Comical Attraction

You might not have heard of Comixology, the comics industry’s answer to iTunes, but it’s a mobile success story. Selling comics issues to be read in-app, Comixology was the top grossing non-gaming app on iPad for three years running between 2011 and 2013. To date, it has been installed somewhere north of 1m times on Android alone, and according to a 2013 survey, its users spend an average of $100 (£75) each year, and 25 per cent spend over $400 (£310).

So it’s perhaps unsurprising that in 2014 the company was snapped up by retail giant Amazon.

It wasn’t the first digital comics platform, and it’s not the only one operating today, but it’s certainly been the most successful. Much of that comes down to one simple fact: Comixology is a mobile-first business.

Comixology CEO David Steinberger
David Steinberger, CEO and co-founder of Comixology

Secret origins
According to its survey, 80 per cent of Comixology users read their comics on a tablet, and 36 per cent also read on a smartphone. The reason for tablets’ dominance, out of line with overall adoption, is the nature of comics themselves.

An iPad is more or less exactly the same dimensions and, unlike a PC monitor, the same orientation as a single comics page. It’s not too difficult, then, to convert a comic into something that’s readable on a tablet. Trying to squeeze a full-size comic created for print onto a smartphone, though, leads to a poor experience for readers who don’t fancy giving their pinch-and-zoom muscles a work-out or straining their eyes squinting at tiny text.

Comixology made its name by finding a way to make comics work on smaller screens too, with Guided View, its so-called ‘panel-to-panel reading system’. This breaks the comic’s page up into smaller chunks, presenting a single image at a time – in comics terminology, a single panel – which users can easily swipe between.

“Just reading a comic on an iPhone was very hard work before we came along,” says Comixology co-founder and CEO David Steinberger. “We developed Guided View to make a print comic book readable in digital form on a small device, while keeping the storytelling and timing of a comic book.”

This one simple innovation helped make Comixology the single biggest player in digital comics, beating desktop-focused offerings, even from major publishers like Marvel. Today, as well as its own site and app, Comixology powers apps for the three biggest comics publishers in the US: Marvel, DC and Image.

Outside the box
However, Comixology is far from the only game in town. There are smaller dedicated platforms like Stela and Electricomics, which enable creators to make comics specifically for mobile; and offshoots from major app and eBook stores, like Google Play and Kindle (though, as Amazon owns Comixology, the latter is part of the same family).

Some publishers have separate offerings: Marvel runs a second service with an all-you-can-eat model, Marvel Unlimited, while Image has an online storefront selling its comics as PDFs. And a few prominent creators have set up their own digital offerings – like Panel Syndicate, set up by writer and artist team Brian K Vaughan and Marcos Martín, and Thrillbent, set up by comics writer Mark Waid with TV producer John Rogers.

For now, all of these other platforms make up just a small fraction of the digital comics market – though this might be starting to shift.

“Comixology is still by far the most overwhelming part of digital sales, but it’s no longer quite as overwhelming as it was,” says comics writer Kieron Gillen, who has written titles like Darth Vader and X-Men for Marvel, and is currently focused on his own creations, most notably indie hit The Wicked + The Divine.

“Every other single digital comics venue, if you go back a couple of years, the money on our books was almost negligible – I would probably give you that money in the pub as a joke – but now there is actually reasonable revenue from other places,” he says. “But it’s still, compared to Comixology, a tiny part of the total.”

Stela_PromoIn fact, digital comics themselves are a relatively small chunk of the total comics market. In 2015 digital sales stood at $90m, according to ICv2 figures. That’s compared to $388m for print issues, the majority sold through specialist comics retailers, plus $89m for collected editions, which are also available in traditional book stores.

These numbers are in line with Gillen’s own experiences as a creator. “Based on word of mouth, most people say digital on most books is about 10 per cent,” he says. “In our case, last time I looked, it’s about 25 per cent. So we do very well on digital.”

The Wicked + The Divine is notable for its racially and sexually diverse cast, something it has in common with the books by other creators that Gillen says sell disproportionately well on digital platforms. With the ICv2 figures showing that digital isn’t cannibalising print sales – which were up 7.5 per cent year-on-year in 2015 – digital may well be drawing a new audience into stereotypical white adult male buyer that most of the market has targeted for the past few decades.

Turning the page
“There is significant growth in digital comics readers who have never read a comic before in their lives,” says Leah Moore, comics writer and co-founder of Electricomics. “They are predominantly 17–25 and female, and this demographic is one I believe publishers and creators should take notice of. Imagine every girl in her teens or twenties buying a digital graphic novel every month on her way to college or work. Comics would kill for that traction.”

Understandably, this intent is shared by just about every digital comics platform. Steve Suna, PR manager for the mobile-first Stela Comics, says it “hopes to reach a new kind of reader, one that grew up with social media and smartphones”. Comixology’s Steinberger says simply, “Our mission statement is to make everybody on the planet a comics reader.”

The “accepted wisdom”, as Gillen puts it, is that new comics readers are drawn primarily to digital. This goes hand in hand with the recent push towards more progressive content that represents a wider range of human experience.

The poster girl for this movement is Ms Marvel, starring a teenaged Muslim girl named Kamala Khan. When the first issue launched in 2014, it sold more digital copies than print, and publisher Marvel has since announced that Ms Marvel is its number-one title on digital comics platforms. By comparison, in terms of print sales, it was only Marvel’s 109th best-seller in 2015.

ComixologyIssues to opportunities
Sales are just one half of the digital story for comics. The new format brings its own challenges: for example, double-page spreads with a single detailed image don’t fare too well when shrunk down to fit a small screen. But there are also a host of unique opportunities that creators are just beginning to explore.

“In a printed comic book, turning the page is what we call the reveal,” says Comixology’s Steinberger. “Generally speaking, at the end of every second page, a great comic is setting up some sort of tension, so that when you turn the page you get a reward. We have a lot of folks say that with Guided View every single panel feels exciting, like they don’t know what’s coming up next.”

“With Guided View, page turns no longer matter,” Gillen agrees. “It’s more like your comic now has a hundred pages instead of 20, because each panel transition is effectively a new page.”

There are comics being created specifically for digital that take advantage of this. Comixology has a range of ‘Guided View native’ titles that can uncover or overlay elements of the page as the user swipes, or use repeated frames with subtly different artwork to create an animation-like effect. For now, though, these comics are the exception rather than the rule on digital, and the reasons are entirely pragmatic.

“If you do a digital-only comic which really uses the medium, that you can’t resell in print without serious reworking, you cut away every other source of money,” says Gillen. “And that’s the big problem. Digital has to grow to a point where something which is entirely native can be worth the investment and time.”

It’s exactly this challenge that the newer players in digital comics are trying to turn into an opportunity. Stela offers “100 per cent original content designed from the ground up to be read on a smartphone,” Suna says, rather than “the glorified PDFs and JPEGs” available on other digital comics services.

According to Moore, Electricomic’s opensource platform lets creators make “panel-delivery comics, scrolling comics, infinite canvas comics, hypercomics, game comics, multicursal comics, guided-view comics, motion comics, and comics like Sway, where you tip the iPad to let the character fall out of one timeline and into another.”

In short, mobile provides an opportunity to expand comics, in almost every conceivable way: by bringing down the barriers for new readers, by changing how stories are told, and by broadening the kinds of people who those stories reach, and are written for. For a medium best known for its brilliantly coloured heroes, the future of digital comics is appropriately bright.

This article first appeared in the September 2016 print edition of Mobile Marketing. You can read the whole issue here.