Dark Horse Digital

Year in Review: Digital Comics are Really Here

ComiXology leads digital revolution

While comic book stores were struggling (and in some cases closing) through much of 2011, the other major distribution outlet for comic books and graphic novels also faced a tough time. Book stores became a major outlet in the 2000s, primarily due to the manga explosion that brought a whole new audience back to sequential art in the United States. But with the dominance of Amazon.com and the rise of digital e-readers, book stores were forced to evolve. Unfortunately Borders, the second largest US book store chain and the first to usher in manga to American readers, failed to do so in time and went into bankruptcy this year and caused a ripple effect throughout the comics industry.

For some comics publishers, the effect was minimal, as previous payment issues with Borders caused some to shift their business away from them before the bankruptcy was announced. But others felt it more strongly, such as Los Angeles-based Tokyopop, the second largest manga publisher in the United States. In the beginning of the year, Borders stopped paying its vendors in an effort to avoid bankruptcy. This resulted in orders getting cut, and with Borders being Tokyopop’s largest customer account, income was severely damaged. Layoffs at Tokypop followed. Despite the late-entry hit manga Hetalia: Axis Powers, it couldn’t reverse the damage of a closing Borders, online piracy (and a digital strategy that amounted to too little too late), and the under-performing Priest feature film. By May, Tokyopop was holding a garage sale to empty out their LA offices. With their termination of US publishing, licenses were canceled, leaving a good number of manga series unfinished. It’s difficult to know how many casual readers of those series drifted away from reading manga and comics entirely after their favorite manga simply stopped coming out. In October, Tokyopop founder Stu Levy revealed that he is “continuing to explore any and all opportunities to relaunch the manga publishing operations” but it will require him having to renegotiate contracts with Japanese publishers. In the meantime, Tokyopop remains as a modest web-newsletter about Asian pop culture, in a partnership with GeekChicDaily.

Viz blazes own path, offers digital subscriptions to Shonen Jump Alpha

It was clear that another distribution outlet was needed, and fortunately one has been steadily growing over the last two years. Digital comics allow people to read print comics and manga on the web or mobile devices such as the iPad, iPhone, Android phones and tablets, Kindle and Nook. Companies have been popping up to provide publishers with the service of configuring their comics to the digital landscape and selling them on these devices. The digital distributor ComiXology has pulled ahead as the clear industry leader, with an exclusive partnership with DC Comics and partnerships with almost every other major comics publisher and many smaller ones too. Other prominent digital distributors are Graphicly, with their focus on community-building, and iVerse Media’s Comics+. Some publishers have chosen to build their own in-house digital distribution systems, such as Dark Horse Digital and Viz Manga. Some publishers are even shifting entirely to digital or publishing digitally first, mimicking the successful web-comics model of building an audience to support print releases.

Most significant in 2011 is the near industry-wide move by comics and manga publishers to ramp up their digital output. This was most notable in numerous announcements by publishers to release digital and print versions simultaneously (frequently called “day-and-date”). Prior to this, digital comics were released erratically, sometimes as far out as 6 months after the print version, seriously undermining the ability of digital to be taken as a serious method for consumers to become engaged in specific titles. The brand new Kindle Fire tablet/e-reader, which had huge sales for the holidays, has available an exclusive set of 100 DC Comics graphic novels, along with a free, pre-loaded Comics by ComiXology app.

Before a lot of these digital announcements were made (and when most digital comics were only available through the iPad and iPhone), digital comics were showing significant growth as sales doubled for the first half of 2011. Prior to that, digital comics sales were estimated at $6 to $8 million for 2010. Print sales for the North American comic book industry were estimated at under $420 million for 2010. While still only a fraction of print, digital is still extremely young with immense potential to reach new and lapsed readers.

Digital Comics Update: Dark Horse launches Digital, NBM goes interactive, Nook gets Graphicly app, Archie translates digital to Spanish

Comic books continue their evolution into digital comics, where the sequential art form is available on mobile devices like the iPad and Android, game systems like the PSP, and web browsers. Expanding in distribution, getting more competitive with prices, and experimenting with interactivity – these are all good signs that digital comics might be growing from infant to toddler.

After some delays, Dark Horse Comics will launch their anticipated Dark Horse Digital program later today. The system was built in-house and uses a web-based system supplemented by apps for the iPad, iPhone and iPod Touch. The comics will be priced starting at $1.49 $0.99 (versus competing apps that have comics starting at $1.99), and will be available in bundles as though you’re buying a full graphic novel collection. The app will be free and come loaded with the first issue of Hellboy: Seeds of Destruction by Mike Mignola and John Byrne. There will also be five free comics available: the first issues of Criminal Macabre by Steve Niles and Ben Templesmith, Joss Whedon‘s Fray, Mike Mignola’s Abe Sapien: The Drowning, Gerard Way‘s Umbrella Academy: Apocalypse Suite, and Mass Effect: Redemption. The app will have hundreds of other comics for download, including issues of Conan, Joss Whedon’s Serenity, Eric Powell‘s The Goon and more. An Android app will follow.

Meanwhile on the Nook Color, Barnes & Noble has launched a new app store which includes three graphic novel apps from Graphic.ly: Mouse Guard: Fall 1152 by David Petersen, Mark Millar and JG JonesWanted, and Mark Waid‘s Irredeemable. All of the apps have been specially optimized for the Nook Color e-reader, which uses Google’s Android platform. Graphicly also has digital comics from major comics publishers available on the iPad, iPhone/iPad Touch and Android, on the web, Adobe Air, and Google’s Chrome browser app.

Dinosaurs Across America (iPad screenshot)

NBM Publishing and their all-ages Papercutz imprint has teamed up with TWP Interactive to produce what they are billing as the first interactive graphic novel, Dinosaurs Across America by Phil Yeh. (It’s not the first, but it’s still cool.) Dinosaurs Across America was first published as a traditional graphic novel in print in 2007. It was named one of the best 25 graphic novels of the year by School Library Journal and has won acclaim for its ability to teach geography to children. The new interactive edition allows the reader to zoom in on individual states, learn fun facts and play with puzzles. The interactive version is now available for $9.99 as an app for iOS devices (iPad, iPhone, iPod Touch), and for $4.99 as an e-book on Koobits.

And finally, Archie Comics continues its aggressive pursuit of digital, launching Spanish language versions of some of their digital comics Monday. The comics are available on Archie Digital, as well as their iOS app for the iPad, iPhone and iPod Touch provided by iVerse, and the Sony PSP. An Android app is coming soon. Further translations into French and Hindi are planned as well.