Though they've been aggressively pursuing web content for the past few years in multiple forms, Marvel Comics made the leap today that many have been speculating will be the next big wave in comics distribution: comics on the iPhone. Starting today, the publisher will have titles ranging from classic Stan Lee/Steve Ditko issues of "Amazing Spider-Man" to modern hits like Joss Whedon and John Cassaday's "Astonishing X-Men" for purchase on Apple's signature smart phone and the iPod Touch through comics-specific app sites Comixology, iVerse, and Panelfly as well as general publishing site ScrollMotion.
"We've got those four signed, and we're in active discussions with several others," explained Marvel's Executive Vice President of Digital Media, Ira Rubenstein. He told CBR that the announcement being made across four simultaneous platforms on their own sites was indicative of Marvel's commitment to getting their comics into the marketplace in as many formats as possible. "We want to give the consumers the choice to decide what's best for them. Each software has a world of difference, and each company has a different approach. By going with multiple companies, we're letting the consumer decide."
The comics available will vary from iTunes publisher to publisher, though certain books and issues will be common amongst all the providers, much like the previously available online initiatives like the Marvel Digital Comics Unlimited service which anchors Marvel's own site and their recent deal with the PSP gaming device. As for why now was the time to make the iPhone service happen and why Marvel went with the companies included in the launch, Rubenstein said "I think the timing was that the applications and the consumer experience was there. A lot of these applications are in their multipled version. This isn't their first program. With any good software, it improves over time, and what we're concerned with is the consumer experience and how our content looks. With all these companies – be it iVerse, Comixology, Panelfly or ScrollMotion – it's a very compelling consumer experience.
"Each one works a little differently, but all of them, for the most part, have a programmed view where you can, similarly to what we have on our Marvel Digital Comics Unlimited reader, hit the forward button, and it kind of programs the page for you. If you don't want to work as hard and have what I think is a bad experience like with a PDF where you have to zoom around and it gets tiring...if you just hit the forward button, it's a natural style to read. Most, if not all the programs, offer you either/or. And again, that's a compelling consumer experience where, if the consumer wants to zoom in on one particular shot, they can. It's very similar to how we approach stores. We service over 3,000 stores, and every store is different, be it the stores in New York, or the stores in Chicago or Florida. Consumers can decide what stores they want to buy our books from."
When it came to what content would be immediately available, Rubenstein and the Digital Media department went to the top of the company's publishing line. "I work very closely with [publisher] Dan Buckley and the rest of the publishing team," he said. "We wanted to get a selection that was compelling to start, and would give us information on what consumers would want to buy. Obviously, you can't roll out with everything, but we wanted to roll out with enough of a selection to really figure out what's happening. Dan and his team say, 'Okay, these are the books we're going to give.' And we'll continue to have more books over the coming months, and we'll continue to see how it goes."
Asked how initiatives like the MDCU program have worked in terms of outreach to readers who may not regularly be buying comics, Rubenstein offered, "What we have been seeing – and we have some research to back this up – is that we're finding that the Marvel Digital Comics Unlimited product is actually proving to be a discovery tool for people. They're discovering new concepts and new characters and new storylines, and then going to the stores and buying them. We have research for that, and we have some e-mails from comic book store owners who told us those stories."
Rubinstein stressed that programs such as MDCU, and now the iPhone comics apps, should not serve to drive readers away from traditional comic book stores, a market the company has begun to support with a special retailers-only site. "We're very cognizant of [worries retailers may have.] If anything, we're trying to help enable the brick and mortar stores through the [newly launched] Marvel Retailer Resource Center. Now, they're going to be offering First Looks and things, and we're asking, 'How can we enable them now to offer motion comics through their websites?' and the next extension would be to ask 'How can we enable them to offer digital comics?' It hasn't all been announced yet, but we're looking at it. We've been talking about how to help these very, very important partners, and we do not take them for granted here."
Speaking of Marvel's motion comics program, which saw its second major title launch this week with the MarvelFest NYC 2009 premier of the "Astonishing X-Men" motion comic, currently available on iTunes, the word of iPhone comics comes hot on its heels. Rubenstein said the close nature of the events came thanks to Marvel having multiple irons in the fire. "I've been here a little over a year, and I was brought in to really step up our digital efforts. We've always done a lot here, but we wanted to take it to the next level. I think what you're starting to see now is the fruition of a lot of people's hard work. If it feels like dominos have been falling, it's because we've been working really, really hard, and things are starting to come out now. We can't really talk about it until they come out, but you're going to see a lot more, because now we have some investment and resources dedicated to it."
And more motion comics are on the way, including possible distribution of the format over other smart phones and devices outside the Apple brand. "We are absolutely looking towards other distribution. We're up on the Xbox now. Motion comics aren't on Xbox yet, but they will be shortly, through Xbox Live, and our other video content is up there. We're up on Hulu with "Spider-Woman." So we're looking at legitimate video screens for distributing our motion comics, as well as the video content we have rights to."
Asked what lessons his department has learned from the MDCU launch and applied to this new iPhone program, Rubenstein concluded, "I come from entertainment. I spent 12 years at Sony and four years at Fox, so the lessons I've learned throughout my career are with entertainment and brands. I think entertainment consumers want to consume entertainment content when they want it, where they want it, and how. I'm not surprised when it does well, because people want it. I guess the lesson is, be it comic books, movies or TV, content is content, and it's all about storytelling and great characters. Whether it's in print or video, consumers want to consume it across devices and platforms."
Check back to CBR early next week for an interview with Marvel's David Gabriel on their new Marvel Retailer Resource Center!