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Digital Comics Rant!

Longbox Graveyard #60

I’ve been a comics fan and reader since the early 1970s. I left comics in the 1990s and have only this past year returned, but my interest is confined to nostalgia — today’s books don’t really interest me, which I think is a problem both for me and for publishers, as I am affluent reader with two kids who might pick up the hobby but the current approach at Marvel and DC holds limited appeal for us. I worked briefly as a writer on some non-Marvel/DC books decades ago, and I still have friends in the business, but I don’t think either one of those things gives me any special insight into what’s happening in comics today. However, since 2008 I have been partners in an iOS publisher and developer, and that DOES give me special insight into the digital world, at least in the apps publishing space.

I have two problems with the digital programs now on offer from the “Big Two.” One is editorial, and the other is with the marketplace.

The marketplace issue is the easiest to address. First off, there may not be a marketplace issue. As of March 2012, ComiXology is on record saying they’ve shipped 50M comics through their app, and they make frequent appearances on the iPad Top Grossing lists in the United States. Maybe Marvel and DC have managed to dig a flaming, gasoline-filled trench around their digital IP and will be able to keep their prices artificially high.

Speaking as a publisher who has to work to give away free games that pack hundreds of hours of content … if they can do that, then I say more power to them!

Speaking as a digital entrepreneur, my view is that publishers could be leaving money on the table due to inflexible pricing, a creaky storefront, too many partners (DC and Marvel must share revenue with Apple and ComiXology with their current apps) and cross-platform incompatibility that erects an artificial wall between new books and the catalog offerings of Marvel’s Digital Unlimited service.

Were I running the digital initiative for Marvel or DC I would ween myself from ComiXology as soon as possible in favor of my own publishing platform, built around microtransactions with in-app currency (to allow more flexibility in pricing and bundling), with laser-sharp metrics closely watching reader behaviors to guide future business decisions. I’d also leverage comics as a social platform by opening up the sharing possibilities of digital books and empowering readers to evangelize their passion by migrating the “collecting” experience from the physical act of owning books to virtual achievements built around viewing and sharing digital comics, with an eye toward restoring comic books as the brand leader for superheroes, instead of the trailing appendage they’ve become in this era of better than a billion dollar box office superhero movies (while equivalent books sell in the hundred thousand copies range).

This might already be in the works. A recent report put ComiXology’s “gross merchandise value” for 2011 at nineteen million dollars, with that number projected to jump to $70M in 2012. With that kind of money on the table, Marvel and DC can certainly afford to build and control their own platforms (and in fact they can’t afford not to).

A simpler solution would be for Marvel and/or DC to buy ComiXology outright, and it wouldn’t surprise me at all to see this happen.

The bigger problem is on the editorial side of the business, which is stuck with largely the same playbook they’ve been running for the last three decades. The freemium digital marketplace I’m advocating only make sense if you can reach a mass audience — a truly digital approach to content and monetization will work only when your audience numbers in the tens or hundreds of millions.

Evidence suggests the current system works to some degree for a market where the top print book struggles to sell 200K copies. The question is whether that market can ever be brought back to the levels of prior decades. If they think there is a mass digital audience out there, then it is an inevitability that DC and Marvel will have to stop price protecting their print retail partners and adopt lower prices for their digital offerings. I’m in my fourth year in the iOS business and I have seen the “Race To Zero” first-hand (with my own money on the line). It’s gotten so even .99 is considered a “premium” price, and you have to work to give away free apps.

In truth, even “free” costs too much these days.

The danger for comic publishers is that it may be too late for them. The market may be so damaged and diminished that it is no longer possible to tap into a mass audience by dropping prices to .99 or free. If the worldwide market for superhero comics really has collapsed to a half-million or so hardcores buying DC and Marvel print titles each month then the free market just won’t work — you’d need ten times that many people interested in digital books to make a profitable business off the 5% of your customers that you will monetize through free distribution. There would be some organic lift from getting free books into more people’s hands — and thus spreading your brand to a collateral audience — but I think the editorial problem at Marvel and DC is pathological enough that just getting the books into peoples’ hands won’t be enough. The content has become too dense, self-referential, and fringe to work as mass entertainment. Witness DC’s “New 52” reboot — presented as a means of making DC’s line more friendly to new readers — which after an initial surge of interest appears to have posted only modest readership gains in the long run (though there are encouraging indications the market is coming back).

