Why Marvel and DC’s Digital Comics Failed

DC_Comicsby Aaron Tring

It was the hope of many tech enthusiasts that touchscreen tablets like the iPad would bring salvation for American comic books. Marvel Comics raced to have a Comixology-created digital comics app available for the iPad at launch, and DC Comics followed with their own app soon after. While neither publisher has discussed specific sales numbers, it is the lack of information and hype for digital comics that tells a very unfortunate story about the vitality of these comics apps. While I initially greeted these apps with reserved hopefulness,  I was immediately presented with a number of fundamental errors concerning the way DC and Marvel were approaching digital books. After months of following the progressive development of their app stores, I’m sincerely sorry to report that the dream of a digitally-rejuvenated comics industry is no closer to reality.

Misguided Pricing

This was the initial complaint by many who tried out Marvel and DC’s apps. The price of a single digital comic book simply cannot be $2. It makes no sense to have to pay $2 for a nearly 50-year-old issue of Fantastic Four with a big 12-cent price marker on the cover. The unfortunate reality is that a number of the collections available in these apps are actually cheaper to obtain in print form – how can this be? How is it possible that Marvel and DC could set such misguided price points for content which literally costs them nothing to produce? Moreover, in a digital economy where $2 can get you Angry Birds and a Talking Baby Hippo, what rational person would instead choose to spend that money on a retconned Superman comic that, at best, could provide maybe twenty minutes of reading entertainment?

To be fair, I applaud DC’s frequent efforts to spotlight certain comics at temporary 99-cent price points, and I think both companies have been smart in providing the beginnings of certain story arcs for free. However, if they’re not willing to accept sub-$1 dollar price points, then they need to seriously consider content subscriptions. If consumers can’t justify the cost of owning a digital comic, then rent the comics to them in unlimited subscriptions, like Netflix does with our old TV shows. With an all-you-can-eat rental model, digital comics can be just as horrendously addictive as Netflix Instant Play.

Instant Play makes it impossible to get anything done.

Don’t Sell Them In Custom Apps

Good pricing isn’t enough if people don’t know where to buy your digital comics. This is the problem with having custom Marvel and DC ‘apps’ – you have to be a pre-evangelized Marvel or DC fan to seek out and download these apps in order to purchase the comics. If the goal of digital comics is to reach new readers, this has to change. Since Apple’s iBooks store, Amazon’s Kindle store, and Barnes & Noble’s Nook store all sell full-color e-books, why aren’t Marvel and DC just selling their digital comics in these well-established book stores? Reading-minded consumers already know to check out the iBooks or Kindle store to buy reading material, so doesn’t it make more sense to sell comics in those stores, instead of expecting them to find and download the Marvel and DC Comics apps? If you look around on iBooks right now, you can find that there are a number of comic books available for purchase from other companies – including an excellent reprinting of some old Captain Marvel comics. This is where Batman: Hush and Ultimate Spider-Man should be located.

No Incentive Against Print Comics
I’ve spoken with a number of comic fans who think the solution to all of this is for Marvel and DC to include a digital copy of the comic with a purchase of the printed copy. I actually don’t agree with this idea; sure, that’s what we see happening in DVD and Blu-ray sales, but I don’t actually know many people who are redeeming their digital copies. More often than not, they buy the Blu-ray telling themselves that they’re willing to pay extra to get the included digital copy, but never actually transfer it to their computers.

If DC and Marvel want digital comics to work, they have to be willing to let their digital books compete against their printed books. By that, I mean that they have to politely ignore the grumblings of comic book retailers and price digital comics far below their paper equivalents – and brand new issues have to be available digitally on the same day that they’re available in comic book shops. This is going to upset a lot of retailers, but spoiler alert – comics are going to continue in a death-spiral if we don’t remove these comic book stores from the equation. Buying music digitally did not become popular until it made sense for consumers to go digital; it took the arrival of an MP3 player far superior to a Discman and consumer-friendly digital album pricing that trumped most retail CD prices. Comics can make the same successful leap to digital distribution, but it will continue to be a failed experiment until Marvel and DC are willing to change their business models for digital content.

reposted from Word’s Finest


  1. John Wilker26 January, 2011

    Interesting anecdote. A friend was gonna get me a christmas present of a years digital subscription to Marvel or DC, I don’t recall which. He didn’t because when he investigated, it was desktop only, and he knew (and was right!) that I wouldn’t sit at my desktop and read comic books.

