The Digital Comics Now! panel at Comic-Con International in San Diego started with a bang. In the filled-to-capacity room, BOOM! Studios Marketing Director Chip Mosher began by asking the simple question, "How do we grow?" but Panelfly CEO Wade Slitkin surprised his co-panelists by answering with the announcement of his company's merger into a new company called "Syn." Why would a tech merger make comic news? The Panelfly application is used in iTunes to download Marvel Comics.
How this will effect Marvel or iTunes users, Mr. Slitkin did not elaborate, instead, went on to describe what the new company, formed with ex-executives from Sony, Hulu, and Amazon, is attempting to accomplish. Using the Panelfly "skeletal" software he said, "we can go from reading a comic book to seeing a movie but that's just one spot to another. Now we can actually aggregate it, pull it all together and create almost a new type of product that has a deep degree of interactivity, and a deep degree of multimedia. Where you're reading a Batman page and then it plays that scene from the movie."
Panelist David Steinberger called Mr. Slitkin's news "the first business to have an exit, so congratulations on that." Mr. Steinberger's site ComiXology functions much like a retailer with a pull list from major publisher's such as Dark Horse and DC and allows viewing of digital comics on your iPhone, iPad, or the desktop.
In fact, each of the "Digital Now" panelists expressed a similar goal as Mr. Slitkin, to expand the experience of comic book reading, to make comic book reading a multimedia experience, and to make comics more available to more people.
It might not relieve brick and mortar retailers to hear that the 20 year old question of how to get more comics into more hands is also a problem faced by their digital counterparts catering to hands holding an iPhone or iPad or other devices. While Amazon's Kindle's growth over sales of hardcover books as a trend towards the digital medium was cited, the problem of attracting readers remains.
With only only 1,800 to 2,000 retailers in the US, according to Mosher, and with a hardcore fan base of 300,000 (1% of the current US population) who regularly buy comics each week, The hope is the growing number of hand held devices will grow sales and to continue to perpetuate the popular art form on yet another technological platform. Keenly aware of this, Mosher said BOOM! Studios was partnering with each of the panelists to so that all of the publisher's library is available with new items 30 days from initial release date.
Micah Baldwin of Graphic.ly, which makes an application to view digital comics in a comic book format on your iPhone, iPad, or desktop, went on to describe additional content such software can provide. "Now like on DVD you can have Mark Waid describing why the Plutonian does what he does, or Milo Vengtimillia ("Heroes" star and producer "Beserker") offers commentary."
Steinberger went on to answer Mosher's initial question by saying, "First you have digital distribution which breaks the barriers (of location) and opens it up, and gives us the opportunity. I think, second, you've got to meet people where they are and market to people where they are...Apple gets it. At the iTunes page for Marvel you'll see it's the movies, it's the videos, it's the music the comics, the apps, the games all together on a page... Put these things together and there's a great big surge in popularity of comic book IP we've seen in the last twelve years since great movie hits started coming out... Find out where and who these people are and what characters or movies interests them--whether its at a local theater or one kind of software that actually puts it all together--and you're gonna find out that people are gonna discover the medium for the first time and actually know all these characters and really connect with this stuff."
Baldwin went about answering the question from a different perspective. "I think its up to the creators," he said. "I think it has nothing to do with four people sitting at this table. Nothing to do with digital. Nothing to do with publishers. I think it has everything to do with creators You create things people are interested in and more people will buy. Now what our job is is to support you. Our job is to allow creativity to drive the technology that we build. If its the trans-media way to look at it, its a movie its a this its that its the other the great. Lets do it. But as long as creators look at technology as a barrier they will never feel free to create...I'm not saying this to throw fault of the creators to say they're not as creative as they can be. I think its actually the technology's fault stuck in a world of paper panels and paper process. Technology should allow you to do whatever you want to do. Technology has grown from a pong game to 'Halo.'
"So how do we grow? We create a world where you as creators can do whatever they want to do in any format you want to do it in," Baldwin said. "Telling any message in a story you want to tell, however you want to tell it. David [Steinberger] has a girlfriend who hates comic books but he brings her a book that's about a character she likes on TV and she reads it. Then he brings her a book by the same writer. One and one interaction. And what if you could repeat that story a thousand times. That's how we grow. How do we make this different? Creators get to be as creative as you can be and we get to be the master marketers that allows the world to know what's happening and allows the community to discuss it. And then comic books become what they are supposed to be. Cool for everybody. "
Baldwin's answer ended with strong applause from would be digital comic creators who made up the majority of the room.
Then it was Michael Murphy of iVerse turn to answer. iVerse produces longform comics for the iPhone and iPod Touch. "I think the way we grow comics is find the new newsstand," Murphy said. "The newsstand is where kids used to find comics. But by my generation kids read the things they watched on TV or played in games. To me the new newsstand is licensed properties like 'True Blood' or 'Transformers' or DC or Marvel characters. Things people see all over on bed sheets or what not. But you look at a property like 'True Blood' which we didn't grow up with and which is very popular now those people that watch that show. When we make a comic book based on it, that's the opportunity to bring people into to the entire world of comic books. And one of the easiest ways to do that is on their mobile device.
"Once we find a property that can get you into the universe of comics. The property is just a way to get people there."
The Q and A mainly revolved around would-be creators getting help to publish their work, to which Mosher said everyone on the panel takes submissions.
That's with the exception of one man asking, "When do the presses stop and you guys, digital media, finally drive print media completely into the grave?"
"June 3rd, 2013," Graphic.ly's Baldwin said, getting the biggest laugh of the panel.
But then Baldwin responded seriously by making a comparison to the music industry which is undergoing a rebirth through vinyl collecting with new mom-and-pop stores springing up through out the country. "There will always be collectors and there will always be print," Baldwin said. Digital comics at this point are not collectible.
Mosher added, "For that hardcore fan base of 300,000 strong I was talking about, comic book stores are community centers where people love buying comics from week to week, hanging out in the store discussing comics with each other. When people say digital comics will destroy the retailers the way it destroyed the music stores I say its not apples and oranges, its apples and steak. There's no mass market comic book audience to go away." Being that comic book stores provide a specialty item that is physical unlike music or video.
Steinberger continued, "There's no equivalent mass market distributor of comics like a Best Buy. The industry wasn't built like that." As a distributor of new digital comics, Steinberger was eager to reach out to "brick and mortar" retailers. "We provide services for retailers so people who subscribe to our service we lead the people who've never been in a comic book store to their nearest one. Its already a boutique industry and a cultural center and we believe there's actually an ability to help comic stores grow."