Meanwhile, in the future….

Reading comic books on the iPad is kind of great. Discovering a comic like Atomic Robo is even better.

Man, I love Atomic Robo. It’s a comic book series about an indestructible robot designed by Nikola Tesla in 1923, who now leads a team of Action Scientists who are “sanctioned by the U.N. to investigate weirdness.” The influence of Hellboy and The B.P.R.D. are pretty clear, both in the art and the writing and tone. But instead of feeling derivative, it stands as a great counterpart to those books: there’s less of the folklore and epic mythology, in favor of pulp science fiction and B-movies. Plus, it’s played pretty much strictly for laughs, but with enough plot and a strong enough storyline to keep everything from evaporating.

Plus it hits all the right notes. It’s nearly impossible to find writing this sharp — especially comedy writing, which hardly anyone in comics can get right — or artwork this polished in the “big three” publishers, much less from a semi-obscure smaller house. The guys behind the comic published their manifesto a couple of years ago, and it proves that they didn’t just stumble onto a good comic, they know what they’re doing. It’s clear that they’ve put a lot of thought and effort into making something that’s smart, goofy fun.

But as much as I like it, I can all but guarantee it never would’ve caught my attention if not for the Comics app from Comixology. As a matter of fact, I’m pretty sure I have one of the Atomic Robo Free Comic Book Day issues in print lying around somewhere, but I didn’t pay much attention to it (assuming I read it at all). It’s a perfect example of the long-promised potential of digital distribution, but it actually worked for once.

At a retailer, a new comic is a pretty significant investment — not just in money, but time and attention. Smaller publishing houses get overwhelmed by the “big two” (I’d include Dark Horse and call it the “big three”), which dominate the space with long-running established characters and the sheer volume of stuff they release. If I’m only going into a shop once a month at the most, then I’m going to be most interested in catching up on the few series I already follow, and I won’t stray too far out of my comfort zone. And even when the issues are cheaper or even free, I’m reluctant to pick them up, because I’ve already got so much competing for my attention: I know that when I get home, I’m not going to be able to devote more than an hour or two to reading a bunch of comic books.

That’s how DC & Marvel continue to dominate, even when their ratio of great to mediocre is depressingly low: I’m more likely to buy a poorly-written X-Men or Justice League spin-off than a well-written comic featuring a character I’ve never heard of. Even if it’s by a known talent whose work I’ve liked elsewhere. I’ve railed against this in videogames, where there’s this increasing insistence on sequels, licenses, and spin-offs instead of original IP, but I’m just as guilty of it. In comics, I am the dreaded but desirable Casual Audience.

But the iPad levels the playing field. (At least, somewhat, and we’ll see how long it lasts). The “flagship” puts stuff from the indies right alongside the bigger publishers in the new releases, giving everything equal cover space and making everything searchable. You can easily see why Marvel and DC demanded their own reskinned and branded versions of the Comics app (and DC demanded its own button in the flagship app), because it’s the only way to keep exploiting the brand dominance they spent decades building. They’ve spent so long milking everything they can out of their long-running characters, their main advantage at this point is familiarity, not (necessarily) quality.

It’s still very unsettling to me that I can turn on my Magic Tablet of Privilege, launch an app, and buy an issue of Hellboy, Batman, or maybe one of the original Lee/Kirby issues Fantastic Four, whenever I feel like it. That was one of the main reasons I bought the thing in the first place, but I never actually expected it to happen. It took a year from the release of the first iPhone before Apple put out the SDK, so I expected a similar delay before the potential of the iPad was realized. But here we are just a few months after release, and all of the major comics publishers have something — not nearly enough yet, but something — available. When I was in my hotel room in Florida a couple of weeks ago, I read the last couple of issues of Chew and a couple issues of Grant Morrison’s run on Batman in 2006, none of which I would’ve bothered with if I’d had to get individual issues or even trade paperbacks. It was more like being in the future than anything in Tomorrowland or Future World.

