Like a lot of print publications, comic books are in trouble. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t expect Marvel or DC to go belly-up anytime soon, especially since they both have a stable of licensable characters and are owned by much bigger companies. I am more concerned about the fate of individual comic book issues which you buy off the shelf.
The economics of comic books are broken in the digital era. The problem is that the costs associated with printing comic books continue to rise. As readership declines, this increased cost is passed on to the consumer via increased cover prices.
Unfortunately, these cover prices can only go so high before they drive consumers away. Looking over the comics I picked up this month, the majority are $2.99 while a few are $3.99. This seems a little pricey for a mere twenty-two pages of entertainment!
I will admit that if the price point hits $4.99 I will probably bail out on comics altogether. As it is, I have cut back on what comic books I read considerably.
The people in the comic book industry are not idiots. They are aware that price point is a problem and have been trying different tactics to fix the issue. DC has been placing eight page backups in certain titles, allowing them to charge a little extra while increasing the perceived value. Marvel has started a subscription based digital comic service which allows customers to read any title on the service, which is not their full line, for $9.99 a month (less if you pay annually).
One potential solution that both Marvel and DC have dabbled in is releasing titles as motion comics. A motion comic is similar to full-fledged animation, except that it relies heavily on static images against moving backgrounds. This gives the illusion of motion without incurring the cost of fully animating it. If you want to see an example, check out the Spider-Woman motion comic preview.
Late last year, DC released the Watchmen motion comic on DVD, on X-Box live, and on iTunes to help generate buzz around the Watchmen movie. Marvel has been a bit more aggressive on this front, releasing Spider-Woman to iTunes at the same time as it hits the stands. More importantly, at $1.99 an episode or $8.99 for a “season”, it is selling for less money that its physical counterpart.
Despite this, I feel that motion comics will continue to be a niche market. Standing uncomfortably between animation and comic books, I don’t feel they will appeal to a broad enough market to justify the cost of making them. Its true that they undoubtedly cost less than traditional animation since they are reusing art created for the comic.
Unfortunately, I feel that this very fact will prevent them from being an adequate replacement for paper comics. Right now, the creative costs are shared between the paper and digital version of the comic. If the motion comic had to shoulder the full cost by itself, I imagine the profit margin would clear up pretty quickly.
I will admit that there is a lot of curiosity about Spider-Woman motion comic at the moment. However, this seems to be because of the novelty of releasing the motion comic concurrently with the traditional comic.
The question then becomes, if motion comics are not the future of comic books, then what is the future? I foresee a couple of possibilities:
One is that traditional comic books will become like most web comics, free online but supported by ads. This may be unlikely in the short term (i.e., in the next five years), but in the long term it is not as far-fetched as you might think. After all, characters like Batman or Spider-Man are much more valuable a licensable characters than as comics nowadays. If it comics cease to become economically viable to produce, generating mindshare for the characters may trump other concerns. Not to mention that the big names will probably not have issues finding advertisers to support them.
Another option may be an iTunes like model. Illegal file-sharing of CBR files is rampant on torrent sites. As I have mentioned before, this kind of rampant file sharing means there is an interest in your product, just that consumers feel that the price is disproportionate to the value. iTunes has proven that it is possible to enter a market where piracy is rampant by providing a reasonably priced legal alternative.
Of course, this all assumes they don’t cripple their future digital offerings with overly onerous DRM!