When Apple's iPad device was announced to great fanfare and speculation within the comics industry and beyond last January, CBR News spoke with Marvel Comics Executive Vice President of Digital Media Ira Rubenstein about his initial reaction to the device. At the time, Rubenstein had a mixed reaction to what the very new device might offer consumers and comic fans. "I wasn't overwhelmed by today. It feels like a big, giant iPhone with no camera, which I think is a mistake," he said before countering. "But then again, for comics and graphic fiction, we're all good. More color screens and bigger screens is great, and as we continue to explore and manage our way through this world, having more options and choices for consumers is always a good thing."
Nearly three months later, and the executive's outlook is more along the lines of "seeing is believing." "Well, part of it is I'm never going to tip my hat in what we're thinking, especially before a product launches," Rubenstein laughed shortly after it was announced that one of the launch apps for the iPad would be a dedicated Marvel Comics reader. In fact, rather than shying away from the much anticipated device, Marvel and Apple seem to be quite in sync with their plans for comics on the iPad. For one, unlike their releases on the iPhone and similar mobile devices, Marvel has opted to make their iPad comics available through one branded app designed in conjunction with the mobile comics platform comiXology. And for Apple's part, the tech giant has been promoting the new Marvel app as a major part of the device's in store launch with Marvel featured on the company's website and in their iTunes-driven app store as well as in advanced reviews before the iPad that went on sale on Saturday.
So what was it that brought the two sides together to make such a big splash? Rubenstein described his willingness saying "when we talked so early after the announcement, I hadn't had a chance to actually hold the device in my hand. Of course since then, I have. Once you've held the device and played with it, you really start to understand more about how totally different it really is. It was also fairly obvious fairly quickly that the size and the screen was really going to do wonders for our content. And so we had to quickly try and figure out from that announcement event to now getting some sort of product that delivered good consumer experience onto the device."
Coming along with the launch app are over 500 Marvel titles, including "starter books" for new or lapsed readers such as Matt Fraction and Salvador Larocca's early issues of "Invincible Iron Man," Ed Brubaker and Steve Epting's first arc on "Captain America" and Mark Millar and Steve McNiven's "Civil War." "The goal is to add to the store weekly and to grow the selection.," Rubenstein said. The exec added that as for how the app would be promoted and made attractive to the iPad-owning public, "I can't speak for Apple, but I do know that in the app store [on the day of release, it was] being promoted heavily. What they do in the future is up to Apple. But in terms of the experience, we offer a cover flow interface where you can flip through the covers of the book. You can select a book and view the first three pages before buying."
And early word around Marvel's app seems to be mostly positive, though figuring out what that means for the future of comics on the device as a whole category remains a question for farther down the road. Even for Marvel itself, things will remain as is for now, with comiXology being the only iPad app offering the publisher's titles while books will continue to see distribution through multiple partners on other mobile platforms. "Originally, when we started working with multiple partners, with iVerse, Panelfly and comiXology, the idea was to open up as many stores as possible and let the consumers decide where they want to shop, just like in the physical world," Rubenstein said. "Consumers have choices of what stores they want to buy from, whether it be local stores or someplace they want to have ship to them. Our feeling was that they should have the same choices digitally. That way, the best software and the best consumer experience would ultimately win and provide incentive for these third party stories to continue to improve their product and improve the consumer experience."
He went on to give some of the reasons why comiXology netted the initial deal to distribute Marvel books to the iPad, saying, "When we went to look at doing it ourselves, for various reasons we ended up deciding to partner with comiXology and leverage their technology and their software to work with us. We did a bunch of work with them to customize the application to work better with us. For example, there's a Comic Book Store Locator in there. There's the ability to preview our books. We have our free books in there, and featuring and all that. I'm happy with the partnership with them. For numerous reasons, it worked very well for us, and we're happy with the final product. I think the reviews that are coming in show that we were successful at making a great product."
Rubenstein stressed that ultimately, when it comes to what makes this new app different from other Marvel online options, "I think the screen itself is what makes the big difference. Obviously, it's a much better experience on a large iPad screen than it is on an iPhone or an iTouch screen. That's the biggest difference. I think the difference between this and our Marvel Digital Comics Unlimited is the business model. For the consumers, it's about choice. We want to offer them choice so that if they purchase a book and want to have it with them all the time and portable, they can get it through the iPad app or the iPhone or the PSP store. Or if they'd rather have access to over 7,500 books and a flat monthly fee, they have that option."
Asked what Marvel's expectations for revenue generated from initiatives like the iPad and iPhone were, the executive said, "We really don't give out numbers, but I can say that we're happy with the amount of transactions we're seeing in the digital space."
And as for whether there's a chance other players could get into the Marvel game on the iPad or on similar tablet devices, Rubenstein would only say that the publisher prided itself on constantly evolving their digital product. "We're going to continue to explore and look at good consumer experiences across multiple devices and services. I think we're doing it in a very informed way and really making sure that what we're offering is a good consumer experience. What we say a lot is that we want to be better than just a PDF."
Return to CBR in the days and weeks ahead for more on the players in the burgeoning iPad comics market and the future of digital comics as a whole.