Saturday, July 21, 2012

Comic Con Recap

Comic Con was a blast this year and as always there were several panels dedicated to the ways digital comics are changing the industry for creators, publishers, retailers, and readers. I've been directing a lot of my work on the subject over to Popmatters recently so here is part of a feature I published for them discussing the convention:


Comic Con Explores the Digital Future of Comics



Industry insiders and comic book publishers hosted multiple panels at this year’s Comic Con to discuss the future of the medium and the way digital comics will affect how titles are sold, distributed, and created. While topics of this sort have been mainstays of major conventions in recent years, this year’s gathering was definitely typified by a strong sense of confidence and a cohesive vision for what is to come that has been noticeably lacking in prior discussions. While previous panels have often speculated over what the industry would look like in the upcoming decades, much of the enthusiasm these events attempted to engender was often diminished by lingering doubts that were only compounded by the wait-and-see answers that, while not satisfying, were to be expected when an industry is in flux.

Concerns over whether comic book readers would flock to iPads and forgo the direct market stores that have been the backbone of the industry for decades were definitely questions that many retailers – who already operate in a risky business environment – were unable to answer. How would this effect fans who preferred buying and collecting paper comics? Were publishers slowly abandoning paper and brick-and-mortar businesses in favor of cheaper and more streamlined means of digital distribution? What about readers who have been raised to believe that digital content should be free and who rather get pirated versions of their favorite titles from torrents then pay to download them from a publisher’s app? These concerns were only heightened when one looked to the publishing and music industries and saw how the digital revolution had sent traditionally entrenched market giants into turmoil.

While this anxiety will no doubt remain in many corners of the comic book world, this year there was a genuine sense that a functioning and holistic business model was finally emerging. While some of this newfound clarity came more from the unification of multiple disparate ideas that have been floating around the industry ever since the iPad and other tablets at last offered a functioning and convenient way of reading digital comic books, an important component of this new confidence came from answering the crucial question that has been central to all discussions on the subject: who are the readers?

Check out the rest of the article here. Feel free to share your thoughts!


  

Monday, March 26, 2012

Intelligence Squared Debate About the Future of Media

I was recently watching Andrew Rossi's excellent documentary Page One: Inside the New York Times and saw a clip of a debate on the future of media hosted by Intelligence Squared. The proposition for the evening's discussion was "Good Riddance to Mainstream Media," with the pro represented by John Hockenberry, Jim VandeHei and Michael Wolff, and the con represented by Katrina vanden Heuvel, David Carr, and Phil Bronstein. Being a debate coach and someone interested in the topic I decided to check it out. Really interesting stuff. Although the debate is a few years old I'll be posting a breakdown of it and my thoughts about who had the strongest arguments in the nest week or so. In the meantime check out debate here and if you haven't seen Page One yet it is on Netflix Watch Instantly.


Monday, December 26, 2011

Guest Review on the Kindle Fire

Hi, my name is Jeff and I am a readingaholic. I have been one as long as I can remember, and always will be. At any given time I am reading 3-4 books. I usually have a book at my bedside table, one on my desk, one in my car, and one that kinda floats around wherever I go. Bookshelves line my living room, overflowing with mine and my wife's collection. We are readers.

A few years ago my wife wanted a Nook for her birthday. While I thought that nothing could replace the experience of having an actual book in your hand, I relented and got her one. It seemed fine enough for what it was, but I never saw myself going that route, it just didn't seem the same to me. Earlier this year that all changed as I was offered the chance of getting a Kindle at a discounted price, and I have not bought a paper book since. I much prefer the Kindle to the Nook, it doesn't seem as bulky, it's easier to organize, and Amazon has a great system set up to support it.
Three months ago I started looking into getting an iPad. On my budget it's a pretty big investment so I wanted to be sure. I had a hard time justifying the expense for what I wanted to do with it (access the internet, read books, play some games). What I needed was a turbo-charged Kindle. And the Kindle Fire was announced! It was a no-brainer to pre-order, it seemed like it was just what I was looking for, at more than half the price of the cheapest iPad. And I was right.

Let me be clear, I am not anti-iPad. I have gotten to play around with them quite a bit, and I love them. But for me, it's just too much to spend for what I want. I do not think the Fire is the iPad killer it was first touted to be. It's just, for me, the Fire is a better fit.

