Comic book fans have multiple digital options to choose from these days, with apps for independents, manga and political cartoons as well as libraries from giants like DC and Marvel. But the fractured nature of the business means readers have to visit several platforms to fill their needs.
Enter Graphite, a free digital service from Graphic Comics that begins today and hopes to put them all under one roof.
The impetus for the company was a simple one, said Michael Eng, Graphite’s chief executive: “There is no solution right now that serves comics in all its forms.”
The goal of the service is to offer digital comics from all formats, including the work of independent creators as well as major publishers, and make it all free. The content will include ads, but an ad-free service is available for a $4.99 monthly fee. Graphite also hopes to expand the audience of comics readers by offering material in 61 languages. But its biggest bet is on artificial intelligence, which will suggest content to readers based on their taste.
On other platforms, recommendations are typically offered by editors, said Tom Akel, Graphite’s chief content officer. “Ours takes into account your user behavior, what you’ve watched before, what the pool of people around you liked and cross references that the same way a Netflix algorithm will,” he said.
The Graphite team, which also includes Rick Strom, its chief technology officer, is betting that the potential for digital comics sales in the United States can grow the way they have in Japan. In 2017, digital sales in Japan climbed to $1.6 billion and for the first time surpassed print sales, which were about $1.55 billion.
Overall sales in the United States and Canada in 2018 were $1.1 billion, according to estimates by ICV2, an online publication that covers pop culture, and Comichron, an online resource for comics research. Digital sales accounted for around $100 million, up about $10 million from 2017 but relatively flat the previous few years.
“Even though the download-to-own numbers haven’t been growing, the subscription side of the business has been,” said Milton Griepp, chief executive of ICV2.
Marvel was a pioneer in the subscription model with Marvel Unlimited, which began in 2007. It has an archive of back issues, and new releases are added six months after they are sold in stores. The DC Universe service, which began last year, offers comics as well as past films and television shows and original streaming series, but its future is reportedly being evaluated in the wake of the acquisition of Time Warner, DC’s parent company, by AT&T.
Neither Marvel nor DC is among the initial publishers on Graphite, but Eng said he hoped to include them eventually.
“We have so much premium content and brands and franchises that the public recognizes and loves that there’s no lack of things in here that audiences are not already familiar with,” he said.
Graphite will include traditional publishers like Boom Studios, Dynamite, Papercutz, Tokyo Pop and IDW, as well as a number of popular web comics. The service will premiere with more than 10,000 series and offer a section devoted to young readers, with parental controls.
Besides DC and Marvel, Graphite faces other established competitors. Among them are Comixology, which is owned by Amazon.com; Crunchyroll, for manga and anime; Go Comics, for comic strips and political cartoons; and Webtoon, a mobile-first platform for web comics.
But publishers said they were eager to work with a new platform as a way to reach more readers.
Filip Sablik, president of publishing and marketing for Boom, said he had no fears of cannibalizing business from other platforms like Comixology.
“We’ve had free content available for multiple years, and it hasn’t cut into our Comixology business,” he said. “In fact, it has continued to grow.”
Graphite, Sablik said, is another opportunity to expand Boom’s audience.
“If you’re going to appeal to a wider audience, you need to have more than two flavors of ice cream,” he said. “You might even need more than just ice cream.”