Commentary

Can Amazon Learn To Swing From Spider-Man?

Those of you who know me from the many MediaPost events I manage, our chairman Ken Fadner’s regular intros of me at the opening of shows, or just from my “PopeyeSmith” email moniker, understand that I am a total freak about graphic narrative.

About 50 years ago, the comic strip was my entry point to a lifelong obsession with American popular culture. TV, film, dime novels, vaudevillians, pulp magazines, radio adventures of the 1930s, hard-boiled fiction -- all have been my beat in academia and journalism ever since. Back in the late-'60s, Chester Gould’s Dick Tracy was my gateway drug. Jules Feiffer’s seminal book on the comic book superheroes of the 1940s was my first seminar.

So understand that my gushing over Amazon’s purchase of the digital comics powerhouse ComiXology last week is not without bias.

To me, this is one of the smartest moves Amazon has made in the digital device space yet.

ComiXology is among the under-appreciated and relatively unsung success stories of the tablet era. It sits atop the highest-grossing iPad/iPhone apps lists year after year — and for very good reason. It has both a technology and an in-app merchandising savvy that are unrivaled on the iPad. Its guided reading technology understands the kinetics of the touchscreen as an experience and the immersive capabilities of the personal screen.

Just about any publisher -- and more than a few marketers -- can learn something from these guys.

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The revenue success of ComiXology in the app store is based on a simple principle that seems woefully lacking elsewhere in App-land -- real merchandizing. At the launch screen of the app, you get a genuine and genuinely dynamic storefront. There are daily or three-day specials. There is even a weekly “Marvel Monday” of discounts for that publisher.

The backlist is aggregated around topical themes that tie to other pop-culture events. For instance, the current release of a new Captain America film is met in the app with retrospectives and discounts related to the superhero, reminding us of his WWII-era legacy. They don’t just sell by title but by author, story arc and theme. There is real packaging and merchandising going on here. I wish there were more personalized alerting tools, but generally they give you a reason to revisit the app regularly.

In addition to this, the app also aggregates and offers a portal into ComiXology’s other media offerings, from an introductory video for newbies to comics to free issues to its Twitter feed to its weekly podcasts (including links to comics the broadcast discusses). This is a genuine portal into a content brand, not just a digital version of another medium.

Compare this to the many magazine apps that live in the Newsstand ghetto of the iPad. Most of them offer bare shelves of digital editions that would make one wonder if these publishers even exist on the Web. Rather than see the app as an opportunity to aggregate, package, customize and sell their multimedia wares, most of these publisher apps treat the platform the way they have since the Pathfinder days -- as a digital port of their print sensibilities. The wet dream of legacy media is still that digital is just another distribution channel for the content and formats that proved successful in print and on TV.

Which is not to say that digital comics are reinventing the graphic narrative medium. In fact, the frame-by-frame Guided View ComiXology perfected is an odd hybrid of new and old. What it gets right is understanding precisely the ways in which the best aspects of an old medium are genuinely enhanced on a device. The frame-by-frame walk-throughs of the Guided View mushroom the native art of the otherwise diminutive comics format to enormous scale.

ComiXology manually virtualizes the physical act of gazing across a graphic narrative, an aesthetic form that gets part of its energy from what is not shown -- the space between frames. The over-sized rendering of each frame is three or more times larger than the actual frame in a comic and it fills the screen. The device allows the reader to fall into the art in a unique way.

This format has helped me discover new detail and features in classic illustrators I thought I already knew well, from MAD’s Harvey Kurtzman to Captain America’s Jack Kirby and Spider-Man’s Steve Ditko. You are engaging the art at -- or larger than -- the scale at which it was drawn, bringing you closer to the eye of the artist.

Amazon was smart in buying ComiXology, and it demonstrated again that the company is thinking harder than most about how devices can enhance the media experience, not just mobilize it. The company’s exploration of “X-Ray” enhanced books and videos and narrated e-books are real attempts to revise and rethink the media consumption experience for a device era. Let’s see if it is smart enough to translate some of ComiXology’s success beyond the comics page.  

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