In a digital universe full of Marvel
How the comic book powerhouse leveraged digital technologies to grow
Story telling, the core business of Marvel Comics. People “read” stories to be entertained, sometimes to be educated. There are many ways of storytelling, including novel, movie, TV, video games, and comic book. Consumers want to be entertained with different types of contents at a low price, conveniently, and they value a good experience. Digital technologies have steadily and profoundly transformed how people access these contents and how they interact with the contents. While traditional entertainment content providers such as book sellers, music industry, and TV/movie industries were initially challenged by the adoption of internet, the comic book industry adapted fairly well. The largest comic book publisher in the US, Marvel Comics, embraced new technologies and turned their universe into a digital universe.
Founded in 1939 as Timely Comics, Marvel Comics is now a household name. From Spider-Man, Hulk, Captain America, to Iron Man, the Marvel Universe has entertained and inspired so many kids and adults. After the Golden Age of US comic books between 1938-1955, the comic book industry has slowly retreated to a niche market, primarily targeting a narrow young male audience. Marvel eventually bankrupted in 1996. After reorganization, Marvel seized new growth opportunities and grew in the early 2000s and was eventually bought by Disney for $4 billion in 2009, which lead to additional expansion.
Digitalization of Comic Books and Reaching Wider Audience
Marvel was adopting technology at faster pace than its largest rival, DC Comics. Marvel launched Marvel Digital Comics Unlimited to allow viewing of 2,500 back issues with subscription in 2007. Initially, both Marvel and DC Comics were reluctant to releasing their comics online. Delaying digital release by 6-month after paper versions was a common practice.
In 2009, online digital retailers ComiXology, allowed comics from smaller studios and indie artists to distribute comics with unparalleled ease. Marvel speed up digitalization in order to compete. Marvel’s iOS app was initially built by ComiXology. ComiXology was acquired by Amazon in 2014, and now carries over 75,000 titles from over 125 publishers and thousands of independent creators. These changes promoted faster adoption of digital releases. Now Marvel releases their new comics digitally simultaneously with paper versions.
Allowing customers access to their comic books in digital format on the increasingly dominant mobile platforms such as iOS and Android, likely widened the reach to potential customers. This comes with increased value proposition to customers, such as ease of transportation, access to old issues, cheaper price through subscription or bundling, and potentially increasingly better and more vivid reading experience, thanks to advances in digital display technologies (e.g. Apple’s iPad Pro displays). iOS users are also likely to spend more money on contents on the platform.
Although comic books are still restricted to niche market, the stories and characters created by Marvel are reaching much wider audience through collaboration with other digital media, especially movies. Super hero characters and stories continue to be turned into new franchises such as movie series. For instance, the movie Dr. Strange is the latest example of this, which has 90% rottentomato score. The movie is also released along with new mobile games.
Reboot, Reinvent, and Outlook
So much of what we do today in terms of the stories and the characters and the conflicts comes right out of the Golden and Silver Ages. …for many of the Marvel mainstays, those origins … are stories that always have an iconic power when revisited and looked at with fresh eyes and a modern sensibility. –– Marvel Senior VP, Tom Brevoort
Despite these challenges, the digitalization of entertainment goods have significantly broadened the audience of Marvel’s stories. The interesting thing about the comic book industry is that these stories can be rebooted and adapt to the latest societal context, which prolong the life cycle of these intellectual properties. New entertainment platforms, such as Netflix, Amazon Video, video games, and virtual reality video games, could also provide space for Marvel to continue to grow and reach new audience to tell their stories in different ways.
While digitalized content provide convenience and value, it also comes with drawbacks. One of the main concerns is the inability to lend and sell the content you bought. And who will inherit your digital assets and how? These are concerns that the industry need to innovate and address. Perhaps blockchain technology could be used and applied to these digital goods so that they can be limited and traded, even though digital rights management generally have a poor reputation for being unreasonable.
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Student comments on In a digital universe full of Marvel
Jeremy – thanks for your post. As a comic nerd (mostly Batman / DC though) the topic immediately resonated with me. I appreciate how you described comics as another example of traditional print media going through a significant transformation to adapt to the digital ages. While I found it interesting to learn how Marvel is adapting its original core business of publishing comics to digital technologies, such as the smartphone app and online distribution, I would have expected it to be completely dwarfed by their income from movies by now. Overall, Marvel movies earned over $21 billion dollars at the box office, and that doesn’t even include other merchandise products.  I understand that not all of these earnings go to Marvel directly, since unless Marvel produces the movie itself, it would only get a royalty fee. That said, it would be interesting to see how much money Marvel makes from movies nowadays vs its original business of publishing comics.
 Money Nation. 2016. How Much Money Has Every Marvel Movie Made? – Money Nation. [ONLINE] Available at: http://moneynation.com/much-money-every-marvel-movie-made/. [Accessed 20 November 2016].
That’s an interesting point. I certainly agree that movies themselves are not Marvel’s core business, more like a collaboration now between Marvel and movie arms of Disney. So even though Marvel doesn’t get all the movie money, Disney as the parent will and therefore the entire conglomerate benefit from this “organic growth”. The royalty fee, might be mostly from internal transactions – FRC rules at play here.
