comics

Digital Comics Update: Doing Great in Some Non-Specific Way

Justice League #1 - Record-setting sales for DC's digital comics

While still a fraction of print sales, digital comics continue to grow. (Digital comics being comic books you read on the web and mobile devices like the iPad and Android phones.) Great news, right? I’m a big believer in digital comics. But it’s not so easy to know exactly how much they’re growing or whether everyone’s just really excited about a lot of unsubstantiated press release hype.

Within a week of each other, the largest comic book publishers in North America both claimed that sales of one of their digital comics surpassed their own records for digital sales. In both instances, the record-setting digital comic was released on the same day as its print counterpart was released in comic book stores. DC Comics announced in this interview with Salon the good sales news for Justice League #1 by Geoff Johns and Jim Lee, the launch title for their ambitious and highly publicized New 52 initiative.

Jim Lee: [B]ased on recent numbers, certainly Justice League No. 1 has surpassed the recent highs in comics sales. […] It’s also setting records digitally. I can’t give numbers, but on the first day it set a record for us.

Salon: Once you compared the volume of DC’s digital comics sales to dental floss. Is it up to dental tape now?

Jim Lee: It’s too early to say.

Marvel Comics later issued a press release for their announcement regarding Ultimate Comics Spider-Man #1 by Brian Michael Bendis and Sara Pichelli, where the webbed adventures begin for the half-black/half-Latino Miles Morales.

The trick? Neither publisher actually revealed any concrete sales data.

This has caused a bit of consternation among comics industry watchers, who are trying to understand the actual strength of digital comics and sales of comics in general. As The Comics Reporter‘s Tom Spurgeon wonderfully puts it, sales figures are usually only hinted at or used for hype by publishers like DC and Marvel, resulting in the “I have a girlfriend in Canada” of sales analysis.

Ultimate Comics Spider-Man #1 - recording-setting sales for Marvel's digital comics

Looking outside of comics, most entertainment companies don’t share honest sales numbers because they consider that proprietary information, but those other industries have something comics doesn’t have – a third party tracking sales through reasonably objective means. Put bluntly, comics needs a Nielsen. The best we have are the sales estimates put together by ICv2, John Jackson Miller’s The Comics Chronicles, and a few others. These are best guess estimates based off charts provided by the largest distributor of comic books, Diamond Comics. But they’re only counting comic book stores in North America. There’s little to no coverage of book stores, no coverage of subscriptions, no sales to libraries and schools, nothing from the UK and other countries, no newsstand sales (meager but still out there), no sales from other outlets like grocery stores. To be sure, North American comic book stores are the dominant sales channel for print comic books. But it’s not the entire picture. What’s more, the sales estimates are determined by using Diamond’s odd index numbering system constructed around everything’s relative sales to that month’s issue of Batman. So if you figure out the sales of Batman in any given month, you can figure out the sales of everything else in that same month. Why Batman of all things? It’s mostly arbitrary but its sales have been historically pretty stable due to the character’s popularity and longevity of the series. On top of all that, the numbers only reflect what comic book stores are ordering. We have almost no idea about sell-through to actual paying customers beyond anecdotal reporting and the assumption that most stores are ordering month-to-month close to what they think they can sell. Needless to say, the accuracy of these estimates has been disputed and called into question. Some say it gives a fairly reasonable picture and is better than nothing, which is true. But numerous comic book creators have gone on record to say that the estimates are wrong when compared to their royalty vouchers and other internal accounting statements.

So we’ve got an entire industry more or less groping in the dark trying to feel out the shape and size of their own business. But it’s the best we’ve got, so numbers are put under the microscope. At least there’s something for print comics. Digital comics have vague statements of modest to booming success. ICv2 estimated earlier this summer that digital comics sales are generating between $6 to $18 million a year, with sales doubling from 2009 to 2010. Archie Comics boasted nearly 2 million downloads back in January. ComiXology, the undisputed largest digital comics provider, trumpeted surpassing 1 million downloads at the end of 2010, and their main Comics app was recently the second grossing iPad app, outselling the popular app for the Angry Birds game. IDW Publishing announced over 1 million downloads of their various digital comics apps back in April. Plenty of similar announcements have been made. It’s great news because it confirms that there are a lot of people interested in comic books. But how many of those downloads generated money. It’s free to download almost all digital comics apps, and there are plenty of free comic books available to download within each app. How many of those millions are paying?

