When people talk about how the digital revolution is disrupting analog media of all sorts, they generally remember to mention movies, music and TV, and maybe books and magazines. Only rarely, however, do they list comics among the media being disrupted. That’s not a shocker: comics, despite their long history and great popularity, rarely get treated like a grown-up, big-time artform.
But comics are changing at least as rapidly as higher-profile media — and one of the companies that’s responsible for the change is ComiXology. It’s got comics-reading apps for iOS, Android, Windows 8 and other platforms, and content deals with DC (a sister company of TIME), Marvel, Image, Archie, Boom, Bongo and numerous other publishers. You can buy a comic once and then read it on any device you’ve got, making for a Kindle-like experience. (Amazon sells comics for its Kindle devices and apps, too, but it doesn’t have as much stuff as ComiXology, which offers 33,000 individual comics and is adding 300 new ones a week.)
At South by Southwest Interactive in Austin, I met up with David Steinberger, ComiXology’s co-founder and president. The company’s big news at the show is ComiXology Submit, a new service which lets independent creators publish comics and graphic novels via ComiXology’s apps — non-exclusively, without giving up any rights and splitting the net revenue 50/50 with ComiXology. It’s a potentially powerful way for them to reach a large audience.
ComiXology Submit isn’t a completely open field: the company will review submissions and decide whether to carry them. But the key factor, Steinberger says, is simply “Will someone buy it?” That’s a far lower bar than writers and artists faced in the dead-tree era, when they had to convince distributors to believe in their works and sell them to small, sometimes risk-adverse comics shops.
“This will prove that someone has an audience that might be enough for [dominant comics distributor] Diamond Distributors to say that they’ll get to the threshold of x-thousand books,” says Steinberger, who also hopes that Submit will be “a minor league for creators who will end up at Marvel and DC.”
Submit launched with 35 comics which were part of a beta test. “We’ve got a ton of submissions and we’ve already approved some books,” he says.
For up-and-coming creators, ComiXology can provide opportunities they never had before. For well-established publishers of printed comics, however, digital publishing can be scary. They worry, not unreasonably, that if people suddenly stop buying paper comics, it could damage the industry before digital publishing takes up enough of the slack.
According to Steinberger, it hasn’t worked out that way. “What happened last year,” he reports, “is that print went up and digital went up. You haven’t seen that with the analog-to-digital conversion path for anything else.” As for ComiXology itself, it was the Apple App Store’s top-grossing non-game app in 2012.
ComiXology, Steinberger says, is helping the comics business find new readers rather than simply giving current fans the ability to avoid buying print issues. Research the company conducted in the second half of 2012 shows that its readers are getting younger and that women make up a growing — though still small — percentage of readership. “I believe there’s a comic book for everyone that they’ll enjoy,” he says. “That informs a lot of what we do.”
Much of the comics content available through ComiXology originated in printed form, and even the digital originals are conventional comics. The company’s Guided View feature, which steps a reader through a story panel by panel, adds a bit of motion and transition to a comic — and simplifies reading on a teeny phone screen — but doesn’t add the more elaborate visual and audio effects of comics on platforms such as Madefire, some of which blur the distinction between comics and animation.
I asked Steinberger whether ComiXology planned to introduce additional multimedia trimmings, particularly as a higher percentage of its comics presumably begin as digital-only publications. He told me that Guided View will evolve as a storytelling tool. He maintains, however, that just because comics can get flashier on a tablet or phone doesn’t mean that it’s a good idea.
“It’s almost congitive dissonance, throwing active and passive together,” he argues. “It throws your brain into a weird spot. It doesn’t service the story.”
At one point is a comic no longer a comic? Steinberger says that he’s “bored with the question,” but he also offers a definition. “The thing that makes this a comic book is, I’m controlling the pace of it,” he says, showing me a title called Atomic Robo: Two-Fisted Tales on an iPad Mini. “It doesn’t become a passive experience.”
“Reading is active — that’s where I draw the line.”