Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Digital Comics - A Back Issue Bonanza

Digital comics are still a little scary to some, offensive to others, and a haven to experiment for even more. Digital comics are also still very nascent and their most effective future path has yet to be chosen though there are many options. Many bandy about the term ‘day and date,’ a phrase I loathe for its ridiculous sound, but not enough have looked into the merits of digital comics becoming the haven of the back issue that have become harder and harder to find. I want more old issues available on my iPad and here’s why.

ComiXology and the Digital Comic

Many readers are weighing up their options about keeping their comic habit on paper or switching to the binary world once thought foreign and imaginary. If you own an iPad, or even an iPhone, or just another tablet device, or a standard computer (see the variety of options you have) then you can get the free service of ComiXology at your disposal.

I am going to discuss this through ComiXology because I want to have my argument about just one platform. If you use or any other options then transfer these arguments to those systems. It’ll all hold together.

ComiXology offers you the opportunity to buy comics digitally and read them on any of the aforementioned electronic devices. You don’t own a copy of the comic, you own the ability to read it through the ComiXology interface. People have been sceptical about this but it actually works quite well. If you download all your comics onto your iPad (and the iPad is the device I will use to streamline my words) and then your iPad dies all you need to do is buy a new iPad, log in using your ComiXology details, and you can download all your previously owned comics again at no cost. ComiXology knows which comics your account owns and gives you unrestricted access to those issues. You can even run the application across multiple devices and have multiple versions of that one comic in your house (on you iPad, iPhone, etc).

This system means you can’t really lose your digital collection. If you lose the device you just log into another one and you’re set. You do need to download the comics again but you will be allowed to. If the ComiXology servers were to crash, though, then maybe there might be an issue but for now it all seems very smooth. No one has lost their digital collection. Yet. But even I’ve had the odd glitch or problem with ComiXology and always found their customer service team to be exemplary. They always resolve the problem and act like actual humans.

Free and Sale Content

ComiXology also offers weekly free content which I love. As new series are made available, their first issue will most likely surface for free at some point. It’s a wonderful lure. It’s rare you’ll find anything free in this world, and certainly not at your LCS (local comic shop), but ComiXology regularly updates with a rotating schedule of free comics. You can dip your toe, see if you like it, then make an informed purchase later on. You don’t even have to buy digital after that, the free issue might make you want the trade. It’s up to you.

There are also 99c sales where arcs or runs appear on sale for a buck an issue for a finite period of time be it a day or 3 days. It’s another excellent lure and one I’ve taken advantage of many times before. I can’t even imagine how many runs have now been on offer in the 99c sales. There’s at least one sale a week, usually two, and they’ve been going for months now. You can pick up an arc for $6, or less. I really dig that.

Day and Date

A major argument about digital comics is that they need to stay relevant. People feel if all their content is weeks behind the stores then they’re useless and no one will buy them. In one way, they’re right. The Wednesday crowd probably is not going to buy into the digital craze. The comics are priced the same as the paper version and they’re usually released later. That’s two fails in one go. The Wednesday crowd wants their comics before any spoilers hit and they want to own the comic, hold it, be able to keep it or show it off. The Wednesday crowd isn’t the sort of market digital comics should be after.

Digital comics should be after other readers, casual readers, lapsed readers, mildly curious readers. There are so many iPad owners in the world and they now all have access to hundreds and hundreds of comics. Digital comics should be after that crowd because they might not care so much about if the book is released digitally the same day as in print. This new crowd probably won’t care about not having the paper copy in their hands or in their house. This crowd is probably happy to have no need to store a weekly amassing stack of paper. The people who download albums off iTunes are perfect for the digital comics revolution, but all of this is not a new concept.