What we do know is that digital comics is one of the biggest growth sectors for comics. The independent comics publisher SLG Publishing recently announced they were switching to digital first distribution. The transition will see the end of print comic books from the publisher. Issues will instead be released only as digital comic books that will eventually be collected and released for the first time in the physical world as print graphic novels. While several publishers have abandoned the single issue comic book format to strictly graphic novels, this is the first significant comics publisher to transition their serialized stories to the digital space. SLG was among the first publishers to embrace digital. They are one of the few that allow full ownership of their digital comics through their Eyemelt store, which sells .pdf, .ePub and .cbz that can be used anywhere. (ComiXology and other digital comics providers are technically leasing you the right to view images of comics files, which can be and have been taken away or locked.) SLG comics are also available on iBooks, Barnes & Noble’s Nook, ComiXology, iVerse’s Comics+, Graphicly, and Panelfly.

According to SLG publisher Dan Vado, much of the company’s marketing has not been focused on digital, so their sales there have been promising but not exceptional. In fact, in a surprising break from the above trend, Vado was willing to make public some of the company’s digital comics sales figures.

The best selling downloadable comic we have had is The Griffin #2 at around 200. This is like a 20 year old comic I did for DC Comics.

Most of the other books have struggled to get to triple digits.

How does that one digital comic stack up against the digital sales of Justice League #1 and Ultimate Comics Spider-Man #1? I’d like to believe there’s a significant difference but who can tell? For whatever it’s worth, Justice League #1 has 318 reviews on ComiXology, while Ultimate Comics Spider-Man #1 only has 58, at the time I’m writing this. Not everyone that buys and reads a digital comic will submit a review of whether it was a 5-star comic but that seems like a bare minimum at least. Except that anyone can leave a review whether they’ve read the comic or not, as long as they’ve logged in.

As The Beat’s Heidi MacDonald points out in the above link, SLG’s most popular and well known property is probably Johnny the Homicidal Maniac by Jhonen Vasquez and that will be released digitally next year. Vado expects that to be their top digital seller very quickly, especially since they will have ramped up their marketing efforts focused on new readers instead of readers that already own the print version. If Vado continues to be as transparent, SLG could be a very interesting case study of a publisher transitioning to digital. And in the process, he could give us a better idea of the actual strength and success of digital.

Comic-Con Wrap-Up: Digital

Foxtrot by Bill Amend notes the limitations of the iPad (originally published 3/21/2010)

Digital comics are gaining momentum as more people enjoy the convenience of downloading comics onto their tablet device and/or phone, and/or read them on their browser while they’re already at their computer. July has already seen a lot of announcements and Comic-Con, as expected, had a ton more. Here are the highlights:

