage to a more civil 20-40%.  Those offering direct sales from their website have only their payment provider to satisfy.

Diamond is presently facing a strong challenge to their distribution hegemony in the form of digital comic sales.  While comic publishers have previously experimented with micro-payments, subscriptions and some forms of digital distribution, the advent of iOS devices such as the iPad and iPhone is truly changing the distribution landscape. Sales of digital comics increased over 1000% in 2010. The dominant digital distribution platform, ComiXology, was the second highest grossing iPad application at the time of writing [2].

Digital sales have several advantages over print for comic book publishers.  Production costs are lower, distribution is simple and the comics have a much longer shelf life.  Popular digital sales options for independent publishers include selling downloadable pdfs from their website and making their comics available in the form of an application from the Apple store (at a cost of 30% of the cover price).  ComiXology is presently developing a kit that will allow independent publishers to be included on their popular platform (at the cost of 35% of the cover price).  Other online distributors will presumably follow suit.  E-readers such as Amazon’s Kindle are not currently popular with comic publishers due to poorer screen display and the introduction of digital delivery fees per megabyte that penalise graphic file sizes (in addition to charging 35% of the cover price).

The appeal of digital comics to consumers is clear.  The shops are always open, they never run out of stock and the comic shop guy isn’t going to question their choices.  Rare and previously out of print publications can be accessed with a few clicks and they don’t take up much space or start to smell.  Digital distribution platforms such as Graphic.ly have sought to further the appeal of digital comics by offering bonus content such as commentary tracks and a feature that allows users to remove the colour from a comic and inspect the inks beneath [3]. Graphic.ly also attempts to mimic the ‘community’ experience of a comic shop by incorporating discussion boards and user recommendations on their site.

The rise in popularity of digital comics is a concern for brick and mortar comic stores, but it is not necessarily the end of printed comics. Some comics don’t translate as seamlessly to digital as music, movies, and text-based books. There are certain paper and design aesthetics that are better appreciated in print.  Collectors will still want their signed, limited editions and variant covers, along with the potential to resell their collection at a profit.  They also want genuine ownership.

Unlike digital purchases of movie and music files, customers do not own the digital comics they have bought from most publishers.  They have merely purchased the right to view them on a licensed device.  As the comics are frequently in proprietary formats, the customer’s ability to view their purchases exists only as long as the platform is in operation. In many cases, the customer must also be online to view their purchase. Digital is, nevertheless, the only growth area in comic sales.

No single issue print title exceeded 100 000 in print sales in August of 2011. This is quite a decline from the golden days of the sixties when the top selling titles exceeded 1 000 000 in sales. Digital sales, ‘trade waiters’, the global financial crisis and the closure of physical comic stores (along with the demise of comic friendly chains like Borders) are all factors in the decline of single issue sales of printed comics [4]. Piracy is another.  Scanned copies of most comics can be found on pirate sites hours after official release.  As with most forms of piracy, examples can be found in support of ‘piracy as promotion’.  The creators of the spelunking comic Underground saw a massive spike in their website stats and etsy sales after their comic was illegally posted on 4chan [5].

In a bid to deter piracy, publishers have banned together to have pirate sites such as Htmlcomics shut down. They have also been inspired to provide appealing legal alternatives, including the recent shift to ‘day and date’ publishing, whereby comics can be downloaded digitally the day they are released in stores.  There has been a general reluctance to follow the music industry initiative of including free (or even discounted) digital versions of a product with the purchase of a physical version.

With even the pirates pitching in, marketing is relatively easy and affordable in the age of Web 2.0.  Budget friendly online marketing/ fan-relationship-building opportunities include facebook, twitter, blogs, and forums.   Ryan North of ‘Dinosaur Comics’ and his associates used social media with such panache that their ‘Dinosaur Comics’ inspired anthology, Machine of Death, debuted at #1 on the Amazon best seller list. The charmingly chaotic webcomic Axe Cop went viral just days after appearing online, the website receiving nearly 750 000 unique visits within the month. When heroic marketing feats such as this can be achieved independently, owner/creators have further incentive to question the economic sense of handing a large slice of the profits and a cut of the merchandising to a publisher.

With marketing easier and cheaper than ever before it helps to have an angle to cut through through the white noise.  Burger Force has one, incidentally.  Some of the best looking people in the world are in this thing.  They also happen to be very, very good at what they do.  The actors involved frequently appear in major theatrical productions around Australia and in the performance groups Polytoxic and Briefs.  Basically, it’s a comic with very good acting.  But the real innovation?  It’s now less creepy than ever before to have a crush on a comic book character.  Maybe you really will meet one of the stars of this comic and fall in love.  You should probably buy a copy and get started on that journey.  How about a t-shirt?

Merchandising and IPR are frequently more profitable for comic book publishers than actual comic sales. Most publishers have a combination of posters, t-shirts and the like for sale on their websites or through nerd-friendly websites such as Topatoco.  At the top end of town, film and television adaptions of properties such as Thor, Scott Pilgrim Vs the World and The Walking Dead have spawned video games, action figures, soundtracks and more.  Even when the film is a box office disappointment, the flow on effects for comic book sales and associated merchandise can be significant.

So how does a comic make money in the absence of Hollywood or viral success? My strategy, which isn’t for everyone, is not to try.  I make Burger Force available for free online and the margins are very tight on the physical copies.  I figure the most important thing at this stage is for people to be aware that it exists. If they don’t have pay for it, they might read it.  If they read it, they might like it.  Word of mouth is quite a large part of my advertising budget.  It may not always be this way.  I rather hope it isn’t.  I have deferred fees and residuals to pay.

One of the advantages of being small is that you are nimble.  As an owner/creator in the digital age, I can make changes to the website, the availability of the comics and my marketing strategy with relative ease.  Should Burger Force become an overnight sensation years from now, I’ll imagine I’ll negotiate that with some combination of a camera, a computer, a graphics tablet, an internet connection and the Adobe Creative Suite.

 

Images:

Lisa Fa’alafi as ORIANA

Janis McGavin as ALEX

Yalin Ozucelik as MERCURY

Remy Hii as COLE

Mark Whittaker as FANCY JAMES

Leah Shelton as CILLA

 


[1]
I have explored Print on Demand options, but the pricing is generally higher and the quality less consistent.

[2]
The first week of September, 2011. ComiXology contains content from over 40 publishers including ‘the big two’.

[3]
Graphic.ly is the second largest digital comics distributor behind ComiXology.

[4]
Trade waiters prefer their stories to be collected into a bookshelf-worthy edition to purchasing single issues of comics, or ‘floppies’.

[5]
This dwarfed the spike their site received when the comic was promoted on the popular blog ‘Boing Boing’. See also this.

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One Response to Comic Books in the Digital Age

  1. Jackie Ryan December 14, 2011 at 7:59 pm #

    Since writing this essay, some of it has already fallen out of date – ah, the perils of the digital age. The big publishers (including Marvel and DC) are now experimenting with giving free digital downloads of comics with the purchase of the printed version. In other news, e-readers are set to get a lot more comic-friendly, led by Amazon’s Kindle Fire – which ships with the comiXology application preinstalled.

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