New Devices and the Digital Comics Landscape

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image01 New Devices and the Digital Comics Landscape

by Bruce Lidl

The last few weeks have seen a number of big developments in the digital comics realm, from the highs of Marvel’s big announcements at SXSW to the lows of JManga’s imminent closure. Comixology continues to distance itself from its rivals, and with the new Submit program is poised to expand greatly the revenue possibilities for independent creators. By all accounts the digital slice of the comics industry does remain considerably smaller than its print sibling, and there are many comics fans that steadfastly prefer their floppies, yet little doubt exists that the trend and momentum for growth is strong for digital comics, JManga’s demise notwithstanding.

The crucial undercurrent to ever expanding digital offerings has been, and continues to be, the seemingly unstoppable proliferation of devices capable of displaying digital comics in an effect and compelling manner.  And even more specifically, it is the specific recent trends towards ever larger smartphone screens and paradoxically, smaller and cheaper tablets devices.

The tide towards larger, and higher quality, phone displays has been going on for a number of years, but has clearly picked up steam in recent months. Last week saw the announcement of the eagerly awaited Samsung Galaxy S IV, with very nice 5 inch display sporting a 1920×1080 resolution, up from last year’s S III which had a 4.8 inch 1280×720 screen, and rapidly approaching the “phablet” category of Samsung’s popular Galaxy Note II, with its 5.5 inch screen, considered gargantuan not very long ago. The speed at which smartphone screens have grown, particularly on the Android side has been astonishing, especially when you consider the fact that the very first Samsung Galaxy phone from 2009 had a 3.2 in, 480×320 pixel screen, relatively tiny by today’s standards. And of course, even mighty Apple, which had resisted the trend towards larger screens in favor of consistency and compact sizes, finally changed course and released the iPhone 5 last year, bumping the screen from 3.5 inches to 4 inches while maintaining a “Retina” pixel resolution (1136×640). Reading digital comics on a smartphone has gone from a somewhat eccentric notion to a far more mainstream possibility, at least with readers willing to zoom in and out, or let their reading be directed by functions like Comixology’s “Guided View.”

 

 

image02 New Devices and the Digital Comics Landscape

 

While the increase in smartphone screen sizes is powering more digital comic reading (and hopefully sales!), a trend towards smaller screens on tablets is paradoxically also contributing to expanded digital comic penetration. Apple’s iPad basically invented the category of the tablet, and has dominated sales since its release in April 2010, and continues to be an excellent device for digital comic reading, with a brilliant 9.7 inch screen that has increased in resolution iteratively from the original 1024×768 to the current 2048×1536. However, the recent relative success of Android-based tablets with smaller form factors, primarily in the 7 inch screen range, has demonstrated a hunger among some consumers for smaller and cheaper alternatives to the iPad.  Beginning with the original Barnes & Noble Nook Color and then really taking off with Amazon’s Kindle Fire and Google’s own Nexus 7, smaller and less powerful Android tablets at the $199 and below price point have established themselves as real options for customers outside of the Apple orbit. And just as with the iPhone, Apple has not remained unmoved in the face of fierce competition, as shown by the November release of the smaller 7.9 inch 1024×768  iPad Mini. Overall, something like 170 million tablets were sold in 2012, with roughly half coming from Apple, and the rest overwhelmingly split among mostly Android providers (Microsoft’s push into Windows based tablets have struggled mightily, and current analysis puts the number sold at less than 1.5 million units since the October 2012 release). The surge in sales of smaller (less than 8 inch screen size) tablets has exploded in the last few months, with about half of tablets sold in the fourth quarter of 2012 fitting into this category, and driving the adoption of tablets ever higher. Smaller devices and cheaper prices have put tablets into the hands of an ever expanding body of potential comics readers, for while the screens used in the smaller tablets tend to be inferior than those on their larger cousins, they do still present a quite nice package for comic reading. More compact form factors also boost portability, although even the 7 inch tablets won’t fit into many pants pockets.

The boom in demand for smaller and cheaper tablets is expected by industry analysts to continue through 2013, and in fact, the iPad mini is currently even outselling its larger standard iPad sibling, while the rise of popularity in Android offerings will likely lead to that segment overtaking Apple this year.

image00 New Devices and the Digital Comics Landscape

 

How has the the shift in device formats affected your digital comics reading habits? Do the new devices encourage you to read more digital comics? Personally, I still read most of my digital comics on my 24 inch desktop monitor, but I do use my relatively large (4.8 inch) smartphone screen more often than in the past, and I like using the “Guided View” option quite with it.

 

Have you been affected by the JManga shutdown? Do you consider the DRM aspect and the vulnerability of locked-downed purchases a crucial weakness of digital comics? Do you prefer to purchase from Comixology, the publishers’ own sites directly or from online retailers like Amazon? Are you interested in Netflix style offerings of unlimited reading of older titles? Do you acquire comics from unauthorized sources, and does the ease of use of pirated comics versus the restrictions of legitimate content enter into your purchase decisions? Have you been swayed away from physical copies entirely or do you get some titles digitally and some in print?