  • Digital comics sales have doubled for the first six months of 2011, according to industry white papers presented by ICv2 Publisher and CEO Milton Griepp. Digital sales were estimated at less than one million in 2009, somewhere between $6 and $8 million in 2010, and will likely double that amount by the end of 2011. Despite fears of losing print readers to digital, the report states there’s little evidence to suggest a significant level of overlap between buyers in the two markets. Much of the growth is led by the strength of the iPad, with a lot of potential still expected from the Android and e-readers like the Kindle and Nook. Digital sales on PSP have mostly collapsed, likely due to a massive hacking incident on the Sony PlayStation network in April that resulted in the service being shut down for nearly a month and the compromise of millions of their users’ personal data. New additions to the PSP Digital Comics Store were discontinued earlier this month, although the program may get relaunched when Sony releases the PlayStation Vita, expected toward the end of the year. (ICv2)
  • Marvel Comics will begin transitioning to simultaneous print and digital releases (instead of waiting months to release the digital versions of their print comics) starting with this week’s Amazing Spider-Man #666, which kicks off the “Spider-Island” summer event, and the current X-Men event Schism. The Spider-Man family of titles will be released the same day and date in comic book stores and through web and mobile devices. Uncanny X-Men #1 and Wolverine & the X-Men #1 will follow in October and November. Marvel, the comics industry’s number one publisher, will look for more opportunities as titles hit good jumping-on points. (ICv2)
  • VizManga.com has launched from the largest US publisher of Manga, Viz Media. The site syncs with their iOS and Android apps, so manga bought at one can be read on the others. There is a 40% sale going until July 31 and the first chapter of each manga is available for free. There are currently over 40 series and over 300 volumes available, with more added each week. (Robot 6)
  • A collection of 39 Japanese publishers will launch JManga, a web portal to read manga online and interact with creators and fans, in August. Popular manga like One Piece and Naruto are expected to be part of the line-up, as well as more obscure titles that have never been licensed for US release. The cooperative initiative is intended to reverse shrinking sales that publishers feel are due to importing lag time, piracy, and the closing of Borders. (Anime News Network)
  • Top Shelf entered the digital space by launching over 70 graphic novels on the Comics+ app by iVerse Media. According to this interview with Robot 6, they want to have everything in their library that they can release digitally to be available by the end of the summer. They will also be launching on other digital distributors soon and will have their own apps, one for Top Shelf’s entire line and a Kids Club app for their all-ages material. They also have some books on the Kindle, Nook, iBooks, and Google eBookstore. (Top Shelf)
  • Panelfly will be relaunching their app as Panelfly Prime and Panelfly Plus beginning in early August. The two apps will enhance the now-standard comics reader experience with videos, news and social media integration within the comic, an experience they’re pitching as SuperMedia. Their recently released Burn Notice digital comic is a template for what they’re building. (Comic Book Resources)
  • Graphicly is adding bonus features and other enhancements to digital comics. Similar to DVD bonus features, the first batch includes audio commentary tracks by creators and trailers, with more to come. (The Couch)
  • LucasFilm OK’ed the digital release of Star Wars comics, so the Dark Horse Digital Store now has tons of Star Wars comics, with more to be added every week. Dark Horse Comics has been publishing Star Wars comics for 20 years now. Part of the release includes Marvel Comics’ 1977 adaptation of the original movie Stars Wars Episode IV: A New Hope. (Dark Horse)
  • Manga publisher Square Enix is running a special sale on their online reader site. If you “like” their Facebook page or got a special URL at Comic-Con, you can get the first volume of any of their 15 series (including Fullmetal Alchemist) for free. Books are usually priced at $5.99. The deal is good until August 10. (Robot 6)

Me on Tumblr: Breaking News on Comics and Random Inanity

If we’re friends on Facebook or you follow me on Twitter, you might’ve noticed a new feed coming in to those sites. Yes, I’m on Tumblr!

There I will be posting links to breaking news about comic book, graphic novels, manga, comic strips, web-comics, digital comics and other forms of sequential art. Yes, believe it or not, breaking comics news is actually a thing that happens in the world. For example, see this story. Or this story. There will also be a side dish of random silliness or oddities that amuse me to lighten things up, as well as a link to my weekday posts on my blog here, which tomorrow will create an internet loop from which we may never escape.

So if you’re on Tumblr, you should follow me! Or if you’re not on Tumblr, you can subscribe to my Tumblr’s RSS feed. It’ll make you a better person.

So you want to read Spider-Man comics

We’re in the thick of the holiday season. Shopping is probably inevitable for a lot of us. If you or someone you know thinks Spider-Man is pretty cool but is clueless as to what to read first, I’ve put together a great big list as a checklist or reading order guide.