So if there is no reaching new readers, then it is actually best for Marvel and DC to do what they’re doing — circle the wagons, hold the price line as long as they can, and fight a delaying action until the publishers as we know them are closed down and their properties are licensed out to smaller shops. Paramount and Hasbro both have comic books without being in the comic book business — might Marvel and DC ultimately elect to go the same route? Marvel and to a lesser extent DC have already realized they are in the “superhero” business rather than the “comics” business and are reorganizing their operations accordingly. I have friends who will lose jobs when this happens and it gives me little joy to say it, but markets are never wrong — the music, publishing, and software businesses have already been disrupted, and there’s no reason to expect comics will be any different. The collapse of Borders and Blockbuster are just two of the earliest and most visible casualties in the digital disruption of entertainment. There will be a pile of bodies on the field before this shakes out.

The indie side of digital offers some opportunities but will be hamstrung by the absence of meaningful brands. There will be successes here and there — particularly for small shops who can keep their costs in line and put a LOT of effort into fan outreach via social media — but for that mass North American moviegoing audience we should be trying to tap, “comic books” = “superheroes,” and “superheroes” = Batman, Spider-Man, and Superman (and now also a host of lesser Marvel characters as well, thanks to a stellar effort from Marvel’s movie studio). Mark Waid has made news by shifting his creator-owned work to digital and I think he is smart to set up his own channel to distribute and monetize his work. He is definitely biting the hand that feeds him but the tide is inevitable and irresistible (and I have enjoyed his digital effort, “Insufferable”).

The problem Mr. Waid will face is that there’s only a fraction of this already-small audience interested in reading his original books than there are people who want to read his Daredevil books. The power of the superhero brands is substantial (which is why the movie business is roaring, for the most part), and with seventy-five years of brand equity built up around their superhero rosters there’s no way any small indie operation is going to challenge Marvel and DC with superheroes for the mass audience. It’s a risk for Mark (because he is making a living off this business) but he’s wise to know the end is near and to make the jump too soon instead of too late. The disruption is real and no one will escape. The guys still standing at the end will be the ones who disrupted themselves and changed into new and profitable forms.

So there you have my view — the major publishers afraid to take the leap, knowing there likely isn’t a far side of the ravine out there in the dark, while indie guys have the tools but don’t have the networks or the superhero properties the market cares about. In the next three years I expect you will see a few digital indie studios take root, clutch and grab to break even, and then be positioned to pick up the licenses to the big superhero brands when the monthly paper publishing arms of DC and Marvel inevitably collapse. The brick and mortar comics market will continue to struggle and is probably doomed. Fans will vote with their wallets and pirate digital books rather than pay inflated prices to placate direct market retailers. Publishers and retailers will remain chained to each other at the ankles, until the last second when the publishers will sever the chain and give retailers a shove over the side. Then the publishers better hope they still have an audience. Digital consumer habits for the next hundred years are being established RIGHT NOW and Marvel and DC are flirting with extinction because they aren’t at the center of it.

Time is critical and there may not be a second chance to get this right.

Note: This column original appeared at the We Talk Podcasts site, to support my appearance on the We Talk Comics podcast. This revised version of my Digital Comics Rant has been updated to reflect new information, and is reprinted here to support next week’s review of the Legends of the Dark Knight digital comic, as well as the pending release of the next Longbox Graveyard Podcast, which will cover digital comics. Thanks to We Talk Podcasts for providing a forum for the original version of this article.

