Comics in 2012 went from triumph to triumph. They rampaged through the box office, the best-seller list, the app store, and convention halls coast-to-coast. The rise of digital comics, a format ideally suited to tablets and mobile devices, propelled comiXology from an upstart at the fringes of a fringe industry to the #3 grossing iPad app, responsible for over 50 million downloads last year alone. The San Diego Comic-Con sold out its capacity of 130,000 badges at speeds bounded only by the laws of physics, while regional and specialty conventions of all kinds grew by leaps and bounds. Even the creaky direct market brick-and-mortar channel had a turnaround year as new fans flocked to comic stores.
So what next? Where do the medium, the business, and the culture of comics go now that we’ve surmounted the heights of Peak Geek? Here are a few forecasts and trends to watch in the next 12 months.
2012 answered the lingering question of whether digital comics would cannibalize and kill a struggling print industry with a resounding “Hell no!” The convenience and great reading experience of comics on tablets drew casual fans into stores and conventions in unprecedented numbers. The big story of 2013 is how the industry taps into that momentum to create greater crossover between digital and physical media. Many paper comics now come with download codes for a free digital copy, same as DVDs and vinyl records. We will see publishers, especially those with large transmedia footprints and stables of licensed properties, expand those kinds of crossovers with unique codes in printed books that unlock playable characters in videogames or special features on DVDs, and “second-screen” experiences that extend comics into the digital realm along the lines of Marvel’s Augmented Reality (AR) initiative. Expect a few publishers, distributors, and deep-pocketed retailers to experiment with print-on-demand capabilities that allow fans to compile custom digital comic “playlists” into special-order printed graphic novels or create short-run print editions of digital-first content.
Did anyone not try to launch a Kickstarter project last year? 2012 saw the unruly and unpredictable crowdfunding platform rise to become, according to some measures, one of the largest publishers of graphic novels in the U.S. But Kickstarter and its ilk have developed a severe case of schizophrenia. Created to marshal online fandom to raise money for quirky one-off ideas that would otherwise not see the light of day, they increasingly function as mechanisms to pre-sell otherwise viable commercial projects for mid-sized publishers and studios–while still embracing a laissez-faire, buyer-beware style of governance. In 2013, as publishers and retailers make systematic use of crowdfunding to shift costs and risk from themselves to their customers, we will see a steady stream of high-profile failures-to-deliver, and possibly a few deliberate acts of fraud that expose the inherent fragility of the crowdfunding mechanism. This will lead to a big shakeout and the rise of stronger, more institutionally oriented solutions by the end of the year.
The last few years have been rough for manga, the North Asian-style comics that helped expand the audience from the aging-male superhero fan base to include more women, kids, and readers with more wide-ranging genre tastes. The demise of Borders took away a big retail channel in the U.S. and there hasn’t been a breakthrough media hit since Naruto in the mid-00s. Elsewhere in the world, particularly in Latin America, North Africa, and South Asia, manga has influenced a rising generation of creative talent. Don’t be surprised if the next big franchise-worthy manga/anime property comes from these non-traditional regions, complete with its transmedia cavalcade of anime, collectable card games, toys, and fashion accessories.
Comic and pop culture cons–part trade shows, part flea markets, part Mardi Gras–have long served as giant focus groups for an increasingly consolidated transmedia entertainment industry. Now, after a decade of shambolic growth, their popularity has never been higher. The audiences of rabid fans that jam the aisles of every show from the big granddaddy of them all, Comic-Con International: San Diego, to the burgeoning scene of local and specialty cons, are far too valuable for the big media players to trust to amateurs organizers. Expect increased pressure to regiment pop culture conventions of all sizes to make them a more reliable channel for rallying fans to branded IP, corporate franchises, and approved “nerdlebrities,” at the expense of the more grassroots and spontaneous aspects of the convention experience. This will of course be attended by a predictable backlash of fan angst and anger. Will the golden goose survive? We’ll have a better idea by the end of 2013.
Digital distribution has, in theory, helped level the playing field for individual media creators who can reach an audience without the bottleneck of traditional publishers or retail outlets. In practice, it’s not so easy, especially considering the enormous time investment required to develop cool, compelling content for tablets. Studios and studio-like companies can help by aggregating the reputations of a number of individual creators, spreading around the risk, and creating some economies of scale around production, marketing, and technical development without the baggage of a traditional publishing company. In 2013, more brand name and household-name talent will embrace this model and creator-based studios will emerge as the primary source of original digital comics, apps, and related media.