So let's get down to it. If you order it from Amazon (which I did), it comes pre-configured for your account. Out of the box all I had to do was type in the password for my wifi home network, skip thru a few introductory screens, and I was off and running. Since it was pre-configured, all the books I had bought for my original Kindle were instantly available for me to download, displayed as front cover icons you can scroll thru. I wanted to try out the purchasing process of the Fire, so I bought the new Stephen King book 11/22/63. Accessing the Amazon store is a one-tap process, and a few taps and a quick download later it was on my Fire. Amazon has abandoned the e-ink technology for the Fire, which is too bad as it was easier on the eyes. But in exchange I get a back-lit presentation, which is good for late night reading in bed while my wife is trying to sleep (the original Kindle was not back-lit).

The Fire runs a version of the Android OS. Amazon has a nicely stocked app store (not the full selection of the actual Android store, but it has over 8000 currently available with more on the way). The Fire comes with a bunch of apps pre-loaded. I fired up the Facebook app, and was very happy with the results. Quick and easy to use. I downloaded the Twitter app and had the same results. The apps seemed to run just the way they should, so no complaints there. Web surfing is quick and easy with the Amazon Silk browser, which supports Flash. I have read some reports that said web browsing was slow, but I did not encounter that. The sites I went to loaded fairly quickly. Amazon offers one free selected app every day. Kinda cool if you want to try out something but weren't sure if it was worth the money.

One of the big features the Fire has been touting has been video streaming. With the Fire you get one month of Amazon Prime free, which gives you access to their vast movie and TV collection. From Amazon I looked up Dr Who, and they had every season of the new series to include the recently finished 6th season. I watched some of the last season 6 episode, and was happy to find a crisp picture, good sound, with zero lag/buffering issues. I downloaded the Netflix app and watched a bit of Torchwood with the same results. Again, some online reviews found the streaming to be a bit laggy, but I did not see that at all.

Amazon, like Apple, has introduced a cloud storage system. You get 5Gb (which they will probably increase in the near future) of free online storage to store anything you want, and you can access it from anywhere. This combines very nicely with the Fire. I can upload a playlist to it and listen to it on my home computer, then when I get to work the Fire can access it and pick it up where I left off (as long as you have access to a wifi hotspot). Any songs you get from Amazon Mp3 are automatically stored on the Cloud and don't contribute to the 5Gb storage space. You can expand the storage for $1 per extra gb per year).

So let's talk comics. Amazon has a fairly decent collection of comic books available for the Fire, including an exclusive deal with DC to publish many of their books. In addition to a proprietary comic reader that comes on the Fire, Amazon also pre-loaded the ComiXology app, where you can purchase issues and subscriptions. I bought Brightest Day #0 and was pleasantly surprised. While I really don't see myself reading comics on the Fire too often, the images were crisp and clear, and had no trouble reading it on the 7" screen. You can either read it by the page, or frame-by-frame. Decent enough for what it is.

Amazon has kept in the sync ability from the Kindle. This means I can be reading a book on the Fire, then switch to my Kindle iPhone app, tap a button, and I can pick up right where I left off. LOVE that!

Of course the kindle Fire is not perfect. So far my main grumbling point is the poor placement on the on/off button, which they put at the bottom of the device. If you use a cover (I bought the Microshell Folio cover by Marware, which works just fine), the placement shouldn't be much of a problem since the cover creates a kind of buffer for the button. But if you go coverless it most likely will result in you hitting the button more often than you would like. Also, if you want to transfer anything to your Fire, I hope you kept your USB cable from your old Kindle, because the Fire does not come with one (they switched to a wall charger). Also the Fire is wifi only, no 3G support. While that doesn't bug me too much, I did like the fact the Kindle had free 3G support. Oh well, I will learn to live without it.

In closing, I can honestly say I LOVE the Kindle Fire. It's light weight, easy to use, does everything I want it to, and it didn't cost a whole lot. Highly recommended!

Thursday, September 15, 2011

The DC Relaunch and The Digital Future of Comics: Will It Work?

