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  • 03.12.12

Marvel Announces Big Digital Comics Push, But Will It Fly?

Marvel Entertainment wrested the digital comics spotlight back from rival DC with an audacious new initiative the company calls “ReEvolution,” announced at SXSW over the weekend. Is it a step forward for the medium, or just for Marvel’s business priorities?

Marvel Announces Big Digital Comics Push, But Will It Fly?

Marvel Entertainment announced its big
digital comics push
, dubbed “ReEvolution,” at SXSW over the weekend. The initiative introduces
new features to the company’s line of superhero titles: augmented reality bonus
content that uses digital devices like smartphones and tablets to add a new
dimension to print editions, and a reimagined storytelling mode for digital-only
releases the company is calling “Infinite Comics.”

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Marvel deserves credit for bringing something new to the
digital conversation beyond “day and date” (simultaneous availability of print
and digital comics, a recent hot-button for an industry terrified
of cannibalizing its fragile direct market
for printed products). The two
new concepts represent a genuine effort to rethink
the medium of comics in the digital age. “Infinite Comics” in particular
incorporates some of the most radical approaches to digital storytelling in the
industry, combining the theories articulated by Scott McCloud and the
mind-blowing practices of the French artist Yves “Balak” Bigerel. Mark Waid and
Stuart Immonen, the creative team on Nova, an early showcase title for the new
approach, gushed about the new creative possibilities in an
interview
released simultaneously with the announcement.

By announcing these initiatives at SXSW, an arts and
technology event, rather than waiting for Comic-Con or the debut of one of
Marvel’s big crossover movie properties like the Avengers, the company is clearly attempting to stake its claim to a
larger chunk of cultural real estate than the niche market accorded to
superhero comics in recent times.

This kind of swagger is characteristic of Marvel, the
long-time industry sales leader with an ironclad grip on the young male Wednesday
comic-shop superhero audience. Rival DC stole a march on Marvel over the summer
by relaunching its entire superhero lineup simultaneously in print and digital.
Since then, DC’s New 52 has glommed the lion’s share of industry attention and
muscled its way to the top of the sales charts. It has also galvanized a
frenzied rush to embrace digital distribution throughout the industry.

Marvel’s reaction to all this could not simply be “me too.”
The company did announce a move to day-and-date digital in the fall, falling
into line alongside smaller rivals like IDW, Image, and Dark Horse, but for a
company with a history of digital innovation and leadership dating back to the
mid-1990s, following along is not a viable strategy. Marvel needs to bring the
hammer of Thor down on the heads of their competition: it’s not just how they
please their new corporate owners at Disney, it’s who they are and who they’ve
always been.

The new strategy provides an elegant solution
to a number of Marvel’s immediate business problems. It retakes the initiative
in the critical digital space and changes the conversation from “What is
everyone going to do about DC?” to “What is everyone going to do about Marvel?”
It serves the brand interests and the audience self-image of the self-styled “House
of Ideas” by coming to market with a big, bold, announcement that
changes everything and RAWKS YOUR WORLD! By lobbing this grenade from SXSW, it made a bid for attention in hipster and high-tech
circles, the traditional market segments that border the comics niche and
represent its most natural sources of new readers.

From a technology perspective, the advantages are even more
obvious. Augmented reality ties digital features to the traditional print
product, cross-pollinating the readership without cannibalizing it. You still
need to buy a comic book to get the enhanced experience, and you need the
digital app on your device (powered
by Aurasma
) to see the panels jump off the page, strip the art down to the
original penciled layouts, or hear the creators talk about key plot points
through video or audio clips. Both the AR and the Infinite Comics technologies
tie the comic medium to tablet-type devices, making it easier to incorporate every
manner of transmedia content (video, social media, gaming, interactive, and
e-commerce) as a seamless experience. For a pop-culture conglomerate like
Marvel (and Disney), filling up those channels and uniting the crazy-quilt of
niche audiences is the critical business issue of the decade. This digital
approach is tailor-made for Marvel’s priorities: a made-for-the-moment
combination of flashy, forward-thinking technology in clear alignment with the
business strategy.

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For ordinary comics readers, however, Marvel’s innovations may
seem like solutions in search of a problem. The main benefit of digital comics
to readers is convenience. You can get your comics without going into a comic
book store. The ones you want are always in stock, even the back issues. You
don’t have to worry about putting them in clear plastic bags and storing them
in the closet of a tiny apartment (or in disputed territory in a family home).
You can read an entire storyline sprawling over dozens of titles and issues on
one thin device, whether you are on the bus, in the coffee shop, or sitting on
the can.

But is anyone really clamoring for a reinvention of the
sequential art medium? The potential has been out there for more than a decade.
Scott McCloud published Reinventing
Comics
in 2000, and it’s much easier to do this kind of thing on the web.
So far, not many have. A few developers have made hay by building
bonus features
into content-rich titles like Age of Bronze, Eric Shanower’s epic (and historically accurate)
retelling of the Trojan War, but are creator-commentary tracks really going to
sell more copies of X-Men?

Augmented reality might be the most overblown trend on the
digital radar right now, and that’s saying a lot. Do we really need to wave our
smartphones and tablets over every object in the physical world to find some gimmicky
Easter egg or unlock some cheesy video clip? Does it add anything to the story
to strip a page down to its pencils or see Iron Man come flying off the page
onto the screen of your iPad? How soon till that gets old, even for a teenage
male? Five times? Ten?

Nearly two decades into the interactive era, evidence shows
that regardless of the expanding capabilities of technology, human beings still
just want good stories well and clearly told, not a lot of extra noise.

ComiXology, the leading digital comics distributor that just
announced it had shipped 50 million digital downloads, has clobbered the
competition by keeping it simple. Tellingly, ComiXology’s Guided View engine
sits inside every Marvel digital comic (and DC, and IDW, and so on).

Marvel has accomplished its goals by making a splash and
living up to its brand image as the take-no-prisoners market leader. It’s
also followed the formula that has made its comics so successful over the
years: Give readers the illusion of change wrapped in tip-top production values.
At the end of the day, the success of its digital strategy, whether it’s a “ReEvolution”
or anything else, won’t depend on bells and whistles. It will come down to the
ability to get its core products into the hands of fans simply, easily, and
cost-effectively.

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‘Nuff said.

Rob Salkowitz is author of Comic-Con and the Business of Pop Culture (McGraw-Hill, forthcoming in June 2012)
and three other books on the future of business in the digital era. Follow him @robsalk.

[Image: Flickr user Michael Dunn]

About the author

Rob Salkowitz is author of Comic-Con and the Business of Pop Culture (McGraw-Hill, 2012), Young World Rising (2010), and two other books on youth and digital media as agents of change. He is Director of Strategy at MediaPlant, LLC, a Seattle-based communications firm he co-founded in 1999.

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