Marvel Digital Exec Talks INFINITE COMICS, AR and the Future

Earlier this month at the interactive portion of the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, Marvel announced a multi-faceted digital initiative called "ReEvolution" — meant to move the needle on not just the way digital comics are presented, but an attempt to bridge the worlds of their print and digital products.

The first two ReEvolution platforms introduced were "Infinite Comics," comic book stories designed specifically for tablets and smartphones, to take advantage of not only the dimensions of the devices, but also capabilities unique to digital; and an AR — augmented reality — app intended to enhanced the print comic book reading experience by unlocking DVD extra-style bonus features on mobile devices.

Both are unveiled to the comic book-reading public on April 4 with the release of Avengers vs. X-Men #1 — a purchase of either the print or the digital version of that issue comes with a free download of the first Infinite Comics title, Avengers vs. X-Men #1 Infinite by Mark Waid and Stuart Immonen, starring Nova (it's also available separately on Marvel's iOS and Android apps for 99 cents). Avengers vs. X-Men #1 is also the first comic to be compatible with the AR app, a free download available that same day.

Newsarama talked to Marvel's Peter Phillips — the publisher's "Senior Vice President & General Manager, Digital Media Group" — about ReEvolution and the potential he sees in both Infinite Comics and the AR app, plus recent moves such as including free download codes with each $3.99 print comic as of June, and the balance of keeping traditional retailers happy while continuing to innovate on the digital front.

Peter Phillips.

Newsarama: Peter, earlier this month Marvel announced their “ReEvolution” initiative, and with it Infinite Comics and the AR app. Looking at Infinite Comics first, what do you see as the potential for the format beyond the initial release of the Nova comic? Do you see the execution of the concept continuing to evolve?

Peter Phillips: The short answer is, I absolutely see it evolving. I’m big on feedback, so I think it’s really cool that they built that comic in a way that you can pace it yourself. We even talked about it having an opportunity in the education space. There are a lot of benefits I see because of the medium. Obviously the iPad is king right now, and that’s where it looks the best, but I think on many Android devices it’ll look great, too.

I definitely see us making more. They may be a little different, though — we may get some feedback that says, “Hey, we love this, but it’d be great if you also did this or that.” I do see the Nova comic as the start of something much bigger.

 

Nrama: Speaking of devices, Infinite Comics are said to be tailored for the dimensions of a tablet, but will they work on a phone, too?

Phillips: Yeah. I played with it on the iPhone; it looks terrific. It looks ideal on an iPad, just because it’s bigger, and it has more capabilities, but it still works quite well on the phone. If I were sitting on a train or doing something where I had my iPhone as my primary device, it would be great.

Nrama: The other half of “ReEvolution” is the AR app, which actually seems to be targeted towards somewhat of a different market — enhancing the print reading experience, rather than digital. What motivated Marvel to launch them both at the same time?

Phillips: Here’s where they’re the same: They’re value added in the sense that you get them with purchase of the comic.

But they’re value addin very different ways. The AR app is a way to get exclusive features and bonus content, whereas the Infinite Comic is a brand-new way of looking at comics. The AR app is a great way to get more information. A lot of input we get from fans is, “What was the writer thinking? I’d love to see how this page was created?"

Nrama: One thing that struck me immediately about the AR app is that it looks like it’ll take a lot of concentration and hours towards just creating that extra content, especially as it continues to grow and develop.

Phillips: I will tell you, we did not add additional staff to be able to do this, because I can’t prove the ROI [return on investment]. It’s to the credit of our digital content and publishing editorial teams that we executed so much at such a high quality. If this initiative is as successful as we hope, I imagine we’ll have more resources at our disposal to accomplish even more.  We just had to make some choices, and the choice was, this is the most important comic event we’ve got in 2012, we need to stay cutting edge. People are asking what’s new and different about comics, and this is what we felt would really make a difference.

 

Nrama: Is there a plan to do integrate the AR app content with Marvel’s digital comics in the future?

Phillips: Yes. Honestly, we wanted to focus on the best executions we could provide now for the print comics and use that to inform innovation in the future, both in the print and digital versions. That’s the short of it.  The AR app doesn’t work on the digital comic by design, because we kind of user-tested that, and you basically need two devices, one on top of each other, and that’s just weird. But we are looking at how we can augment the digital versions as well.

Nrama: So, for those who may be unclear as to how it all works, how exactly is the AR app content activated? I think there's some fear that it might be disruptive to the reading experience.

