A Few Notes On Marvel Comics’ Digital Strategy

June 30th, 2011 | comics talk

Marvel Comics’ digital-comics strategy is that… they don’t seem to have one, really. Full disclosure — I’m on work-for-hire exclusive to them until the end of the year. But they’re all used to me moaning at them anyway.

Marvel may now be owned by Disney, but you can be damned sure attention is still paid to their quarterly reports. And it’s hard to keep your lines buoyant when everything else in your business is a constant fight against diminishing returns. I personally believe that taking much of the print line to a sales point of $3.99 will defeat growth in the print sector. I know they’re doing it to protect themselves, but I think it’s going to hurt in the long run.

Are they then, like DC, looking to digital as a way to increase reach? Well… not yet. I believe they have done some original digital comics. (By which I mean company-owned Marvel comics created for digital-first release.) But I’m not sure there was any great plan to their release. One of the things I like about Marvel is that they move pretty fast and are capable of an entirely random “hey, let’s do this thing for five minutes” move. The whole Marvel Architects cascade-of-events structure they do these days are frankly as organised as Marvel’s ever been on the macro-scale.

Their digital store, then, is a big back-issue bin, with the occasional experiment in day-and-date simultaneous release in print and digital. They’re unlikely to go line-wide day-and-date like DC unless DC’s numbers are explosively successful and stay that way for six months — in digital AND print. Right now, Marvel own the comics stores in terms of dollar sales and market share, and probably see no compelling reason to risk a dilution of those figures. Those figures look good on quarterly reports. And that’s not a knock against Marvel, just an observation of the reality of their business life.

All that said: I can conceive of a point where there’s pressure on them to do something more with their digital store. And also, pressure to do less. I recently noted that if I, say, wanted to buy the first part of Walt Simonson’s THOR run (in my case, because I wanted to remind myself of some of Simonson’s tricks in page design), I couldn’t buy a digital edition of the collection in question. I had to buy it as single issues in digital form. Which suggests to me that, somewhere, someone decided they didn’t want Marvel Digital to be seen as affecting bookstore sales. That would seem to me to be a cautious shuffle too far, and possibly indicative of conflicts ahead.

I am looking to Marvel to do more original material for digital. They’ve done it before, there’s obviously a system in place to make it happen, they can reprint in trade paperback, and it’ll make a good business narrative. It’s the march they can steal on DC, it doesn’t screw with their print market share, and it fits Marvel’s profile better.

It could make for interesting times in the commercial medium.

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