How ComiXology Became The iTunes Of Comic Books

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Faster than a speeding bullet, ComiXology has scaled the ranks in the App Store in what seems like a single bound.

As one of last year’s top-grossing iPad apps, the digital comics platform has sold an astonishing 6 billion comic book pages since its 2009 debut — 4 billion of those coming in 2013 alone.

In helping revive an industry that was almost dead on its feet, ComiXology has done for comics what iTunes did for legal music downloads.

At the height of its success, it’s now been snatched up by Amazon for an undisclosed amount of money — prompting the question of whether Apple has missed out. (Particularly when taking into accounts the reports that Amazon is reportedly set to debut a smartphone of its own — capable of busting out 3-D.)

After all, ComiXology’s CEO David Steinberger has always had big ambitions. He once wrote that his “crazy goal” was to turn everyone on the planet into a comic reader. Sounds just like Steve Jobs.

Before the acquisition, CEO David Steinberger told Cult of Mac ComiXology’s backstory and its deep ties to Apple.  Sometimes the Cupertino company has acted as its Krypton-esque home planet, and other times more like its Lex Luthor-style nemesis.

Ready for ComiXology’s secret origin story?

(Credit: Harry McCracken / Time)

ComiXology CEO David Steinberger  (Credit: Harry McCracken / Time)

Like so many technologies, ComiXology was hatched as the solution to a problem. Specifically, the digital comics platform was a direct response to the frustration CEO David Steinberger felt as a comic fan in the early 1990s.

It was a strange time to be into comics. The previous decade had kicked off a boom in the medium, built around the creative success of award-winning titles like Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moore’s Watchmen, along with an influx of talented “superstar” writers and artists such as Grant Morrison and Todd McFarlane.

But while monthly comic books routinely sold millions of copies at the time (1991’s X-Men #1 hit a record high of 8.1 million copies), the field was also being watered down by the kind of short term thinking seen in any speculative bubble.

In the case of comics, this meant repositioning them not as a storytelling medium, but as an industry aimed at die hards. What followed was a feeding frenzy built around collect-’em-all covers and cheap publicity stunts.

“It was just abuse,” Steinberger says. “You were starting to get all these covers with, you know, chrome, embossed elements. I was right in the middle of it, man. I got to college and I collected for about a year-and-a-half, and then I just realized I couldn’t do it any more. For one thing, I wasn’t reading what I bought. I didn’t much like them when I did, and of course being a college student I didn’t have any money. With the exception of Matt Wagner comics — the guy who created Mage — I just quit. My love affair with comics ended.”

Fast forward to the mid-2000s and the comic industry had all but collapsed. Of all times, this was when Steinberger came up with the concept for ComiXology — closely adhering to the iTunes model laid out by Steve Jobs. 

“The English-language comic book market is really odd,” Steinberger says. “By the time we came along in late 2006, the only place you were able to buy 22-page floppy books in North America was in specialty comic shops. You couldn’t get them in bookstores, or in supermarkets, or on Amazon — unless they happened to be collected into trade paperbacks. Unlike most mass-media that turned to digital, there was no huge print outlet to start with.”

The comics market resembled the music scene when Steve Jobs began sniffing around for iTunes. “Print was badly damaged during the 1990s, if not nearly killed,” he continues. “You had a very nervous group of stakeholders: retailers who were scared of going out of business.”

What comics needed was a digital revolution. ComiXology launched its iPhone app in July 2009, around nine months after the App Store first opened its doors. It was an immediate hit.

Like the iPod's 1,000 songs in your pocket, reading comics on your phone was a revolution.

Like the iPod’s 1,000 songs in your pocket, reading comics on your phone was a revolution.

“The number one thing is that we had the best reading experience, right from the start,” Steinberger says. “A few small companies were doing comics on the iPhone, but essentially they were fancy slideshows,” he says. “We were the first company to really keep the pages intact.”

This was done using ComiXology’s patented Guided View technology — a way of leading the reader’s eye around the comic page in a way that feels incredibly cinematic.

At first only indie comics were available on ComiXology, but by 2010 both DC Comics and Marvel had joined the fray. The company’s iPad app debuted that same year.

Saga #12 became the center of controversy after it was reported that Apple had banned it due to a gay sex scene.e

Saga #12 became the center of controversy after it was erroneously reported that Apple had banned it due to a gay sex scene.

For the most part, the ComiXology and Apple relationship was harmonious. By bringing comics to a digital readership, ComiXology has not only created new fans, but placed renewed emphasis on the importance of writing and art quality — rather than any perception of collectability.

For the most part, the ComiXology and Apple relationship has been harmonious.

“We’ve had artists say to us, ‘Oh my gosh, I have to put so much more detail into these panels now, because everyone is looking at them so much more closely’,” Steinberger continues.

“Artists have to be more careful with their linework and that sort of thing. In the long haul I think it will have a significant impact on how artist compose their work.”

“It’s interesting because creators who were working in comics up until 2009 didn’t necessarily think about having their panels examined in the [kind of granular detail ComiXology allows]. Since then — and particularly in the last few years where we’ve really exploded — I’m sure there’s more awareness of how things are going to look digitally.”

What the Amazon purchase ultimately means remains to be seen. ComiXology will reportedly continue to run as its own company, just under the Amazon umbrella, while customers have also been reassured that the comics they buy are safe.

By letting a lucrative distribution network slip through its fingers, however, has Apple made a mistake?

While Apple’s platform was key to the success of ComiXology, the company’s prickly conservatism has also sometimes been a sticking point. In May 2013, ComiXology removed 56 titles from its iOS app, because these were deemed to violate Apple guidelines. On other occasions, work has had to be modified in order to be accepted by Apple, or held back because ComiXology feels it is likely to be banned.

On occasion, work has had to be modified in order to be accepted by Apple.

“[It’s been difficult because] we come under fire, because of decisions that Apple makes,” Steinberger says. “Mature reader comics generally don’t get accepted by Apple, and we let Apple make those decisions. As a result of this, there are some books which aren’t carried on iOS, but are carried on our other platforms. There are definitely occasions where we think Apple is being too conservative, but it’s their prerogative to do so. Even if we don’t always agree.”

Although it’s possible Apple has made a mistake in not acquiring ComiXology from a financial perspective, when it comes to ComiXology’s status as a publisher clashing with Apple’s own prudish sensibilities, maybe a comic book empire is better off in the hands of Jeff Bezos.

Even if his penchant for delivery drones and secretive test rockets do make him sound like more and more like a comic supervillain every day.

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About the author

Luke DormehlLuke Dormehl is a UK-based journalist and author, with a background working in documentary film for Channel 4 and the BBC. He is the author of The Formula: How Algorithms Solve All Our Problems, And Create More and The Apple Revolution, both published by Penguin/Random House. His tech writing has also appeared in Wired, Fast Company, Techmeme, and other publications. He'd like you a lot if you followed him on Twitter.

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