A New “Birth of the Cool?”: Reimagining Comics for the Digital Age

Adapting to Smart devices

I think it’s apt to start off with a quote from Stephen Hawking, “Intelligence is the ability to adapt to change”. CHANGE. Change is often viewed with a sense of trepidation for the fear of the unknown, especially when it’s directed at our personal lives, like a new program being implemented at work or, heaven forbid, garbage day changing from Monday to Wednesday. While we may not like to make those changes, we have come to expect the different forms of entertainment we digest every day to constantly change or evolve as the technology around us evolves. It’s with the mass appeal and ease of use from touch-based tablets and smartphones that a new market has opened up with many companies looking at it like a cash cow. Comicbook publishers, including DC and Marvel, are starting to feel the heat so they are naturally looking at ways of improving their current financial situations by attempting to bridge the audiences who watch their movies, play their games and use touch devices to the current products they offer.

To say DC and Marvel are “feeling the heat”, I don’t mean to state they are in financial disarray, but I’m more trying to define the “heat” as the amount of money up for grabs that is stemming from the ‘always on’ smart devices and the pressure associated with trying to stay relevant on these new devices so they can partake in the proverbial cash cow. While DC and Marvel have been putting their publications on digital devices the last couple of years, the technology and common language of smart devices has started to become more refined and with that language changing so does the expectations of users. For the purposes of this article the language that’s evolving is specifically referring to apps on smart devices, their ability to bridge digital entertainment with physical entertainment and what could be classed at times as interactive, highly branded, set pieces meant to bring the user closer to the products and entertainment they love.

An app store found on any type of smart device is the perfect example of how we have come to define the language of interaction between entertainment and information. Many of these apps have different ways of making money, but all of them act as a portal to keeping you engaged and closer to products you enjoy. This is found in free, advertised based interactive websites all the way to cash costing, fully realized, interactive games. Not including a few experimental high cost products, most of the time the barrier to entry for these experiences is either no cost or a couple of dollars. Of course, as we all know, nothing is free in this world, so each app is hoping to either beat you over the head with their product to create brand awareness or because they have a more premium product that is or will be out that they hope you will buy. It is because of these new app strategies, which are disguised as meaningful products, the idea of value has changed.

The idea of how value is defined in a marketplace is important because it is that idea that will many times determine if consumers will buy a product. How does DC or Marvel compete, with their current digital comic pricing structure, when there are more interactive and perceived higher value products on an app store that are free? It is important to note that these experiences that are being sold on the app store are ones that are, at many times, perceived to be of higher value because the smart devices they are on make the user feel like they are truly interacting with the product. DC and Marvel both have digital comics with a high value of content, but what they need in order to bridge the gap to the smart device audience is an experience that will lure them in.

Audiences that are going to the financially successful DC and Marvel movies or buying their big budget videogames are not all buying into the seemingly archaic model DC and Marvel have given them in the form of digital comics. Not counting a few publications recently, most of DC and Marvel’s digital comics have come in the form of an almost scanned in style with no real enhancements being made for the platform they are being distributed on. The audiences that DC and Marvel are trying to grab are looking at print comics and digital comics and wondering where is the value in purchasing on a smart device when they share the same price point. They are also wondering why they would pay money for something when they have a perceived, higher valued interactive experience with the many app games available for free. It is because of apps and their perceived higher value, based on the unique interactive experiences they can deliver, that DC and Marvel are coming up with new ways to entice their audience.

The new digital storytelling techniques DC and Marvel have created include Marvel’s Infinite comics, Marvel’s Project Gamma comics, DC’s DC2 (pronounced DC squared) and DC’s DC2 Multiverse comics. DC’s DC2 and Marvel’s Infinite comics share similarities with the digital comic’s narrative unfolding in a somewhat layered technique that reveals the action in a type of flip book manner which is based on the swipe of your finger. Marvel’s Project Gamma comics have yet to be released, but it will include similar storytelling techniques found in Infinite comics with the addition of a soundtrack that will be dictated based on the pace of a reader. DC’s DC2 Multiverse also includes features similar to their DC2 comics, but they will also add the ability to choose from branching narratives that would lead to different conclusions. Another important change from print comics is the pricing scheme introduced with Marvel’s Infinite and DC’s DC2 line of comics that start at just 99¢, a price model competitive with other apps and in line with the type of experience audiences on smart devices have come to expect. These new initiatives, at least at the time of this article, don’t seem to add that much value to the already loyal installed base of comicbook readers, but they could potentially bring in that coveted audience that watches their movies, buys their videogames and uses smart devices.

Change is a hard thing to do, especially when you’re a huge company like DC and Marvel. Change is also something that, throughout history, has shown the need to be embraced in order to evolve and keep up with the world as it evolves. Chances are these new digital initiatives won’t become the standard way we consume comics, but at this moment they act as a perfect portal to the potentially huge audience just waiting for a reason to jump on board.