NEXT WEDNESDAY: #61 Legends of the (Digital) Dark Knight

Operation Ajax

Longbox Graveyard #28

Just a couple weeks ago I admonished myself for crossing the streams, mixing my comics interest with my boardgame hobby. And here I go again. But this time, it is my secret identity as an app developer that collides with my comics obsession.

We live in an era of digital disruption, where electronic distribution of entertainment has savaged the music business, turned the book business upside-down, hit video games below the waterline, and cut the pins out from under the DVD business. In every case the drumbeat has been the same — more frictionless distribution of content, more choices for consumers, and a sharp decline in power and profits for stakeholders dependent on the previous means of sales and distribution.

read more: The Digital Disruption — Connectivity & The Diffusion of Power

Aside from concerns over digital piracy, comic books have thus far largely escaped this disruption. We’ve been hearing about digital comics for so long that it’s hard not to figure digital is the future of comics … and always will be. Despite recent high-profile shifts to “day and date” distribution of digital comics alongside print, digital comics have been slow to make inroads versus the print market. Digital comics are available through on-line subscription and various apps, but we haven’t seen headlines about great sales success using these channels.

As an app publisher, I can tell you that when a company characterizes their sales success in terms of all-time records or a percentage of increase that … they aren’t terribly proud of their sales figures. If you sell a million units, you shout it from the rooftops. If you shift a lot of free copies with mediocre paid conversion, you trumpet that downloads are up 500%. It’s how the game is played.

There are a lot of theories about why digital comics have been slow to take off. They’re too expensive. They’re inconvenient compared to print. They’re too easy to get for free.

read more: “Comic Book Comics” The Rise of Digital Comics & Piracy

It might also be that comics aren’t relevant enough to make the transition to this new era. Like radio dramas, model railroading, and CB radio, comics may be on the path to extinction, with most folks content to get their superheroes at the movies, while I circle the wagons and review thirty-year-old comics here at Longbox Graveyard.

Might comics somehow reinvent themselves to reverse their decline? Even setting aside the digital question, the overall trend of comics sales has been flat or down and to the right for years if not decades. Are comics as we know them on the verge of extinction? What changes must comics make to compete for hearts and eyeballs in this new digital world?

With pretty much zero ballyhoo a comic appeared last month that I think marks a watershed moment for digital comics. Don’t feel bad if you missed it. Even with my intense interest in comics and apps I would have missed it entirely if I hadn’t been reading my usual business news.

The book is called Operation Ajax, and I think it pretty much cracks the code for digital comics.

Check out the video:

Let me admit right away that I am in love with this work — as a history wonk, a comics fan, and an apps freak this project could have been created specifically with me in mind! Let me also admit that as a hard-nosed developer working full time in the app space I know full well that the upside prospects of an iPad-only graphic novel based on the real world story of CIA operations in Cold War-era Iran are … challenging, to say the least.

But let me dispel the first thing that probably crossed the minds of veteran comics fans when they saw that video.

Operation Ajax is not a motion comic.

Operation Ajax is a comic told with motion. And that makes all the difference. Where motion comics are caught in a ghetto somewhere between comics and animation, Operation Ajax instead uses the movement and sound toolbox of motion comics to advance the art and create what I feel is the first comic book genuinely native to the digital form. There’s no spoken dialogue in Operation Ajax — this is still a reading experience. But it is a reading experience that embraces technology rather than merely accommodating it. Operation Ajax isn’t a bunch of pages ported to an iPad and then viewed through the knothole of a moving window settling on one panel at a time. Instead the art and words have been built from the ground-up for this new form, layering atop one another to tell a story in a way comics fans will find familiar, but that is at the same time new thanks to how the Ajax storytellers control pace and presentation in ways that paper comics cannot match. But Ajax still has much in common with standard comics. Most critically, rather than abandon comics page form in favor of single-panel viewing, Ajax retains a conventional page architecture to tell story with juxtaposed images while at the same time presenting its panels in an original and technologically appropriate way.

