Comic Books in the Digital Age – Can Graphic.ly Get You to Pay for Digital Content You Can Have Free?

Graphic.ly is a strange name for a company; it's an adverb. I doubt that you have ever seen a business named, for example, "Rapidly Plumbing;" and if you did, you'd assume that the person who named the company doesn't speak English as his first language. As I recall, I had been Twitter searching art-related subjects and the Graphic.ly name popped up in the timeline. When I first read it on my computer screen, the name made me curious enough as to wonder what the eponymous Graphic.ly app Beta they were pimping might be all about.

I was able to use my superior intellect (and reading skills) to wit this was an application for viewing and otherwise interacting with graphic novels and comic books within an online community. To me that sounded pretty cool, since I am a not-so-closeted geek who most definitely grew up collecting and loving my comics. I also love pretending that I actually know the people with whom I solely communicate on the internet; so you see how this could be the perfect application for me.

After some emailing and the other usual rigmarole associated with Beta signup, I was downloading the Graphic.ly app with anticipation. After I got the app, I found out that I had to download and install Microsoft Net 4 Framework so that it would function. Getting the proper Net 4 Framework file was fairly annoying; but more annoying yet was that even after I finally got it and the Graphic.ly application installed, the Graphic.ly application was a complete FAIL. The icon did absolutely nothing when I clicked it.

So I set it aside and waited for the Adobe AIR version of the Beta to be released a few days later; which, it turned out, installs and runs flawlessly.

It was time to virtually tear into the product. Here are my edited notes:

The application has a very clean, pleasant interface, like all of the Adobe AIR applications that I have used. The first thing I did was to upload my profile pic; which was simple, quick, and included the use of a handy cropping tool.

Then I noticed the icons which represented my achievements in the Graphic.ly community (I had, up to that point, no idea that I was even attempting to achieve anything). The first icon is the image of a cartoon baby's head; showing me as having become a Beta tester. Low standards, as far as the whole concept of "achievement" goes. I like low standards. The second icon is a guy with a yellow glove and a red mask, signifying that I have achieved the creation of my profile. If only the real world gave out awards this easily.

Noticed an experience-points role-playing game styled "Level" bar on my profile. It made me think of Jimi Hendrix. Sadly, I am not experienced, and the bar doesn't seem to actually do anything at this point.

I updated my other profile information and linked to my Twitter and Facebook accounts. Facebook worked on the second try. I'm looking forward to last.fm, hulu, Xbox Live and Netflix account linking; as how they might tie in to a comic book application is a mystery that I want to see solved.

Parental controls are on the way.

Comic Store and Messages feature on the way.

I navigated to the "My Collection" feature and began the download of Spartacus; the first title of three available right now.

A downloading bar started turning on the cover artwork. This was a little confusing because I expected it to show me the progress of the download. A couple of minutes later I noticed a second bar in the lower right hand of the screen which shows the download progress. I felt much better knowing.

Left the application to go make some Trollcats. My Trollcats were pretty damned funny.

Ten or so minutes later I checked back. The download seemed to be continuing smoothly, if not quickly. Got a little over 1/3 done. After this much waiting, I have high expectations now for the quality of the content.

On second look, I realized that my profile wasn't open after all. I guess I had just glanced at the words in the left hand corner which read, "My Profile." After I had a better look at the entire screen, I saw that this is indeed some type of community page. Right now there's only a friends search engine functional, so I put the word, "emo" in the search engine (because that's just how emo I am). Four names came up which included the letters E, M and O in sequence. Unfortunately nobody was actually named "Emo." Emo Phillips is not a member.

Clicked on the "request feature" link. Within the application I was navigated to a user-feedback website. Unfortunately I have no feature requests at this time, nor feedback to give. There's a FAQ, as well as "Popular Ideas, "Common Problems," and "Recent Praise" message board categories that one can browse and, presumably, participate in. I didn't feel like checking it out at that time, but was pretty hyped to see that there's a member named "Thundercock."

