"Everybody says that digital comics are coming, but we think they've already arrived," said David Steinberger, ComiXology CEO, as he began Saturday's panel at Baltimore Comic-Con. Panelists included Top Cow Publisher Filip Sablik, Richard Starkings of Comicraft and writer of "Elephantmen," Michael DeVito from Th3rd World Studios and David Gallaher, writer of Zuda Comics' "High Moon" and the ComiXology exclusive "Box 13."
Steinberger's statement comes at time when his company has expanded from an online comics directory to a multimedia digital and mobile comics distributor, syncing its web site with an iPhone application counterpart along with a brand new app that lets users purchase and read titles from their device. The next step for the company is exclusive digital content. Their original first series, Gallaher and Steve Ellis' "Box 13," is a reimagining of the 1940s syndicated radio drama of the same name and arrives on the service October 13.
Gallaher's career in digital media has roots in his days working at Marvel, where he helped produce some of the publisher's earliest motion comics. Now writing for DC's digital imprint Zuda, Gallaher discussed the benefits of a Zuda's competitive, open submission format and plugged the recently released hardcopy collection of "High Moon."
Next, Starkings introduced himself and talked about his belief in digital comics as a progression for the medium.
"I pioneered digital comic lettering in the '90s, so for me it was a logical step to move 'Elephantmen' onto mobile devices," said Starkings, "Everybody told me [when I pioneered digital lettering] that it would never catch on, that nobody would buy more than one comic book font," Starkings said, pointing out the success of his company, which is responsible for financing his "Elephantmen" series through Image Comics.
"I think that a lot of people had the same [hesitant] reaction to downloading music on iTunes, but you get over that pretty quickly," said Starkings, mentioning that people are downloading comics illegally and reading previews online regularly. He continued by saying that fans have told Starkings they'd purchased the 'Elephant Men' trade after downloading issue number one to their iPhones.
DeVito's case for digital comics stemmed from his company's success at fostering new titles in the digital space before translating them into print, which gave them a better chance of success in the long term.
"A lot of [Th3rd World's books] aren't going to make it if we drop them straight into the Diamond environment, so why don't we try online options?" said DeVito.
DeVito explained that downloads expanded their line exponentially. "I think a hybrid model where print still exists and digital exists is good for both [forms]."
Next, Sablik explained the role of digital and mobile comics in Top Cow's business model. "Our first foray into digital was through IGN's Direct-to-Drive," Sablik said. "I think as a publisher we look around - and I'm well aware of the people who are downloading BitTorrents of 'Witchblade,' and I'd like to have a few of those sales - I know that not everybody torrenting is willing to pay for it, but we'd like to get as many of those people as we can."
"As much as we all love comic book stores, for the average person, it’s a destination store, you're not going to just wander into a comic shop," explained Sablik. "Is this going to take people from the stores? I don't think it is. We buy [comics] because we like them, we like the tactile reading experience. So as a publisher, that's not who I'm going after when we post digital comics online. I'm going after the guy who has seen 'Wanted: the Movie' and wants to check out the comic on his iPhone."
Sablik proceeded to announce that Top Cow would be expanding its release schedule on ComiXology to include unspecified titles, which were still being decided on. The publisher had previously released only "The Darkness" #1 through the distributor as a free download.
After discussing their partnerships with ComiXology, the panel addressed the challenges and compromises of converting print comics to the digital space.
"What we do is, in putting together the pages, when you're reading a comic on your iPhone, having to turn your device from side-to-side takes you out of the experience," said Gallaher, "The idea is to make sure everything's fluid and moving, but that everything is specifically formatted for the panel. Each panel is an individual unit - a story in and of itself."
Gallaher also pointed out that "Box 13" was being illustrated with ComiXology's viewer in mind, and was formatted specifically for the viewer.
Th3rd World's formatting strategy has been similar, according to DeVito, who eplained how a widescreen format has crept into their print projects based on their digital launches.
"There have been comics where we've really been looking, for our initial release through the ComiXology app first, at landscaped, wide-screen formats," said DeVito.
Starkings followed up explaining the advantages of planning for both print and digital mediums when creating comics in today's atmosphere.
"'Elephantmen' was originally [created in] a wide-screen format," explained Starkings, who pointed out that artists using monitors and Cintiq tablets has affected the way comics are produced, forever. "It's a change that's happening because, whether publishers know it or not, artists are creating with the computer."
"My feeling is that we'll get used to having things like this in our pockets, and I think it's inevitable that we'll get used to the idea that, if you have a wallet in your back pocket, you could have a phone at the same size," said Starkings.
"But that's like George Costanza's wallet," joked Steinberger.
The panel then turned to the topic of releasing comics exclusively for digital platforms rather than turning to print for launching products.
"Top Cow's strategy is basically working with people who present digital comics in the best way - competition breeds excellence," said Sablik, who mentioned partnerships with ComiXolgoy and the upcoming Longbox software, another format through which Top Cow will release titles.
As far as motion comics go, the panel had mixed feelings on the medium's profitability and audience impact, especially given their cost to produce.
"On a personal level, I'm not sold on motion comics. You have comics and animation, and there's a genre that exists in-between, but we've yet to kind of see what that is. I've yet to see a motion comic that blew me away," said Sablik.
The panel also pointed out that motion comics were expensive and didn't yet justify the cost of production arguing that most releases hadn't turned significant profits.
"Motion comics are very interesting as a middle ground between comics and animation, but I don't think the technology is quite there yet, and I don't really dig on 'em. But I think if they create a bridge for people who aren't that interested in comics to check out the medium, then I'm all for it," said Gallaher.
The panel then opened the floor to fans. One of the biggest concerns expressed by the questioners involved digital comics cutting into retail sales and having a negative impact on comic shop culture.
"Trades have been muscling in on the secondary market anyway, but if you're the collector going to the bin to buy the single issues, you're not going to be affected by digital any more than trades [have affected back issue sales]," said DeVito.
"I think it will only make it stronger. The collector aspect is strong in comics, so adding digital, it's going to flourish," said Gallaher.
"You don't have that many people going in to buy back issues of a line to catch up [in today's market]," said Sablik, explaining how trades have made it possible not to pay extra for back issues.
"I don't want to sound mean, but as a publisher, I don't really care what happens to the secondary market. My goal is not to help you make $20 extra off my comic, it's to have as many people read our comic as possible - we're storytellers," said Sablik, "I'm happy if people are buying it in print, trades, digital, whatever, as long as people are reading it."
DeVito and Gallaher echoed Sablik's points pointing out that while publishers want to give retailers a chance to make their sales before having to compete with digital releases, eventually the market will dictate which business model will reign.
"I think you'll definitely see people starting to live less cluttered lives," said Gallaher, who reasoned that people will always hold onto hard copies of what's most important to them, but that digital comics, movies and music make it more possible to collect without collecting.
"There's a new market that's digital, but you get a hard copy," explained Starkings, referring to eBay and Amazon as a kind of comic book server where people buy and resell what they're looking for.
Sablik then compared his collection of 200 DVDs from five years ago to the ease of using Netflix and other services for on-demand entertainment that didn't require owning hard copies.
The panel concluded with Steinberger summing up the benefits of digital and mobile comics for the comic book medium and its creators.
"I have one last point to make. Guys, at the end of the day, it's all about the storytelling and it's about getting [comics] into people's hands. So, the wider the distribution, the better it is for all of these creators, because there are going to be more people exposed to their product. So, the storytelling, as long as it's good, is going to make them successful," said Steinberger.