The Book, newspaper, and magazine industries are not the only industries that expect the iPad to “save” them. The 9” screen and brilliant color of the iPad make it a natural for reading comic books, too, and one of the applications available for the iPad on launch day was the Marvel comic book reader.

A startup called Panelfly (which we mentioned back in February) is also creating a comic book reader, through which they plan to distribute titles from 50 publishers, including Marvel, Sterling Comics, and Top Cow.

The Marvel app makes 500 back-issue comics available for purchase at a cost of $1.99 each. While the comic publishing industry may have high hopes for this purchase model, both comic fans and comic store owners are markedly ambivalent.

Fans dislike what they see as price-gouging on the part of Marvel:

“I can get back issues from my local shop for $1,” wrote IanX on “Why would I pay $2 to get them online?” Other commenters said comics should cost less when there’s no distribution or paper cost involved.

They note that Marvel’s on-line service (which we covered here) has a monthly subscription rather than charging a la carte.

Comic shop owners are worried about piracy, loss of interaction, and eventually their own obsolescence.

“As far as my business, I think it’s an awful idea,” [Bernie Saavedra, who owns Gotham City Comics in New York]said. “We’re not selling it, we’re not making any money. We’re the retailers who’ve been selling it for what, 70 years? … It’s OK, but it’s destroying an industry that’s already beleaguered.”

BusinessWeek reports that there are only about 3,000 comic book stores in the United States—less than a third of the 10,000 at the height of the 1990s. Comic book publishers hope to extend their sales to places where no comic book store exists, and also to change the perception that comics are just for collectors.

Still, Marvel is going to have an uphill battle selling comics at $2 each, especially as entrenched as comic book piracy has gotten over the last few years. A search for “comic” or “comics” on any BitTorrent search engine, as well as a search for any given comic sitebook character or name, will pull up literally thousands of results: fans scan comics, compile the results into CBR (Comic Book Reader) files, and set them free on the Internet.

Since they generally don’t need to be OCR’d, comics can be processed more quickly and reliably than any prose book. And not only are they “free” to download, but they also come without the crippling DRM that publishers tend to insist their comic books carry.

CBR readers such as CDisplay allow fans to page through the titles on their computers—but since most computer monitors are landscape while comic books are portrait, the experience generally leaves something to be desired. However, reader apps (such as Comic Zeal) on the iPad’s landscape screen could change that, and make CBR downloading more desirable to a number of people.

While publishers like Baen have shown that people will pay a fair price for electronic versions of printed media, the furor over agency pricing has shown that they will get upset when they feel they are being gouged. And in charging $1.99 per issue for what less moral consumers can download on-line for free, I think comic book publishers are going to have a tough time making the sales.

Related: Superman and More: Comics on your E-Reader!


  1. Alas, the comic book shops are toast, just like the mom-and-pop bookstores. I grieve for them, but…

    …but it was the rise of the comic book shops, and changes in distribution, that took comics in the USA out of the eyes of the general public, and hid them away in specialty shops. Before that, comics were in every drugstore and chainstore and supermarket store in spinner racks where lil’ kids could pester their moms to buy them the latest Batman or Donald Duck or Archie.

    At least the rise of tablets and ereaders in color will bring comics back into the eyes of the masses. Barnes & Noble and other bookstore chains do carry the anthologies and hardbound collections, but those don’t habituate the readers to weekly and monthly buying patterns.

    Marvel’s $2/issue for back issues is, like most ‘old publishing’ houses, a grab for extra profits in the iPad land rush. Too bad, that’s a mistake: the comics publishers in particular ought to be seeking to increase their audiences, not profit from the shrinking readership of today. If they want to charge a minimum of $2 (to cover credit card fees and processing fees in-house) it would be far better to sell 3-5 old mags for the price. ‘Buy X for $2, get Y and Z for free!’ should be their mantra.

    Back issues, like first books in series at Baen books, should be just as near to free as the company can sell them, to hook new readers into paying the $2 for current copies going forward.

    — asotir

  2. Agree that the dedicated comic store was a huge mistake for the comic industry. Short term profit maximization at the expense of long-term disaster. Then there was the attempt to make every book a collectible.

    Two bucks sounds like a reasonable price to me–sure you can buy old comics for a buck, but can you buy the ones you want or the ones they have? Plus, you’ve got to find boxes to store them in. With eBooks… well, I think I’ve beaten that horse before.

    Rob Preece

  3. For starters, if anyone should do a first one is free deal, it’s the comics publishers.

    I do think $2 is too much. It’s certainly too much for me. I can read a cinematic-style comic in 10 minutes or less. There are better uses for my entertainment dollars, which is why I don’t read many comics anymore anyway. (And I used to work at a comic shop.)

  4. Even given the progress of digitization, the comics shops can still survive: Many of them can continue to sell a lot of comics-related merchandise (T-shirts, figurines, posters, DVDs, etc) as well as actual comics; there will still probably be a market (however smaller) for high-quality print products; and they may be able to work out ways to continue to sell comics digitally in the store, using their location as a browsing and congregation point, and making some small profit from online sales through in-store portals, selling cards with download codes, etc.

