THE iPAD IS HERE: NOT A DIRECT MARKET KILLER. YET
I don't have an iPad.
Instead or me whining about that for 1000 words - my wife is sick of me whining, so I won't bore you - let's talk about the iPad's place in this comics world.
First, the Marvel app is a huge deal for comics on the iPad. There will be multiple comic reading apps, to be sure, but Marvel got the buzz for two and a half days leading up to the iPad's release, and even scored the top Book app on the iPhone app store, ahead of the Kindle and B&N book readers in that time frame.
We're only a step away now from same day releases, though I have to think that's the Game Changer that Marvel is going to put off for as long as they possibly can. Short of a major political decision to abandon the Direct Market entirely, I don't see it happening yet.
I think, though, that it's short-sighted to think that it would be the death of the Direct Market to release books day and date - or even a week or two after - the print version. We're looking at two different markets. The majority of Marvel's readership will not own an iPad this year. Analysts predict that Apple will be selling through 20+ million units per year in a couple of years, but they also say ludicrous things like the iPhone 3GS would start a second recession. So, take them with a grain of salt. (Wait, there's an iPad version of the recession argument now, too! Analysts are silly people.)
Let's face it, there are large parts of this country that don't have a comics shop within a half hour of them. They're not going to be abandoning the direct market for digital because they don't have the Direct Market. And at $1.99 a pop, the price difference between digital and print isn't so great people will happily run away from comic shops as a no-brainer. The tangible experience of owning something isn't going away just yet, nor is the value of the social Wednesday interaction. A comic shop is still a mini-convention every Wednesday.
But the iPad isn't just the great hope for the future of digital distribution, but also the great outreach program we've been waiting for. It makes sense that it took an outside company to provide the opportunity. Goodness knows the comics industry isn't in any shape - politically or financially - to put it together themselves. We don't need a "Got Comics?" poster campaign if we can be successful in tablet computing.
One analyst said that Apple sold about 700,000 iPads this weekend. He was wrong, as analysts often are. See above.
The actual number is closer to 300,000, which Apple announced yesterday as the total number sold through Saturday. That still doesn't count the number they sold on Sunday, or the pre-ordered 3G-capable iPads being released later in the month. But, just for argument's sake, let's use the 300,000 for a little cocktail napkin math:
The Marvel Comics application was in the top 25 apps downloaded for the iPad this weekend.
There's no way to tell exactly how many downloads that is, nor is there any way to tell how many comics each download sold along with it. Let's assume half of all iPad buyers downloaded the free iPad app. Let's guess half of those people bothered to download a comic that they had to pay for. (The Marvel app has a lot of freebies. Good for sampling.)
Now, let's say that only one or two comics per month sell more than 100,000 copies into the Direct Market, at best. One of those, "Blackest Night" #8, was released last week.
I bet the iPad sold as many comics as one of the Direct Market's Top Ten releases of the month. Isn't that amazing? Does that speak to how big a deal the iPad is, or how small time comics have become as a periodical publication?
Also in that Apple press release: One millions apps downloaded, total. 250,000 eBooks. People are looking at the iPad as a book reader, and they're not afraid to download apps for it, either. Also, the average price of a non-free app is up at $5 for the iPad, where the iPhone is closer to $1. That number will likely drop in the months ahead, but I think it shows that people are excited enough about this media consumption device to pay for media to put on it.
There were many people who read a Marvel comic for the first time in years this weekend, if not ever. Some of them were tech bloggers who pointed that out in their reviews. And all of the major reviews that I read made mention of the Marvel comics app. The full screen single page view is the key to digital comics. iPhone apps are cute, but ultimately frustrating and annoying with their panel-by-panel flyovers. Full screen, full page displays that are portable are the keys to the comics kingdom.
Any way you look at it, this past weekend's iPad launch is a big win for comic books.
This doesn't mean we're all on the same page. Over at iFanboy, Graphic.ly CEO Micah Baldwin writes:
"In fact, any digital reader that provides just a page to page reading experience adds nothing to the experience of reading a comic."
Exactly! Isn't it great? Because, guess what, every attempt to make comics "relevant" in the Web 2.0 world by the major publishers has been laughable. Motion comics are an embarrassment. Their novelty and pre-movie buzz sold a bunch of "Watchmen" shorts. Everything else has been excruciating to sit through, not all that much better than the 60s "Fantastic Four" cartoons where Jack Kirby drawings were cut out, pasted onto popsicle sticks, and shaken in front of the comics to simulate motion. As much as we all compare comic book storytelling to the movie, they're not movies. There is a wall there. A movie is a movie; a comic book is a comic book. Sure, there's elements from each that may crossover well, but - well, this isn't just a motion comics argument. Let's move on.
I don't want "Choose Your Own Adventure" comics. Oh, sure, there's a pretty swell one I read about recently, but just because something is digital, that doesn't mean we have to rethink it entirely and "fix" it for the next generation.
I know I sound like an old fuddy duddy here, but while there is room for different storytelling styles, all the bells and whistles you want to add to the straight-on page-by-page comic reading experience is just digital gloss and sparkle that's meaningless. Want to have pages with bigger panels and larger lettering because of the slightly smaller screen size? That's smart. Want to do comics where every page is a single panel? That could work, and maximize readability on a smaller format screen. You can go all Scott McCloud on the iPad - and I'm sure McCloud will - but those are great experimental formats that never really became the norm, did they?
Do you want to have little animations inside of each panel with the narrator's caption boxes being read out loud while a Twitter stream scrolls down the side of the page and boxes drawn over the art allow you, Flickr-style, to see others' annotations on the art with links back to their Facebook pages and the ability for you to rewrite the dialogue balloons and share your creative stylings with others via a button off to the side and a 3-D On The Fly option for connecting to your new 3D LCD TV?
