Comics: How to Kill the Past Without Aborting the Future?

So the new Batman #1 is vastly better than Detective Comics #1. It’s well-drawn and written, and it left me wanting to read the next issue. Also, I never would’ve read it had it not been available for sale through DC’s app on the iPad. Marvel really needs to listen up and take notes — digital is the way to go.

One of the problems with the comics industry is that they rely on a single distributor, Diamond, and rely on a single sales channel, comic book stores. They’ve painted themselves into a corner, growth-wise. DC and Marvel are not private, independent businesses; they are profit centers within larger media conglomerates who must show year-over-year growth to satisfy shareholders. You can’t do that with a single distribution and sales channel. Say what you will about aging demographics and shifting cultural tastes, if anything’s going to kill off comics, it’s that single means of distribution.

So here’s the challenge: how do you shift to “day-and-date” digital releases and grow that business without dissing your main source of revenue? Everyone knows digital is the future, yet it’s still nascent enough within the comics industry that if DC and Marvel seriously piss-off their current sales channel, it could kill their entire business. They have to placate the comic book stores and their aging clientele until digital overtakes physical in revenue.

But that’s the other half of the challenge — to mollify the comic book store owners, the publishers have to charge the same amount for a digital copy as they do for a physical book, so store owners don’t feel like they’re being cut loose like a sea anchor in the mad rush to go digital.

Now, anyone who has been over to Amazon has seen how some unscrupulous publishers charge the same amount for a digital book as a physical copy (because electrons cost so much to produce) — and they don’t even have to appease an entrenched, vitriolic sales channel. It’s just greed. The natural reaction is to either say, “Screw that!” or “Hello torrents!” People are likely to have the same reaction to digital comics prices, which folks have already been pirating for years on torrent sites anyway.

The comics publishers have a tough road to hoe. They have to gently kill the past without aborting the future. It’ll be interesting to watch, but I really hope they’re successful in transitioning to the future, as well as appealing to younger folks and a wider audience instead of being relegated to the ghetto of the comic book store and its rather limited customer base.