A day after several announcements at South By Southwest Interactive, ComiXology still hasn’t recovered from a surge in download requests after Marvel made 700 issues free digitally. The fires still haven’t died down, but let’s look a little closer at what the new products and services Marvel announced at SXSW mean. Let’s go beyond the press releases, prerecorded interviews and video advertisements.
If we look at the rhetoric that Marvel has used at SXSW (both in 2012 and this year) we can interpret how and why they’re making this push with digital media. Like any publisher, they want to expand their audience.
The press release before Sunday’s announcements said they would “change everything you know about comics forever.” While this is obviously a bit of hyperbole, there’s a kernel of truth there. “Project Gamma” which will add adaptive audio to the digital comics reading experience isn’t something we’ve really seen yet. However, the other announcements — augmented reality, “infinite” digital comics designed for mobile reading, Blair Butler’s Marvel promotional show — aren’t particularly revolutionary, especially since two of these were already announced at SXSW last year.
So why the spectacle? Most of comics fandom is familiar enough with these announcements that they know when a publisher is laying it on thick. But I don’t think Marvel’s doing this for the benefit of their established readers. This coordinated effort is more likely targeted at the coveted relapsed reader, for whom it’s been possibly several years since they’ve heard such Stan Lee-esque exaggerations like this:
Since the launch of Marvel Digital Comics Unlimited, the first major digital comics program in industry history in 2007, Marvel has been on the forefront of digital comics publishing. After becoming the first major publisher to offer single issue sales in 2009, Marvel has continued to expand its digital comics offerings to numerous platforms, with an unrivaled library of award winning storytelling. Marvel also became the first comics company to offer free digital copies with select print issues and comic shop coupons with the purchase of a digital comic. In 2012, Marvel Entertainment became the first major comics publisher to attend SXSW, announcing such landmark initiatives as Marvel Infinite Comics and Marvel AR (Marvel’s augmented reality app).
This paragraph attempts to establish an identity for Marvel as an entity. Been away from comics for awhile? Let us tell you about all the changes we’ve made in the last five years. Curious? Here’s 700 comics to whet your appetite. The first taste is free but to teach you they’ll have to charge.
The “Infinite” format seems like a genuine evolution in the comics reading experience for some, lending credence to Marvel’s PR. Launching a weekly web show starring Blair Butler also has the potential to bring in a broader audience familiar with Butler’s coverage of geek culture in other media.
If you haven’t read comics in awhile and those $3.99 price tags were keeping you away, Marvel’s got a cost/benefit argument for your consideration. The augmented reality service does for comics what DVDs do for feature films. By adding additional behind-the-scenes content it attempts to justify the price point by selling the reader on a “front row seat to the future” that purports inside access. You can even hear what Andrew W.K. (the face of Playtex Crotch Wipes) thinks about your favorite superheroes! This could actually work in Marvel’s favor by generating content that doesn’t carry the added cost of printing.
Before the SXSW announcements were even made, Marvel hyped the event by referring to its audience as “the best in the world–bar none.” But the strategy used behind this marketing suggests that perhaps Marvel doesn’t know who actually comprises their current audience. While 700 free comics is a nice incentive for relapsed readers to jump on in a morass of continuity, they also act as an assessment, measuring data that Marvel needs badly to discover the needs of their new audience.
If you’re like me you scrolled through the 700 issues and clicked away on anything that caught your fancy. Yes, we temporarily get access to hundreds of dollars in content… but what’s Marvel get? They now have data on who is buying digital comics, what characters/creators they’re interested in and what they’re buying practices are like outside of this one time binge. Are they new readers? Are they only buying new books? Or are they nostalgically grabbing old favorites?
Consider the amount of people who own mobile devices compared to those still buying from their local comic shop and you’ll get an idea of how large a population Marvel’s reaching with this offer. They’d pay professional consultants more to get a survey this large out in the field than they might lose in digital content revenue for a few days.
So what’s the goal? Well, like any company Marvel wants more profits. Behind the advertising though, they want to gather information about digital readers, while attracting both new and relapsed readers to the digital format. Both Marvel AR and Project Gamma suggest that these readers want more content for their money. So the company’s trying to provide that, without raising their overhead too much more.
All of this is reasonable and a sound strategy for a publisher trying to remain flexible as content consumption rapidly changes. Unfortunately, Marvel stumbled a little just out of the gate. ComiXology’s servers crashed before most could get ahold of their free issues. Not only is this bad for Marvel as its trying to show a new audience how tech savvy it is, it’s bad for ComiXology as well. They made an announcement at SXSW too, about their new “Submit” service for creator owned comics. Marvel can bounce back from this flub, but I can’t help but think about those creators who launched their personal work with ComiXology only days before to now find that no one can download their comics while the entire system’s fried.
Let’s hope that once the problem is resolved, the quantity of readers Marvel’s announcement brought in will also poke around a little and find original gems like Rich Barrett’s Nathan Sorry or Becky Cloonan’s Wolves and The Mire. Marvel’s titanic shifts have the potential to expand the entire industry and for that we should all keep an eye on their rate of success.
UPDATE: Since the writing of this article ComiXology has experienced some improved performance. Give it a shot before time runs out to get some free issues!
Christian Sager is a comics writer and essayist whose recent book The Cabinet was successfully funded via Kickstarter. You can see more from Christian by visiting his website here, or following him on Twitter (@ChristianSager).