The comic book world was stunned last May when DC, home of some of the medium's most recognizable and iconic characters, announced that it was stopping publication of all its titles and relaunching the entire DC Universe with 52 new series all starting at issue 1. The announcement, which was posted on the company's blog, sparked myriad reactions among fans, retailers, and creators, some of whom expressed interest and excitement about the plan, while others reacted with doubt and frustration. Many fans were dismayed at the idea that long-running series such as Action Comics and Detective Comics, which have spanned decades and several hundred issues, would now be starting over. Others wondered if such a massive creative overhaul would, like so many other epic world-changing storylines that have saturated superhero comics over the last decade, fail to live up to the hype. Regardless of the reaction, one unifying comment from supporters and skeptical critics was that the company was taking a significant risk. As noted by the New York Times in an article written by David Itzkoff: 
"The success or failure of this plan will have far-reaching implications: it could alienate longtime fans for the sake of new readers. And it could portend a more widespread exhaustion with film and television projects that are adapted from comic books and that are constantly starting over from scratch."
Two weeks ago the relaunch began with the release of Justice League #1, written by Geoff Johns with art by Jim Lee, with some comic stores having midnight launch parties to celebrate the event. Since then DC has added over a dozen other titles with more to be released throughout the month. Fans and critics have received the books with mixed reviews (so far I've enjoyed a lot of what I read) but one thing is for certain, DC is generating a lot of buzz and many comic stores are reporting selling out of titles hours after they are released. 
While the ultimate success or failure of the relaunch will take a long time to completely gauge, it is clear from the multiple interviews and press releases that the company has provided that this more than a typical 5th week event, designed to excite fans and get them to add a couple of more titles to their Wednesday buy-pile. Instead, this is a concerted effort to grab new readers and increase the emphasis on DC's digital publishing platform. 
The plan seems to have two principle means of achieving these goals, supported of course with a massive marketing campaign. 
The first means is naturally the relaunch itself. As a former comic book store manager, I can attest that the medium can seem a little daunting for new readers. One of the characteristics of the culture, a result of its decades as a marginalized and niche group, is that casual readers often feel overwhelmed at the amount of titles, the requisite knowledge of continuity, and the recurring trips to the comic store that keeping up with everything requires. I remember talking to customers who looked at the back stock of trades and the fact that Batman was in the 600's and decided that it simply wasn't worth the energy and commitment to start reading comics or to get back into them.
The second part of DC's plan is the increased focus on their digital comics which are available to download on your computer or onto a smartphone or iPad/iPod through comiXology or directly through the publishers own app. Prior to the relaunch, DC had always waited a week after the titles were released in comic book stores, before making them available in a digital format. Now, the comics are accessible for immediate download the same day as their paper release. This has caused some concern from comic store owners who already contend with multiple other issues threatening their businesses, including online sites and chain stores able to offer large discounts on trades, declining readership, digital piracy, and multiple other issues. 
Two things must be considered though when trying to gauge the impact the synchronized release dates will have on brick-and-mortar stores. First, both comiXology and Diamond Comics Distribution have both been working on programs to allow comic book stores to sell digital comics and receive a portion of the proceeds, similar to the program Google has created to allow independent bookstores to sell e-books. These programs are still in their infancy, but might create a way for the stores - which are useful for upselling and cultivating a customer base - and the publishers to both benefit. 
The second issue to be considered when determining if digital comics will hurt comic book stores is the question of reader demographics. Who is actually buying digital comics? While there is still no exact certainty in this issue yet, some have argued that there is no overlap in customers. Many people who read digital comics are not the type to go to their local comic store every Wednesday, buy a stack of books, and then preserve them with bags, boards, and long boxes. Many have claimed that the people who will read digital comics constitute an untapped market that will not take business away from retailers since these are people who would never commit that much energy to comics. However, they will download books onto their iPad from the comfort of their homes. 



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One important criteria that is will be necessarily when evaluating the success of the Relaunch comes from the concern Itzkoff raises in the quotation above. In order to achieve their goals DC must appeal to new readers, while simultaneously avoiding alienating their notoriously fickle fans. New readers can't feel lost in a backstory they know nothing about, yet fans likewise, can't be made to feel like their knowledge of the history of their favorite characters is now null and void.
So far this issue, like the relaunch itself, has been met with mixed reviews. Historian Julian Chambliss, who I interviewed here at the blog last month, argued that he didn't think it would attract new readers, contending that, "To create new readers they need to continue to innovate, but I'm not sure innovation is the goal here." Comic Book Resources created a "New Reader Litmus Test" in which they concluded that, "there were only two titles the new readers both understood and said they would voluntarily buy the second issue of: "Detective Comics," and "Action Comics." Certainly not the results DC were hoping for. 
I do think that there is a chance for DC to be successful even if they are not able to find an exact equilibrium between old and new readers. First, in many of the books I read, such as Swamp Thing (which I reviewed for popmatters, check it out here), it appeared the creators had taken a layered-approach to their story. I enjoyed the book because it linked back to the Alan Moore run from the 80's that I loved so much, but I think it did it in such a way that new readers wouldn't have even noticed that there was something they were missing. There were subtle cues that fans would pick up on, but simultaneously nothing that would necessarily have a new reader scratching their head. 
Additionally I think DC might be successful simply because they have generated enough enthusiasm - particularly with the success and ubiquity of superhero movies - that might carry new readers over any continuity learning-curves they might encounter. I have spoke to retailers who said they have a lot of customers new to comics who are excited about the prospect of getting into the medium, and today while waiting for my local comic store to open I spoke to a couple of people who said they were coming here for the first time to pick up the new books. Hopefully, that enthusiasm will keep them reading long enough to hook 'em.
But will it work? And will it breathe new life into the paper side of the industry or is it ushering a new era of digital comics? What do you think?











