Will the iPad Save Comics?

Marvel Comics upped the digital distribution ante by releasing a highly praised reader app on the same day and date as Apple's new tablet. Too bad they got the business model wrong.
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Originally published on Youthradio.org, the premier source for youth generated news throughout the globe.

By Noah J. Nelson

If this past weekend's WonderCon -- San Francisco's yearly comic book and pop culture convention -- is any indication, I'm not the only geek asking how the iPad will affect comics.

Some of the comic book industry pros are hopeful, though nearly all of them are tired of talking about it. But how can we not? We're geeks. For half of our population, new is what we do. Besides, Marvel Comics did up the digital distribution ante by releasing a highly praised reader app on the same day and date as Apple's new tablet.

Too bad they got the business model wrong.

Sure, at $1.99, a digital copy of a new issue is around two bucks cheaper than a physical copy. It's just that as a comic book reader (and former collector -- there is a difference) I can't say I'm impressed by the value proposition. Marvel was already offering an "all you can eat" subscription service on Marvel.com that allowed readers to access their entire online catalog through a web interface. Not so with the app.

I'm always acutely aware of how pricey my comics habit is when compared to other forms of media, and in the new marketplace those comparisons are laid bare. For $1.99 at the iTunes store, I can get an episode of Caprica or Mad Men, entertainments that give me the same soap opera-like fix that ongoing comic series provide. Or I could get two games for my iPhone that might eat up days of my life. As for the pirates -- who like to justify their theft in part by saying that the companies charge too much for their wares -- the price isn't low enough to kick in a serious case of geek guilt.

If digital copies for the iPad ran, say, 99 cents instead, hundreds of thousands -- soon to be millions -- of potential customers could be lured into impulse-buying comics. These readers could then be converted to subscribers, and then shepherded into buying hardbound and trade paperback versions of the stories they love.

I'm talking about more than plus or minus a buck in pricing. Geeks -- and the multimedia conglomerates that Marvel (Disney) and DC Comics (Warner Brothers) are a part of--often suffer from a kind of myopia that limits their ability to share what they love. Instead of trying to replicate what we had with print, they should be finding ways to reach out to new audiences clearly hungry for genre works. DC Comics' Jim Lee -- whose responsibilities include figuring out the Batman publisher's digital strategy -- is already making some fantastic art on his own iPad. Lee believes that a native form will evolve for the device.

Part of the appeal of comics is the soap opera aspect. Digital comics could feed that fix, even focusing on less popular characters whose books wouldn't sell well enough in print. The physical comics could focus on formats you can't do on a tablet -- like DC's over-sized Wednesday Comics newsprint experiment from last year--playing into the strength of print as a medium instead of the "one size fits all" of digital.

To be fair, Marvel didn't get it all wrong. At least issues are bought inside the app. Good thing it didn't take a cue from Time, which is charging five dollars an issue, and each issue is a separate app.

Even the Joker knows that's just crazy.

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