DC Comics’ Digital Future

on Tuesday, Jun. 14th

DC Comics, home to Batman and Superman, made headlines in the mainstream press recently by annoucing that they would be relaunching their entire line of superhero comics, starting with 52 new #1 issues this September.

It’s a bold move that sent comic book fans and industry watchers into a tailspin. DC kept it vague, with a trickle of mixed messages — official and rumor alike — that left many fans at first with more questions than answers. Was this a complete reboot of the line? Would recent stories be in continuity?

That second question is the real sticking point. Continuity — or the collective history of a character — is extremely important to long time comics fans. In many ways, superhero comics are, for their hardcore fans, the equivalent of long running soap operas. Part of the enjoyment comes from knowing the intricate relationships that exist between the various characters. “Reboot” — meaning the restarting of a character’s history — and “retcon” — short for retroactive continuity, which means altering the character’s backstory to fit the current story’s needs — are two of the most feared and derided terms in comics.

If you made it this far, congratulations, you’ve earned yourself a No-Prize.

It is this kind of baroque storytelling that many see as an impossible obstacle for attracting new readers, which forms a real dilemma for comic book creators: choose to keep feeding your current audience at the price of making it harder and harder for others to jump on board, or risk alienating current fans while trying to snag a bigger market.

The question, in fact, is if there is a bigger market to snag.

DC Comic’s finds itself in a bind. Their share of the comics market has shrunk considerably in the past few years to their primary rival, Marvel. It’s not so much that Marvel’s share has grown, as it is that DC’s has just withered on the vine. At the same time, DC has been consolidating its braintrust, with their top creators — Jim Lee and Geoff Johns amongst them — working on the successful DC Universe Online game.

Johns and Lee are spearheading the relaunch, the nature of which, thanks in part to the actual solicitations for the comics- has become clearer in the last few days. While there will be some fundamental changes to the history of the DC Universe, they won’t be as extensive as some had feared. For a while it looked like Superman and the other heroes were going to be “de-aged” back to their early 20′s. This wouldn’t be so bad, but hard to explain in a world where Batman still had an 11 year old son by the daughter of his arch nemesis. (No, not The Joker. His other arch nemesis. You know, the one who was in Batman Begins.)

As it turns out, some of the comics — Justice League and Action Comics, for instance– are going to be telling origin stories of the characters while others — e.g. Batman & Robin and Green Lantern– will be continuing variations of their current storylines. Something for everyone. It’s probably worth pointing out that the Batman and Green Lantern comics are DC’s top sellers, and it would be total economic suicide to trash those plotlines. Something has to keep the fanboys — and I include myself in that number — coming back week after week into the comic book shops.

Until we don’t need to, at least.

Because the other part of the DC relaunch is a change in the way that their digital comics are sold. Right now DC has an iOS, Android, and web app run by Comixology that sells digital versions of the comics. For the most part, the digital versions are either of old comics or run a few weeks to a few months behind when they hit the physical stores. If comic book stores are movie theaters, then the Comixology app is Netflix. With the relaunch comes the end of that structure.

DC was experimenting with same day digitial and print releases, and it looks like they liked what they saw. Now every comic in the DCU line will be released in both formats for the same price. Four weeks later, the price on the digital comic drops by a dollar, from $2.99 (for most comics) to $1.99.

Now here’s the big catch: what happens when the digital version of a comic priced at $1.99 does enough business to sustain the title while the print version flops? Will DC drop the physical copy and let the series continue on in digital form only, waiting to publish physical copies only in trade paperback form?

It’s a possibility few, if any, are talking about.

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