Digital comics work it in San Diego

Editor's note: Rob Salkowitz is a business analyst and consultant specializing in the future of entertainment, media and technology. His latest book, "Comic-Con and the Business of Pop Culture" (McGraw-Hill, 2012) focuses on the nerdy audience at the largest comic book trade show in the Western Hemisphere. Follow him @robsalk.

Last year at Comic-Con, digital comics were the headlight approaching in the dark tunnel. This year they are the train bearing down on the industry at full steam. Amid estimates that nearly 30 million Americans now use iPads or tablet devices of some kind, comics and graphic novels have emerged as the killer app for this hot new platform and everyone from the industry’s top publishers to feisty startups and independents are looking for a way to get in on the action.

Against that backdrop, even with all the various entertainment, movie and videogame news pouring out of San Diego this year, it was the announcements coming from digital publishers and platforms that has the greatest potential to shape how we enjoy the stories and characters we love in the months and years to come. Here’s a roundup of some of the top stories in digital from this year’s show:

Numbers, numbers, numbers!
To date, many publishers and distributors have been fairly close-mouthed about actual sales of digital comics. At the “Digital Comics – Expanding the Market” panel I moderated on Friday, IDW Publishing announced for the first time that their top-selling "Transformers: Autocracy" title had debuted at 10,000 paid downloads and was now running at an impressive 50,000. comiXology, which has become the highest-grossing app on the iOS platform, increased its gross merchandise value estimate from $19 million in 2011 to over $70 million projected in 2012. The site now claims more than 75 million comic downloads in the three years since the Comics by comiXology app launched.

New media experiences
While some publishers are simply bringing comics and graphic novels to digital devices in basically the same format as the books, others are pushing the envelope by integrating motion, sound, layered graphics, bonus content and 3-D effects. Just prior to Comic-Con, a new company called Madefire launched with some eye-popping original comics from master creators like Dave Gibbons (“Watchmen”) and Bill Sienkiewicz (“Electra: Assassin”) as well as company founders Liam Sharpe and Ben Wolstonholme.  Madefire not only offers new stories optimized for the iPad hi-res display, but also allows independent creators access to the platform to author their own digital originals.

Apps that push the envelope
One of the more electrifying digital media panels took place Sunday morning, when Cognito’s Daniel Burwen pulled back the curtain on the “Future of the Graphic Novel on the iPad.” Using his own Operation Ajax app as a case study, Burwen took the audience through the challenges of creating a long-form graphic novel specifically for the iPad environment. Burwen showed how creative teams need to rethink both their craft and their creative approach, taking care to deploy technology only in support of great storytelling. Another highly-buzzed app, Ryan Woodward’s Bottom of the Ninth, also demonstrated some cool extensions of traditional comics techniques in the digital realm using selective animation and sound design to draw readers through the story.

More content for digital
comiXology’s other big announcement at the show was a long-awaited deal with Fantagraphics to bring Los Bros Hernandez beloved alt-comics classic Love and Rockets to digital format. Fantagraphics publisher Gary Groth announced that the ongoing Love and Rockets New Stories will begin same-day digital distribution with issue No. 5, and issues 1-4 are already up and available on the comiXology storefront.

Crowdfunding as a way of life
Perhaps the most far-reaching announcement in terms of industry impact came from digital publisher iVerse Media, the partner of comics’ virtual-monopoly print distributor Diamond. Noting the success of Kickstarter as a crowd-funding platform for all manner of creative projects, iVerse announced the launch of Comics Accelerator, a system designed specifically for comics creators and graphic novelists to pre-fund their ventures and directly target readers at reduced cost and risk.

Set to launch later this month, Comics Accelerator features ways to provide digital incentives for donors using the iVerse ComicsPlus platform, publisher hubs to manage multiple proposals, and a more advantageous cost structure that caps fees at $2,500 regardless of how much money the project raises. If it is successful, Comics Accelerator could take us a step closer to institutionalizing the crowd-funding model and bringing some much-needed stability and predictability to the publishing industry.

These announcements around digital comics might not pack the same buzz-appeal as news from the next "Iron Man" or "Superman" movie, but remember that those great properties and many more first emerged issue by issue from the pages of comics. These exciting innovations are helping to keep that storytelling format alive and relevant to a new generation of readers, and helping to open the magical world of comics to an audience who might not even realize comics are still being produced.