    Why not a years Digital subscription to the iPad app? I’d pay $50 to read what I want on my iPad. I assumed some exec looked at it like,
    “Well if someone will pay $50 (or whatever amount) to read on the iPad they’ll read too much, way more than $50 worth of comics, let’s have them stick to paper and they’ll consume less for the same amount”

    Except as we know it doesn’t work like that, LOL. So now I’m not reading any comics. I wanted to get back into comics, after having stopped years ago, the iPad is a nice reading device for things like comics. But I won’t pay as much or more than I would for the paper version. Sorry Marvel and DC.

    1. Jonathan6 September, 2011

      Marvel has a annual digital subscription for only 60 bucks (yes can be viewed on iPads):

      1. Brian8 September, 2011

        Had a look because I have been waiting for the IPad subscription for a long time and I dont see any reference on the page that this subscription can be viewed on an IPad. In fact it specifically says that you need a computer that has flash on it which the ipad definitely doesn’t.

        1. Sean29 September, 2011

          Acrtually, Marvel’s digital subscription cannot be viewed on the iPad (or iPhone).

          This is because it uses Flash technology to render the comics in your web browser. Flash technology is not available on Apple devices.

          If you want to view comics through such subscriptions and they use Flash (I believe DC do aswell), make sure the tablet you wish to read on supports Flash.

      2. Cam23 September, 2012

        I’d like to know why a) DC doesn’t come out with a digital subscription like Marvel because it is *almost* brilliant (aside from the whole flash thing on an ipad/iphone mentioned in other comments). It’s easy, I can read and reread if I want and without a DC digital subscription, I’m inclined to use… other means to obtain digital DC comics. And b) I’m not sure why Marvel won’t find a way to make their digital subscription available on tablets, makes no sense. I love reading comics on my iPad, it’s brilliant. Finally c) I agree with Aaron, comics should be easier to find rather than just in the publisher apps. Those are fine if you know enough about the comics you want to find the series or story arcs, but for anyone looking to get into comics it can be extremely confusing. Thanks for this article.

