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POW! Online comic books start to pull fans to the Web

Online comic books offer a more immersive experience, even as collectors savor hard copies.

By Matthew ShaerCorrespondent / April 23, 2010

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Last month an online auction house here unloaded a 1938 issue of Action Comics for $1.5 million, the highest sum ever fetched for a single comic book. The sale of Action Comics No. 1, which features the debut of a handsome, caped hero named Superman, was widely touted as proof of the health of the collectible market – and the lengths to which die-hard collectors will go to obtain mint-condition copies of their favorite comics. It was also a chance to honor that increasingly endangered species: the pulp-and-paper comic.

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In the past year, the comic-book industry has begun to lurch away from its roots in print publishing, and toward a future where the majority of comics fans will consume them online. Already, Marvel Entertainment and DC Comics, the two leading comics houses, offer many titles on the Web, either through subscription services or, in the case of DC, a sprawling alternative Web comics site. Marvel has made comics available for the Sony PlayStation Portable platform and the Apple iPhone; independent publisher Image Comics allows readers to read some books online free of charge.

"We are at an incredible point in time, where there's this massive shift in how people are consuming comic books," says Gareb Shamus, the founder and CEO of the comics magazine Wizard. "That cumbersome process – creating a product, printing it, shipping it; that worked for a very long time. But with the ease of access on the digital side, the barriers are getting broken down."

Like many analysts, Mr. Shamus sees the Apple iPad, the tablet device released on April 3, as an industry game changer. The iPad is a natural fit for comics – the 9.7-inch LED screen approximates the size of a paper book, and the iPad's Internet and 3G connectivity mean that consumers will be able to download titles on the go. A range of publishers and third-party developers have lined up to create content for the iPad, including Marvel, which will sell hundreds of iPad-ready comics for $1.99 a pop, and Panelfly, a kind of mobile clearing house for digitized comic books.

Meanwhile, a company called Graphic.ly recently announced it would release an application making it easy for users to annotate and trade comments on their favorite online titles. Graphic.ly bills itself as "an immersive social experience" built around comic books – in other words, a Facebook or MySpace for people who would rather discuss story arcs and the color of Batman's spandex than the restaurant they visited last night.

"As tablet-, slate-type devices become more ubiquitous," they will make comics "more intimate, more immersive and immediate," says Jim Lee, a top artist and the publisher of WildStorm, an imprint of DC Comics. "By 'immersive and immediate,' I mean to the degree readers will be able to dive deeply or broadly into content on a whim. So if you love this story by creators X and Y featuring these DC characters, these devices will be able to locate and suggest the next best, most similar, thing."

In many ways, the comics industry today resembles the record industry at the dawn of the 21st century: a business stuck selling physical products at a time when more and more consumers want an online experience. Although comics publishers have ostensibly embraced the Web, the pace of digitization remains slow, and the vast majority of new titles aren't available online until several months after the official release date. At the same time, the prices of print titles continue to climb. As a result, piracy is rife – a sizable contingent of readers have turned to file-sharing services, where they can immediately and illegally download PDFs of all the latest books.

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