Saturday, August 6, 2011

Comic Con On MP3

For those who didn't get a chance to go to Comic Con this year and are interested in hearing some of the panels on the digital impact on the comic book world check out these MP3's brought to you by the folks at TheComicBooks.com

Friday, July 29, 2011

Post Comic Con Report and An Interview With Comic Scholar Julian Chambliss!

Digital comics and the future of the medium were very much on the minds of people within the comic book world at this year's San Diego Comic Con. There were multiple panels dedicated to the changing marketplace with  publishers, retailers, creators, and fans expressing their hopes and concerns about the coming years. The collapse of the Borders book chain - with one of the now-closed book stores less than a mile from the convention center - seemed an ominous start to the week. Sadly, I was only able to visit the con for a day and a half so the only discussion I went to was, "Are Comic Books Doomed," - a panel hosted by critic Douglas Wolk. The panel, which included Mark Waid, reps from Comics Pro and the Comic Alliance, as well as an independent publisher, was interesting but an hour isn't really enough time to go to in-depth. Most of the discussion was centered around Waid expressing concern that it is now harder for independent creators to break into the medium and the rep from the Comics Alliance arguing that concerns about the industry's future were a little overstated.  

So with little to report from the con I thought now would be the perfect time to publish a recent interview I did with a colleague of mine, Dr. Julian Chambliss. There is a brief bio at the bottom of this post, but just to provide a little background: I first met Julian when he organized a section on Comic Book History for the Florida Conference of Historians where I presented a paper at a panel he moderated. Since then Julian has joined the staff at Popmatters where he has contributed several excellent articles, and is currently editing an anthology of essays - including one by me - on comic history. As both a scholar and a giant fanboy, I thought his perspective on the future of the industry would be an invaluable addition to this blog. Enjoy and please feel free to comment!

What first got you into comics? When did you decide to dedicate a portion of your academic career to the study of this often neglected medium? 

I have been a comics fan since childhood.  I wrote my first academic paper about comic books as an undergraduate.  I didn't seriously think about doing more substantive work centered on comics until I began looking for ways to engage my students in urban history. From my perspective, superhero comics in the United States are an urban topic, so they are way to hook students.

As a comic book fan and collector what are your thoughts on the digital direction the medium appears to be heading in? Is there something about comics that is inextricably linked to paper? Do you read comics in a digital format?

I think comics are in the forefront of a digital conversion in print. As such, I believe that it almost inescapable that comics will move to digital publication in greater numbers.  The benefits are obvious, easier to distribute and greater opportunity for creators and publishers to push and develop product.  I think the natural instinct is to believe that paper has a unique place in our reading experience.  Yet, for many young readers, I think paper is a secondary experience. I think print will survive, but that print version will be a high end product and digital will be the common place format.  I don't know that we will "lose" anything, but I understand the reaction that the new way is not as good as the old. From a historical standpoint, it is a common reaction.  I read comics in print, 90% of the time, but I also read them in digital format.  I have taken advantage of Marvel's deal with Starbucks to read back issues and I look forward to reading comics on the iPad.

Do you think that the medium influences the message? For example do you think that DC's recent decision to relaunch their titles is connected to the new customers being wooed through their digital platform? Would they be doing this if they were only trying to maintain their current Wednesday readership?
There is no question in my mind that the move toward digital is about expanding the readership for superhero comics.  It is important to be specific. Superhero comics have increased their profits in recent years, but that profitability is built on event driven stories, superstar writer and/or artist, and license properties.  In many ways, the "old" model of kids loving comics is not strong enough to sustain the comic industry in an era of multimedia digital entertainment. With superhero comic readers getting older, publishers need to find ways to entice customers to try comics.  Moving to digital model put the products in front of more customers. For better or worst, the established comic customer is not driving this conversion. Superhero comics are, by definition, a destination purchase. The buyer goes out of his or her way to acquire the newest releases.  They often do this by traveling out of their way.  They go to a place that is socially and culturally marginalized.  They are doing this because they know all of this, and they don't care.  The comic book shop is a retail space catering to established customers and the person, driven by interest to seek it out.  If the average comic fan's shop closes, they will go to another shop.  It is unlikely they will stop buying comics.  They are dependable consumer of the product.  Digital is not about those readers or retailers. It is about the new customer, the marginal customer, and the curious customer.  If Captain America's Essentials were a digital download for 9.99 on July 22nd to mark the opening of Captain America in theaters, how many people would download it?  I don't know, but if every trailer mentioned that the deal was available for everyone with iPhone or iPad, I can't imagine it hurting business.  This is the fundamental truth driving digital convergence.  If you lose one diehard customer converting to digital, the odds are you will pick up one diehard digital subscriber, plus a few quarterly customers, someone interested in the back catalog, and who knows how many one time purchasers.  If you don't convert to digital, you will keep one person, but loose the opportunity at many more.  I think this is the logic that drives digital. The fact that DC announced the same price for digital and print is understandable. They don't want to alienate the established retail system. Still, the nature of the digital distribution makes the future look bleak for the 
established model.
Do you think that there a long-term roll for comic book stores now that people can download comics from home onto their digital devices? 