I made another hilarious Trollcat and checked my Twitter. Joan Jett is on Twitter now. She sang "I Love Rock N' Roll," and I actually do love rock'n'roll! Kismet!.

10-15 more minutes have passed and Spartacus is almost done loading. This'd better be good.

Went back to the webpage-in-app thing. Clicked on "Recent Activity." There was nothing to indicate whether the webpage was turning over or not. I didn't like that feeling, the not knowing. I must know.

After the download completed, I read the comic in "panel view." Clear images; each individual panel painstakingly edited, though sometimes unnecessarily doubled up. It shows the full double page spread first, which can be confusing for me, because I read fast and ended up re-reading some material after it came up in panel form. Nice, quick, smooth transitions between the pages. Lots of options for sharing individual parts of the book, to be tested at a later point.

I ended up going back and tooling around some more later. I really enjoy the application, and it shows a lot of potential; even this early in the Beta testing stage.

After all of this noodling around with the application, I took it upon myself to touch base with one of the two main Graphic.ly guys, Micah Baldwin, who carries the rather laborious title of "Chief Community Caretaker." When I asked him what the mission was with this project, he told me this: "We want to help support and grow the comics community. We are carefully building specific feature sets, with help from the community, to service publishers, readers and creators. We want everyone to embrace the art and storytelling elements inherent in comic books and graphic novels. "

Interestingly, driving up print sales is not on the list of to-dos for Graphic.ly. In an open letter posted to the print industry by Micah, he unequivocally (and, in my opinion, pretty self-importantly) stated that creating content specifically for digital media is the only way that print publishers will not fail (I assume he meant with online content specifically). He criticized their online content as lacking innovation. He essentially presented what Graphic.ly is doing as the new gold-standard for success. Honestly, when I read the posting, the first thing I thought was that Micah was drunk when he wrote it. He claims to be sober almost four years now.

Admittedly, I myself might have been drunk when I first looked at the project, because I thought they'd be selling print issues as well to supplement the online digital sales. Especially after I got to sink my teeth into the application and see what they were doing with the online content, I felt that I wasn't clear as to what was the exact nature of Graphic.ly's business model. Micah responded to my inquiries that Graphic.ly would be primarily making their profit from digital sales of the comic books that they painstakingly slice up into panels and let you read for free online through the application.

The problem that I see in their plan is that you can already get the comic books free online through their own Graphic.ly application; not to mention other illicit sites. Their business model depends almost exclusively on being able to deliver a community experience which makes people want to pay them for content that can already be got for free. As a consumer and enjoyer of comic books, I am perfectly happy to read the online comics while I am online, and not pay extra to be able to enjoy them offline. If I really felt the urge to own a comic book, I think I'd want the paper version, regardless of how nice the digital version may be.

Micah did make an interesting point to me in suggesting that collectors of paper books might want to help preserve the value of their physical print comic collections by sticking to the digital versions for their day-to-day enjoyment. This actually makes sense to me; but then it becomes an issue of price point: How much is too much to pay for digitally backing up your comic book collection? Micah says they're letting the publishers set the price point, but that each book should go for about $.99 to $1.99.

Speaking of those publishers, they've got Top Cow and Marvel on board, as well as some others in the mix; with many more purportedly on the way. What with my being a Marvel guy at heart, I am admittedly excited at the possibility of having eternally mint interactive copies of the Machine Man collection that I have lost not once, but twice. Unfortunately, I can't see that happening at the cost of 99 cents per issue. If I am going to pay that much, I want the real book; since that's about how much Machine Man issues go for anyway.

So, can Graphic.ly create such a superior product and community experience around their application as to convince us to start buying our comic books in their digital format?

As always, the consumers will determine whether or not the Graphic.ly experiment is a success. What I can report at this point is that they've got a great application and some pretty big ideas. I sincerely hope they're not the type of big ideas that will scuttle the ship in the shark-infested waters of internet commerce before it ever leaves the harbor.

And, yes, I totally just said that.

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