SXSW: Discussing Marvel’s Digital Initiatives with Axel Alonso and Peter Phillips
by Dan Casey on March 10, 2013
Those of you who were able to awaken from a dehydrated beer-and-pulled-pork-induced haze at Austin’s sprawling South by Southwest festival today might have been able to catch the latest on Marvel’s upcoming barrage of digital initiatives like Marvel #1, Marvel Unlimited, Marvel Original Video, and Project Gamma at its panel. Since I can’t be in Austin personally, I caught up with the House of Ideas’ editor-in-chief Axel Alonso and Senior Vice President of their Digital Media Group Peter Phillips to get the latest on how we’ll be able to consume our favorite spandex-clad superheroes from the comfort of the cloud.
Peter Phillips: The short answer is yes. It’s a patented answer only because publishing is the combination of print and digital. It works because it’s a digital augmentation of the print world – that’s one example. Packaging a free digital copy with every copy of a $3.99 print book, that’s another example; they go hand in hand so frequently. Our digital business has exploded in the last year, and that’s wonderful It’s a testament not only to the technology, but also the stories that have been written
AA: Marvel will always be a trailblazer with regards to publishing. We’ve had phenomenal success with our digital initiatives and comics created specifically for handheld media. We view this as a complementary medium to print. We’re always looking for ways to enhance the comic book reading experience.
N: This is sort of a unique time in comics history because heroes like Spidey, the X-Men and the Avengers are everywhere: TV, silver screen, hats, you name it. The pump seems primed for people to jump on board, but what’s been the biggest challenge in courting those fans who are used to comics exclusively as a print medium?
PP: You know, I’ll be honest with you, it hasn’t really been much of a challenge getting into the digital realm, and I think the reason for that is our brand is all over the place. You look at feature films, television, online – people are used to seeing Marvel on all these screens. The trick for us is how do we translate that into a medium where people are comfortable. We do good by the comics world, and we do good by the medium, which has led to some of our initiatives like the Infinite Comics line that we launched last year. There are still ways where comic readers feel like we’re giving them comics to read and not a digital execution that doesn’t feel like a comic.
AA: If there’s a challenge – and please italicize if – it’s simply making people understand how simple it is to do this. If you have a finger, you can download the Marvel app for free, and if you have a mobile device, you can start the experience of digital comic book reading. From still comics to Infinite Comics, it’s super easy.
N: Let’s dive into the nitty-gritty of your SXSW announcements. For those of us who might have missed it, what are the Infinite Comics exactly?
PP: Infinite Comics are comic books that are created specifically for your handheld media – for your Blackberry, your iPad, your iPhone. The tablet screen is your canvas and all of the digital tools are your paintbrush. What we did is create these books. Rather than simply take an existing book and reduce the size of it, we designed these books with the tablet screen in mind. These are comics that you scroll through – there’s the widescreen canvas – and they convey a sense of motion that’s unavailable on the printed page. There’s a sense of movement and cinematic action to it and we’re still in the early stages of this. Every time we do one of these, we get better and better and better at doing it. This is not animation, it’s not a movie – this is a comic book reading experience. The reader determines the pace, and familiar tropes like captions and panel borders are all present. It’s just a new, we think, rich experience of reading a comic book.
N: That’s a good point – they do tend to convey a sense of motion that you don’t usually see when you’re looking at a static image. So these are created exclusively for digital consumption? They’re unique stories that you wouldn’t be able to get elsewhere?
PP: Yes, starting weekly with a Wolverine story written by series writer Jason Aaron and Winter Soldier writer Jason Latour and illustrated by Paco Diaz, we’re starting a weekly Infinite Comic program. Wolverine is the first of four series that are in continuity, they’ll count, and will anchor their own monthly series with the participation of a co-writer and the regular writer of that comic book.
AA: Exactly. Just like with the Wolverine book, once we announce the titles of the other Infinite Comics, they will feature the involvement of the writers of those monthly stories. They’re new, they’re available here – only in Infinite Comic format – and they provide a unique experience. 52 weeks, 52 issues so to speak.
N: One of the things that seemed to really go hand in hand with the Infinite Comics is this Marvel #1 initiative. I am a big fan of this idea, because when you have years and years of continuity, it can be difficult to get new readers to jump in there. Is the goal of this to then drive readers to your Marvel Unlimited service – a sort of Netflix for comics we’ll touch on shortly?
PP: Just to clarify, Marvel #1 is a promotion that is accessible within the Marvel Comics app, whereas Marvel Unlimited is an entirely separate service.
N: Gotcha. Good to know.
PP: Your parallel – I see where you’re going with it, and the goal of this promotion is to get people into story lines. As exciting as our app has been, if someone handed me chapter three of a great story, I’d say, “Wow, that’s a great chapter, but what if you started me on chapter one?” We’re really trying to get new readers here; that’s the impetus behind it.
At this point, Marvel’s Director of Communications, Arune Singh jumped in to clarify the Marvel #1 promotion.
