Will day-and-date digital publishing save DC Comics?

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Seventy-six years after DC Comics first hit newsstands with the tabloid-sized New Fun #1 and 73 years after the introduction of Superman ushered in the superhero era, the publisher hit the reset button this week, announcing it will blow up decades of continuity, scrap 52 established titles including Batman, Green Lantern and Wonder Woman, and re-launch all of them from issue #1 in an effort to attract new readers intimidated by the company's long and convoluted history. Specifics are still scarce, but the reboot includes new origins, more contemporary storylines and redesigned costumes for DC's most iconic characters, all rooted in real-world themes and trends.

DC Comics isn't only reimagining the stories it tells--it's revamping how they're marketed and distributed as well. Beginning with the Aug. 31 release of Justice League #1, DC will introduce day-and-date digital publishing for all of its ongoing print titles, beating archrival Marvel Comics to the punch. "We're allowing people who have never bought a comic book in their lives to download them on portable media devices and take a look," DC co-publisher and Justice League artist Jim Lee tells USA Today. "Having the ability to give people access to these comics with one button click means we're going to get a lot of new readers."

Credit DC for doing something to shake up the status quo. Comics sales are in sharp decline--industry analytics website The Comics Chronicle reports that through March 2011, the top 300 titles sold each month totaled 15.51 million copies, down 9 percent year-over-year and down 17 percent compared to five years ago. No doubt accelerating prices deserve a chunk of the blame: The average DC or Marvel title now costs between $2.99 and $3.99 per month--eye-popping numbers given that DC's flagship title Action Comics averaged $1.00 per issue 20 years ago and only 60 cents per issue 30 years ago. Removing paper and printing costs, shipping charges and other traditional expenses from the equation should enable DC to offer digital titles at a significantly lower price--but will it?

DC hasn't revealed a price point for its day-and-date digital publications, but back-catalog titles available for download within the popular comiXology application for iOS average a steep $1.99 per issue, even though some content dates back several decades. If DC is indeed looking to appeal to new readers who've "never bought a comic book in their lives," as Lee indicates, then digital issues should cost substantially less than the printed edition, in much the same way iTunes and AmazonMP3 sell digital versions of new albums at prices far lower than corresponding CD and vinyl releases. But that analogy raises another critical point: Even if digital publishing resuscitates DC Comics, it's likely to kill off traditional brick-and-mortar comic shops in much the same way that digital music retailers and services have threatened brick-and-mortar record stores with extinction. "Digital comics day-and-date is just another step in the digital comic switch," Dean Phillips, owner of Omaha's Krypton Comics, tells comics news site Newsarama. "Next is a couple days early, and then a week early. The final steps are pricing the new comics way less than comic stores and offering exclusives earlier."

None of this matters if the content isn't up to snuff, of course. And the reality is that if DC titles were actually worth reading, comics fans young and old would still devour them, regardless of price or platform. But DC's been in creative freefall for years, and the whole universe-reset approach smacks of last-gasp desperation--if not executed with consummate skill and craftsmanship, it will not only fail to attract new readers but could also drive die-hard fans away, likely for good. The signs aren't positive: Granted, I'm not exactly the target demographic for most of DC's efforts--my comics preferences run more to Love and Rockets than Batman and Robin--but the new costumes depicted in the Justice League preview art are the antithesis of fresh and hip, and it's hard to shake the sense that many of DC's core characters and concepts have simply exhausted their creative possibilities. Nor does it seem like there's a mass audience waiting for the right moment to jump into comic collecting--the massive box office success of feature films like The Dark Knight and Iron Man has done little to jumpstart sales of their source material, suggesting that mainstream audiences love comics characters but not the medium itself.  

By reinventing its storytelling universe at the same time it's revamping its publishing model, DC has almost certainly bitten off more than it can chew. But its best hope for success lies in an even more ambitious undertaking, one that doesn't simply reformat comics for tablets and smartphones but instead aggressively leverages the technological innovations unique to the mobile platform--e.g., one-click access to introductory information on characters and storylines, supplemental materials like original scripts or unpublished art, multimedia content like animated programming, creator podcasts and interviews, etc. In other words, DC needs to go big, because at this point, it can't go home--there's no turning back now. Both DC and Marvel have long promoted narrative turning points and twist endings in the most over-the-top, hyperbolic terms possible, like "The event that changes everything!" Only this time, it's not hyperbole.--Jason

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