I do think there is a future for the comic shop. Comic shops can strive if they look upon themselves as curatorial service. There are more to comics than meets the eye, having someplace where you can go and immerse yourself in the culture is welcomed opportunity for many people. Superhero comics are the iconic face of sequential art, but far from the only example.  Comics shops defined by "geek" as outsider need to evolve to see themselves as nexus of a global pop culture.  Comics are the kaleidoscopic point in modern culture. Referential and innovative, we recognize comics as an art form, but we are still embarrassed by the superhero. If comic shops are to survive, they need to "open up" embrace all aspect represented in the form. 
The joy of comics is sometimes the joy of cataloging
What happens to collecting in a digital world?

Do you think that these changes to the medium can be good for comics? While some fans and collectors might be "left behind," do you think that this represents a necessarily step towards greater societal acceptance and decreased marginalization that will ultimately help legitimize comics and bring in more money? If not, why? If so, do you think that this is a type of betrayal of the fans who kept the medium alive during it's decades on the periphery of popular culture? 

I think this is great time for comic fans. For all the uncertainty associated with changes in the distribution system, the content found on comic pages is fantastic. No matter the genre, you can find a standout example in comics.  The emergence of transmedia means that creative minds can (and do) rely on the comic form to engage with the audience as part of a larger business model. Often seen as exploitative, comics are at the center of search for product to feed global entertainment market.  This process allows relatively small comics to become the source material for films (WANTED, RED) and television (Walking Dead),  At the same time, independent creators can and do find an audience with passion projects.  I think more people find comics everyday through the films and television with comic roots.  Indeed, people are always asking me about comics to read. They don't want to read superheroes, but I can direct them to FABLES, NORTHLANDERS, and MORNING GLORIES and they do enjoy those books.  While superheroes struggle with an identity defined by adolescence anxiety, comics as a genre are caught in a space where elite knowledge give you assess to a diverse landscape unknown to the masses.  At some level, the emergence of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and DC's turn toward the same effort will heighten this disconnect.   As a result, the marginalization associated with comics will persist as long a superhero garner so much media attention. Superheroes are linked to a regressive outlook. If you are reading comics at 35, you are trying to recapture your childhood. No other literature you discover in youth and return to faces the same kind of scrutiny. If you read Catcher in the Rye when you were 15 and came back to it at 35, no one would question you. If you read Green Arrow/Green Lantern in 1973 and went looking for it now because you saw the trailer for Green Lantern, people would ask you why...that is a problem of perception, not content.

For comic fans, the coming years will be difficult. I don' think we need  to worry about the death of comics, but a new model of distribution is going to take hold and this model will wipe away comic shops unable to adapt.  Is this a betrayal?  No, it is no different than the man who made buggy whips when the Model A arrived.  He was out of business because the technology made his product useless.  The comic shop as we know it is under stress, but a new shop will emerge that give people the support for products related to comics.  Indeed, I suspect limited editions print will become a new high end product in an era of digital distribution.  The ABSOLUTE JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA by Geoff Johns and Jim Lee will fetch a considerable, especially if the number of print copies is limited. This will actually heighten the value of print, sparking a new age of collectibles (perhaps).


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Julian C. Chambliss is associate professor of history at Rollins College in Winter Park, FL. His teaching and research focus on urban history and culture in the United States.  His recent publications have appeared in Pennsylvania History: A Journal of Mid-Atlantic Studies, Specs: A Journal of Arts & Culture, Studies in American Culture, Georgia Historical Quarterly, Journal of Urban History, and Florida Historical Quarterly. Check out his website here.

(Incompetent Editor's Note: Sorry about all the weird boxes around some of the interivew. Not quite sure how to get rid of it.)