Direct Current 2.0

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Direct Current 2.0

By Jim Durdan

Week of July 24, 2013

Psst, Hey you, Want a copy of Action Comics #1 cheap!


In the last 10 years the world of Comic Book publishing has forever been changed by the advent of the Digital Comic Book. Within the last few years same day availability has sparked renewed interest in our beloved hobby.  According to the publisher in 2012 digital sales accounted for $75 million dollars of DC sales, a 200% increase. That is an incredible jump, and certainly bodes well for the future of DC (http://venturebeat.com/2012/11/07/dc-digital-comics-sales-2012/) . But it does raise an interesting question. What about the back issue market? Sure I can get a copy of Catwoman #22 in digital format, but what happens if I want to get a copy of Catwoman’s first appearance in in Batman #1 from Spring 1940? In a search of the DC app it doesn’t appear.  Neither does it appear on Comixology.  I could go out and buy it; a near mint book is only worth $120,000. But I don’t have that much open on my debit card.

Batman #1 is only one example out of thousands of comic books that don’t have a digital presence. Both DC and Marvel have a huge catalog of back issues that do not exist is digital form.  Marvel has made a modest start with Marvel Digital Comics Unlimited, but it contains a small fraction of the publishers back catalog. DC has done far less.

If digital comics are to continue to grow at a healthy rate I submit that publishers have to begin to address the great digital divide that is the back issue marketplace. Many comic book readers are collectors, they have long boxes full of comics. For those who have switched over to the Brave New World of digital comics they are now in a situation where they have all of their new issues on their Ipad, Android or Laptop, and all their old issues in paper (to be called floppies for the rest of the column.)  It’s like having some of you favorite movies on VHS tape and some on Blu-Ray.  Indeed that is a very apt analogy. The movie industry realized that for people to adopt the new technologies of DVD or Blu Ray they had to reissue classic films in the new formats.  It worked and people adopted these technologies. There was one other thing that the movie studios did, the lowered the price on these classics to basically the cost of burning and printing the disc and the disc sleeves.

What can DC and Marvel take away from this? First, if you want a lot of new customers for the digital format, then you need to open up the back catalog. At one point Marvel released a series of DVD’s that had all the back issues for certain characters and teams, i.e. The Avengers, Spider-Man, Hulk and Fantastic Four. All the files were in PDF format (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Portable_Document_Format), and most impressively were DRM (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Digital_rights_management) free. That last item is very important and is a major problem for all media content creators, but we will just focus on what that means to comic book collectors.

If you go to the DC App and buy Catwoman #22, you own it, kind of. You app authorizes you to read it, and enjoy it, but you never actually have a file to call your own. For example if you cannot authenticate with the DC App server that you bought the issue, then you can’t read it.  We all know that technology has come a long way, but Digital Rights Management is a disaster waiting to happen, ask the early adopters of the latest SimCity game, (http://www.policymic.com/articles/29213/simcity-drm-always-online-mode-results-in-disaster-for-gamers).  To this day they are having major issues with DRM. Indeed that same issue almost awaited XBOX 1 early adopters. Microsoft had developed what some considered to be a very intrusive “always” on mode for the XBOX, which would have meant that unless the system could have authenticated that you owned the game you are playing, it would have shut it down. (http://techcrunch.com/2013/06/19/microsoft-heeds-gamer-feedback-dumps-xbox-one-drm-restrictions/).

So we now have 2 things that a back issue digital library of comics needs to be, it needs to have a depth of back issues, and it needs to be DRM free.  Image comics just announced that it is doing away with DRM on all its comics in the Image store (http://www.theverge.com/2013/7/2/4488112/image-comics-launches-drm-free-online-store). That is a huge move and hopefully will push the big 2 in that direction. But there is one other component that needs to happen before a back issue library of comic books will be adopted by the collectors market, it needs to be cheap, dirt cheap.

Action Comics #1 sold last year for 2.5 million dollars. Reprints of Action Comics #1 litter the dollar bin of many comic shops. What should a digital copy be worth? How about a penny? Or better yet, nothing. That last part probably won’t happen, but the same economic model that drives the back issue collectors market for floppies does not exist for digital comics. A digital back issue comic has marginal costs, the old issue would have to be scanned and cleaned up, but that’s about it. No printing cost, not shipping cost, nothing. Be it 1 copy or 100 copies they all cost the same to replicate. Once the initial labor of digitally transcoding the images is done, the only other cost are hosting and server costs. Granted those may be costly, but not as costly as publishing 100,000 copies of one boot every month.

It does sound like a lot of work to scan in all those issues, some may not even exists anymore, however the reality is that it’s already been done by scores of fans. That’s all I will say about it, but like many things, if DC doesn’t step in and fill the void, it will be filled by others, and a huge marketing and money making opportunity will pass by DC Comics.

The music industry learned long ago that Bootleg copies of concerts, passed from fan to fan, were a golden opportunity to make money. Bruce Springsteen bootlegs were fetching hundreds of dollars, the quality might have been abysmal, but if you needed a fix of The Boss you could get it.  Springsteen’s record label took notice of this and issued a live set on CD, Tape, and Vinyl from his concerts, and it was for a while the bestselling live album of all time. The quality was great, the promotion was easy, and it made the label and Springsteen big bucks. DC needs to take notice of this. The product that is out there now is like the bootlegs of old. If a clean, professional, presentation was offered, at a suitable price, fans would flock to it.

 

Item 1: A Superman-Batman movie! I have died and gone to crossover heaven. While details are few we know that Zack Snyder will be involved and Henry Cavill will reprise his role as the Man of Steel (http://www.ign.com/articles/2013/07/20/report-supermanbatman-movie-planned), no word on who will portray The Dark Knight, but it would seem that Christian Bale is out.  Next on the list will be a Flash film, and then after that Justice League it would appear.

