Value Added Comics

To be absolutely honest, I took a week off from writing this column because I couldn’t come up with anything new to say about comics. And frankly, I think I was still stuck on the subject of Platinum Studios blithely announcing they had the new model for the comic book industry: the Internet.

And though I mightily resisted, the more I thought about it the more I think they’re right. I know this will sound like heresy but you know what The Marvel should have done when faced with the fact Civil War #4 would ship six weeks late and cause endless headaches for readers and retailers?

They should have published it online. For free.

As I said last time, people have amply demonstrated their willingness to buy copies of movies, television shows and music they can download off of the Internet for free, so why shouldn’t it be the same for comics? Frankly, I don’t think publishing Civil War #4 online first would have affected its direct sales much, if at all.

The Internet is most often cited as a reason for declining comic book sales, but it can also be an incredible sales tool for comics, not that the industry is doing much with it at the moment. In a previous column I coined the pithy phrase “antiquated as an apothecary” to describe the current sorry state of the modern comic book, and nowhere is that more evident than when it comes to the Marvel, DC, Dark Horse and Image websites.

Sure, Marvel and DC regularly supply us with new superhero wallpaper, and Marvel and Image sporadically post some of their older comics online (though except for some pages from 52, DC has one exactly one of its comics posted; a 10-plus-year-old copy of Batman Adventures #1), but that’s about it. Pretty and kinetic, Marvel’s is the best; the worst being Dark Horse’s which seems to just sit there sulking. But where’s the stuff? The cheese? The “plus value”?

(That’s another phrase you’re going to need for the next decade: “plus value” a.k.a. “value added,” the notion you give your customer something extra to cut through the clutter of any number of other products on which they could be spending their money. DVD extras are probably the perfect example of Plus Value.)

Nowhere. The major publishers continue to adhere to an archaic business model, guarding their actual comics as if they were fissionable material–probably a combination of fear of giving away something for nothing and the palpable paranoia that illegal downloading of their comics will somehow decrease their value. Readers get to see covers and five- or six-page previews of a handful of titles while retailers can go to the Diamond Website and see upcoming issues (though we’re scolded to “keep this to yourselves”). In general the attitude remains, “This ain’t a library, kid.”

Now television is a good example of a medium that grudgingly accepted a new upstart medium and its technologies and used them to their advantage. Like television once threatened the movies, television was threatened by the Internet; the networks were losing their precious eyeballs to someone else and they went after them–hard.

When they first learned people were illegally downloading their programs they howled, “You’re taking bread out of our mouths! Do you want to see us starving in the streets?” Literally six months ago they were still making vociferous arguments that people couldn’t/wouldn’t/shouldn’t ever be allowed to download any of their content for free.

Like when the Internet went crazy over the Saturday Night Live digital short Lazy Sunday (where a pair of white guys gangsta rapped about eating cupcakes and going to see The Chronicles Of Narnia). It was the best advertising SNL, long considered passe by the young audience they coveted, could have hoped for, but NBC’s first reaction was to try and stop the sites from showing the clip.

Now it seems like every prime time network show ends with an urgent plea to go online and visit its Website. There you might listen to music, examine close-ups of clues from this weeks CSI, read a blog of a popular fictional character, or even watch a video preview of next week’s episode.

But now there’s a lot more than that. “Like this weeks episode?” an announcer purrs, “Then go online and watch it again!” Even stranger to me is the notion of the “two-minute replay,” which is essentially an online highlight reel of this week’s episode you can watch if you’re too busy to watch the whole thing. Heck, this week comic books shops were provided with copies of a free DVD which had a 45 minute retelling of the first two seasons of Battlestar Galactica to help prepare those coming in for the new season.

I keep seeing commercials for baseball cards where there’s an online code on the package kids can enter on the company’s Website to receive something free. Kids watching Saturday morning cartoons are now regularly harassed to go online to a Website where they play games based on the shows and earn points so they can “buy” extra content, etc. And weeklies like Newsweek and Entertainment Weekly not only provide online versions of their magazines you can access for free, there’s also exclusive extra material you can only get online.

Compare the comic book to these examples and you can see the consumer isn’t getting much value for their money. But it’s not too late; there are some (relatively inexpensive) things publishers can do to turn this boat around. I’ll go into them next time.