It’s a question every comic book publisher is thinking: Will digital save the day?
On paper, literally and figuratively, the American comic book’s past looks brighter than its future. The question now is whether the medium’s classic approach to sequential storytelling with static images can leap off the page and become a pixel proposition in a major way. DC Entertainment is counting on it, and its executives say the launch Tuesday of a new storefront on Amazon.com is a milestone moment on the path to that downloadable future. Digital versions of 100 graphic novels and collections such as “Watchmen,” “Batman: Year One” and Neil Gaiman’s “Sandman” stories are now available exclusively via Amazon for its first color e-reader, the Kindle Fire, which arrived in November.
The deal and the ramp-up to the storefront has stirred curiosity, controversy and competition. When word spread that Amazon’s device would get a four-month window of exclusivity for those 100 digital graphic novels, angry executives at Barnes & Noble yanked the hardcover and softcover versions of those titles from shelves of their brick-and-mortar stores. That was followed by the announcement of a Marvel deal for Barnes & Noble and its Nook device. It’s all part of the roiling marketplace where comics — which have fallen well below circulation numbers of the medium’s glory decades — search for their place in the pixellated future.
The comics giant DC has been talking with Amazon for about two years, according to Hank Kanalz, DC’s senior vice president of digital. The result of their collaboration is something they’ve dubbed Comic Reader technology. “The resolution is outstanding … and it’s backlit, so the colors really come to life,” Kanalz said.
The screen on the Kindle Fire is a little smaller than 4-by-6 inches — not exactly optimal viewing size for complex, elaborate comic book pages. But DC and Amazon developed some features that they hope will overcome the small screen size. A double tap enlarges the image to 150%, focusing in on one panel at a time. A swipe from right to left whisks the reader from one panel to the next.
A key audience DC hopes to reach with its digital library are new readers, those who haven’t given comic books a try yet or are recently arrived tourists in the medium. There’s cause for optimism — with films such as “The Dark Knight” and the upcoming “Man of Steel.” the DC universe is at the center of a bright Hollywood spotlight — but cynics wonder if a medium with static illustrations and word balloons can compete in an era of Xbox, Pixar, iPhone games and Cartoon Network. To Kanalz, the popularity of competing digital entertainments only spreads the interest in comics; if kids play Arkahm City the game, they’ll want to eventually check out “Arkham Asylum” the book.
DC kept those entry-point readers in mind when selecting the first 100 titles to be offered digitally. Kanalz said they aimed to choose “something for everyone” to appeal to a broad group of those just getting introduced to comic books while also making sure DC’s bestsellers made the list, which includes titles from their DC Comics, Vertigo and MAD imprints.
“We’ve talked a lot about how people try to get their friends [interested in reading comic books]. There’s a standard list people use to get other people involved,” he said.
Don’t expect digital comic books to completely replace paper anytime soon, Kanalz said. DC is looking at the performance of its September revamp effort, The New 52, as proof that digital and print can coexist.
“The results for print and digital for ‘The New 52′ confirmed that digital is definitely additive,” Kanalz said. “I think print is here to stay for comics for a long time.”
— Emily Rome
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