It is difficult to describe, and any screen shots I provide are an inadequate representation of the full work. The video gives some sense of Ajax but the app must be experienced for the promise of this form to be fully appreciated. The reader still controls the overall pace of the story by tapping the screen to advance the story from panel to panel, but because the reader cannot glimpse ahead to preview panels before he gets to them — and because of the way panels appear, move, evolve, and relate to each other — the experience of reading Ajax is unique. It isn’t static like a comic, but the motion of Ajax isn’t remote like a movie. The reader interacts with the motion and pace of Ajax as he would by reading a conventional comic, but the methodology of the form more closely approximates storyboards for film, while simultaneously feeling fresh and not some lesser aping of cinematic form.

The Ajax format is particularly effective in building tension. Operation Ajax tells a complex and multi-layered story of Iranian politics and espionage, and it opens with a frightened CIA operative caught up in Iranian mob — a mob he is trying to spark into chaos by tossing a bomb into their midst. The agent rushes down an alley, trailing his local Iranian asset; he opens his brief case and is instructed on how to prepare his bomb; the fuse is sparked (and we hear it burn down); the agent is framed against blackness with the bomb burning in his hand, his companion urging him to throw …

… we push in while the agent is frozen with panic, the bomb threatening to blow his arm off; there’s no time, he’s going to be killed!; the bomb arcs through darkness, explodes (you see this explosion right at the beginning of the video above); then the shocked and disoriented face of the agent blurs and bleeds into a watery reflection as we move forward in time a half century, and a now ancient ex-CIA spook peers into the water from the back of his boat, his memories stirred up afresh by overhearing a radio report of violence in the Middle East.

The technique works in quiet moments, too, as in this multi-screenshot sequence that shows how a haggard Shah of Iran feels as he gets toward the end of his rope:

Everyone I’ve shared Ajax with has had an “oh shit” moment seconds after starting the story, understanding as they watch the panels unfold that the storytelling world has changed in a fundamental way. Market indifference or the choice of topic or the vagaries of App Store marketing may determine Operation Ajax’s fate irrespective of the quality of this presentation, but there is no doubt in my mind that this work charts a new paradigm for how graphic novel stories can be told using touch tablet technology.

And it arrived like a bolt out of the blue! The project is massive — 210 pages of art in an eleven-chapter graphic novel, supported by character dossiers, reproductions of historical documents, and period newsreels. Operation Ajax is smarty written, expertly drawn, entertaining, thought-provoking, and at the cutting edge of graphic novel storytelling in its use of technology. Where did this thing come from?

I had to know!

And so I tracked down two of the principles behind Cognito Comics’ Operation Ajax — Ash Aiwase and Daniel Burwen — and asked them all about it!

Longbox Graveyard (LBG): Can you provide a brief history of Cognito?

Daniel Burwen: Cognito Comics was started by myself in early 2008. I had been working in the video game industry for a few years at EA and Activision, and was looking for something more meaningful to work on than the next Tony Hawk sequel. I took a teaching gig and ran the company out of my small apartment in Oakland for several years while my writer, Mike de Seve, finished the script. When we started to go into art production in early 2010, I moved the company into a dedicated office in the Mission district of San Francisco next to Tall Chair, the company who provides us with The Active Reader (technology employed by Operation Ajax).

LBG: How did you come to tell this story? Did the idea for this graphic novel predate Cognito and the interactive form that you have used, or was this always conceived as an iPad project?

Daniel: After the Iraq war broke out in 2002, I was left asking a lot of questions. When I discovered Stephen Kinzer’s work Overthrow, I felt like I had found the missing pieces. I knew I wanted to use my talents in art and tech to bring these stories to a wider audience, but was not sure how to do that easily with video games at the time. I thought a traditional print graphic novel would serve my mission better, and after pitching Kinzer at a book signing (he said yes), we were off and running. It wasn’t until the iPad was announced in early 2010 that I considered changing the format for this new platform.

LBG: Tell me about the creative team on Ajax. Where have they worked before, and which characters or projects have they handled?