        1. Al Heinzeroth12 May, 2013

          I’m exceptionally offended by anything Marvel Comics, especially from just prior to the Stan lee/Dick Kirby age when a comic book cost from a thin dime to a whopping increase to 12 cents! I was in the summer between 4th and 4th grades when in Mich. St.Joe/Benton Harbor, the fantastic Beer Garden and Vegetarian Cuisine, unbelievable of that order of extremely long bearded men, The House of David (I still have a wood covered burned in title of their contained inside recipes as well, in mint conditio of course. Silver Beach Amusemen Park was still there, and a very busy concern as well. I recall vividly it’s huge roller coaster stretching blocks out over Lake Michigan. It had poured all night, an awful thunderstorm, but this was it, the only day I had to go swimming (I never knew if I knew nor not how to swim a stroke, but somehow hollered to my father, who was waist deep 30-35 ft’ off shore and me? I was still far out from him. My hydrophibic mother persuaded by dad into her ankles was shivering with fear (trembling) I guess, and a deeper phobic of H2O younger brother by 3 years refused to even get wet. How they tolerated that beach is still beyonnd me, as stated, it had poured, breaker tossed hundreds of thousands of persch ashore, and long since dead had a very foul stench in the air we could smell as we departed my dear aunt’s home a few miles from the beach and House of David. We were headed to Dexter to see an adopted cousin to me, albeit 19 years older, and County Sheriff including a portion of, then that containing M’s Big House! I can see that comic cover this moment, The Amazing Spiderman vs. The Green Goblin “Wait ’til yu see him!” Geust starring the Hulk. I eventually had a few dozen, (a whole 2 weeks later) There was a small specialized meat market at bocks end, you may be fmiliar with a town or part of one suc as that part of Rockford, Illinois, a place you no longer go after 6:300 eves nor before 10:00AM! This meat market had a candy counter, somethig wasted on me, a rare child there that I hate no taste for candies whatsoever, The two men who owned it had long been friends of my dad, a commonality all across this town in the 1950’s-60’s, his 2 brother’s and sister. They gave me free somethig asked to pay for, the flat cardboards they used for meat boats prior to styrofoam! A couple gross to start with. I as well, bought assembleable cardboard crates, 30″X54″ The last two things purchased were rolls of 3″wide clear tape and plastic baggies, which fit two comics back to back on that hard cardboard and tape sealed after flipping through once, possibly twice if special, never a single time more! We relocted to the Phoenix, Arizona areal years later, and my uncle visited but never brought them as they flew, but finally one time drove out with 6 of those boxes filled with almost all still as mint as date purchsed (as they never saw that plastic coated wire of a comic turnstyle, these owners held a copy of anything Marvel back for me, boxed, mint! They were all but some older ones I’d had to negotiate for to fill small gaps back then used somewhat. I had, perhaps 100, DC comics I deemed as special. Superman 1-10 as well as Suberboy and other spin-offs. The first Bizarro was a must that sort, but some 45,000-50,000 Marvel comics from each ones inception in their other series and if a winner it’s own series Thor, Hulk, Iron Man, Captain America and some others came from this forgotten title following a few strokes, since 2005 Adventures something. I was also a “Gifted” child, read by 3rd grade at 3000wpm and 5th grade saw 3500wpm w100% retention. I.Q. had me in kind with Edison, Tesla, Einstein, Neumann, Oppenheimer and others in the 210+ realm, and saw a farewell to friends and schoolmates I’d grown fond of. It felt as a punishment for being able to learn, but worsened as it was discovered I possessed an innate intellect, knowing things unread, untold, unseen and unheard of? The school system was after my foks, both H.S. Cum Laude grads in May, 1931 @ 13 years old, not headed for a higher education, but work to assist their particular families, and here was this ‘genius’ sheling out yard work etc. incomes for comic books. “Damned waste” my folks echoed. The schools said since Open-House night 4th grade, “We want him in H.S., 11th grade precisely. It was the time of beginning the forced busing and integration. My always wise father said, “No! He already started a year early for all of you so is smallish and bullied for free homework etc. We think he’s due about a 7-8 year hiatus. Al’s athletically as gifted as he is mentally, he’s going to stun someone!” That would be one Mr. Pete Alteri, at a step way up from 2AA H.S. would’ve been here to a long awaited sudden popping up there, when during a ftball practice I saw the ball headed my way (peripheral vision) before anyone yelled. I’d dropped all I’d been lugging and snagged it as it should’ve soared beyond and out of anone’s reach. “Son, have you got a minute?” “Sure, sir.” “Where’ve yu been playing bal up ’til now?” “Tha park at home in Illinois afternoons and wekends mostly, I play some basketbal, and if I do say so, can hit with anyone in their 20’s and I pitch as well as hit left or right handed.” “Pitch bboth sides of the rubber do ya?” “Oh, yes sir!” “You couldn’t fire me a couple spiarals both ways, noew, could you?” “Sure, yu got somewbody to ru a deep post? I’ll show you both!” He had a couple wide outs run patterns, and I hit their numbers, from both sides, but the 195#s was no problem, but the 5’10’ frame was too short for 5AAAAA ball. I changed those set rule and lettered in the big 3 sports baseball and hoops as well as football and ambidextrous little phenom. Baseball scouts for even the Show, were i love with the kid that could step to either side of the mound at a given sign. My uncle brought out my comics in 1981, 13 years after I’d packed thm up, but I’d kept up in a walk-in closet here as well. I made one terrible error. I trusted a guy who was married toa friend of my wife to get me the (I fugured 1/4 mil at auction mint and what all I had, but after his 15% I got 65K) It was 12 years later and he long gone I was to find they’d sold at 265,000 soI lost around 210-212K! My uncle had “Gotten rid of those 4-5 dozen show boxes of wraped up baseball cards, got 45k for ya son! It felt even wore having kin rip you for three figures. Basebal tradin cards I’d kept up with longer than comics. I had all my Cubbies and most visituors such as Mays and other’s of the Banks, Williams era signed avrything, they were all great guys. Those comic boks though, but as stated some lesse quality ones I needed to fill a few voids, were mint, just as received by the retailer.

    2. Ian26 November, 2012

      I totally agree with everything you said. I was also looking to get back into reading comics and marvels unlimited sub looked perfect til I saw it didn’t work on my ipad.