 

Item 2:  I was lucky enough to get a sneak peak viewing of Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox which is due for release on July 31st. All I can say is WOW! While some major reductions to the story line had to occur, this is a great movie, and yes (spoiler ahead) it does reboot the DC Universe. I am not sure if future direct to video DC movies will now take place in the current continuity, but the door is now open.  Perhaps one on the best movies from the extended DCU.

 

Item 3: Best book of the week, Batman and Catwoman #22. What makes this the pick of the week is the usage of Carrie Kelly. I’m not sure if she is going to be the new Robin or not, I hope so. She is a great character and plays off Bruce wonderfully. The list of possible Damien replacements is fairly short, but my vote is for Carrie. I love the character and the concept, and since it would appear that is the current DCU Batman has never had a female sidekick, the time is now!

Nothing functions very well in a void, so please feel free to contact me at jdurdan@hotmail.com with any feedback ideas or suggestions. I look forward to hearing from you.

6 thoughts on “Direct Current 2.0”

  1. Come on Jim, don’t be picky. You can get a VG copy of Batman #1 for a mere 20 g’s!
    Seriously though I think there are two reasons Marvel and DC don’t make their back issue catalog available digitally. The first, which you hint at, is a fear of piracy. But by refusing to make them available, they have unfortunately encouraged rather than discouraged people from scanning them.
    Even though the genie’s not going back in the bottle (or if you prefer, Pandora’s box is not going to be closed), I still feel Marvel and DC can easily make a profit on back issues if they sell them at their original cover price. Golden Age issues for 10 cents. Silver Age issues for 12 to 15 cents. Many have already been officially scanned and recolored (when they are reprinted in omnibus and trades) so only server costs would have to be covered.
    But the second reason they probably won’t make them available for a long time is because it might harm the comic book shop market out of business. Yes I realize that very little of their income comes from back issues, but their profit margin is slim as it is, and they probably wouldn’t be happy with the Big 2 taking another bite out of it.
    Love the column and keep up the good work.

  2. Hi guys! I been a fan of the podcast since October and got my friends in on it as we are all big dc fans! I thought the article was spot on about digital comics. However the only thing is about Batman #1 from 1940 not having a digital presence. I have a copy of Batman #1 via digital that I bought on my dc app a year ago. The copy contains all of the stories, the first two joker stories, the first catwoman and the Hugo strange Story. I redownloaded this morning and I got it off this deal DC had for April Fools 2012 for joker stories. I also have pictures of it but just thought would let you know. Also I have a copy of Action 1 digitally in my DC iPhone app. It just contains the first Superman story. Anyway great article and great podcast and website.

  3. Thank you for the kind words Sean.

    Let me address the great points you have made.

    1) In researching this column I discovered that a huge percentage of all DC comics since Action #1 are available online. The fan community knows no bounds and this had to have been a colossal undertaking. From what I could see the sum total of the DC back catalog is almost 1 terabyte in size, that is huge, but in this day and age when 3 terabyte drives run about $200.00 dollars it’s nothing. DC, and Marvel, are losing the piracy war to the fan base that has already taken it upon themselves to fill the void.
    I think the price points are still high, but market forces would drive that. To paraphrase Kevin Costner, if you sell it they will come. I tend to believe that if a superior, sanctioned product was made available the piracy issue would be greatly reduced.

    2) Comic Shops. I agree that all shops are operating on a razor thin margin. I know of one shop that angered a high roller customer, who spent about $1500 a month there, and they walked. Within a year the shop closed.
    I think we are safe to say that most shops do not carry a wide range of comic’s pre 1990. So if the back issue vault was opened to 1990 and older books it would not impact sales. Also a lot of the draw to floppies is that you can hold them, touch them, and over time they appreciate in value. Digital comics have a set value and do not increase. So it would appear that their always would be a market for hard copy.

  4. Hi Anthony,

    Thanks for the info on Batman #1 I again check the DC app and Batman #1 is not available. Since you caught it during the Aprils Fools 2012 sale, DC has pulled it since then. Action Comics #1 IS there for .99 cents. Think about that for a second. If that price point were to hold for all of Action Comics Vol. 1 you would spend over $900.00 dollars for the collection, and truly have nothing tangible to show for it. As Sean and I discussed in a previous post the price structure is just way off and no one that I could think of would spend almost $1000 dollars for something that is made up of electronic data that doesn’t even reside on your tablet, phone or computer. This model is broken.

  5. Hi Jim, thanks for replying! That’s an excellent point and it explains my reluctance to buy even 12 issue arcs from there. From my stand point I am very hesitant to but say Watchmen but I am not to she’ll out the same amount or more for the hard cover of it. It feels more real to me when I have it in my hands. Also I donot mind buying smaller stories like the Laughing fish digitally but I end up wanting to have some sort of physical copy. I donot know if I am an old fashioned but when I have issues or tpbs I am content with that more so than a physical copy. But I do agree that digital should be cheaper. Thabks for replying great article and hope to read more.

  6. Great article: incisive, to-the-point, and rational.
    I have two thoughts:
    1. Scanning and cleaning up old comics for digital release is NOT easy or quickly done. Many old comics have already been made presentable (for archive editions and the like), but many have not. That said, I have seen some fan-made scans that don’t bother to clean up the pages, and I kind of like it! It’s like looking at the old comic itself, warts and all. i suspect a lot of new readers wouldn’t like that, though.
    2. I LOVE the idea of charging original cover price for digital versions of old comics. It’s a fun gimmick, one that I think would appeal to fan nostalgia and to new readers. the one drawback is that it might make new comics look like they cost too much.

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