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Tue, January 18th, 2011 at 12:58pm PST

Comic Books
Augie De Blieck Jr., Columnist

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ARCHIE LEADING THE WAY

Last week, Archie announced that they will be going day and date digital with their titles starting in April. That's interesting enough, but the topper is that they chose not to go with the same protectionist pricing scheme that other publishing companies have taken, and they're correctly pricing digital comics a dollar less than print comics from Day One.

Why would they risk alienating their partners in the Direct Market like this, as conventional wisdom would state it? Simple. Their partners in the Direct Market aren't doing much for them. They're not selling Archie Comics to their readership, or creating a new readership that might want to read Archie. Thus, Archie owes the DM nothing. They have nothing to fear and nothing to lose. Their main income stream from the publishing side is likely the newsstands, which they (figuratively speaking) own. You can find Archie comics next to "Reader's Digest" and "People" at your supermarket checkout stand. When's the last time you saw a Marvel or DC book there?

I'm not blaming comic shop retailers here. Their clientele is not predisposed to this material. Retailers have enough stuff to keep track of on a week-to-week basis as it is. I still think every comic shop should have some Archie books on the shelf to sell to the kids that will inevitably walk into the store at random, but I understand the concept of cash flow, too, and not keeping dead stock on shelves for too long. The fact is, the Direct Market is not a good match with Archie's business model. Where it can work is with archival projects aimed at older fans who appreciate the material on a different level. Those books, of course, have been outsourced to the likes of Dark Horse and IDW, who can market them better inside the Direct Market, but also to the outside book market.

So why does Archie need the Direct Market? Given the paucity of kids material available via Diamond these days, I'd say the Direct Market needs Archie more, but just doesn't realize it.

Meanwhile, the digital market is a big new beast. Its demographics are broader than what the Direct Market delivers. Have you ever seen a kid near an iPad or an iPhone Touch? You can't pull them away. Apple makes it so easy to buy the comics that cheap comics could bring in big dough. Yes, there are issues with digital comics, too, from both a marketing and financial point of view, but there are tens of millions of iOS and Android devices out there. How many people shop at a comic shop? 300,000? The iPad is the best mobile way to read comics, and the theoretically-upcoming myriad tablets announced at CES will all make for decent comic readers, too.

Why would Archie want to protect the Direct Market with price parity? What's there to save? The loss of print sales due to digital sales is a rounding error for them now.

Combine that for a moment with some of the depressing sales figures we talked about last week. Top creator-owned work is selling less than 10,000 comics a month. "Savage Dragon," for one, doesn't sell more than 6,000 copies at comic shops in North America. (More on this further down the page.)

So what's to lose by going digital?

I have a new rule I'd like to create. I'll selfishly refer to it as "De Blieck's Digital Divide" because I substitute alliteration for creativity. Any comic that sells less than 8,000 copies (I'm amenable to lowering that to 6,000 or even 5,000) through Diamond should automatically be made a day and date digital comic for a dollar less, at least. (I think $1.99 should be the top rate for a digital comic with 22 pages of story.)

That would still leave the top 200-250 comics each month exclusive to brick and mortar shops (which probably account for 90% of periodical revenues for them), while opening up comics that desperately need more readers to huge new audiences. Since they don't sell much in the Direct Market, you can't complain that their absence would destroy traditional retailers. They weren't selling them, anyway, and there's no proof that they'll automatically lose all those sales, anyway. (I'd bet that the people buying Archie comics on-line are not regular comic shop visitors, and likely wouldn't describe themselves as comic fanboys.) There's also no proof that new people coming into comics from the digital side of things will ever set foot in a comic shop looking for a collected edition in print later on, but I bet it'll happen to a small degree, at least.

This isn't to say that digital comics are the instant savior of the comic book world. If you build it, they won't necessarily come, though the iOS platforms have shown ridiculously strong growth. What do you have to lose?

ONE MORE IDEA, AND SKOTTIE YOUNG'S DIGITAL EXPERIMENT

Getting some internet linkage last week was the "NOT .99 METHOD" web page, which outlines a way to sell your digital comics directly to the end user for any price you want without dealing with Apple and its practices. (No 30% cut going to Cupertino, no DRMed files, and comics that can be read anywhere, not just specific mobile devices.) While I disagree with many of the author's techno-political leanings, the reasons behind this "hack" of the system is a good one. I support that. I'm not crazy about using SMS for paying for things, but to each his own. These instructions seem geared to those who want to live their lives on their mobile devices first. I prefer to go in the other direction, where I'd download everything to my desktop computer and sync up to my mobile later. You sort of have that with comiXology, where you can buy a comic on your phone and still have it available to you on your desktop. I believe the Amazon Kindle works the same way. Their software is available everywhere, while you can download the book you bought to anywhere.

In any case, it's a worthy concept. I hope someone runs with it. It would be interesting to see the results.

Unrelated, Skottie Young is selling a package of his webcomics as a PDF through his webpage for just $2. He uses PayPal, so he does pay a few percent in processing fees, but it's still less than Apple's cut.

And here's the thing: It's a fun book to read on your computer. Yes, it's all freely available on-line or you could even buy the book for $10 plus shipping. But if you just want the material and want to read it without needing to be on line or waiting for page loads, the "The Adventures of Bernard the World Destroyer" PDF is a great value. It pokes fun at several modern trends and celebrities, some hitting stronger than others. Some seem like yesterday's news already (Kate Gosselin, anyone?), just proving how insanely quick the news cycle is, and how short our attention spans can be.