Not everything’s perfect, of course:

  • Recent issues: The smaller publishers are pretty good about staying current, and DC and Marvel have a smattering of recent issues available, but for the most part, everything you can get (legally) for the iPad is at least a year old. That’s fine for casual types like me, who are still in the process of getting caught up. But I’m going to catch up pretty soon, and I’ve pretty much sworn off individual issues at this point. They just seem like a waste of money, time, and space. It’s digital distribution or no sale for me.
  • Availability: Even among the older material, there are still big holes in the libraries. It’s great that Dark Horse is finally in, but as of right now they’ve only got the first volume of Hellboy and a couple of smaller series that don’t interest me. Where’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the B.P.R.D.? DC and Marvel have a lot more, but they’re still being fairly tentative and keeping the releases to their major series, cross-overs, and movie tie-ins. It’s fantastic that DC has Batman: Year One online, but I’ve already bought that mini-series. Three times, even. Instead of just re-releasing the stuff that’s already made money several times over, it seems like the biggest potential of digital distribution is in releasing semi-obscure stuff that doesn’t warrant a full reprint. Release the J.M. DeMatteis and Shawn McManus issues of Dr. Fate from the late 80s, for instance, and I’ll buy every one (again).
  • Organization: It seems odd to follow a complaint that there’s not enough stuff available with a complaint that stuff is too hard to find, but there you go. Comixology’s UI design, which seemed great while everyone was still getting used to the idea of digital comics and were still waiting for the big publishers to join in, has already gotten overwhelmed by the amount of content available. They’ve effectively managed to duplicate the problems of a physical comic book store (and comic book collection) on a device with infinite capacity. In the store, the cover flow view is fixed and takes up a big chunk of screen real estate. Browsing is limited to lists of text, there’s no easy way to browse through everything from a certain publisher or in an individual series, for instance. And in the “My Comics” section, I have to scroll through a half-screen-sized list of every issue I’ve bought, when I’d much rather just ditch the cover flow view and instead get drill-downs or “folders” based on series. Plus, they don’t put dates on anything, possibly at the publisher’s request. For a medium that’s so heavy on monthly releases and continuity, you need to know when stuff originally came out.
  • Pricing: You can’t have anything delivering content to the over-privileged without hearing complaints about the price, and comics are no exception. I’m actually completely fine with their charging $1.99 for individual issues — print issues run around $2.99 these days, with ads. Plus the argument that “there’s no printing cost!” is pretty disingenuous; I don’t know the actual numbers, of course, but I would almost guarantee that the cost of talent, editorial, marketing, licensing, and advertising dwarfs printing costs by a wide margin. Not to mention Apple’s 30% cut of everything. No, my problem with the pricing is that everything’s treated as single issues, kind of like if the iTunes Store only sold singles and didn’t allow you to buy the whole album. Since they’re putting out mostly old material anyway, why not offer more collected volumes? I bought Hellboy: Seed of Destruction for the iPad, even though I already own it in both hardback and paperback. I wouldn’t have done that if I’d had to buy the individual issues.

And again, this is all something that Atomic Robo (and, I’m assuming, publisher Red 5 Comics) gets right, while the big names are still floundering. The first issue of Atomic Robo is free, as are the two Free Comic Book Day issues. The series are arranged in volumes of five or six issues each (there are three out right now), and you can choose to buy the individual issues or the collected volume. Individual issues are only 99 cents, and the volumes are four bucks, a dollar less than you’d pay for getting them individually. It’s all exactly the way it should be handled, and I rewarded them by buying in bulk. I’m coming to the series late, and it looks like individual issues of Volume 4 are already out, while they’re not yet available digitally; I’ll be interested to see if they come out once the TPB of Volume 4 is released later this year.

