Amazon's Jet City Comics: Digital media hero or zero?



After years of selling other people's comics and graphic novels, Amazon (NASDAQ:AMZN) is now publishing its own. This week the online commerce giant launched Jet City Comics, a new imprint kicking off with Symposium #1, an original digital title spinning out of The Foreworld Saga, an alternative history book franchise created by fantasy authors including Neal Stephenson and Greg Bear. Original adaptations of the George R.R. Martin short story "Meathouse Man" and Hugh Howey's science fiction novel Wool will follow in October. According to Amazon, Jet City releases will be offered as standalone comics optimized for Kindle e-readers and Kindle Fire tablets, as serialized comics released over multiple episodes and as bundled graphic novels, with eventual print editions sold via the Amazon site and other comics retailers.

From a content standpoint, Jet City Comics looks like it will offer little more than standard genre fare: Symposium #1 is a by-the-numbers fantasy comic that does almost nothing to generate enthusiasm for other titles in the pipeline. But Amazon is the world's largest online retailer, which offers Jet City some distinct advantages. For example, consumers browsing for titles from established imprints like Marvel, DC, Dark Horse and Fantagraphics can now expect Amazon's signature product recommendation engine to urge them to add Jet City publications to their shopping cart, too. Product merchandising and marketing are what Amazon does best, after all.

It's Amazon's continued emergence as a digital multimedia powerhouse that makes Jet City Comics most intriguing, however, and promises to set it apart from competing efforts. Digital comics are nothing new: DC and Marvel continue making inroads into the space, and digital-first publishers like Thrillbent and MonkeyBrain are attracting increasing notice from readers and critics. But only Amazon develops and sells its own e-readers and tablets, which opens up a host of new possibilities for how digital comics are created and consumed. Unlike comics written and drawn for print publication then translated to digital, Jet City titles are optimized expressly for Kindle devices, meaning creators could directly integrate interactive features as storytelling tools--for example, callbacks to previous plot points could link to relevant scenes from past issues. Creators also could enhance the reading experience by including bonus content like character design sketches, video commentaries or mini-games, all accessible in a single click.

Jet City Comics additionally could tie in with Amazon's other original content efforts, like its fledgling video series initiatives as well as sibling publishing units like 47North, Thomas & Mercer and Two Lions. It could even cross over with Amazon Gaming Studios, which launched late last year with the free Air Patriots for Kindle Fire, Apple's (NASDAQ:AAPL) iOS and Google's (NASDAQ:GOOG) Android. And because they are Amazon-owned publications designed for Amazon-owned devices, Jet City releases won't have to grapple with hardware integration issues, platform fragmentation, etc.

Amazon is still putting together the various pieces of its digital media empire, so it's too early to predict exactly where Jet City Comics fits into its master plan. But it's clear that the company is uniquely positioned to usher in a different, richer kind of digital comic and promote it in ways no other publisher can match. Those bells and whistles may not matter unless the comics are worth reading, of course--and it's still too early to predict that, too.--Jason