Daniel: We worked with a few guys that those in the comics world might recognize. Steve Scott (Batman Confidential, X-Men Forever, JLA) did the bulk of our covers. Jim Muniz (X-Men, Hulk) did some early character designs for us and helped set the overall visual style. Steve Ellis (Iron Man, Box 13, High Moon) did a chapter for us.

Ash Aiwase: We also worked with Xeric award-winning writer Jason McNamara (The Martian Confederacy, Full Moon) to adapt Mike’s script to comic book format; I actually met Daniel at one of Jason’s signings, and that’s how I wound up getting involved with Cognito Comics.

LBG: How did your understanding of the graphic novel format change in telling the story using this technology?

Daniel: I think the hardest part was learning how to make comics. Ajax is entirely built off traditional comics, and it’s because the traditional compositions work in print that the animation and interactivity works in the iPad version. Figuring out how to create a compelling animation style that honored the print page legacy was key. It was very easy to over-animate the content, and I discovered it’s a fine line between creating a poor film experience versus a rich reading experience.

an Operation Ajax master page, prior to formatting & editing for the Active Reader

LBG: To what degree do you feel this new form requires content be created with it specifically in mind? Would you expect that an existing graphic novel could be edited and be presented in this new form?

Daniel: I think there is strength in both approaches. We are now starting production on our second comics project, and the pages are formatted in landscape. It really changes the animation style and it seems like there isn’t a single solution that solves every problem. There will always be creative approaches for translating print content across different platforms. However, being able to start with the tablet in mind allows for some really cool techniques that just aren’t there with print.

Ash: We’ve toyed around with the concept of putting legacy comics material on our platform, and the results were very surprising — we had a lot of fun giving print pages the Ajax treatment! That being said, you’re right in that you can do a lot more with material that’s been created with The Active Reader in mind.

LBG: Why this story? Is it a passion project for anyone on the team? Iran is at the center of some very scary world headlines right now — do you worry the audience may reject your work, thinking it has a political agenda?

Daniel: It’s a passion project for me personally. I do not want to see the US start another war in the Middle East. I think if more Americans were knowledgeable about the Foreign Policy record of the US, we may not have ended up invading Iraq. My hope is that by bringing this story to a Western audience, that audience will learn something new, question their assumptions, and perhaps the relationship between Iran and the US will change for the better. We definitely tried to focus on presenting information as opposed to editorializing, and I hope people will see Ajax as a source of information from which to further refine their own views and opinions.

LBG: What is next for Cognito? Will you continue to do similar real-world historical projects, and/or will you tackle more conventional comic book material? Do you wish to license your platform to other publishers?

Daniel: While I have a soft spot for socio-political work, it was a long and exhausting haul to get Ajax out the door at a level we felt proud of. Our next piece is not political and much more modest in scope, with the intent of pushing the boundaries of this new medium. I sincerely hope to do another work like Ajax in the future, there are many more stories like this that I would love to help tell.

Ash: We’re full steam ahead on a couple of internal projects and have also been talking to a number of people who are interested in collaborating in this space. I think we have some exciting times ahead!

Thanks to Daniel and Ash for making time for Longbox Graveyard!

Look, I’m a comics fan and an app developer but I don’t have a dog in this fight. I don’t plan to be part of the crusade to transform comics for the new digital century. But as a fan of the form I would love nothing better than to see this technology and these storytelling methods take root, reach a wide audience, and change the way we experience graphic novels. Regardless of your interest in the subject, or where you stand on the issues confronting comics in their digital transition, you owe it to yourself to buy this app right now for your iPad — or beg, borrow, or steal a friend’s iPad to experience Operation Ajax. Time will tell if this is a pivotal product or an historical oddity, but today, at this hour, I think Operation Ajax is the apex of graphic storytelling on the iPad.

Don’t miss it!

(Update: Operation Ajax is now available for iPhone, and there is an “app tour” video for the comic HERE).

NEXT WEDNESDAY: #29 “D” Is For Deathlok!

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