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New digital comics meet old storytelling tricks

Comics fans are getting a double-dose of digital innovation this summer, as DC Comics lets you choose your own Batman adventure and revel in new tales of the campy '60s Batman.

Artwork from Batman '66 will show transitions similar to the classic 1960s Batman TV show.
DC Entertainment

The high camp era of the 1960's Batman TV show, and video game-influenced "choose-your-own-adventure" stories, will come to DC Entertainment's digital comics this summer with new digital storytelling techniques to draw in readers.

At a "Future of Storytelling" event that DC Entertainment parent company Warner Brothers held on Tuesday in New York City, DC Entertainment President Diane Nelson said that the new comics will appeal to fans of the classic Batman TV show and the current series of Batman: Arkham video games.

"These are our latest steps in a methodical digital strategy," she told CNET in a phone conversation Tuesday morning. "Three years ago we were essentially nowhere, with no digital business to speak of."

"DC2" is what the company is calling the new digital comics. They different from its standard same-day digital and print publishing, and its digital-first publishing, in that the DC2 line has added technological tricks to enhance the story.

The first DC2 book will be the previously-announced digital-first title Batman '66, which features the first time ever that the campy Adam West and Burt Ward Batman series from the mid-1960s will appear in comics.

Batman '66 will showcase dynamically changing artwork, so that as you tap or click your way through the story, the in-panel artwork will change. In one panel you'll see Batman squaring off against the Riddler on a bi-plane, for example, and tapping will show you the art changing as the Riddler shoots Batman with a cloud of gas. Normally, the story would move on to the next panel.

Batman '66 will use the famous oversized action sound effects such as "pow," "biff," and "bam," that helped define the show.

"The actual conceit of the show is something we can pull off with the technology," said DC Entertainment's co-Publisher Jim Lee. "As we started thinking about the next step in our evolutionary digital program, we really wanted the right [intellectual property] to match to the technology."

When the comic is reprinted in physical format, it will contain the same story but obviously without the visual effects, Lee explained.

The second title, also a digital-first book, is called Batman: Arkham Origins and is based on the hit Batman: Arkham video game series. Published under the rubric of DC2 Multiverse, Arkham Origins will let readers choose different characters to follow through the story. Who you choose to follow, and which story paths you follow them down, will change your reading experience.

You also will be able to add your own soundtrack to Arkham Origins, although it wasn't clear at the time of publishing how that will work.

The title "multiverse" carries a lot of weight in DC Comics lore, as the company's superheroes have interacted with multiple universes, featuring multiple Earths and therefore multiple versions of themselves. Here, though, the name refers to different paths that you can take the lead characters down.

The storytelling structure is not too dissimilar from how a video game is plotted, said Lee. "Same toolset as DC2 but with sounds and choices. Based on your choices, you'll unlock different stories in the story tree."

Digital comics have proven to be big business for DC. The company reports that digital sales have increased 125 percent from 2011 to 2012, while print sales were "up by double-digits," Nelson said, during the same period. This means, she said, that people buying digital comics are not being cannibalized from print comics sales, a key concern of comics retailers.

She also said that digital sales during the first quarter of 2013 were 35 percent higher than sales during the same period of 2012, and that 30 percent of DC's digital comics readers are new to comics. Ten percent of the digital comics readers are from outside the United States.

DC2 Multiverse: Batman: Arkham Origins updates the choose-your-own-adventure storytelling format for digital comics. DC Entertainment

While she wouldn't discuss numbers specific to books, making it hard to tell how DC's top sellers are doing in comparison to their midlist titles, she did say that the company sells more than one million digital comics every month.

The success has not been without controversy. While print comics retailers have been more or less mollified by the success of DC and its competitors in not leeching print sales, as happened with music, the comics creators have had a bone to pick with DC over differences in royalties paid for the same work done digitally versus in print.

Lee said that the company is working on the problem, but gave no specifics in a non-committal answer. "When we launched our digital initiative, all our projects were licensed IP. The digital space was growing and a new space for us," he said. "We decided to start with a different compensation package. It's something we are adjusting in time."

Back in 2011, just before the company launched its same-day publishing initiative for print and digital, Lee told CNET that the difference in sales between print and digital was like the difference between a sheet of paper and a string of dental floss. That's changed, he said.

"Now it's like a strip of Wrigley's gum. It's wider and broader," he said. "We're really happy with the growth of the digital business, because it's increasing the overall size of the pie."