Arune Singh: We’re doing over 700 comics as part of this promotion, so if you wanted to read something like Fantastic Four #1 from 1961, you can check that out. If you want to check out a recent release like Uncanny Avengers #1, which is from last October and did really well for us, you can do that. These days, a lot of people jump into comics at issue #185, and that made sense because comics are structured differently than other mediums. So much of major media is built on mythology, and we live in a world nowadays that revolves around Netflix and Amazon Prime where you can start with season one, episode one. We wanted to give people a chance to really start at the beginning with our characters. Unlike other companies, unlike other media, we don’t reboot. Our characters have continuities that stretch back to when they were created, and we’ve had multiple entry points to get in, so we want people to dive in wherever they’re comfortable. If you want to read about Spider-Man when his series kicked off, you can do it there; if you want to read Todd McFarlane’s run in the ’90s with all that dynamic art, you can do it there. This is easiest time that people have had to jump into comics. A lot of fans probably own many of these titles, but they might be buried in boxes somewhere. If there’s titles like Guardians of the Galaxy or Nova, something that you might have missed, now’s your chance, and the only thing you risk is maybe filling up your device.
N: That’s funny you mention that a lot of fans might already own these titles. My father just sold his comic book collection dating back to the ’50s which had a lot of these classic books, so it was really sad for both of us to see them go. Apps like Marvel #1 and Marvel Unlimited are exciting because they let you relive those experiences without needing a dedicated storage wing in your home.
AS: And you can’t beat the price.
N: Since we just touched on it, go ahead and tell us about Marvel Unlimited, your upcoming subscription-based streaming comics service.
AS: Marvel Unlimited is one of those things that people don’t realize how awesome it is until they’ve had the chance to try it out.
PP: It’s about to launch, it’s our subscription-service which is separate to the Marvel Comics app. We’ve got over 13,000 comics digitized, and that’s what’s about to launch. We hadn’t touched it in some time and we really used the latest cutting-edge digital techniques and technologies to leverage usability. You can access it from pretty much any mobile device; there’ll be an app associated with it so you could use it on your iPhone, for example, which was a limitation previously. We’ll even have a library function so that, even though it’s a streaming service, you can access a selection of comics offline as well. For example, if you’re underground on a subway. That increased usability and increased comics archive is really exciting for us.
N: I think the biggest appeal from a consumer standpoint is, to me, that you’ll have access to an immense catalog anywhere you have internet access for a relatively low fee.
AA: Like you mentioned with your dad’s old comics – if there’s anything he missed, he could probably find it in Marvel Unlimited.
N: Tell me about Project Gamma. It has the most mysterious name of everything that came out in the press release.
PP: It’s mysteriously named because we’re rolling out some some details, but we’re being mysterious by nature. What Project Gamma is, what we’re doing is introducing the concept of music to go along with your digital comics reading experience. It’s music scoring and it’s not just background music – and I think that’s what’s important here. It’s the ability to enhance the reading experience with paced scoring that goes along with how you read the comic – whether it’s five minutes or fifty minutes – and it’s cued up to how you’re going through. It’s themed to the storyline and the characters; we think it’s a great enhancement. We wouldn’t say it’s a complete beta project, but we wouldn’t say it’s firmly in stone in terms of how long we’re going to be doing it. We’ve done a lot of work in our labs and it’s a phenomenal opportunity for the reader. We’re really excited to show a demo to the fans and give readers and opportunity to enhance their reading.
AA: I’d just rewind for a minute and say if you’re a comic book reader, you’ve probably had that experience where you happen to be listening to your iPod and had music playing in the background while you’re reading your comic book and suddenly you have this moment where you have a soundtrack to your comic book that just enhances the experience.
PP: This is an elaboration on that. It’s an adaptive, non-lyrical score that fluctuates greatly and is paced with the reading. It’s not just on a loop. I’m not a techie, so I can’t describe the experience other than that once you experience it, you’ll see what we’re talking about.
AA: It’s there to move along at a pace you determine, to enhance your experience. And the type of music it will have, well, the sky’s the limit. I imagine that any kind of music that’s represented, if it can fit naturally into the narrative of the comic book story, it will be present. I’d imagine that the score of a Thor story would be very different from the score of a Captain America story. I was more skeptical than the next guy til I heard it, but then it was like, “Wow, this really does enhance it.”
N: That’s nice to hear that it will adapt to your pace, especially for someone who doesn’t necessarily associate music with the comics experience. I was worried that, if I lingered too long on a splash page, it would start to play me off.
PP: It’s not like being at the Oscars and having a speech that’s too long.
AA: It’s not in a loop, so it won’t just restart if you’re taking too long. Conversely, it won’t speed up if you’re going through the pages quickly.
AS: The words we use to describe this are “adaptive, intuitive and immersive.” It’s never meant to pull you out of the story. You won’t hear people yelling and swearing in the background. What Axel and Peter are leading the charge on is defining the language of digital comics. You started with comic strips back in the day, and they were only told horizontally. Then you moved to comic books, which opened up the storytelling vertically as well, allowing for full pages, double-page spreads… and now we offer technology that offers more than just the X and Y axis; it’s opening it up to new dimensions, which we will pursue through things like our Weekly Infinite Comics and Project Gamma, which is not a final name. No one has exactly figured out the language of digital comics, but we think Marvel is leading the charge to determine what that will be.
