Robot 6

Digital Comics: Year One in review

Who owns this comic? Not you, if you bought it digitally.

Over at Comics Alliance, David Brothers sums up the state of digital comics in a comprehensive article that covers all the bases: Format, cost, DRM, file-sharing, and more. Spend ten minutes reading this article and you will know pretty much everything there is to know about the state of the digital comics scene today.

People talk a lot about price and day-and-date releases, but Brothers points to a more fundamental issue: Who really owns “your” comics? A few weeks ago, Marvel accidentally released Ultimate Thor #2 a week early. Benjamin Simpson of bought it on Tuesday night and woke up on Wednesday to find it had disappeared from his “My Comics” list; it was still on his device but locked so he couldn’t read it. Marvel e-mailed him to explain that it would be unlocked a week later. When Amazon pulled the same stunt with an unauthorized Kindle version of George Orwell’s 1984 last year, the resulting outrage (and lawsuit) forced them to apologize and promise never to do it again. The Marvel incident aroused little comment, but it should be worrying; as Brothers points out, the Marvel app lacks that most basic bit of boilerplate, a statement of Terms and Conditions:

What’s all this mean? It’s a huge step in the wrong direction, to be perfectly frank. Simpson paid for the comic and it was downloaded. Someone elsewhere flipped a switch and his access was removed, but the comic remained on his device. The lack of Terms and Conditions is also worrying. There is no document that details exactly what you can and cannot do with a comic, nor what a publisher can do to a comic you’ve purchased. If you buy a video game or album from a store before its street date, you can still play that game or listen to the music when you get home. Mistakes happen, but the consumer generally isn’t punished for someone else’s mistake. Why should it be different for digital comics?

More directly, why is anyone modifying something you have paid for without your permission? If the answer is “to protect the integrity of the story,” the only appropriate retort is a series of four letter words. This is a prime example of what not to do.

The next time a publisher pulls a move like this, the pitchforks should come out, as they did with Amazon. Otherwise, how will they know we care?



I’ve always found it fascinating that the copies of 1984 got pulled because Amazon hadn’t actually had the rights to sell an electronic copy of the book. I wonder how many heads ultimately rolled in licensing over that?

I suspect the only reason why the pitchforks didn’t come out is not enough people were affected. Wait a year or so, when the numbers of buyers have gone up, and if that happens again it’ll be a much larger explosion.

DC and Marvel need to go day and date with digital releases. Make the files downloadable .cbr or .cbz files and price them at 99 cents per issue. Sell their huge backlists at 25 cents per issue. It’s going to happen eventually. Anything over $1.25 per comic is a rip off. Right now publishers get $1.20-$1.60 per comic with printing costs and distribution coming out of that. Distribute your own material on your own sites and cut out all the bloodsucking middle men. The direct market’s time has come to an end.

@ Greg: I agree, but the issue with Amazon wasn’t that they didn’t have digital rights to 1984–it’s that whoever uploaded *that particular version* didn’t have the rights. There is, of course, definitely the potential for a similar case in comics, depending on how much attention gatekeepers like Comixology and pay to what content is being uploaded. But there’s also a chance of inadvertent infringement, such as a creator uploading content she believes she has the rights to but is in fact under license to the print publisher.

@ Paul: While paying $1.49 for a comic with a 10c cover price may be vexing, digitization isn’t free. Some of the backlist may already have been digitized for print collections (and this is not cheap, especially when recolouring is needed), but even so these files will generally have to be reformatted for online formats–think of the panel-progression technology that’s incorporated in pretty much all of the current readers; there’s a cost, or at least cost-sharing, associated with that. 25c per issue isn’t realistic. Nor, really, is 99c day-and-date, when you take these costs plus paying talent, etc. Digital should be cheaper than print–the cost is less, the perceived value is less, the resale value is non-existent. But there *is* cost, and until digital starts doing the volume that print does the per-issue cost is going to be higher than we might like.

That said, I think it’s something most publishers are still experimenting with, and I do think the price of many digital issues will come down. I don’t think it’s unreasonable for Silver Age issues to sell for 99c rather than $1.49, and even more recent issues that are available in trade should come down a bit–DC selling “Sandman” at $1.99/issue is a bit hard to swallow, just for one example…

Let’s assume it takes maybe $750 to scan and re-colour a book. At 25c it would take 3000 copies sold to break even. Sounds much for an old book? Not at 25c, being available for more or less eternity to a world wide audience.
Maybe it will take some time, but i’m pretty sure there will be enough of an audience for old main stream titles and since it costs almost nothing to keep the books available (as opposed to a print version) this will be very profitable.

On a side note: i just bought three issues of Alan Moore’s run on Supreme on for $0.99 each.

@Gnubeutel – I agree that, given time, there’s potential to make that money back, and yeah, eventually we might see older issues for 25c each. But the upfront investment is not insignificant (especially if we’re looking at pumping in new archival titles every week, or even every month), and, because not everything’s available, adoption is slower than it might otherwise be. As more content becomes available and more readers choose to buy that content, the time to recoup those upfront fees should diminish. But right now, we’re sort of subsidizing future readers, paying to get that stuff digitized.

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