I know if I had been given an iPad during my lapsed years of comic reading I would have found ComiXology and loved it. 99c sales would have been right up my alley and I would have tried all sorts of things. Digital comics feel like the perfect way to get other readers. You know, actually expand comics readership. If you preach to the faithful few hundred thousand that make up our core buying market then the medium of comics will never expand. Comic movies might make billions but the monthly work on which these blockbusters are based will continue to fall below 100k sales each month. If we keep doing the same things with the same people then we’re going to continue to get the same outcome.

If digital comics released day and date do come down in price then that’s not helping the retailers in an already struggling business. I get that completely and agree with it mostly. It’s a slippery slope to switch people over to digital because that means the industry loses a lot from the stores that would inevitably close from this loss of income.

The day and date argument only really matters to the Wednesday crowd and digital comics needs to look past this insular group. DC Comics have made a great leap in offering their entire New 52 line day and date release digitally but who is going to want to spend $3 on a digital comic when you can buy one to tangibly keep for the same price? It’s ludicrous and not smart business. There has to be a better way to use this format.

Back Issues

I love hunting back issue bins. I mean real back issue bins. I want to see random old 70s Marvel comics next to titles I have never even heard of before. I want a bit of every style from every era to immerse myself in. Sadly, this is becoming harder to do lately because of all the current stock stores need to carry. How can your LCS be expected to carry every new monthly title, and the 2 months prior as well, in a store with at least one copy of all the best trades, HCs, Absolute Editions? Then there’s merch and figures to account for. There’s only so much floor space available for back issues and I find most stores don’t go much deeper than the last decade. If I want comics from the past decade I’ll buy a trade, they were damn near all collected, but some hidden gems from 30 years ago would really entice me but there’s just little logistical way it can happen in store.

However, digital comics don’t take up any space. Digital comics don’t require storage or floor space, digital comics can easily offer me 50 years of one title. Hell, it should be able to offer me 50 years of all titles. If digital comics started really strongly peddling back issues from way back when then this wouldn’t harm the retailers as much, if at all. Perhaps there’d be a few less sales of some old collection reprints, trades, HCs, etc. Maybe. The way most people covet their shelves as a shrine of pride I doubt it would be this crowd who would be lured away.

Back issues would be perfect for the curious or the time poor or the money poor. I don’t want to shell out hundreds of dollars for old Lee/Kirby Fantastic Four issues, and the omnibus just can’t be found for a decent price anymore, and I don’t want to read them in black and white. An easy option would be to have all these issues digitally available and offer them for 99c each. That’s $100, still a decent price for the company, but more affordable to many readers. The reader isn’t stuck buying a whole HC worth but instead poaches the issues that interest them. Or slowly amasses them at 3 a week for a year.

Back issues are the future of digital comics. These issues aren’t raking in much revenue for the companies anymore, they aren’t carried singularly by the stores anymore, and yet there’s still an audience that would love to read them in crisp colour on an iPad. If every Daredevil issue was available on ComiXology for 99c I’d be all over plenty of them. I’d buy an armful of FF issues, too. I’d buy the odd random Marvel hero from the 70s, and even some old DC issues.

DC has recently been very good at uploading plenty of old content and making them available in massive 101 sales. They’ve had a 101 sale spotlight on most of the major character with issues 99c each and there have been some real gems. Some of this content has even stabilised at 99c, which is awesome. ComiXology needs to offer new content but it should also heavily look into, and invest, in bringing the past to the current readers.

I know transferring all these old comics to the digital format is probably quite difficult, and not a task at which one snaps their fingers and finds it completed. I understand that and I hope if I wait long enough this trend of back issues will become the norm. I hope to see ComiXology utilise digital comics for something that will help sell more comics to new people, will help people catch up so they’ll buy more current comics from their LCS, and won’t take too much business away from the retailers.

Buying back issues is a trepidatious endeavour at cons at the best of times. I admit, there are some comics I would still want to own in paper, and hunting it down in dusty longboxes can be a blast, but there’s something to be said for the convenience of shopping from home and knowing the books are there, and having the instant download gratification to be able to read within minutes.

