Comic book geeks: Marvel loves you. But it wants to expand its social circle. Don't worry. Whether it's debuting Wolverine's Japanese adventures or adding adaptive sound to your reading experience, the company will always hold you diehards dear. But at this year’s SXSW Interactive festival, Marvel unveiled five digital initiatives to woo non-fans, too.
Axel Alonso, editor-in-chief of Marvel Comics, and Peter Phillips, SVP/GM of Marvel Digital Media, say digital formats are the way to engage new and current readers. And Marvel's own creators are pretty geeked out about the new platforms, too.
In addition to offering original video content, new weekly comics, and adaptive audio for digital comics, Marvel is releasing 700+ Marvel #1 issues free for download through the Marvel Comics app and Webstore through Tuesday. And as another draw for new readers, it's unveiling Marvel Unlimited, a revamped version of Marvel Digital Comics Unlimited, its library of digital content for mobile devices.
There’s always debate about what makes a true comic fan and how they consume comics, but in an era where audiences expect more (i.e., waiting through credits at the end of a Marvel film for a teaser scene from an upcoming feature or dissecting the creation of a print comic book page), Marvel is not only responding to fans’ demands. They're discovering uncharted territory.
The comic book industry relies heavily on its core fan base—sales reached $475 million last year in North America for Diamond Comic Distributors, the world’s largest English-language comic book distributor, according to The Comics Chronicles. But Alonso says, "We see digital and print as being complementary experiences." It's the same struggle all sorts of publishing businesses are going through, especially as content is on-demand, graphically enhanced, or streaming over the Internet.
Take Marvel's recent augmented reality (AR) app, launched at last year's SXSW festival. That year, the industry was buzzing about the potential digital created for graphic storytelling. In the past year, Marvel launched 600 AR treatments to complement print titles from behind-the-scenes looks at creating a comic page to scientific analysis of how a character like Wolverine would fall from an aircraft.
"AR was so successful that it’s now become part of the fabric of our comics," Phillips says. "There’s now a [AR] logo on almost every cover. Everything is sort of a trial for us out of Marvel Labs."
With endless mobile devices from the iPhone and iPad to Android smartphones and Amazon Kindle e-readers, the options for digital storytelling continue to change while content creators look for new ways to utilize those platforms. When you treat tablet screens as something entirely new, the opportunities grow exponentially. Enter Marvel’s Weekly Infinite Comics, debuting July 9th.
"These are comics created with the tablet screen as the canvas and all of the digital tools as the paintbrush so writers and artists use the features that only the tablet can offer," Alonso says.
The Weekly Infinite Comics will feature four weekly digital-exclusive comic books, each based on one of four of the most popular Marvel characters told in 13 chapters for 52 weeks. The first being Wolverine: Japan’s Most Wanted. (Sound familiar? The next Wolverine film installment will also be set in Japan.)
"They count now," Alonso says of the weekly digital stories, "and they’re as relevant to the comic book reader as what’s being published in print now."
Then there’s video.
This year online programming is making its debut from the likes of Netflix and other streaming sites, and now Marvel is entering the mix with Marvel Original Video. With its inaugural show Earth’s Mightiest Show, hosted by former G4-er Blair Butler, Marvel is looking to bring viewers directly to Marvel for programming on pop culture with a Marvel slant. The company sees an opportunity for original nonfiction incremental content for fans and nonfans. As for what comes after Earth’s Mightiest Show, Phillips wouldn't say specifically but alluded to reality programming and documentaries as possibilities in the production slate.
Ever watch a silent film that didn’t have a musical score to move it along? Or played a videogame without any sound at all? It’s highly unlikely. That’s because music and sound are as much a part of the experience as the film or game itself. Consider watching last year’s Avengers without the theatric score discreetly underlying the film and moving the emotion from one scene to the next. You might not know what to feel when. The same can be true for digital comics, which you’re probably reading with your headphones on anyway.
That's the inspiration for Project: Gamma, Marvel’s solution to the soundless digital comic experience; it's adaptive audio created in partnership with CORD and Momentum Worldwide, a digital comic’s musical score that progresses as you do through the story.
"It’s not like this underlying music bed that’s playing in the background," Phillips explains, "It’s actually themed to the character and the story and it’s paced so that how you’re reading and where you are in the story, the music is adapting to that part of the story."
Borrowed from gaming technology, adaptive audio technology is meant to provide a musical companion to digital comic book reading, pacing you through the story at the swipe of your finger.
With original programming, weekly digital exclusives and comic book scores, Marvel introduces the future of digital comics in unexpected but very logical ways. Like Project: Gamma, there are infinite ends to the means that are digital content.