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Four revolutions in comics - Part 4 - The Digital Revolution

Marvel Infinite Comics Avengers vs. X-Men #1

In 2010, Marvel and DC began distributing new-release comics over the Internet. For years, fans were limited to purchasing back catalog comics through online subscription services and were clamoring for new release, day-and-date digital releases - but the Big 2 publishers were apprehensive. Their primary revenue stream is the direct sales market, which ships print comics to retail shops through a single channel - Diamond Comic Distributors. Retailers feared that day-and-date digital releases would cut into their sales. Publishers were reluctant to create friction with their partners who were suffering from the recession, and initially only a few digital comics were sold on the same day as they were released in stores.

The opportunity for a new revenue stream was too enticing for publishers to pass up. In June of 2011, DC announced it would distribute comics digitally on the same day as print; a few months later, Marvel followed suit and went day-and-date.

According to ICv2, digital sales amounted to $1 million in 2009. Then rose to $8 million the next year, $25 million the year after, and in its third year, digital comics did an astounding $70 million in sales. And all the while, the sales figures for print comics weren't negatively impacted - in fact, print comics sales grew every year from 2010-2012. In 2013, digital sales were estimated at $90 million while print figures continued to rise.

The explosion of digital sales were met with a number of controversies. The stringent content policies of Apple's online store impacted digital sales of two of the most acclaimed comics of the era. An issue of Saga was initially reported to have been banned from the store, while it was later discovered to be a pre-emptive act by representatives of ComiXology, the most popular comics-reading app, who didn't submit the issue because they felt its content would be disallowed by Apple. The Apple store initially sold the first two issues of the comedy Sex Criminals by Image Comics, but then rejected the third issue and retroactively removed the first.

Digital Rights Management and purchasing agreements for digitally purchased comics also created controversies. Many users were unaware that the comics they were purchasing online from major comics distributors had content agreements that relegated their purchases to a legal status more like renting versus owning.

In response to these controversies, in addition to selling their comics through popular apps like ComiXology, Image Comics announced in 2013 they would begin selling digital comics directly in a DRM-Free format.

Independent comic creators Brian K. Vaughan, Marcos Martin and Muntsa Vicente began distributing their own digital comic, The Private Eye, online in a "pay whatever you want" DRM-free digital format. After the first seven issues were released, the co-creators reported that sales surpassed six figures in both number of downloads and revenue.

Two prominent comic creators, Chris Roberson (iZombie) and Mark Waid (Kingdom Come, Irredeemable), launched their own digital comics companies.

Roberson launched Monkeybrain comics with TV commercial and film producer Allison Baker in 2012. Monkeybrain distributes creator-owned comics spanning a wide variety of styles and genres. Among their most notable titles is Bandette, which won an Eisner award for best digital comic.

The Creative Potential for Digital Comics is just beginning.

For many years, comics fans and creators pushed for digital distribution - but fans and creators alike wondered what the creative possibilities were for digital comics. Initial attempts at heightening the comics experience were called 'motion comics' and were mostly dreadful. They didn't feel so much like comics as they felt like bad animation.

One of the earliest proponents of digital comics is Mark Waid, a renowned creator who's worked for DC Comics and Marvel Comics, written some of the best stories in the Superman canon and has recently received acclaim for his run on Daredevil.

Waid was inspired by a proof-of-concept posted by French artist Yves “Balak” Bigerel that demonstrated new potentials for storytelling in digital comics. Instead of looking like wannabe animation, Bigerel's demo introduced new ways of thinking about comics in a digital space - using layering and transitions to create effects that opened new possibilities in graphic narratives.

Waid took this inspiration and generated some groundbreaking work. The talk he gave at O'Reilly media (embedded below) showcases his storytelling philosophy and teases some of the new techniques he is using for digital comics:

Marvel Comics launched a new line of digital books specifically geared towards leveraging the new potential of the digital medium. The enhanced digital line of books is called Marvel Infinite Comics. The first comic in the series was a tie-in to their Avengers vs. X-Men event, and some of the new storytelling techniques can be glimpsed in this video:

Waid's digital comics company Thrillbent is home to a number of series similarly inspired by Waid and Bigerel's innovations. Insufferable is a series written by Waid that explores the new frontier of digital storytelling techniques, but there are many others.

Milton Lawson

Milton is a writer living in Houston. Comics, travelogues. Go Astros. Go Texans.

A short comic about an indie music shop written by Milton Lawson with art by Dave Chisholm

A travelogue about four friends taking their first trip to Europe. Now available on Amazon.com.