Now, I love comics. But I hate having to get comics. I hate driving across town to step into a creepy, poorly-lit store that smells like moldy cardboard. I hate having to step around mute forty-year olds in trench coats who still live with their parents. But most of all?
I hate paying four bucks for a single comic book.
As much as I love the feel of paper, digital comics were a very simple way to solve all of those problems. It could also give my comics a measure of digital 'durability' that my delicate paper books can't match.
When I begrudgingly picked up an iPad, the first app I downloaded was the Marvel Comics app. DC Comics launched their app yesterday, and I was able to play with it during lunch. There are some great things going on in these apps, but there are some massive fundamental problems that, if ignored, will kill digital comics before they ever have a chance to blossom.
This is hands-down the biggest problem. For both Marvel and DC apps, the price of a book is $1.99. Initially, that doesn't seem so bad - it's half the price of your average printed comic. But then you flip through the books that are being offered - they're all old. For Marvel, some are so old that they were originally sold at 12 cents. And they want us to pay two bucks each.
This really can't happen. In a digital economy where there are some truly addictive and meaty game experiences priced at a buck (or free), it's crazy to be selling an old, short, twenty-two page comic book at a $2 price point. Even with a piece of music, I can feel somewhat more comfortable spending a dollar on a song because there's a sense of lasting value when you buy something you know you'll probably listen to more than once in a lifetime. A single comic book, on the other hand, cannot be enjoyed that frequently - unless you suffer from a crippling short-term memory disorder.
Bottom line, these prices need to change. Books that are so old that the artists are eligible for social security? Those should be no more than buck - or even more aggressively priced in large collected anthologies. Honestly, DC isn't making money on its vast library of comics from the 40s and 50s. Sell them digitally in big, bargain-priced volumes so that tomorrow's comic fan can feel like he's filling out his collection with 'classic' comic literature.
Both companies have done a great job of giving away the first issue of certain arcs for free. This idea should be expanded further. For example, Ultimate Spider-Man, Vol. 1 - that should be free. I know, that sounds crazy. But it's the perfect jump-on point for anyone who doesn't know comics but saw a Spider-Man movie. And giving away that delicious first volume will likely help the sales of the other two-dozen subsequent volumes of Ultimate Spider-Man. Ultimate Spider-Man IS that good, and giving away one graphic novel to sell twenty more might actually make a lot of sense for Marvel.
Remember, this can't be about selling a digital comic here and there. iTunes and the App Store have shown us that consumers are willing to pay for digital content; the lesson is to price aggressively and go for volume.
Unify The Stores
I get that we have a lot of different comic book publishers. But that's why the consumer should have a centralized digital marketplace for comics. There shouldn't be a dedicated Marvel app and a separate DC app (especially since they're both being made by comiXology and look exactly the same).
There should be one unified store, like iTunes or iBooks. Having separate digital stores makes sense if you're just trying to reach your individual loyal fans - they'll download anything you ask them to. But digital comics needs to be about reaching out to people who don't currently read print comics, and those people aren't going to intuitively know that they should download an app put out by this "DC" company - even if that company owns Batman and Superman.
Turn the page, wash your hands...
Page turning. Some people might think this is a pretty shallow issue, but I think it's actually a critical flaw. Simply put, these digital comic books need to borrow that 3D page-turning interactivity from the iBooks app. Like I said, I like the feel of paper books, and even though iBooks just gives you the graphically-rendered illusion of being able to turn the page, it's so remarkably sexy and effective that it makes the whole concept of digital books seem nonthreatening and familiar. These comic book apps need that fake page-turning aesthetic. Despite their ability to show you the comics panel-by-panel, the apps need to focus on presenting the whole page, because that's how comics are meant to be experienced. The storytelling is written and drawn presuming that you have a whole page of panels in front of you.
Do It Right
These problems can all be fixed - and they can be fixed pretty quickly. Marvel, throw a 50% off sale and see if your books sell any better than they have the last couple months. DC, when I slide my finger on the corner of the display to turn the page, I want the digital page to curl up against my fingertip like a real paper page would. This could be the industry's only shot of escaping that dungeon-like comic book store. Make it count.