The decline of comic book stores has been precipitous. Changing consumer habits and endless entertainment content available at the swipe of a finger has challenged the very establishments that have long been the lifeblood of the comics industry. While a core of comic book fans still crave the in-person community that grows out of showing up at a brick-and-mortar store each week for the latest edition of their favorite series, there’s a digital maturation under way and major comics publishers are starting to diversify their nonprint offerings in a big way.
Last weekend, Marvel, one of the industry’s granddaddies, was at South By Southwest in Austin to introduce a slew of new or renewed digital products. The splashy move signals the publisher’s desire to be a leader and innovator in digital. As the company’s Digital General Manager Peter Phillips and Editor-in-Chief Axel Alonso were heading into the presentation hall at South by, they talked to Co.Create about the rollout, its implications, and how it’s okay that they haven’t always gotten it right.
One of the big reveals at SXSW was Marvel No. 1, an offering of more than 700 of "Marvel’s greatest No. 1 issues," which will be made available free of charge for two days. Within the first few hours of the digital giveaway, demand was so high that servers crashed and the offer was suspended. (It will return soon, they say.)
It’s an approach that may ultimately hook readers on series that are new to them. "It’s really a trial on the electronic sell-through model," Phillips says, acknowledging a pending price increase for the Marvel Comics app—from $60 a year to $69. "If you do the compound annual growth rate, we’re not doing very well," he jokes. "I should be fired."
Evidently Marvel executives feel the humility of the company’s past missteps. "It has not been a straight line from start to finish," Phillips says of their product development track. "It took us some time to get Marvel Unlimited right. I wish we were out a lot sooner. The product languished. I would have loved to have this conversation with you a few years ago."
What goes hand in hand with that sense of coulda-shoulda regret is a distinct awareness that the company still might falter. "We’re not afraid to fail," says Alonso, as if the phrase were Marvel’s new mantra. "We are not afraid of making mistakes. They help us to adjust, refine our game and get better and better at this."
Phillips has been at Marvel for just under two years, so he wasn’t around when the company launched its Digital Comics Unlimited program, its innovative online library of more than 13,000 titles of Marvel’s greatest comics. The problem is that was conceived in 2007 for Flash Players, before the limitations of web-based Flash players were realized. Says Phillips: "The number one customer complaint with digital was: We need a non-Flash player for iOS."
At last, Marvel heeds that call with the launch of Marvel Unlimited, a new app for iPhone, iPad, and, coming soon, for Android devices. Plus, it’s not only a streaming service but one that has a library function so you can read comics offline, like on an airplane or in the subway for instance.
Last year, Marvel launched Infinite Comics, a digital format designed for reading comics on mobile devices. Beginning in July, the comic will be releasing new digital comics weekly, starting with Wolverine: Japan’s Most Wanted, timed to coincide with the Wolverine movie and hoping to take advantage of the film’s potential to reach new audiences who want to experience comics in a new way. Unlike the previous page-to-screen translations of comics, these new series are created with, Alonso says, "the palette of the screen as the canvas and all of the technology available as the paintbrushes that we work with. It’s a new way of telling comic stories that’s not animation and not a standard comic book." Most important, the reader controls the pace.
Phillips claims that the print publishing side of Marvel’s business will never go away. "They work in tandem," he says of print and digital. "There’s so much overlap between the two. I don’t see the print business going away, I see it changing. It’s an evolution. The digital business can’t live without the print. There’s an enormously passionate group of people who love to hold a print book. There’s a very important place for the print product."
To Phillips’ point, a new aspect of Marvel’s digital business grows directly out of a unique experience that many comic book readers have had while listening to his iPod and flipping through the latest installment: That magical moment when the music resonates with what’s happening on the page.
Marvel has harnessed the alchemy of that fleeting experience and turned it into Project Gamma, which pairs comic book storytelling with movielike soundtracks. "What if we were to score that moment?" asks Alonso. "What if we were to capture that moment, develop a soundtrack that never rips them out of the experience; in fact, it enhances their reading?" Marvel is pushing the boundaries of what we think of as comics. More than a comic book but not quite a movie, these new audio-visual creations are the result of a collaboration with composers and producers creating an "adaptive audio experience." As Alonso says, "No two readers will ever have the exact same experience [because] no two readers will move at exactly the same pace."
The writers suggest the kinds of music that will pair with their comics and composer craft sound stems that adjust automatically to the speed at which a given person is reading the comic digitally. Clearly, it must be heard to be truly appreciated. Marvel’s counting on that.