Comments

  1. Tony B. says:

    I’m a digital only reader. The only time I buy a floppy is if I’m taking my kid to my LCS and getting something for him. I only buy from ComiXology. Not really concerned with the DRM aspect. I never really shared my floppy comics and honestly there’s not a lot of point to collecting comics these days unless you want to reread them (which I can do digitally) and I don’t think I’ve ever reread a comic. I spend about $70 per week on digital comics. For me it’s largely the convenience. I have a 3 year old son and work for a large software company in Redmond, WA. The time I would have to take out of a day to go get my pulls was time I could spend doing work which frees me up in the evening to hang out with my son and do stuff with him. The convenience and speed with which I can get my comics each week as well as try new ones when I am in the mood makes, at least for me, the best way to read and get my comics.

  2. johnrobiethecat says:

    Interesting stuff. I can’t say what proportion digital comics will play in the future of the industry but for the world audience which Comixology seems to have access too, it might be a great foot in the door for more interesting stuff down the pike that will grow the medium for the better- even superheroes, other graphic styles, creator owned, etc . The Big Two have just suffocated 30-40 yrs of creativity in the medium centered around a batch of good characters that just have beaten down by being overdone and exploited to the point where people should just move on, like a lot of those characters original creators did. Just picture this, Harry Potter came out in the late 90’s, smash hit (like Star Wars in the late 70’s ) imagine it being redone over and over for four decades by new talen and how tiresome it would be (which looks like Star wars fate ) Thats what happened to comics. And its this heavy, convoluted aesthetic thats been layered on top of it because everybody is hardcore and wants Alan Moore kind of respect. The fun and lightness is no more. Iron Man and Star Trek look like they are going to be terrible movies, just recycling done to the max but Hollywood and its partners makes money.

    The promise of digital is that the distribution will go through someone else besides Diamond, DC & Marvel and hopefully better stuff in comics form can get to the masses out of the steel grip of this pessimistic industry who essentially looted working freelancers creations and want to keep it going. Hopefully the Comixology thing is a good first step.

  3. i still rock an iPad 1 and i use it just for internet, writing and comics reading, but its getting slaggy-er as more content is created for HD displays. I’ll prob have to upgrade soon.

  4. Serhend Sirkecioglu says:

    J-manga was too little too late, the Japanese rigid/traditionalist and hierarchical business practices were their own undoing.

    In terms of everything else mentioned, I’ve always said once the dust has settled things will get going, I’m still a skeptic in terms of reading anything on tablets since there is so much other media to compete with that gen public will opt out for.

    No shame, I read scanlations. I’m mostly broke, and good comic shops and books-stores are all a town/city or two over from Springfield, MA. The incentive of paying for anything online has to be of higher quality than whats offered for free. I’m wrote a piece on Zombies eat Republicans, where you pay to get access to the online version and make a down payment on print version. i still think that model has some potential of melding the two fronts of publishing.

  5. Serhend Sirkecioglu says:

    J-manga was too little too late, the Japanese rigid/traditionalist and hierarchical business practices were their own undoing.

    In terms of everything else mentioned, I’ve always said once the dust has settled things will get going, I’m still a skeptic in terms of reading anything on tablets since there is so much other media to compete with that gen public will opt out for.

    No shame, I read scanlations. I’m mostly broke, and good comic shops and books-stores are all a town/city or two over from Springfield, MA. The incentive of paying for anything online has to be of higher quality than whats offered for free. I wrote a piece on Zombies eat Republicans, where you pay to get access to the online version and make a down payment on print version. i still think that model has some potential of melding the two fronts of publishing.

  6. Glenn Simpson says:

    I have not ventured into digital (other than some free ones on the Iphone when I was bored) but I expect I probably will at some point. The biggest barrier to me is the price point for new comics – I can still get a $2.99 comic for $1.79 with my comic shop discount so there’s no incentive yet to buy it for even as low as DC’s $1.99 – which still wouldn’t help with the other 1/2 of my normal comics buying being Marvel.
    I can’t get excited about the Marvel Unlimited product. First, I am mainly interested in reading new material, and I know that service is way behind. Second, as irrational as it may seem, I still would prefer to own digital copies (to the extent that one would own them) than just have access to them. The last vestiges of the collectors’ mentality.
    I do find it depressing that the trend is toward smaller screens. If I’m going to read comics, I want to have the largest screen possible. Hopefully the 10″+ screens won’t completely go away or become prohibitively expensive.