Surely plenty of people would invest in back issues if they were more widely available. It’s an avenue not many people have brought up but it feels to me to be the one thing a company like ComiXology could do better than just about any other method.


Now if only digital comics came in the form of more collections as well. I know you can buy single issues of Atomic Robo but you can also buy the digital trades for a slightly cheaper price. The recent Red Sonja sale offered issues for 99c each but also gave the option of a digital omnibus for $16. It was a steal for 20 issues of content.

Once ComiXology catches up and offers full trade collections of stories then they’ll lure in even more people from outside comics. They might not get the whole decompressed issue business but they’ll understand a trade as a whole story.

This sale format might impact more on retailers but the degree to which it has a negative effect is something I think would be negligible. I’ll state it again, I don’t think the Wednesday crowd will all suddenly jump ship. But I could be wrong…


I really want to see expansive runs of back issues available on ComiXology and available cheaply. I love reading digital comics but the comics I buy monthly I still want in paper. It’s the other comics, the ones I’ll try but don’t necessary want to find a shelf for, that I want to access digitally. How do you read your comics? Would you get behind buying more digital back issues rather than this week’s comics? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.

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Daryl said...

Hey Ryan,

How do you feel about the lack of "stability" in the digital comics space at the moment? ie that $6 arc that you bought may not be available to you in 5 years if you buy a tablet that doesn't have a Comixology app, Comixology goes out of business etcetc?

Blue Tyson said...

Many thousands of comics, actually.

Dean Stell said...

Nice article. I pretty much agree with everything you've stated here except for digital comics not being for the Wednesday crowd. I'm one of the dudes who is in the LCS 10 minutes after they open and I would rather have the majority of my comics in digital. I even view the price equivalence to be a non-issue because I don't value the paper comics. There are some comics that I legitimately like to collect and I'll probably always want those in paper format, but for many of these comics I just want to read them. I don't want them cluttering my home, so given the choice between (a) throwing the paper copy away and (b)having a digital copy that I can access again if I really want to....well, option (b) is way more attractive.

I do hate it for LCSs, but I don't value comic shops enough to not consume comics the way I want them.

Kate said...

I have started using Comixology a bit, just bought a couple of comics so far. But I think an issue that me and many have with: "You don’t own a copy of the comic, you own the ability to read it..." is what happens if Comixology ceases to exist? There is no control over your own property. I think we'll feel less scared about this possibility as time goes on and sites have years under their belt but it is still new right now. This is also why I favor more subscription based digital services like say Netflix, with a lower price point and no ability to own.

I must agree about the back issues part. It is practically free money for companies. I bought a Thor issue from the 70's and the color was so amazing, it didn't look nearly as dated because of that, too.

Timbotron said...

Nice article. I'm one of those regular Wednesday readers that also LOVES reading comics digitally.

It is worth noting that Marvel Comics do not have any comics available on the Android platform (including my ASUS Transformer). That means I find myself buying a lot of the DC 101 sales, but I have no digital Marvel comics.

Marvel needs to address this soon!

Ryan K Lindsay said...

@Daryl - I can completely understand why some people might be a little stand offish, but I see ComiXology as going the distance, I honestly do. So I know it's a slight risk but I haven't entertained it at all.

@Dean Stell - strangely, I do value my LCS enough. I'd hate to see it out of business, but I also know there are certain comics I just have to own in paper. That's just me :)

@Kate - the colouring is often amazing, if not completely original, but they look awesome. I think all these back issues not generating money should be exploited for everyone's benefit.

@Timbotron - isn't Marvel on Android yet? That's a fail. Lame.

The Green Death said...

I love comixology! DC has been sneaking a few back issues in at a permenant .99 price range, which has caused me to buy the original Firestorm run and various random Batman, GL, Flash, etc. A few of the older Wildstorm books are .99 too. I hope this is a sign of things to come.

Also the currently running Batman 101 caused me to pick up some 50 odd comics today.

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