      What a shame they have failed to see how people might be more inclined to read on a small portable tablet with a stunning display rather than a 15lb desktop machine they can’t carry around and likely doesn’t have a display with the same resolution.

  2. Mike Cane26 January, 2011

    A Netflix-like idea makes perfect sense for comics, the more I think about it. They have a huge inventory, just like movies do. It’d entice people to read comics and there could also be the option of buying what you want to keep. I’d really go for this. There are plenty of comics I’d like to re-read from the days when I collected them plus many others I could never afford because they were priced for collectors. I could read, catch up, and also have the option to buy. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this model from what I can see. It’s Win for them — they get a *guaranteed floor* on the amount of money they can make in the course of a year — and Win for readers — who also get lower-priced single issues to buy.

  3. monopole26 January, 2011

    Pretty much on target, but I’d make some observations. In fact, I was just thinking about this on the way to work. In particular the industry needs to learn from the pirates, and the fans. Just as the current legit equilibrium in music and video has ended up a lot closer to Napster and Pirate Bay than the pre-digital distribution models, in the same manner comics will end up in the same spot sooner than later.

    a.) Universal viewers work. Perfect viewer works spectacularly well with CBRs. While Aldiko is fine it’s not well suited to navigating comics. My cheapo $200 Telepad 10.1″ android tablet is nearly perfect for comic and manga reading and a lot less annoying than comixology. Cut a deal w/ Perfect Viewer, use DRM if absolutely necessary, preferably use watermarking.

    b.) Think Wikipedia vs. Britanica. Sites like Onemanga and Baka-Manga are very well cross-linked allowing an otaku to immediately find works by author, genre, artist and reviews. If DC and/or Marvel embedded one of the better wikis into a store with reasonably priced back issues. Stan Lee was hyperlinking decades before the internet. In each issue there would be notes on continuity both in series and cross series. If back issues are dirt cheap, fan boys are going to be plowing through those links like potato chips.

    c.) Make digital durable. Fanboys like to collect, if a digital copy is ephemeral it wont be half as nice as a watermarked CBR or PDF. Fanboys want to able to go back to old issues, or show them to friends. When an old villian shows up, you’ll want to go back to the last issue he appeared or his origin story.

  4. Russ6 February, 2011

    Not competing with print comics is the big thing.

    Why would I use digital coimics when I can’t get new issues and they’re only a dollar or so cheaper?

  5. williamjacobs8 September, 2011

    I disagree only with the immediacy point.

    A digital comic could go for $2.00 at release time, say a week after the print version is out. Then have it get progressively cheaper as time goes by.

    Movie fans gripe that Netflix has just old stuff streamed but for those of us who find old stuff just as good as new, we’re not paying $10 for a movie we don’t even know if we’ll like. Keeping old content from us does NOT make us buy new content. The incentives are entirely similar.

    I check old digests from the library but I’ve exhausted their supply. I won’t buy more because I have kids to send to college. I’d pay for their better books, (Invincible, Ultimate Spider-Man) if I got them a bit sooner than the library. I’d pay for the privilege. Comics fans with money to burn would pony up immediately at the top rate. Cheapskates kike me would read the same book months later for a quarter. If the stories are terrific, I’d want to see the next issue immediately and fork over 50 cents. If it’s REALLY compelling, I might, in a moment of weakness, pay the full price for the current issue.

    Won’t happen until I can get the old version for two bits.
    I’ll never know how good it is until it lands at the library and they won’t suck me in if the choice is Free versus $2.00 each.

    (Hollywood would do well experimenting with a $5.00 half hour movie. too. The one size fits all nonsense is SO twentieth century and explains why outfits like Hulu will take a wrecking ball to the entertainment industry)

  6. Gerard Arthus6 October, 2011

    This is a joke, it is easier for us to scan the comics ourselves and read them on-line. All this proprietary crap just makes it more difficult to have access to the materials. The problem with the copyright laws today is they give to much to the publishers, copyright was never intended to be for more than the life of the creators. Let their stuff get the obscurity it deserves when people no longer read it or seek it out. Just a shame for hitorical purposes that we cannot have easy access to it.