Marvel Comics has been publishing The Amazing Spider-Man since 1963, so being a little overwhelmed about what to get is understandable. Peter Parker (right) is pretty confused by it all too. And he’s lived through it.

So, here’s my Reader’s Guide to Amazing Spider-Man with every graphic novel that’s been published from that comic book series, what’s inside, and in what order you should read it. I’ve also included cover prices and if there are alternate ways to get the stories (soft cover, hard cover, etc.). After the list, I’ve also included a recommended reading list if you’re only interested in the most universally loved material instead of everything. Please feel free to join in the conversation if you have any favorites, questions, corrections or suggestions.

Just a note for those of you Spidey-savvy enough: this list only focuses on the Amazing Spider-Man comics series from 1963 to present, and for the most part does not include spin-offs like Web of Spider-Man or the relaunch series like Ultimate Spider-Man or Marvel Adventures Spider-Man (both of which are great ways to read Spider-Man too but they exist in their own universe apart from Amazing Spider-Man, and as such, they’re pretty streamlined, self-contained and easier to figure out where to start – although if you’re not sure, post a comment or email and I’ll be glad to help out).

I’ve also got similar Reader’s Guides to Uncanny X-Men and Fantastic Four. And I’ll be posting more here as time allows. Any requests for comic book series to cover?

LA Comics distributor warehouse closes

Despite the bustling comics scene here in Los Angeles, it’s not all sunshine and ponies.

Diamond Comic Distributors, by far the biggest and most powerful international distributor of comic books and associated products delivering to comic book stores and specialty shops, is closing its Los Angeles distributor center/warehouse this March. How does this effect us readers? Probably not much, at least directly. That is, as long as your local shop can still get their shipment of new comics. And afford it.

The final shipment from the LA center will be the first week of January. After that, the southern California area (and beyond) will instead be serviced by a Diamond distribution center almost 2,000 miles east, in Olive Branch, Mississippi. In their notice to effected comic shops, Diamond stated, “based on our quality control monitoring of shortages, damages, and overages, the Olive Branch facility consistently scores on par with Los Angeles”. Given the errors and frustrations some local stores have had with Diamond, that’s probably not very comforting. According to Bleeding Cool, this brings the count of Diamond’s warehouse facilities to 4, down from 24 at one time.

The same week the Olive Branch center takes over, Diamond begins it’s new Day-Early Delivery program for all of its customers, where instead of comics arriving to stores Wednesday morning to go on sale that same day, comics will be delivered Tuesday with a street date of the following day. This should help pad out any delivery delays during the transition. However comic shops must pay a fee to be included in the program, which apparently pays for “secret shoppers” to make sure stores are obeying street date rules. So if they don’t pay in, stores will instead receive their boxes of comics early Wednesday morning for a same-day scramble to get comics sorted, counted, displayed and pulled for subscribers.

Another factor is that some stores opt to drive themselves to the distribution center and pick up their orders, instead of paying for UPS to drive comics to their store. With the LA distribution gone, will stores be forced to pay for deliveries? Diamond says no, for now. A pick-up location will be determined for those stores, at no additional charge. While that’s great, I can’t imagine that’s something they’ll keep doing forever. What’s the point of closing a distribution center if you still pay the rent on a pick-up location?

Comic stores often operate on a slim profit margin, especially smaller stores. With shrinking sales, will these new fees force some stores to rethink doing business?

And what of Diamond’s Los Angeles employees? If they’re willing to relocate to Mississippi, some may still have a job. According to ICv2: “Long-time Diamond Regional Manager James Nash will relocate from Los Angeles to Olive Branch. Other staff has been encouraged to apply for positions in Olive Branch after their tenure in Los Angeles ends at the end of March.”

13% of comics made by women

There are likely more women making comics in North America today than ever in the history of the industry. Never has there been a greater variety of creative voices and material. It’s a great time to discover comic books.

