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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."

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.

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.

‘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]