SAN DIEGO -- After several years of percolating, digital comics are about to go ka-boom with marketplace and reader app Comixology at the center of the explosion.
If you wanted to be glib about it, you could describe Comixology's strategy as "divide and conquer." The company has made a series of digital comics "gets" by creating book-specific apps to accompany a number of exclusive agreements to add books to its regular, unbranded Comixology app, that further cement it as the largest digital comics marketplace around.
"Comics stores are like vinyl [record] stores. It's where people who truly love the books come together to hang out," Comixology CEO David Steinberger said in an interview on Thursday at the Comixology booth at the San Diego Comic-Con. "Everybody had access to DVDs, but not everybody had access to comics stores. There's no Best Buy or Tower Records of comics," he said.
Today's big announcement is the addition of the recently published issues of the Hernandez Brothers' "Love and Rockets: New Stories" to Comixology's store, with the promise of future issues from "Love and Rockets" publisher Fantagraphics beyond just the "Love and Rockets" catalog. Not coincidentally, the announcement came during a panel celebrating the book's 30th anniversary.
To tweak the common remark about rock band The Velvet Underground, few people read the "Love and Rockets" comic when it was first published, but it inspired every single one of the people who did to make comics. Of course, that probably didn't happen on a one-to-one basis, but "Love and Rockets" is nevertheless a massively influential comic that probably has stronger sales now than it ever did when it first hit the stands.
Earlier in the week, Comixology announced a branded app for the "Simpsons" comics, and digital distribution deals for titles from Abrams ComicsArts -- which publishes graphic novels like "My Friend Dahmer" by Derf Blackderf and art books like "Cats, Dogs, Men, Women, Ninnies & Clowns: The Lost Art of William Steig" by Jeanne Steig and William Steig -- "The Tower Chronicles" from Legendary Comics, the comics-publishing division of film studio Legendary Entertainment; and titles from new independent comics publisher Monkeybrain Comics, which wound up trending globally on Twitter earlier in the month.
The company also has a Windows 8 Metro app available. Currently, it doesn't offer a marketplace to buy new comics, but you can now download and read your collection from a Windows 8 machine.
This approach has clearly worked for Comixology, grabbing not just headlines with its publishing agreements but readership too. CEO David Steinberger told CNET that he expects estimated gross sales of around $70 million this year, 3.5 times the $19 million the company grossed in fiscal year 2011.
Numerous CNET colleagues and friends have told me they don't want stacks of comics in their homes but want to keep reading about their favorite characters. One person I spoke with here in San Diego said he would've had to give up comics entirely if not for digital.
Joshua Matthews is a demographically average comics reader: male, in his early 30s, and up on many story lines in the superhero books. Two years ago he was changing careers to join the Navy and says that Comixology kept him from leaving comics for good. "My options for carrying print were going to disappear. It's been great to be in the this new world of military service, but stay in touch with my geek heart."
It's clear that comics publishers for years underestimated the value of portability, and have ceded distribution to a model not unlike the print model, which relies heavily on a single distributor. That, and the fact that books bought with Comixology can only be read in the Comixology app or on the Web site, doesn't sit well with some.
iVerse is a digital-comics competitor to Comixology, and they have a different take on how to do digital.
At the iVerse panel on Thursday, CEO Michael Murphey didn't mince his words. "Don't support people that do things you don't like. Don't give someone a piece of your IP [intellectual property] if you don't have to," he said.
iVerse's plan involves a two-pronged approach to offer what Comixology doesn't. It's started a comics-specific, crowd-funding initiative called Comics Accelerator, which is interesting, since some people have estimated Kickstarter to be the third-largest indie comics publisher after Dark Horse and Image. Notably, Comics Accelerator would have a fee capped at $2,500, potentially much lower than Kickstarter's percentage take.
iVerse is also offering a DRM-free option for some comics bought through its ComicsPlus app. Publishers will have the option, Murphey said, of letting readers buy a DRM-free PDF of the comic to download. The PDFs will be stamped with the account name of the buyer, but not restricted in any other way.
"How much is having the best content worth, versus unlocking the content?" asked Comixology's Steinberger. "We feel that making it available on all platforms is more important, and there's certain rules you have to play by to do it."
Multiple Eisner Award-winning comics writer Mark Waid, who didn't have a lot of nice things to say to CNET about reported print comics sales figures or Comixology yesterday, is also pushing his digital comics site Thrillbent. He's slowly building it out, having started with his own original stories and now adding other publishers.
Meanwhile, Dark Horse Comics refuses to join any digital distributor, and has built and maintains its own iOS app and Web storefront. An Android version is coming in the next few months, Dark Horse Public Relations Director Jeremy Atkins told CNET.
Much like the future of the rest of the Internet and entertainment media, comics are rapidly going digital and mobile. And as Comixology continues to round up the established publishers and known books in comics, others will continue to fight for the growing market of lesser-knowns.