But Young's cartooning skills are never in doubt. While these gag-a-day pages might at first glance seem crudely done and unfinished, the amount of power and energy in those lines is outstanding. Young has a confident line in his artwork, even in this rough and scratchy form. The basis underneath all of that final work is still there, and the unfinished nature of it, I believe, is what makes it seem so powerful. It's not slick; it's unrefined, containing all the enthusiasm of those early lines without the soul-killing slickness of "final inks."

His line weights vary up nicely. He uses negative space to finish off images in spots. His smoke and explosions have an animation to them I've only ever seen better done by Michel Gagne, who specializes in that kind of thing. Todd McFarlane does great explosions, too, but they do start looking alike quickly if you view too many in a row.

Just slip over the text pages in the front and back, because your eyes will bleed from the spelling/grammar issues. Enjoy, instead, the all star pin-up gallery in the back that's beautiful and funny.

It's a quick read, but it's only $2. Couldn't ask for too much more for your money.

THE SAVAGE DRAGON DIGITAL CONUNDRUM

This week saw Erik Larsen pushing the marketing slider up past 100. (Sorry, I think I just warped "Spinal Tap" towards Adobe Photoshop Lightroom.) He retweeted all of the glowing reviews of "Savage Dragon" #168 he could find. It was relentless, and exciting.

Sadly, I had fallen behind on my "Dragon" reading, and didn't realize just how much I was until this week. Thankfully, I had the most recent two trade paperbacks to help remind me where things were, and then to start catching up. I read "Savage Dragon" #151 - #164 over the weekend and had an awful lot of fun. I'm not sure how well these issues read from month to month, but as a couple of collected editions and a couple of loose issues past that, I was hooked and frothing at the mouth for more.

While I was able to pick up a copy of issue #168 at my local shop this week, I can't find copies of #165, #166, and #167 to catch me all the way up to this week's mind-bending #168. I'm desperate to read those now before I accidentally stumble upon some spoilers. I have theories as to what might have happened, particularly given the way Larsen has talked about the series in the past, but I'll let you know if any of them panned out some day.

So I went to comiXology, which I knew carried the series. Their run of issues goes from #145 to #163. It was a brutal tease. I took to Twitter to vent my frustrations:

We need to convince @ErikJLarsen to start running "Savage Dragon" day and date digital. #168 would be in comiXology Top Ten this week.

Larsen replied:

@augiedb twist THEIR arm--not mine! We've BEEN sending comiXology the books but they aren't getting them up as fast as We'd like. Grrrrr.

Now we have a new problem with digital comics: the publishing arm is overloaded and not keeping up. With a top seller like "The Walking Dead," it's easy to place a push on getting those issues posted day and date. With a title like "Savage Dragon," which sells a fraction of the copies, the rush isn't there.

Isn't that a shame? Wouldn't it be great if Larsen or Image, as a whole, set up something like the aforementioned "NOT .99 Method" for their comics to circumvent that? It would eliminate a bottleneck. Plus, it would save time. There's no need to create the custom viewing experience comiXology has to put all of its comics through. While that's useful on a smaller mobile screen, it's useless for me on a 27" computer monitor or even a theoretical 10" iPad.

I say cut that step out of the pipeline and let's get the comics in my digital hands.

Because, right now, if I wanted to catch up on the series, I'd have to resort to piracy. A quick Google search found this jaw-dropping result:

There have been more pirated copies of the comic downloaded than have sold in the Direct Market. By a lot.

No, I'm not one of that number. I really don't want to do that. I have $6 ready to drop on the first digital solution to this issue, though.

C'mon, comiXology! Time to play catch-up!

AWESOMENESS ABOUNDS ACROSS THE INTERNET

  • The colorist of the "Spawn" #200 cover by Rob Liefeld and Todd McFarlane has posted a photoset on his Facebook page showing how his work progressed on the cover. It's an awesome look at the process of coloring a single page of comic art.

  • Erik Larsen is selling three pages of original art on eBay. Even if you don't have the money to spend, click through to read his descriptions on the pages. The "Spawn" #199 page description is informative, and the others are funny.

  • As a digital photography geek, workflow and proper backup procedures are of interest to me. Heck, as a guy who's written nearly 1000 columns and done hundreds of podcasts, it's important to me. And in the digital age where most of our entertainment is available for purchase digitally, we should all be concerned about having proper backups. Todd Klein outlines his process, much of which involves burning new discs. Check out the comments for more details (what goes off-site, what is relatively unimportant), in case you're horrified by what he left out in his initial blog post.

  • Congratulations to iFanboy for their 3,000,000th podcast download. They've kept a lot of servers warm over the years.

  • So, let's get this timeline straight: Borders is a big part of getting manga out to the kids. TokyoPop is arguably the largest beneficiary of that. TokyoPop runs into hard times, shrinks, reorganizes, mounts a comeback and moves all book distribution to Diamond, who promptly stops distributing books to Borders, who's is shrinking, trying to reorganize and might be going out of business. Next, a snake shall eat its own tail.
Next week: I've been reading a lot. I bet we'll see a review or two.

Over at VariousAndSundry.com this last week, I pointed out the potential pitfalls of a Verizon iPhone and thrilled at the (sorta) return of "Whose Line Is It Anyway?"

At AugieShoots.com, you can see pictures of my visit to St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City, read every answer to a photography podcast Q&A, find eight suggestions for improving the iPhone's camera, and see a couple of early HDR attempts.

TAGS:  pipeline, comixology, archie, savage dragon, erik larsen, skottie young

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