Digital comics come to life on tablets

CNET takes a brief look at digital comics on smartphones and tablets, and chats with Comixology CEO David Steinberger.

Nicole Lee Former Editor
Nicole Lee is a senior associate editor for CNET, covering cell phones, Bluetooth headsets, and all things mobile. She's also a fan of comic books, video games, and of course, shiny gadgets.
Nicole Lee
6 min read

Digital comics have been around for longer than the iPad, but they were previously confined to either the computer or a tiny smartphone screen. The iPad breathed life into this burgeoning field by providing a larger, colorful display that was still portable.

How the eye follows the page
In fact, one of the very first apps to debut on day one of the iPad's release in 2010 was Comixology, an app that allows you to purchase, store, and read comics right on the iPad.

Comixology's iPhone app debuted in late 2009, but it wasn't until the iPad version that the digital comic potential was realized. Comixology boasted a reading experience that's almost cinematic, supposedly mimicking how the eye follows the printed page with a mode called "guided view." In guided view, you read panel by panel, instead of page by page. David Steinberger, Comixology's CEO, claims that around 50 percent of its users use guided view instead of full-page mode.

Content deals soon followed, as Comixology started offering titles by Marvel and DC, the two biggest names in comics. Indeed, Comixology helped the two publishers come up with their own dedicated apps in the iTunes App Store. It has also created title-specific apps like the Scott Pilgrim app that only carries Scott Pilgrim books.

The reason is simple: Specific apps get higher level searchability in the iTunes App Store. This proved especially useful when the movie of the same name debuted and people wanted to read the books that inspired the film.

Audience diversity and growth
One of the more interesting results of digital comics on tablets and smartphones is that they typically draw in more casual consumers who are newer to comics. Steinberger said, for example, that the digital audience tends to favor pop culture hits more than traditional comic book fare. When the zombie-centric "Walking Dead" series debuted on AMC, digital sales of the comics on Comixology went up dramatically. This might be because casual consumers either don't know about their local comic book store or just don't want to go there.

Comixology on the iPad
Comixology on the iPad Screenshot by Nicole Lee/CNET

"The [traditional] distribution of comics is lame," Steinberger said. "They're not on newsstands anymore, they're not in the corner stores. They're only available to direct-market retailers and there's less distribution than it used to be. There's great opportunity here to gain a larger market [of comic readers]."

He pointed out that the app actually includes a retailer finder. While it might seem odd that Comixology is promoting its brick-and-mortar rivals, Steinberger sees them more as allies.

"Everyone expects us to be a disrupter to steal market share," he said. "We feel that the way the market is shaped in the first place, there's an incredible chance here to enlarge the market. We feel that getting more people to discover comics at all is great for everyone."

Publishers and pricing
Perhaps the most compelling reason to buy digital over print is that you get practically infinite shelf space and inventory. Back catalogs are easier to access without having to go through the disappointment of missing one or two titles in a vast collection.

But to please the true comics fan, Comixology and competitors like Graphic.ly need to deliver new comics on the same day as the print version arrives in stores--this is called day-and-date delivery, and it usually happens on Wednesdays. Some publishers already do this, like Archie, and Marvel and DC do deliver a few of their titles this way. But the numbers aren't nearly where they should be, especially with popular titles and independent releases.

The other issue is pricing. While most comics are 99 cents and $1.99 each, current issues can be $2.99 or the same price as the print version. Since the comics are DRM-protected, some readers might not feel the price is justified.

Steinberger admits that DRM might not be palatable, but it's a necessary evil--"otherwise publishers don't do this at all." However, since Comixology offers its content not only on iOS devices, but also on the Web and on Android, Steinberger says that hopefully the seamless reading and downloading experience will make the DRM less heinous.

One way for publishers to lower the price is to go it alone without a third-party distributor. For example, Viz Media and Dark Horse have developed their own apps that you can download on the iTunes App Store. Their books are typically cheaper than their print counterparts--some Viz books are half the price, while Dark Horse charges around $1.49 per issue.

Dark Horse goes a step further to cut costs by trying to avoid Apple's e-commerce system, redirecting users to the mobile Safari app to purchase comics, much like Amazon's Kindle application.

UPDATE: We've learned that Dark Horse has changed its pricing to $1.99 per issue for in-app purchases, putting the publisher on par with the others.

Graphic.ly's Android app is currently the only app to support Marvel comics on Android.
Graphic.ly's Android app is currently the only app to support Marvel comics on Android. Screenshot by Nicole Lee/CNET

Expanding market
Even though Comixology was there first, it's no longer the only player in the game. Graphic.ly is an up-and-coming competitor in the space--the company has apps for the iPhone, iPad, and Android devices. Even though Graphic.ly's library of titles is not as large, it has worked out a deal where it's the only Android app to deliver Marvel comics--Comixology's Android app blocks Marvel content, at least for now. Graphic.ly also has a social component to its app that lets you clip a panel and share it on Facebook, leave a review on individual issues, and read your friends' reviews.

While Comixology is iOS-centric, it has recently been very bullish on Android, and is working out a better in-app purchasing experience with Google. But Steinberger admits that it all started with Apple.

"Without Apple, this market would not have happened," he said. "They created a sense for consumers that they should buy digital content on their devices. They make devices for image-rich content."

Digital future
When asked about the future of digital comics, Steinberger said the first step is for publishers to get comfortable with day-and-date releases of digital copies. The risk is understandable--both retailers and publishers are afraid that sales would go down as a result.

"But we're getting a lot of data that as we're selling a lot of "Walking Dead" books, hard-copy sales of "Walking Dead" keep going up too," he said. "We're expanding the market, we're not destroying the retailer. We're helping them. It's beneficial for everyone to have all content available everywhere as soon as it can."

In fact, Comixology recently announced a digital affiliate storefront for retailers so retailers can start selling comics online, too. Steinberger claims that it's actually connected to the retailer revenue-wise, and it is in Comixology's interest for the retailer to do well.

Comixology also developed a publisher portal for self-publishers and independent creators. You can sign up, submit your books, set up the guided-view system, and use its own in-house software to create the digital comic. The book will then go on sale in the Comixology store. Obviously Comixology will take a percentage of sales and there might be an entrance fee, but it might be the easiest way to get your self-published book distributed.

"There's room for growth in the market," Steinberger said. "We still love print. We have walls of trade paperbacks and hardcovers in the office.

"But digital is for people who haven't read comics in 20 years because of too much bulk, or the people who travel who don't want to carry around books," he continued. "We've heard stories of comic fans who threw away their collections years ago to clear up space in the garage or the basement, and are now back because of us."

If you live in the San Francisco Bay Area, there will be a panel about digital comics at WonderCon at Moscone South this Friday, April 1, at 7 p.m. PT. in room 220. Panelists will include David Steinberger, who was interviewed for this article, as well as Micah Baldwin, CEO of Graphic.ly, and Michael Murphey, CEO of iVerse, another distributor of digital comics.