Digital comics are a changing landscape, and in the past 30 days there have been a lot of changes. In early March Marvel announced it was expanding the features on its in-house “all you can read” Marvel Unlimited digital initiative, and last week the largest digital comics distributor ComiXology was acquired by Amazon. Newsarama recently interviewed Marvel Entertainment’s Vice President of Digital Products, Kristin Vincent, about the expansion of Marvel Unlimited and also discussed the relationship the comics company has with ComiXology.
Launched in 2007, Marvel Unlimited is a Netflix-style subscription for digital comics which offers reading on over 15,000 comics from Marvel’s immense library. Although newly released comics don’t appear for 6 months on Marvel Unlimited (but are offered for individual purchase through other digital apps), Marvel Unlimited works as the digital equivalent of diving into longboxes for classic runs of core comic series like Avengers and Uncanny X-Men as well as more obscure titles. Marvel adds over 60 new issues per month to Marvel Unlimited, and is available on iOS and Android devices on monthly or annual rates.
In addition, although this interview with Vincent was conducted prior to the announced acquisition of ComiXology by Amazon, it reveals new information about Marvel’s goals with digital comics and where it sees their partnership with ComiXology going.
Newsarama: At SXSW Marvel announced a new Digital Comics Reader for the Marvel Unlimited app, offering new features and formats. What can people expect with this new itteration?
Kristin Vincent: Marvel is always looking for ways to take storytelling, specifically digital storytelling, to the next level. We've both added new comic formats and features, like audio and video, and have revamped the entire reading experience. For that we once again turned to Austin’s Chaotic Moon for the development, so it's great to have the reveal with them on their turf.
For people who used Marvel Unlimited before but haven’t in a while, they’ll notice radical differences. The entire reader is re-written. Before it had a common HTML5 reader across the iOS, Android and Web platforms. Now the readers have been optimized for each platform built natively, so one for iOS and one for Android, making it a much smoother experience for reading. We’ve also simplified the UI. The new iOS reader will be pushed out today coinciding with the announcement, with the Android version coming soon after.
Nrama: One of the big new features is something Marvel is calling Adaptive Audio. Can you tell us about that?
Vincent: Last year at SXSW we announced a new comic feature we were working on code named Project Gamma as a way to put music into comics, and that’s become what we call Adaptive Audio. I have to say it took us a little longer than we hoped, but there are a few reasons. We knew we had to get the experience right and really wanted the technology to enhance and not get in the way of the story. We’ve leveraged technology from Firelight Technologies, who have a music engine commonly used for video games called FMOD. FMOD is used in video games like BioShock and Guitar Hero, and it allows us to provide a soundtrack for comics. For the music itself, we’ve partnered with Emmy-nominated composer David Ari Leon and his company, SoundMind Music, who’s worked on Marvel projects in the past.
We also didn’t want this to be gimmick-y musical loops in the background, but a cohesive element that adds to the story and transforms the comics into more immersive experience. To get the right tone, David Ari Leon spent time with top Marvel creators such as Joe Quesada andTom Brevoort to learn characters’ intentions and putting the right sounds to go along with the comic.
The music is user-controlled, and goes at whatever pace the reader is reading at. Certain panels trigger new musical elements to be added in, similar to video games where certain characters or areas might affect the music playing.
Nrama: The launch title for Adaptive Audio is the “Winter Soldier” arc of Captain America by Ed Brubaker and Steve Epting which inspired the recent Captain America: The Winter Soldier movie. For that comic, what kind of music can people expect to accompany the comic?
Vincent: It’s definitely more electronic music; some of it is a musical score with a melody, and some is about setting mood. And there are some sounds associated with certain characters. You might hear a helicopter overhead or fire crackling, but it’s in a subtle way. It’s more about setting a mood.
Nrama: Another new feature is the integration of the Marvel AR videos into the Marvel Unlimited app. For a while now digital readers had to have two devices – one to show the comic and then one to scan the AR code, but no more. It seems like an easy thing – but in terms of doing it, was it?
Vincent: Marvel AR has been successful, but we’re always looking for a way to improve the experience for people. We’ve put the Marvel AR videos on YouTube and on Marvel.com, and have seen a lot of fan interaction around them.
With this new feature, when you’re reading comics on the Marvel Unlimited app and a bonus video is associated with that panel, a little video icon pops up then goes away. If you want to ignore that and keep reading you can do so, or you can click on it and see the video seamlessly in one device.
Both Adaptive Audio and the integration of bonus videos for the Marvel Unlimited will be available for six comics each. We have made available for free the Adaptive Audio edition of Captain America #8 and the Marvel AR version of Avengers #1, and there’s five more comics for each new innovation available for Marvel Unlimited members. And we're running a special SXSW promotion through March where new members can try Marvel Unlimited, including all six Adaptive Audio and six with bonus videos, for a month for only 99 cents. We've tried to make it as easy as possible for people to experience this for themselves and see why people love comics so much.
Nrama: Since Marvel launched these bonus videos, how many have been done?
Vincent: We’ve made almost 1400 videos so far with exclusive behind-the-scenes content, with more coming. There are twenty videos across the six AR-enabled comics on now on Marvel Unlimited.
Nrama: Will people buying Marvel digital comics ala carte through the ComiXology and the Marvel Comics app have these features available at some point, or is this only available on Marvel Unlimited’s new Digital Reader app?
Vincent: Right now we’re interested to see how people react to Adaptive Audio and the integration of Marvel AR into Marvel Unlimited. We’ll then take some time to do analytics and see what makes sense.
Nrama: Generally, how long after a new issue comes out is it made available on Marvel Unlimited?
Vincent: About six months from day and date. We add about 60 comics a month that way, but we’ve also been going back for older material. Some of the loudest feedback we got from fans last year after launching the Marvel Unlimited app was that we had gaps in some major series, which for readers is very annoying. So we’ve made a concerted effort to fill in key series; we’ve recently got all of Iron Man online, as well as all of Thor. We’re very close on Avengers and Captain America, and we also take requests from fans. They often tweet requests to me, Agent M, or Marvel or email customer service.
Nrama: Marvel, like most other publishers, sells single issue comic books digitally through third-party outlets like ComiXology. Whether you buy comics individually from the ComiXology app or the Marvel Comics app, it’s ComiXology they’re dealing with. But Marvel Unlimited is something Marvel does themselves; in essence, digitally distributing themselves. Can you talk about Marvel’s commitment to developing new features like this for Marvel Unlimited even if third-party distributors like ComiXology may not yet?
Vincent: ComiXology is a great partner of ours. As you said, not only do we sell through the ComiXology app but they also power the Marvel Comics app through their backend technology.
Marvel Unlimited is controlled by Marvel, and we work with developers from Chaotic Moon for the app. As Vice President of Digital Products, my group does the product design and ideation, and a lot of the back-end work.
Nrama: With Marvel innovating these new features on this Netflix-like subscription program despite it not being available to digital readers who buy the single issues through the ComiXology platforms, could Marvel at one point consider expanding to sell single issues digitally themselves?
Vincent: That’s not currently the plan. We have an agreement in place with ComiXology for single issue sales.
We’re always looking for ways to take digital storytelling to the next level, and with the Marvel Unlimited app we have more control over the experience. We kind of see the Marvel Unlimited app as a playground to experiment with digital storytelling and not just selling one-off issues. Marvel Unlimited is all you can read, all you can consume. It allows us to experiment with different things and see what resonates with fans.