But just because it’s better than ever…

Comics material produced by women creators only makes up 13.2% of comics released to retailers and book stores in November so far, according to Ladies Making Comics. This excludes manga imported to North America and web-comics, which would no doubt boost that number significantly.

The comic book world is still very much a boys’ club. The industry was started by men, most of the material was created to appeal to boys and men, most of the businesses have been run by men. Of course there have been exceptions, but they were just that: exceptions to the rule. So the fact that the percentage is in the double digits should be celebrated. Just 10 years ago, I suspect that number would be half that number.

And more of the good news is that more and more female creators are no doubt inspiring new female creators that are growing up on some excellent material, so a mushrooming effect will take place. It’s frustratingly slow and there are still a lot of maddening obstacles, but I believe it’s happening. Nowhere more so than with web-comics, it seems. This is an amazingly fertile ground for fostering imaginative talents and they don’t have to break into a male dominated corporate structure to be seen. They just have to be good, produce material on a regular basis, and have some savviness with social media. And then you get things like Hark! A Vagrant by Kate Beaton, Girls with Slingshots by Danielle Corsetto, Stop Paying Attention by Lucy Knisley, Fart Party by Julia Wertz, Templar, Arizona by Spike, Octopus Pie by Meredith Gran, KinokoFry: A Collection of Comics by Rebecca Clements, DAR: A Super Girly Top Secret Diary by Erika Moen (which has sadly come to an end but is still a fantastic read), and many more. Have any favorites?

Kids Comics: still a struggle but worth the fight

The general consensus among mainstream comic book publishers is that comics aimed at kids, or all-ages comics, don’t sell. And sadly, they’re usually right.

Take for example the apparent cancellation of the endlessly charming Thor: The Mighty Avenger by Roger Langridge and Chris Samnee. Even an impending big Hollywood movie of Thor couldn’t generate enough interest to sustain the series past eight issues. Why? Maybe it’s because there are also about four other comics starring Thor or some Thor-like character and who can keep them straight? Maybe it’s because too many comic book stores cater to their established audience base of young-ish to older adults who aren’t interested in an all-ages comic book no matter how much praise and acclaim it gets.

So kids comics are doomed, right?

Not quite. Fortunately a growing number of comics stores actually do have enough business savvy to diversify their customer base. In support of this, Diamond Comics, the primary distributor for comics shops, has been amping up their KidsComics.com website, now with a handy-dandy order form kids and parents can print out to make sure their local store orders what they want.

And more effectively, and unlike ten or more years ago, there are now other ways for comics to find their audience. As examples, walk into a book store and see how long it takes you to stumble over a display of Jeff Kinney’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid books. Granted, they technically aren’t comic books (or graphic novels), but often not far from away are copies of Bone by Jeff Smith, Owly by Andy Runton, the Wonderful Wizard of Oz adaptation by Eric Shanower and Skottie Young, The Muppet Show Comic Book by Langridge himself, and lots more. And they’ve all been selling very well. Yes even the Twilight graphic novel adaptation by Young Kim. And tons of manga too, plenty of it age appropriate (see Manga4Kids for recommendations – I’ve still got a lot to learn myself). The School Library Journal has a great blog to help find Good Comics For Kids.

There are also great web-comics for kids online. Two of my favorites are the whimsical Abominable Charles Christopher by Karl Kerschl and the delightfully absurd Axe Cop by Ethan Nicolle and Malachai Nicolle (age 5!). LunchboxFunnies.com is a good place to start, although they sadly haven’t updated for several months now. Hopefully it’s just temporary. There have been a few sites attempting to track age appropriate web-comics but sadly most are over a year old now, basically ancient artifacts in internet time.

Plenty of the above mentioned comics have been released as digital comics on mobile devices and online through services like ComiXology. Although they have yet to parse out kids comics to make shopping easier, they do have age ratings, which helps a great deal. Much of Atomic Robo by Brian Clevinger and Scott Wegener is recommended for kids 9 and up, and it is regularly among the most downloaded.

So kids comics do sell. You just have to know how to get them to kids.