Dear God, no. Please. No. Stop it now.
Just give me the damned comics. Give the people who are curious about comics the chance to read a comic and not a Web 2.0 experience.
That said, there is one sad thing about the rise of digital comics as iPad/iPhone apps and not web apps. You can't have easy links to a given comic or a given page of a comic. That's something that webcomics have over comic book apps. Cory Doctorow famously wrote over the weekend that he won't buy an iPad because, amongst other problems, he can't share Marvel Comics. While he's missing a great deal of the point with the iPad with his single-minded zealotry, there is a side argument that the walled garden of iPad/iPhone apps make linking to specific content on them impossible, which makes conversations across blogs or Facebook or Twitter or your social network of choice impossible. I don't need all that stuff integrated and distracting from the comic, but that is the modern social aspect that can be set off far enough to not be a distraction. Right now, you can mention a specific page of a specific comic or a specific panel in your blog post, but you can't make it drop dead simple for the user to click a link and see it, even if that user already downloaded that comic. For some, that simplicity is all that matters.
Perhaps a future version of these comic reading apps will incorporate that, and become wildly popular for it. Right now, I think we might have too many comic readers crowding the market. It's the typical Balkanization of comics - one publisher's comics are only available through their own app, another publisher spreads different comics amongst multiple apps, some are exclusive to one reader or another. If we need to download 10 apps to read all the comics we want, it's going to destroy a potential digital comics boom. Marvel has the name recognition to go on its own. DC does, as well, if they choose to do something about it. (Jim Lee sounds gung ho. How are the lawyers?)
The "iTunes for Digital Comics" dream may never happen, but it looks like we're starting to get the devices to best handle the material. That's a good start.
HUMANOIDS "BOUNCERS" BACK
Humanoids makes its grand return to the self-mutilating exercise that is American publishing this spring. I want it to work. I really do. I want to see a successful American-based publishing concern reprinting the best in BD comics in thoughtful oversized hardcover volumes.
But let's face facts: These things are doomed to failure. It'll be a fun few months or a couple of years, and then they'll back out, and all ten of their fans (me included) will be crying for more comics across the three spots on the internet where they hang out.
Or maybe I'm just fooling myself, trying very hard not to get my hopes raised too high. Yeah, let's go with that. On the other hand: Quick, name all of the successful publishers of translated BD material in the last decade. First Second. Cinebooks. (They're a British company.) NBM, but they're not publishing the glorious oversized books they used to do. Actually, only one of those three publish the material at sizes larger than a standard comic.
In any case, Humanoids is starting with the third volume of "Bouncer," which made me run back to the dusty Pipeline World Headquarters archives to pull out my original printings of the first two volumes. They are glorious things to behold. They're huge. They're bigger than the books Cinebook publishes today, and bigger than the Schuiten reprints NBM used to do. Opening one of these albums is an experience unto itself. That size is great for the art. Francois Boucq's dramatic western landscapes are meticulously constructed, with deep vistas, cloudy skies, and dusty roads kicked up by passing horses. You can get lost in some of the panels, particularly those in the second volume. If you like your spaghetti westerns, you'll see lots to like here in that widescreen framing, that dramatic angle, and those shifty eyes and fast-drawn guns.
Alexandro Jodorowsky's story is of three brothers who had a bit of a falling out that left one without an eye, one without an arm, and one seeking refuge in the Lord. Their mother hid a valuable gem that drives the evil one on, while the one-armed gunmen is a bouncer at a bar in town (hence the title). It's a revenge story for the son of the dead brother, who wants to take out the brother that killed his father. Along the way, there's plenty of blood, violence, and rape. This isn't a book for the weak of heart and, honestly, once or twice I wondered why I was still pushing on. My stomach was getting a little queasy. But I'll tell you why I did push on: the art is wonderful to behold. The story is not the book's strength, especially in the second volume where characters do what they do almost exclusively because they need to do that for the author to move the plot where he wants it to go, not because it feels natural.
But I really want to hit home on the sheer size of these two books. I've never seen anything larger, short of that insane Kramer's Ergot book from a year or two ago. When you open up "Bouncer" and have those two large pages side-by-side, it's awe-inspiring. So I took some pictures to try to give you a sense of scale. These are hardcover books with less than sixty pages in full color for just $16 in 2002. Take a look at some comparisons:
In the first pic, the "Bouncer" book is at the bottom of the stack. Sitting directly on top of it is an "Asterix" book, which is an oversized hardcover book. "Wolverine: Old Man Logan" got an oversized hardcover reprint without being too much of an overprint. Then you can see a standard comic size with an issue of "Phonogram" and the smaller Jason book sitting in the corner of the top of the stack.
To give you an idea of the height of the book, I sent them all into a corner. I even threw in an "Absolute" volume while we're at it, for added scale.
And if you think this book looks "Absolute" sized, look again. It's actually wider!
Apologies for the pictures this week, but I don't have an insanely large flatbed scanner to get better scans of the books. They're impressive, suffice it to say.
I'll be interested to see where the third book in the series goes. Are we sticking with Bouncer as the lead character? Or the vengeful son, whose story is arguably done? Will the amount of "mature" content go up or down? More importantly, in what format will Humanoids publish the next book? For me, that will make or break it.
One last note: Yes, I reviewed these books already. I hope you'll forgive me since that was back in Pipeline #300 (11 March 2003). The good news is that I still agree with 2003 me. I just marvel at the page size a little more.
Word of the day: Logorrhea.
More reviews next week and, if I can't control myself, more digital distributions discussion.