Two weeks ago, we had one of the most thoughtful and passionate discussions I’ve seen in a very long time about the status quo of Superman. That piece was originally supposed to involve two discussions on status quo, but as I kept typing, it became very clear that the piece was best suited to discussing the maligned superhero. Let’s move onto the second part of the piece.
While discussing the first issue of Avengers vs. X-Men, we talked a lot about what could very well be another new status quo in comics — the extra “augmented reality” feature in the printed book. For those of you who haven’t picked it up, throughout the issue there appeared this little “AR” graphic on various panels, with zero explanation, until you got to the end of the book. The logo was actually a visual cue for you (and, ultimately, a mobile phone application), that would show extra content on the phone screen, floating above the comic book’s printed page — an augmentation of reality, an extra layer of information that was supposed to enhance the experience displayed on the page.
Yes, it’s a gimmick. And yes, many of us rolled our eyes when we realized what it was, and, quite frankly, I am embarrassed that I was so close-minded about it — at least Marvel tried something that was different and added value to the printed comic book format. Was the experience great? No. It was hard to use and when it “worked,” the results were kind of lame. Could it be cool eventually? Perhaps, sure. I like the idea of perhaps an interview with the artist discussing a particular panel, or some other insight into the creative process other than “hey, this is what this page looked like without colors.” I don’t need to see some editor walking onto the page and talk to me, but I applaud Marvel for the attempt.
Is this AR thing comics? Maybe. Perhaps now things like this are going to be part of modern comics. Again, this content did not show up in the digital version, which I found kind of shocking. It would be a better experience if this added content was in the digital version, because the experience would be better (it was really hard to use the camera to “hit” the page the right way and make the content appear), but, for now, this makes the printed book a bit more fun and unique.
Could it have been done better? Oh yeah, sure. You’d think there would have been a banner on the cover promising “a whole new experience” that would excite people into opening the comic. Marvel could have told the reader what the AR logo stood for at the beginning of the book rather than the end. They could have included a QR code that downloaded the AR app for your phone automatically, at the very least.
The most important question, of course, is whether or not this kind of trick will bring in new readers? Doubtful. I think, personally, that it’s a natural fit for the digital version and assume that eventually this kind of bonus content will be part and parcel with digital comics, that this is just a first step. Will new readers actually get something out of it? Personally, I’d like to bring back the flexi-discs, but that’s another article.
As I step back, however, I realize that this “first step” is typical of Marvel’s embrace of new and not-so-new paradigm shifts in printed comics. In addition to the AR feature, many of Marvel’s comics are including a coupon for a free digital version of the same printed comic you just read.
I don’t know about you, but, much to my chagrin, I rarely read my comics a second time. I have long boxes of comics that I have not opened in over a year that show that part of me believes I will, but so far, this has not happened. My gut feeling tells me that the coupon should be for the next comic in the series, for a reduced price, to drive readers to the Marvel digital storefront. None of the books that I have read where this coupon is given to me have been good enough for me to want to look at them ever again (which truly is another article), let alone take up space on my iPad to remind me that I paid cash money for the issue in the first place.
I don’t understand what Marvel is doing. On one hand, they are trying to show that they are adding value to the printed comic with a wonky augmented reality experience while including a free digital version of that comic without the extra content, which would actually work better in the digital format. If anything, the coupon should point users to exactly that: an enhanced digital comic that can “start a different conversation” with reader, showing how exciting digital comics can be, as opposed to trying to make printed comics more interesting using the same device the user could be reading the very same comic on!
Scratch that: I know what Marvel is doing. They are trying to have it both ways. They want to make retailers feel better by providing them books that have extra flair beyond the printed comic, but at the same time, they are encouraging readers to get used to reading the comics digitally, which, in the end, will hurt the retailers, making them feel worse.
One thing that is consistent is the inconstancy of the comics industry. Yes, it’s easy to rip on Marvel for their clumsy digital strategy. But like I said before, I have to applaud them for at least trying new things. I don’t know if providing additional content to the printed page will make much of a difference (how long will the videos and such stay on their servers, by the way?) to their readership. I bet that most Marvel Zombies would appreciate books that are less expensive, without the peeling digital comics coupon and AR content, which, let’s face it, while adding a new experience, also distracts from the story’s flow.
(Of course, given the quality of the AvX story so far, perhaps readers appreciate the distraction. ZING!)
I know, that the purists out there will shake their heads and say that comics don’t need this kind of tweaking, that comics are comics and if you don’t like it, too bad. Well, what’s really too bad is that younger readers are not buying comics and tweaks like this might be the only way to at least have a conversation about comics with kids who do not grow up with them. I have been to quite a few comic book stores over the past few months (I have been looking for Punisher MAX #21), and I would say that 98% of the time, there is no one younger than their 20s in the store. It’s no wonder that the status quo of comics is changing so quickly (and so fundamentally) these days — it is getting harder and harder to grow the market. By adding these digital treats to their comics to lure disinterested younger readers, Marvel could very well be alienating their base of readers, who view these efforts as making their comics less like comics.
How about you all? Did you remember to look for the AR panels in last week’s issue of AvX or is the thrill gone? Have you tried to get your free digital copy? Or is this just 1200 words of “shrug?”