Piggybacking on the Videogame Audience

With the mainstreaming of smartphones and touch tablets there has been a surge of effort put forth in the continuation of entertainment through means of the interactive medium of video games. Depending on the form of entertainment being sold it has taken some longer than others to find a way to adapt their medium, but finally DC and Marvel are embarking on the journey to enhance comics through new digital comic initiatives. Of course, both companies don’t seem to be looking to replace the current way most of their stories are told, but rather they are looking for a way to capture the audiences that are flocking to video games while also keeping their current fan base happy. One of the reasons I believe this is a great idea is because I think the intended audience is perfectly primed to participate, but before I get into more details let’s look at that targeted audience.

The Male Target Demo for Comics and Videogames

Based on the content alone it should be easy to determine that both comic books and video games have a similar demographic; single men in the age range roughly between 18 and 30. This isn’t that surprising whenever you look at a video game or a comic book’s team mostly being male dominated. The men on these comic book teams are going to create something they know will sell because they know it’s based on the same things they wanted to see or buy as children or adults. The end result is usually some type of brooding character who has varying amounts of power over others as well as the uncanny ability to attract scantily clad women. The same reasoning is why there is a complete lack of credible women characters that are taken as seriously as the men in either medium.

Of course, there are some very strong female characters in each medium (Lara Croft, Wonder Woman, etc.), but most of these characters were created with the male demographic in mind, meaning they were physically exploited and exaggerated in order to appeal to the male demographic in a very sexual way. Recently more of those female characters have been altered to give the feeling of being independent and strong, but that doesn’t take away the original reasoning they were created. Now we could go into a whole different direction, detailing women in their respected mediums, but that is for another time. The point is that we have Marvel and DC’s strongly male demographic, defined by decades of creator-male dominance in both fields and that’s important from a DC and Marvel point of view because now you can cater your new initiatives to that audience.

An example of this hyper-realized, male domination can be seen in the flagship products for each respected medium including Halo, Gears of War, Call of Duty, Batman, Superman, etc. If you look at the central characters involved in these narratives they tend to be in roughly the same age demographic that the publishers are targeting which is perfect for that audience because it allows them to somewhat lose themselves a little more in the story. At the end of the day entertainment is used to give the targeted audience a way to lose themselves for a moment and it only makes sense that the demographic you are catering to would include characters that somewhat parallel their audience.

These points are not to dismiss the leaps and bounds both mediums have had in portraying women, but rather show the similarities in content and the audiences buying that content as a strong reason for Marvel and DC to start to experimenting within their medium in order to bridge that gap, thereby reaping the financial benefits.

Digital Videogame Experiences

With high speed Internet reaching a more global audience, the digital realm of videogames has been making strides not only in the sheer size of content, but also in the variety of content. On a current videogame console or PC marketplace you can find anything from a small indie game, wallpapers, map packs or fully realized games, each costing various amounts of money. The pricing structure on these marketplaces is one that has been cultivated based on what that content’s perceived value is as well as how well established the brand is with the consumer. The reasoning for various price points on what seems like similar products can very well be scrutinized, but DC and Marvel should worry less about pricing as much as digital acceptance.

Digital acceptance, while widely accepted on PCs, is something that has slowly started gaining momentum on consoles. The negative reaction always stems from the idea of ownership and how you can charge for something that physically doesn’t exist with just the promise that you will always be able to access it. While there are still millions of strong holdouts to the digital initiative, you can tell with younger audiences, who are growing up in a digital world, that this is less of an issue and will eventually be the ideal way most people consume their media. On a personal note I have also started to buy comics digitally because I couldn’t justify the cost of gas to get to the nearest comic book store (an hour away), only to be greeted with the unfriendly owner and the guilt of dropping a subscription. Videogame players are used to having content that they can only access digitally and as that audience grows, so does the audience that would be interested in purchasing comics digitally.

Videogame Players Adapt Very Easily

Just like comics, videogames are still relatively young compared to books or movies and it’s because of this continual growth and change that many videogame players are open to constant change. DC and Marvel have made it clear that they are currently looking into many ways to change the medium for digital consumption and those changes won’t likely end with their current initiatives. Videogames, and how you define videogames, is a topic that continually gets brought up. Are videogames art? Does a videogame have to be enjoyable to be great? The reason these questions are brought up is because of the vast changes that are largely based on software getting cheaper and more individuals putting their artistic print on the medium, thereby changing what was originally thought to define a videogame. DC and Marvel are destined to make mistakes and try something new, but when you look at the drastic changes videogames have taken in the last couple of decades, they know they have an audience willing to take the ride.

Interactivity is Welcomed

When you start to look at the new initiatives DC and Marvel have up their sleeves for digital comics you can’t help but think the reasoning directly reflects videogame players established expectations. Videogames have a unique form of interaction that allow users to feel that they have an impact on the world around them and how that narrative unfolds. The control given to the videogame player is one that is communicated usually with an input device and up until smart devices, comic book readers have not yet had the same type of feeling.

Adapting to any new form of technology can be a hard thing to do, but DC and Marvel should see the similarities between comic book readers and videogame players as a positive sign for experimentation. After all, this isn’t a replacement for the current way comics are being told, but an opportunity to create an alternative with rich, new experiences that add a little interactivity in an interactive based world.