Phillips: It’s a small designed logo that says “AR,” and you just need your device hovered above the page, so you get the whole page image on your screen, and then you can play around with whatever the extra content is. I don’t think it’s going to be interruptive at all; I’ve seen the pages, they look really smooth. It doesn’t disrupt my experience at all.

Nrama: Sounds smoother than QR codes on pages, or something to that effect.

Phillips: I’m glad you brought that up. This wasn’t, “Let’s do AR,” and then five seconds later we did it. I’ve been in the digital business for a long time, and I’m a very conservative digital person. I like to be innovative and cutting-edge, but don’t like the “shiny penny” syndrome. We were in a meeting, and someone said, “Let’s do QR codes!” and everyone said, “Yeah!” and I’m just like, “Absolutely not. We are not doing QR codes.”

I sent everybody research on it — I’m not saying QR codes don’t have value, but they don’t have value for what we’re trying to accomplish here. This is the next iteration comic reading. It takes the content that you’re consuming and enhances it.

Nrama: In enhancing the print comic book reading experience, the AR app seems to be a digital initiative aimed at also stimulating the brick-and-mortar retail business. Is it ever challenging to try and please both sides of that equation?

Phillips: I guess. Put it this way — we’re not trying to drive people to do one thing or another. You can’t do that. You have to have people consume content however they want to consume it. What we’re trying to do is broaden the offerings. There are many millions of people who read comic books who want the printed version. We have found a new niche in that people also want to read them digitally, and that niche is growing much faster than print is growing. So the question is, how do we keep the experience to the point where we bridge both of them?

Then we ask, what’s the best experience? To me, the best experience is going to be to get everything. Buy the print, enjoy that, enjoy the digital, enjoy the AR, enjoy the Infinite Comic. But there are some people who say, “Hey, thanks, I don’t live anywhere near my comic book shop, or I wouldn’t set foot in it, I want the digital.” And there are some fans of print who are going to say, “Thanks for the digital, that doesn’t interest me, it’s not my type of thing, I like to hold something.” We’re just trying to augment the pie and get more people the content.

Nrama: There’s something of a notion out there that as long as publishers like Marvel are looking to keep print retailers happy, that they might be held back in their digital pursuits.

Phillips: I don’t think so. We are incredibly close to our print partners. When we do things, we tell them first, and we get their feedback, and some of the things that we’ve released over the last six to nine months, especially as it relates to digital, has certainly been steered with their input, which has been invaluable.

The print retailers are very clear that digital comics are here and here to stay. It’s rarer that I’ve come across one that just says, flat out, “No, you can’t do this.” It’s more about, “How do we do this to build everybody up?” I don’t see any hindrance. I don’t know what’s going to happen down the road. I can’t forecast that, but I do know that everything we’ve done so far, our numbers keep increasing, and our consumption keeps increasing, so we’re going to keep doing it.

Marvel Adds Digital to All $3.99 Books
Marvel Adds Digital to All $3.99 Books
 

Nrama: And speaking of print initiatives, there’s been recent news about the free digital download code offer expanding in June. So we can assume that Marvel has seen a pretty good response to that offer, given that it’s growing soon?

Phillips: We’ve seen great response. I think it puts a lot of people at ease, because it just gives them options. It’s just introducing people to another medium that sells comics.

Nrama: Also, it was announced a few months back that Marvel was going same-day digital release across the board, for the most part at least, in late March, and it looks like you’re pretty much there.

Phillips: For the most part, yes. There are some books that we can’t put in the app. We can’t put kids’ stuff in there, we can’t put mature stuff in there, so that’s out.

Nrama: I can understand mature, but why not kids?

Phillips: Because the app is 13+. The problem is, there’s other content in there that they can download that is more mature. It’s sort of akin to letting a kid into a double feature, and the first movie is PG, and the next one’s PG-13.

Nrama: So there could be potential to do something like a kids-only app, maybe in time for the new all-ages line that launches in April?

Phillips: [Knowingly.] Definitely a great thought.

Nrama: To wrap up, it looks like “ReEvolution” isn’t just Infinite Comics and the AR app, so should can expect to hear more digital announcements in the near future?

Phillips: Yeah, I would say there’s a lot more to come. There are partnerships, there are a couple of other interesting ideasthat I wish I could tell you. If we could only clone ourselves, because we don’t have the capacity to get through, as fast as I’d like to, everything that people are clamoring for. I think this Avengers vs. X-Men series is going to be just fantastic. If you look at the sales numbers so far from the hobby shops, it’s at a level that we haven’t seen for quite some time.

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