N: Well, I will say that Project Gamma interests me in a way that other digital comics don’t. Personally, I prefer print, but to be able to have that additional experience by making the leap to digital is a nice enticement for sticklers like myself.
PP: Of everything we’re talking about, this is the hardest thing to describe without the demo. When we started with this, it didn’t really sing to us – partial pun intended – until we experienced it. It was very hard. I can’t tell you how many people came back to us and said, “I wasn’t sold on this until I saw the demo.”
N: It’s got to be heard to be believed.
PP: [laughs] That’s actually pretty good.
AA: You can quote me on that one.
N: That’s my gift to you guys.
N:Shifting gears a bit, let’s talk about your upcoming Marvel Original Video slate. You already have Marvel’s The Watcher,your weekly news show, and Marvel Super Heroes What The–?!, a sort of Robot Chicken-style sketch show. What else can we expect?
PP: We’re showing a demo [at SXSW] of Earth’s Mightiest Show, which is a hybrid between Marvel and pop culture. We’re going to come up with what’s going on at Marvel and mesh it with what’s going on in the world of pop culture at large. We’ve got a well-known host, Blair Butler, and she’s been working with us. We’ve got some really cool, early footage of the types of things we’re working on that will come out later this year. It’s going to be really cool. We’re in the process of building up that Marvel Original Video channel, and this is the first in a series of multiple initiatives that we’re in the process of producing that will be more focus on the Marvel-branded stuff. If you can think of the way that Marvel culture interact with people’s day-to-day lives, that’s really what we’re talking about. To be a little bit more specific, documentaries, reality series – that sort of thing – that really take the Marvel brand and make you think about our history, untold stories. The reality series – a lot of the talent that goes into this company would otherwise be unknown if we hadn’t serviced it through something like this. These are the types of things we have in the hopper and it’s more than just conversation; they’re already in development or close to completion.
N: Honestly, you had me at Blair Butler. I’ve spoken to her before and she’s really wonderful. Since I have the editor-in-chief here, Axel, how has the reaction been to the Marvel NOW! launch thus far, and what’s the plan going forward? Was this a move designed to bring new readers into the fold?
AA: Well, thanks for asking. The reponse to Marvel NOW! exceeded my wildest expectations. It blew wind into the sales of virtually all of our core monthlies, and our franchises are headed in exciting directions. We’re currently gearing up for “The Age of Ultron,” the flagship of which is penned by Brian Michael Bendis, and it will affect the entirety of the Marvel Universe. You know, the numbers on that are very exciting. On the not too far horizon, we’re gearing up for an event that will very much underscore the fact that it’s called the “Marvel Universe” for a reason. As you’ve no doubt heard, we’re very excited for our plans for the Guardians of the Galaxy and Nova and a little character called Thanos, who appeared in the epilogue of the Avengers movie.
N: Right. “Little character.”
AA: [laughs] That guy. The purple guy with the chin. We’re about to do a huge event that will involve every corner of the Marvel Universe converging and make these characters as integral to the Marvel Universe as the X-Men or the Avengers. What I’m excited about is that Marvel will continue to hit readers on two levels: maintaining the quality of our core monthlies and we’ll have more #1′s down the road. Unlike our Distinguished Competition, we put all of our titles in the hands of our titles and are there to stay as long as they want to stay. You’ll notice we haven’t had any replacement writers as of issues four or five. We’re currently planning some additional #1′s to add to the mix down the road. It’s a really good time for Marvel and I’m excited with what we’re doing with our Cosmic characters. The Marvel Universe has always been as much about the Negative Zone and the universe out there as much as it is about Earth.
N: Well, like you said, it’s the Universe for a reason. One last question – what are you reading and enjoying right now, Marvel or otherwise?
AA: From the creator-owned realm, I really enjoy Brian K. Vaughan’s Saga. I think it’s a very interesting read and I’m glad to see him back. I’m also quite a big fan of the long-term Avatar Press series Crossed, which was started by Garth Ennis and has changed hands to Jamie Delano in recent months. It’s definitely not stuff for kids, but it’s a good read. Here at Marvel, I’m a huge fan of what Matt Fraction and David Aja did with Hawkeye. It was a project that was near and dear to my heart and I’m really excited to see the ways in which it’s being embraced by fans.
PP: Well, I’ve got Age of Ultron polybagged behind me, and that was really great. I’m a geek, but I’m not nearly as cool as these guys. Sometimes I still need to be told what to read by the guys in the know. [laughs]
And now, here’s a sneak peek at some pages from Wolverine: Japan’s Most Wanted, the first of Marvel’s new Weekly Infinite Comics.
So there you have it, True Believers – the latest on Marvel’s upcoming digital offerings. Now, I’d like to turn the conversation over to you guys. How do you consume comic books? Do you prefer digital to print? Are any of these apps reason enough for you to make the plunge? Quemment below and let us know.