It’s official: Marvel comics online

OK, the magic hour has passed and the news is official: Marvel will be putting 2,500 comics online, for a price.

Here’s the deal: you pay $9.99 a month, or $4.99 a month if you’re willing to commit for a year, and you get unlimited access to the archive. Plus they’re keeping 250 comics online for free. As USA Today’s David Colton breathlessly reports:

Subscribers will be able to access the first hundred issues of key titles, turn pages with a click of the mouse or navigate a battle against Dr. Doom frame-by-frame with a “Smart Panel” viewing feature. The user can zoom in on details of art by Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko from the 1960s or catch up with today’s The Ultimates and New Avengers.

Well, not “today’s” The Ultimates and New Avengers: Nothing goes online until it’s at least six months old. And the big catch is that it’s a subscription model, not downloads, so you can read it but you can’t take it with you. Still, the Marvel folks seem confident. Again, from the USA Today piece:

Asked why people would pay for superheroes when newspaper websites have been unable to charge for content, Buckley says, “You can get the news anywhere. We’re the only ones who have Spider-Man.”

Actually, they’re not, and here’s where it gets interesting:

“About 90% of the comic books sold today are scanned and put online within 36 hours,” says Chris Arrant, a comic book analyst for Newsarama.com.

I don’t do that sort of thing, myself, but teenagers do it routinely; I had to explain to my high school daughter why she couldn’t read Naruto for free on the site a friend had pointed her to. Admittedly, 14-year-olds don’t read Marvel comics. That audience is older and even if they are familiar with BitTorrent, they are also at an age where one is willing to pay a bit of money for convenience.

Marvel is also competing against itself; as one Newsarama commenter pointed out, you can get portions of the archive on DVD.

For me, though, this is the key question: Does Marvel expect this online initiative to earn a profit, or is it simply designed to draw in new readers? It could well be that with the books already printed and paid for, the subscription fees will bring in a bit of gravy that boosts the bottom line. If it’s designed to bring in new readers, the price is a bit high, unless they’re reaching for folks who stumble across a title mid-series and are wondering what the hell is going on—and are strongly motivated enough to subscribe and pay the fee.

Most pundits agree that the established audience is aging and shrinking, so this seems like a good initiative. New readers often find the complicated story structure intimidating, but for those who are motivated, having access to lots of back issues makes it easier to step into their universe(s). It doesn’t seem to me like that would be a big group, but the internet is a big place. It will be interesting to see how this one unfolds.

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