comicon crowd

Comic-Con: iPads are mainstream, but there's still digital drama

I’ve been reading comics on and off since I was a kid, and I went to college in San Diego, yet I never attended San Diego Comic-Con International until the release of the iPad. I was drawn by the impact that device would have on the comics industry, and sure enough, over the past five years there’s been massive change.

But the story that drew me to my first Comic-Con is, it seems to me, drawing to an end. The industry freak-outs about how digital comics were going to destroy printed comics and comic shops? They’re gone, by and large. (This doesn’t mean that the industry isn’t changing—just this week a venerable retailer announced it probably wouldn’t return to the show.) The shouting is over and digital comics are just another part of the landscape.

Comic-Con’s calendar used to be populated with panels about the state of digital comics versus printed comics, and what the future would bring. This year it was a nonissue. The most interesting iPad-related session I saw featured Kristy and Brian Miller of Hi-Fi Colour Design demonstrating how you can draw, ink, and paint comics at full quality, entirely using iPad apps such as Autodesk’s Sketchbook Pro, Adobe Ideas, and Savage Interactive’s Procreate.

Turns out iPad isn’t just great for reading comics, it’s great for making them too.

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Comic-Con 2014 crowds.

Comixology controversy

This isn’t to say there aren’t some hot tech topics in the comics industry. Leading digital-comic retailer Comixology had more or less its same booth as in previous years, located at the back of the main trade-show floor. You’d never know from looking at it just what’s happened in the last few months.

First, Comixology was bought by Amazon in April. Then a few weeks later, it summarily abandoned Apple’s in-app purchasing system, forcing iOS users to the Web to buy comics.

Comixology’s CEO David Steinberger, with whom I’ve met at every Comic-Con I’ve attended, understands the controversy, though he generally declines to comment on it. There are more Kindle Fire tablets in the company’s booth, and both Steinberger and his PR chief had new Fire Phones to show off.

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Comixology customers need to buy their comics on the Web before they can read them on an iOS device. 

In fact, Steinberger is now also in charge of Amazon’s digital-comics business, though he’s got nothing to announce on that front. Given Comixology’s relationships with publishers and its superior reading technology, one would assume that Amazon’s digital-comics store would be getting a major upgrade in the future.

It seems unlikely that the iOS Comixology app will ever regain in-app purchases unless Apple changes its rules and allows Amazon to charge customers using its own account system. (On Android and Kindle, in-app purchases continue to work, though Android users must add items to a cart and then check out, rather than instantly purchasing individual items.)

When I asked Steinberger about whether the change in relationship between Comixology and Apple would cool off the company’s iOS development, he responded that it absolutely wouldn’t. “We have some fantastic iOS developers,” he said, and Comixology doesn’t intend to lose them. Of course, Comixology is also still responsible for the development of Marvel and DC’s digital-comics apps, and those still offer in-app purchases of comics.

comixology ceo david steinberger Comixology

Comixology CEO David Steinberger sympathized with my complaints about the iOS app but had no solutions to announce (yet).

Even if you get over the need to go to a web browser to buy comics on iOS—honestly, I was already buying most of my comics via the Web even before the big Apple-Comixology breakup—the removal of purchasing has scarred Comixology’s existing app. The app’s centerpiece, which featured new comics, is gone, and nothing has really replaced it. New purchases from the Web don’t download automatically and aren’t displayed front and center. Large collections are hard to organize. Even aside from the in-app purchase issue, there’s plenty of room for improvement on the Comixology front.

Steinberger acknowledged the criticisms and said Comixology was “acutely aware” that there needed to be improvement, especially in organizing comics. One would hope that team of excellent iOS developers is hard at work addressing many of these concerns—but there was no news on an app update, at least not at Comic-Con.

I still read comics in Comixology every week. But I have to wonder just how hard iOS comics sales have been hit by the removal of in-app purchases. After the show was over, over beers with some friends, I heard several of them say that their Comixology purchases had dropped way off after the change.

The distinguished competition

Meanwhile, Comixology’s changes leave an opening for the competition. During Comic-Con, Apple promoted comic-themed apps on the App Store, and while Comixology was conspicuously omitted, Madefire was prominently displayed.

Though Madefire recently added support for standard print comics, its stock and trade is dynamic comics. Its web-based tools are designed to let comic creators add cinematic flourishes to their storytelling, using motion and audio to create works that simply couldn’t exist on paper.

At Comic-Con Madefire announced an update to its iOS app and the release of its brand-new Android version. The service is also tied in with the deviantArt community of artists, who have full access to Madefire’s tools and can publish their creations directly back to deviantArt.

When I asked Madefire CTO Eugene Walden about the company’s new support for standard print comics, he emphasized that Madefire’s focus remains on dynamic media, but that adding print comics to the catalog allowed artists and publishers to offer a more complete set of products.

Last year, Madefire’s product seemed like an interesting twist that was going to have a tough road against the entrenched Comixology. This year it seems a lot more interesting. I noticed many more references to Madefire this year at Comic-Con when compared to last year, and enthusiasm for Comixology seems muted now that it’s part of the Amazon juggernaut.

On one level that’s understandable, though on another level it’s unfortunate. Amazon’s purchase of Comixology is in many ways its endorsement of the medium as an important one. But given Amazon’s history of playing hardball with book publishers, it’s also possible that the comic publishers are a bit worried that Amazon has them in their sights.

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