Until then, if you want to try Atomic Robo and you’ve got an iPad or iPhone: get the Comics app, and then download the free “Atomic Robo: FCBD Edition”. The second story, “Why Atomic Robo Hates Dr. Dinosaur,” is my favorite of anything in the series, and actually one of my favorite comics I’ve read since The Amazing Screw-On Head.

I’ve read explanations for all the publisher-imposed limitations with digital comics, and they’re the same as for music, traditional books, and videogames. But instead of learning from what’s come before, it seems like every medium is going to have to learn the same lessons as it makes the crossover into digital.

The first worry is that digital sales will cannibalize print sales. But with comics, it’s the same as with traditional books: the disposable stuff will go digital, the good stuff will always have a home in print. Single issues and “lesser” series, like paperback books and pop singles, are disposable. Collections and trades are permanent. I mentioned that I bought Hellboy: Seed of Destruction for the iPad, but there’s no way that I’m ever giving up my paperback or hardback copies. And I’d never give the digital version as a gift.

The second worry is that digital sales will hurt comics retailers, and that’s the one that I have a little bit more sympathy for, but not much. Comixology has stressed that they see themselves as a supplement to comic shops, not a replacement. They’ve made good on this by including “buy in print” links all over the store with everything you can get digitally. Plus, they’ve still got their other app, which coordinates comic book pull lists with retailers. And again, what’s going to happen is that the businesses that deserve to stay alive will stay alive; the ones that don’t add anything to the experience will become defunct. The store that just has a bunch of long boxes and a surly dude at the counter to sneer at you while you pay three bucks for a 20-page comic? They can go, and good riddance. But the stores that get it right don’t have much to worry about.

Isotope Comics in San Francisco gets it right, and they should have nothing to fear from digital distribution. They’re not just a middleman to keep your pull list for you as you make your obligatory visit whenever new comics come in. Frankly, if you’re looking for the stuff you expect to find from a comic book store — everything new and tons of long boxes filled with back issues — you’re going to be disappointed. Because that’s not the point of the store; James and the people working there didn’t make a comic book store but a comic book lounge. It’s social. They promote the stuff they like. You get recommendations on comics, both the big releases and stuff you’d never have heard of otherwise. There are regular events with artists and writers, and the feel is more like a nightclub than any comic book store you’ve ever been to. Even when nothing’s going on, and you are just stopping in to pick up whatever’s on your pull list, you can get a good conversation about whatever geek topic is making waves at the moment. That kind of social atmosphere is something you’ll never be able to get from an iPad app, and it’s the model that more places should be following instead of just complaining that their business is being taken away.

I already get trade paperbacks from Isotope instead of going through Amazon, just because I want to keep supporting the store. I don’t see that changing anytime soon; I just get to avoid having to buy single issues. Maybe someday I’ll be able to head down to Isotope, pick up the latest volume of Fables in print, and get a couple of recommendations on cool new stuff coming out. I can then fire up the Comics app on my iPad, go to the Isotope section, and download the recommendations, giving the store a cut much like with Amazon’s sponsored links. When we get to that point, I’ll know we’re really in the future.

4 thoughts on “Meanwhile, in the future….”

  1. Right on.

    Thanks for mentioning Isotope, I haven’t heard of them but I’ll pay them a visit on Friday. It also helps that their store looks, from their website, absolutely phenomenal.

  2. You definitely should; if you’re a comics fan in the bay area there’s no excuse not to visit Isotope at least once. Again, you’ll find a better selection and more back issues at Comic Relief or even one of the stores in the city, but the draw of Isotope is that the people are so friendly.

  3. It’s awesome you found Atomic Robo. I found the first trade when I was browsing a comic store a while back and was blown away. I quickly headed out and bought the other two trades and have been fervently waiting for more.

  4. When I read the free comics on their other website nuklearpower, I too fell in love with it. Unfortunatly, there’s no way I can get the comics until in about a month or two.

    This is a excellently written article and I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. There’s so much bull crap in the mainstream industry, its just sad.

    I’ll have to check Isotope Comics as well methinks…

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