  7. johnrobiethecat says:

    Additionally, I can’t see how a creator at his prime in modern times, waking up everyday and wanting to do Superman, Spider-man, Batman etc 40 yrs later after all those storylines have been maxed. Also, not having any original ideas of their own outside of something additive and still be excited about the medium. You can only hardcore or special effect up these characters so much. Ultimately, it’ll end up looking like those photo books with word balloon s in the 80’s which used to come along with Star Trek and Alien movies. There’s something silly about it.

    I actually feel sorry for guys like Jim Lee, the Justice League & X-men dudes etc who spend all their time trying to revamp something that pretty dated now and reeks an expiration date. I don’t think they are all timeless. Maybe it made a few of them rich but having to illustrate those stories everyday must be a pretty dull existence and know at least somewhere in your mind that DC & Marvel exploited fellow professionals in your line of work to get these characters almost scott-free.

    Would be more exciting to start out with a clean slate,your own universe and build it from there -superheroes, cartoons, sci-fi, romance , wahtever. And also have it end in 20 issues or so and then move onto the next thing.

  8. and to answer the other questions. I deal with comiXology because its the best, but i don’t love it, especially the pricing. Because of my job and family responsibilities, and the fact that all 6 of my local comic shops keep 10-5 hours (even on wednesday!) its virtually impossible for me to get to a comic shop on any kind of regular basis. So if it weren’t for digital comics, i wouldn’t be reading AT ALL. I’d love a netflix style system, especially for creator owned. There is just SOOO much out there to try. I tend to drop books after an arc or two or when it no longer becomes fun.

    I do like getting DRM free PDF copies from the indie guys that provide that. Its easier to read and i have choices of apps and devices which i don’t have with comiXology.

    I don’t consider the DRM thing a big deal with digital comics in terms of losing access to my collection because i’m a reader and not a collector. I don’t re-read 99% of my comics, and if i really like it, i’ll buy a trade or HC for my shelf. Digital comics are disposable reading that saves me space and physical clutter.

  9. Johnny Memeonic says:

    The incentive of paying for anything online has to be of higher quality than whats offered for free.

    I’ve moved over completely to digital and buy from Comixology to read on the Ipad’s retina display. And I can confirm that the HD scans they use have a color depth on the retina display that trumps what even modern printing technology can put on the physical page.

    Wish the price were closer to $1.99 than $3.99, but I understand they do it to protect print sales. Don’t personally agree with that, but I get it.

    No shame, I read scanlations.

    I eagerly await your future posts about how the greedy companies don’t pay the writers and artists enough money from all the sales of their prod…oh, wait.

  10. Johnny, you raise a great point about the higher resolution iPad scans from Comixology, which are likely better than what you could get from the pirate groups. I do wonder how much more work they are for the publishers and/or the artists, to customize for specific devices. As we are seeing, there is only going to be much more diversity in screen size and resolution in the future. How many of them will get tailor made images for them?

  11. Serhend Sirkecioglu says:

    @Johnny Memeonic

    I complain more about companies'(Marvel & DC) poor marketing to the gen. public, being noninclusive socially and aesthetically, and being a sad/tired one trick pony out-of-touch with modern comics overall. In this day and age you have no reason to work at those “greedy companies” for the most part, this is the self-starter generation.

    PS
    Heidi, sry for the double post. Delete the first one.

  12. I have a 1st-gen iPad and a Galaxy S3. I never read comics on the phone. I find it too small even for webcomics. I do read eBooks on it, though.

    On the iPad, I have a few comics scattered over Comixology, various custom apps, and PDFs. It’s mostly digital-only stuff at this stage: Viz’s No 5, Monkeybrain’s Bandette, etc. I can imagine my habits slowly shifting over, but it will take a while. (I’m still about 50/50 on buying CDs vs MP3s.)

  13. The Doctor says:

    I’m digital only unless I love it – then I want a hardcover, preferably an Absolute-type of some variety. Comic value for collectibles is based on rarity and condition. When all of the existing copies are NM or better, there’s little point in collecting them – they’re never going to be worth enough to offset the expense of storing them. I am Comixology-exclusive, but I think the price point for day and date copies is too high, so I pass on those. I wait until the price comes down to $1.99 or less, and then I buy. For me, that’s the right price for something as ephemeral as a digital only copy. That’s one of the few beautiful things about being older – I don’t care about reading them right away, and I can be blunt enough to tell people not to speak about it because I haven’t read it yet.

    For older stuff, I wait for a blowout sale. Recently, I bought the Walking Dead compendiums and the Rising Stars compendium for half off. That was such a deal! It was great to re-read both, and I probably wouldn’t have had I not purchased them for my iPad.

    I feel a little like a traitor since I once owned a comic shop, but hey… I’m also a Trekkie. I WANT that future, all shiny and not cluttered with paper, where people walk around with their PADDs (iPads, whatever) and read everything on them. The future is here. I think it’s time to face it.

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