    However, I also think their prices need to come down significantly, especially for backlist comics, which they should be able to sell for, quite literally, pennies. Imagine being able to buy a year’s worth of a comic series for a dollar, say? I’d bet the comics markets would see customers buying comics runs by the decade.

    And the sheer number of comics shops isn’t that significant, considering most of that growth was contingent upon the “artificial collectability” craze the industry went through in the 70s-80s, which expanded comics shops to record (and ultimately unsustainable) numbers. The shrinking we’ve seen (and will see) partially reflects the continued decline of artificial collectability, a factor that digitization may accelerate… or, in the case of high-quality imprints, possibly turn into real collectability…

    The comics industry, and the stores, will just have to figure out their place in the new world, like other industries. I don’t think all is lost… but they’d better not waste much time evolving, or they’ll get trampled by other media…

  5. As A long time comic book fan (I’ve been in and out of it all my life- I’m out now), I think the comic book shops saved the comic book indutsry by allowing it to grow into more interesting limited run comics that could make a profit by their no-return policies. All to the good.

    I do believe that the iPad and its ilk can revive comic book sales, and I agree on MUCH lower price for back list comics.

    I actually own 7 different Marvel Comics dvd releases which each have over 500 comic books complete (Spider-man, Avengers, Captain America, Hulk, Fantasiic Four, Iron Man, X-Men.) They were about $45/each when first released (Selling for HUNDREDS now). BUT, Marvel cancelled the contract which is really a shame.

    They are in PDF format, and, with a proper reader, should be perfect for the iPad. I’m hoping (and expecting) more releases of earlier comics at realistic prices. As an example, DC has put out many Superman, etc Archive edition hardcovers. So, now release ALL of those scans as an affordable download purchase, and maybe add a hardcover collector’s edition with pictures, background essays, etc. A sure winner.

  6. “…but it was the rise of the comic book shops, and changes in distribution, that took comics in the USA out of the eyes of the general public, and hid them away in specialty shops. Before that, comics were in every drugstore and chainstore and supermarket store in spinner racks where lil’ kids could pester their moms to buy them the latest Batman or Donald Duck or Archie.”

    You’ve got your timing exactly backwards there — the reason the publishers embraced the fledgling Direct Market of comics specialty stores was because the Newstand market for comics had utterly collapsed and was inherently wasteful (print four copies to sell one)


  7. I think the comic industry ditching newstand distribution in favor of comic shops was a huge mistake — the industry was desperately trying to get away from returns on the newstand, but they basically removed their product from mainstream audiences, especially kids, in doing so. Ideally, they should have cultivated comic specialty shops, pushing more sophisticated readers looking for special interest projects, merchandise, complete publishers catalogs, etc. to specialty shops while still using newstands to introduce each new generation of readers to comics.

    Just one look at sales numbers from 20 years ago compared to now reveals how bad a move this was for the industry.

    As for online publishing, I think comics at 99 cents an issue are a freakin’ home run. At $2 an issue, not so much — just too pricey for 21 pages of story and art.

    They could just get back to basics — sell lots of ads, including the old-fashioned small “classified ads” comics used to have way back when, to keep their prices down. Anything more than $1 an issue IMO is going to drive readers to the darknet…I don’t like it, but that’s what will happen.

  8. Thanks for the article here, Chris.

    I think it’s far too early to say whether the iPad will “save” comics or not. It clearly offers a new means for independent creators to get their works out into the public in a way that bypasses the current direct market and book market, which have long presented hurdles for the “little guy.”

    People are fast to forget, though, that the App Store and everything about the iPad is Apple’s game. They could conceivably remove the Marvel app or any other comic reader for any reason they want to, at a whim. Which makes it an even greater leap for us to hang our hopes on.

    I think for now, it’s still wait-and-see.

  9. “I think the comic industry ditching newstand distribution in favor of comic shops was a huge mistake”

    Again, that’s not even close to what happened — the newstands NO LONGER WANTED COMICS because they could make more money selling other things, be it $5 magazines or $10 racks of sunglasses. If publishers had not embraced the DM in the 80s, it is extremely likely that comics wouldn’t be published today.

    “Just one look at sales numbers from 20 years ago compared to now reveals how bad a move this was for the industry.”

    Overall circ figures are up substantially, and revenues are up even more. One of the primary reasons there are not books with 500k print runs any longer is there are 10x+ more comics being published every month! OF COURSE *individual* circs won’t be as high!

    When I opened Comix Experience in 1989, the total of every comic being published was less then a SINGLE MONTH of Marvel releases (Alone) in 2010…!


  10. I used to buy loads of comics until they took them away from the general public and hid them away in “speciality” stores. I HATE THOSE. The folks in all these dedicated stores (no matter what they sell) are pompous, arrogant and elitist to a point its not worth doing business with them. They are the reason for many hobbies and stuff like comics vanishing from the mainstream. Marvel and other comics producers dont help. Like the song industry they are greedy and dont care about their customers. this is why online piracy and profligacy flourishes. You have to appeal and attract customers from all fan bases and not drive them away to have a thriving, successful business.

    And as for paper vs electronic. Apart from saving the destruction of a few ten thousand trees, I prefer to have a portable library (my laptop) at my fingertips than just one book.

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