Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Marvel's Failed Digital Transition

Marvel's push toward a more digital product and marketplace seems to forget what makes reading (and buying) comics so much fun in the first place. ♦

Cracked concrete, gray paint, and a sun-faded storefront poster of the X-Men greet my arrival at Queen City Comics in Cincinnati. Staple titles of the Golden and Silver Ages cling to the walls and shimmer like Fabergé eggs. An extensive back-catalogue sits patiently in tidy rows of white boxes, waiting for your fingers to comb through their plastic cases. Dotting a far wall are posters and stacks of current titles. In a far corner, owner Geoff Hoffmann is nestled between shelves of trading cards. An almost thick smell of paper and ink coats the air.
       The digital marketplace has absolutely no equivalent to the sensory experience of walking into a place like this.
       Marvel, however, seems to have forgotten about the beauty and allure of brick-and-mortar comic shops. Misreading the true desires of fans, Marvel has taken a definitive stance for digital in its future plans; Marvel Unlimited, the "preferred (and only) subscription-based comics reading app for fans of Spider-Man, Iron Man, and Captain America,” is the most obvious indication of Marvel’s future focus on digital comics. In a recent panel at South by Southwest, the technology festival in Austin, Texas, Marvel stressed its digital plans by revealing an improved Marvel Unlimited app. This app, according to Kristin Vincent, vice president of Marvel’s digital products, seeks to expand the realm of digital comics by incorporating audio and improving usability.
     “[T]ransitions from one panel to the next are faster and smoother," Vincent told the auditorium, "there's now adaptive audio, and Marvel AR's DVD-style extras are now included in its digital comics for the first time.” Vincent furthermore claimed that this shift from physical comics into digital, and what digital can do, has an ultimate goal of making a better product: “We wanted to figure out how we could tell stories in new ways.”
       Which seems laudable for a company like Marvel to want to pursue, if indeed the changes are meant to better the work. Though it also overlooks a pretty important point: a shift to digital seems to be the exact opposite of what Marvel fans actually want.

Following a brief e-mail interaction with Geoff Hoffman, I meet him in his comic book haven for an interview. Having never bought a digital comic himself, Hoffman admits he's “not quite sure what [Marvel is] even offering” with digital subscriptions. That a man devoted to the business of comics selling has trouble figuring out what the business plan actually is speaks volumes; in fact, Marvel has failed so miserably to capture its core comic audience that their digital comics have not had a noticeable effect on the sales of ink-based comics. “Most of the people, at least our customer base, have no interest [in digital comics]," Hoffman says, "or they've done it and don’t like it. They would much rather have the book in their hands.
Geoff Hoffman, Owner, Queen City Comics
       "[N]othing that we've seen leads us to believe that [Marvel’s transition to digital comics has] been particularly successful for them. They say it’s been successful, but they’re not offering any numbers to support that.”
       Which is not to say there's not at least some customer curiosity about digital content. Christopher Schlegel, a Marvel fan who “probably [owns] about one thousand to one thousand-five-hundred [comics],” thinks that “any shortcomings in [Marvel’s] success are probably due to advertising.” While Schlegel’s buying habits have not changed because of digital comics, he has viewed digital comics through the free trials offered on publishers' websites, though he's "never purchased a digital comic.” But, unlike Hoffmann, he can imagine himself one day subscribing to digital comics: “It would be a major boost to convenience, since some of my local [comic] shops have stopped carrying comics.”
       Convenience alone, however, may not be strong enough to change the foundation of comics for many . . . a physical product purchased at a physical marketplace, and linked to that experience. Those who are at least interested in digital, like Schlegel, have likely already sought them out, while the large number of those who prefer paper comics will stick to their previous habits. As Hoffman points out, “[M]ost people buying comics now have been buying them since the only way you could get them was to actually buy [a] physical comic, so that’s what they want.”
       There's also the fact that ink-based comics create an experience that can’t be replicated through digital means, if we consider a comic book to be more than words and sequential art. What makes reading a comic both unique and satisfying? “You know, it’s everything . . . it’s the letters page, it’s the ads, it’s everything kind of rolled into one. It’s more than just looking at panels and reading them,” Hoffman says.
   And of course an integral part of this experience is actually walking into a comic store and browsing, leading to a sense of community that isn't attainable through the internet or a digital marketplace.
       "Let’s say the book that you read is The Superior Spider-Man," Hoffman posits, "and every week, or every other week, you pick it up and you go over to the rack and there’s your Superior Spider-Man, two books down from it is a new Image book, or a Superman book that looks interesting. You’re exposed to other products, and it may not be what you normally read […] You know, when you go to Marvel’s website and you buy your Superior Spider-Man every week, you’re not exposed to anything else or anybody else. I’m sure they’re going to be pushing other Marvel products, but, you know, it’s kind of tunnel vision."
       This “tunnel vision” does not truly allow a full appreciation for comics or all they can accomplish. 
       Perhaps another part of the problem is that Marvel seems to have forgotten, at least at the moment, what actually matters for a comic: Good stories and good art. By focusing on unnecessary additions to comics such as the previously mentioned audio features, Marvel has detracted from their actual products.
       "It’s at a real low-point right now," Hoffman says, "at least as far as content goes. Both Marvel and DC are putting out sub-par books to put them out as cheaply as possible, and, you know, they’d rather not get particularly good writers or artists so that they can get to crank the stuff out for them."
       Christopher Schlegel, overall, agrees with the state of Marvel’s writing and is “on a brief hiatus in purchases” from Marvel comics. Though he admits the writing issues aren't “entirely their fault,” he says the direction of Marvel Comics has made for underdeveloped characters and writing: "[Marvel] started to get really heavy on crossovers, which meant maybe one story arc between the crossovers, so there wasn't [as much] opportunity for character development outside solo books."
       There may come a time when digital comics replace physical comics entirely, but if the obvious issues surrounding Marvel’s output in both physical and digital content provide any clue to the future, the transition is far beyond the horizon.
     “Will digital eventually wipe out print?" Hoffmann asks. "Yeah, it’s possible. [But] I don’t think it will happen in your or my lifetime.”   
  • About the Author
    Sean Scheer has been known to call himself a writer and avid reader. He may or may not endlessly watch Star Trek reruns and old foreign films when boredom and writer’s block converge. He may or may not desperately need an additional bookshelf in the name of fire safety.

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