  7. rajiv13 July, 2012

    Greed wont wash anymore. Blue ray suffered when they tried to hogwash everyone that they need a whole blu ray collection to replace dvd. People are not stupid. We know whats really better and whats a rip off. Like 3d tvs..RIP OFF. if you give us something truly good we will pay, but not becuase your greedy and want us to line your pockets like idiots. look at the avenger movie..huge hit. why? because for once they put some effort into it. re-did the hulks face and he was a (pardon the pun) SMASH! give us quality and fairness folks, and you will get rich along the way. If your motivated by greed we all suffer. Like some other have said im NOT using my ipad to read comics…shouldnt be like that.

  8. Jay11 August, 2012

    I used to be a comic collector until I basically got priced out of the hobby. $3.99 for a single issue is just crazy. I’d rather just wait and spend the money on the TPB. I think I stopped around 2008 when I began to have less disposable income and more bills. Before 2008 I was more likely to go to the comic shop, buy the books I would normally buy, and even pick up a few other issues to see if I liked them. As the books got more and more expensive I stopped this practice and even started dropping a lot of books until I finally stopped buying them altogether. I feel a lot of people who bought comics are going the same route I did. In my mind the industry is losing readers and not gaining the new ones that they need to keep the industry relevant. So, they need to come up with a way to bring back readers and attract new ones. They need to take a page from Apple and itunes. Marvel has taken a step in the right direction with the digital comic shop and the digital unlimited comics, but no avid reader is going to pay printed prices for a digital comic. On an itunes-like system all old comics should be priced no more then $1. They should also have more current issues available for about $1.50 – $2.00 To keep the comic shops happy they could delay the current issues from hitting the digital store for a couple of weeks. Let’s face it collecting is kind of like a sickness or drug addiction. The true collectors will stay and pay the crazy print prices to feed that habit, and the comic shops won’t be hurt as much as they think. The price of the single issues is what is going to kill the comic shop in the end, and the publisher needs to do the smart thing. After all, how much of that $3.99 issue goes to the publisher, writer, artist, and how much goes to covering the cost of printing, shipping, and paper? Cutting those costs is why I feel digital comics should be cheaper and if they aren’t then the publisher is just being greedy. I wouldn’t mind getting back into them but the current cost of them is the main factor that keeps me from doing so.

  9. Jason W6 April, 2013

    This may be a newsflash to some and to others not. Realistically, there are artists and writers that need to be paid for their work. Those people that put out their work that you gobble in twenty minutes, spend much more time to produce this. There are costs involved. A netflix model is fine for on-line comic subscription but in no way should it compete directly with new material. New material needs to be offered via in store with a physical copy and a digital download copy or purchased straight as a digital download with a price reduction. A netflix-like subscription on content past a year old makes perfect sense for the business model, in the fact, of bringing in new consumers to seek out the newer products once they have established a story arc format that they like. It is the only business model in this day and age that will help fuel future young readers into comic collecting and reading them. Our current age is in the want it now and want it cheap mentatility. Its up to all of us to understand a model that will benefit all. A yearly subscription to these older content comics will allow just that while putting money in the pocket of the company and hopefully money back into the writer and artist by way of royalties. A, ‘do not offer comics under a year publication” on these subscription models allows the window for the retail store to still function as normal and not wrap it up. In reality, the card shop and the comic shop are an established breeding ground for future consumers. And, for those of us that grew up in them, it is the right place to establish and find your hobby and meet friends with similar interest. We as established readers of comics need to understand why the brick and mortar needs to stick around and also see a way to be pleased as consumers ourselves. If we continue done this path we are trending, then I can say for certain that Comics as a whole will disappear as an industry or titles will be completely wiped out and compacted as tigher markets will only prevail. It will definately shake the foundation of brick and mortar and destroy an entire infrastructure of places we used to hang out as kids ourselves. Its happening to arcades, its happening to hobby shops and its happening to the video store. In the end, there needs to be a balance as this environment is thrived off the ideas and the cultures presented that you cannot duplicate without being inside that store.

  10. Linky Friday #2615 June, 2013

    […] I have to agree with Aaron Tring about why Marvel and DC’s digital comics failed. No doubt they will blame it on the rising cost of […]

  11. Philip Hanan2 December, 2017

    Am I the only person who loves getting digital copies of products so if I choose to sell my CD, DVD, Blu-Ray, comic, etc., I can still enjoy the product?


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