While most mainstream attention at last month's Comic-Con convention in San Diego was centered on Hollywood stars such as Angelina Jolie, Will Farrell and Sylvester Stallone, comic book publishing executives were taking a close look at the future of their business and the hope that switching to digital will re-energize an industry that's been stagnant for much of the past decade.
"Digital comics are still very much an experiment but with the arrival of the iPad and iPhone things have started to rev up faster than most of the people in the industry thought they would," said Michael Murphey, CEO of Waco, TX-based iVerse Media, a digital distributor of comics. "The vast majority of these successful programs are for mobile devices, which can provide a similar experience for fans by letting them carry and read their favorite titles."
Another appeal of mobile devises for publishers is the business model. Currently most the leading comic publishers such as Marvel, DC Comics, Dark Horse and IDW are trying to recreate the print experience, with consumers paying to download what they used to go to their local comic store to purchase.
While print comic books have never really taken off as an advertising vehicle (you may remember the ads for Sea Monkeys and X-Ray Specs) many in the industry feel digital could change that.
"These hand-held devices actually complement print very well because people are willing to pay for those digital comics," explained Jeff Webber, head of ePublishing at IDW, which provides digital comics for a host of devices including the iPhone and Sony PSP portable game players. "But we do see some opportunities in offering the first issue free in order to get people hooked on the story line - and to have a brand sponsor that free issue for consumers."
IDW's line-up includes comic books and graphic novels based on entertainment properties such as Star Trek and HBO vampire series "True Blood." Webber pointed out such franchises have an appeal far beyond the traditional male comic reader. "The core audience for True Blood is 30- to 50-year-old women so we're getting a much broader audience," he said.
And even as the comic book industry has struggled to regain the momentum in had in the 1990s, the comic book reader has emerged in recent years as a highly sought after demographic. Thanks to the success of everything from the Spider-Man and Batman movies to TV shows such as Lost and even Glee - all of which got some much needed early hype at past Comic-Cons - brands have come to realize this audience can be very surprisingly influential.
"It's an incredible audience that consumes a lot of different media - including digital," said David Steinberger, CEO of New York-based ComiXology, which provides the technology to power the Marvel and DC applications, as well as its own ComiXology app, for the iPhone and other devices.
ComiXology recently ran its first ad on its iPhone/iPad application. "It was for the video "Batman: Under the Red Hood" and it was really seamless," Steinberger said. "If you were on an iPad or iPhone you could click on it and be taken to the iTunes store to rent it and watch it right there."
Currently most of the advertising surrounding digital comics seems to be coming from the entertainment industry with programs aimed at driving awareness for upcoming games or movies. "Warner Brothers did a prequel comic for Inception and they provided it to us, ComiXology, and Yahoo as well," said iVerse Media's Murphey. "It provided a great introduction to the Inception universe and the entire book was, in essence, an ad."
But the effectiveness of those programs is triggering interest from brands outside the entertainment realm. Audi, as part of its promotional tie-in to the recent Iron Man 2 movie, sponsored a free digital comic book on Marvel.com featuring the car maker's R8 Spyder convertible.
"We've heard from a few potential advertisers," Steinberger said. "Most of them are still media, but also more than one consumer packaged goods company, particularly snack and soda brands. The challenge we face is making it so it doesn't interrupt the reading experience."
BOOM! Studios Marketing Director Chip Mosher added he's also had some early discussions with advertisers, but suggested that the entire industry is understandably proceeding with caution. "I certainly think that digital comics have the potential to be 'stickier' for advertisers than traditional print, but digital comics are in its infancy right now, so there is no way to be sure at this point," he said.
David Ward is a veteran freelance journalist based in San Diego, who currently focuses on online marketing, digital entertainment and the growth on new consumer technologies such as 3D in the home.
June 20, 2013
1:00pm ET / 10:00am PT