So at Heroes Con this weekend, the Longbox was revealed. The popular analogy of the moment is that it’s like iTunes, but for comics — that is, it will serve both as a platform for companies to distribute their comics for download and as the software consumers would use to read their downloaded comics.
I’ve written about the idea of digital distribution of comics before, but had only considered a web-based platform because that was what most companies seemed to be experimenting with at the time. And really, I think one of the other reasons I hadn’t considered the iTunes model before is because I couldn’t really see the comics (or manga) industry ever agreeing on a universal solution, especially considering how haphazard and all over the place everyone’s digital model is for anime and television streams and downloads. And yet, how convenient and elegant it would be if they could agree? If you could find all your comics in one place for the super cheap price of $0.99/issue? It’s just about perfect.
With all the comics inflation that’s been happening recently, the price point of the Longbox might be the most attractive feature for both consumers and companies. Marvel has raised its most popular titles from $2.99/issue to $3.99/issue. For me, the three bucks I’d save buying a digital version is well worth sacrificing the novelty of a hard copy, especially when those three bucks add up every Wednesday. I could use that extra money to buy more comics! For graphic novels, if we go by prices set by various current web-models, they might go for anywhere between $2.50 and $4.50 a volume — at least half the price of Viz’s new $9.99 standard and TOKYOPOP’s $10.99. And for companies, since there would be zero printing costs, and since the Longbox supports formats already being used, it isn’t unlikely that they’d see an even bigger profit margin from digital sales.
A lot of people already read comics digitally, whether legally or illegally, so I really don’t think that transition will be much of an issue here. With money tight in everyone’s pocket’s these days, it’s hard to argue tradition with cost, and the publishing industry in general has been declining for a while. When Amazon’s Kindle 2 released in February, my feed reader was bombarded with Slashdot and New York Times articles comparing its surging popularity with that of Apple’s iPod with further comparisons with the music industry in general. And indeed, there do seem to be a lot of similarities, including telltale mistakes. The Longbox does seek to interface with the Kindle, as well as the score of other experimental eReaders like the iPhone, WiiWare, DS, and Xbox Live. The graphic format of comics might make it more challenging to adapt than text, but at this point, I see its acceptance as inevitable, at the very least on computer screens.
The last thing is, of course, content. A few studios are already on board, but no one major yet (ie, no Marvel or DC or Dark Horse, no Viz or TOKYOPOP). I am hoping that this will change soon as news of the Longbox makes its way around. Really, I don’t see any reason for it to fail once the major players sign on — iTunes is a proven success, and I don’t think comics or comics consumers are all that different from music and music consumers. Such a dramatic shift to digital comics will be hard on a lot of people and there will be casualties in the process (comic stores that don’t host D&D games will be the first to go), but as Ron Richards over at iFanboy dramatically puts it, “Digital comics are inevitable. Change or Die.”