Great post, Jeremy!
I agree that Marvel Comics has probably benefited overall from the innovations in digital technology and how it has incorporated these in its operating model to create higher value for the business. It is the value of the intellectual property in various characters and brands that creates value for Marvel Comics. What digital technology innovation has enabled is a broader range of ways to reinforce the personalities and stories of the various Marvel characters and strengthen the emotional attachment of customers to those characters, reinforcing and stimulating higher readership and engagement with Marvel products. In the Marvel app a customer is able to scan a physical comic book when a certain symbol is on the page with their smartphone, which reveals exclusive content, behind the scenes footage, and helpful context that fills in relevant backstory on the Marvel characters (who have ‘a long and complicated history’) for any new reader . A couple of other ways Marvel Comics could further grow and strengthen its customer base and the spend per customer is to customize certain brands or characters to suit a new target audience and build an online presence for those characters on appropriate online social networks that are targeted at certain non-traditional comic book customer segments, for example on Pinterest.com which has a predominately female audience interested in style and design. Another key operational model change would be to build in appropriate technology so that the characters are compatible with Oculus virtual reality technology, further strengthening the connection of customers to the characters and brand of Marvel and hopefully enabling higher sales per customer as a result.
 Christopher Ratcliff, ‘How Marvel is Revolutionising Comic Books with Digital, EcoConsultancy.com, October 21, 2013, https://econsultancy.com/blog/63626-how-marvel-is-revolutionising-comic-books-with-digital/, accessed November 20, 2016
I absolutely agree with the business and operational changes you proposed. I do think that Marvel movies are more accessible for women than the comics or the traditional format digitized or not. The idea about Pinterest is a good one: women are more likely to use it than men and how should Marvel leverage that?
For virtual reality technologies, my suspicion is that men will adopt it faster than women. There is already a fair amount of differences and gender inequality in video games. I am not sure if VR will help change that, but there might be some opportunity there.
 2013. The gender inequality in core gaming is worse than you think. VentureBeat. Available at: http://venturebeat.com/2013/09/19/gender-inequality/ [Accessed November 20, 2016].
In response to Jeremy’s point I’d second the fact that movies are more accessible for women, and add in the possibility that the content “universe” Marvel is creating builds high walls to preserve earlier cultural norms. When we move to new media there’s an opportunity to welcome new populations – women, underrepresented minorities – in story lines that will be missed if the same group of people continue to create content across new media. I like the idea of using a platform like Pinterest to welcome new readers, but I’d also want to see an effort to include more kinds of creators.
It seems like there’s an opportunity to democratize something like VR and make it open to more of the population, but it will require companies like Marvel to take risks and invest in new staff when they launch their first products on the new platform. This unfortunately seems unlikely, and the success they’ve had continuing to create new products out of old comic story lines just reinforces the idea that they can win with the same audience they’ve had for the past 20-30 years.
Hi Jeremy – interesting post!
As I learned about Marvel from your post, I couldn’t help but think about the Pokemon Go craze that swept the nation earlier this year.
You talked about the digitization of content and expansion into movies, and you briefly mentioned that there is opportunity in virtual reality as well. Do you think there is opportunity for Marvel to expand into augmented reality, with a smartphone app similar to Pokemon Go? Would Marvel be a good candidate for collaboration with Niantics and would the venture be profitable one?
Interesting comparison! After some thinking, I find Marvel not an ideal collaborator for Niantic. Niantic produced a geographical game call Ingress before, which laid the foundational work for building Pokemon Go. That game is quite similar to Pokemon Go. And the key element that makes it work, is that Pokemons can be found anywhere and there are so many. Existing Marvel universe doesn’t seem to fit into this model, as they are quite single character or characters focused. Marvel could innovate and create new storylines that encourage wider participation. X-Men came to mind. It would be interesting to see if in the future they do create something like this.
 Anon, Ingress. Ingress. Available at: https://www.ingress.com/ [Accessed November 20, 2016].
Half of Disney’s intent to roll out Marvel movies quicker than I can say “What the” is laziness to innovate, I think. You have great established characters and sorted storylines already, and we now know how to make a superhero movie, so let’s rampage on. With the slew of superhero movies hitting the screen, I advise at most 12 more months before serious superhero fatigue creeps in. It’s almost sickening to see the end credits of Dr. Strange, sitting there smug with Thor, as Disney laughs in your face about the impending sequel even before the original damned movie has had a chance to set in. The Marvel universe has more than 5000 characters, am I supposed to spend my whole adult life just watching franchises of these movies come and go?
Interesting read Jeremy! I have never really been a comic book nerd but I am a huge fan of Marvel, specifically Marvel movies. I know that there has been a huge push towards digital but I always thought that part of the comic book experience, was actually collecting hard copies of the comic book. I feel like going digital takes away from this aspect of the comic experience. It looks like the data supports that there is a lot of interest for digital comics but do you think this will be as sustainable as the old model? I feel that digital takes away the rareness aspect that comes with some comics and as a result, I am not sure it will continue to develop the almost cultish following that hard comics so successfully established.
Loved this post Jeremy. Having worked in the film industry and seen the market for films as adaptations closely, I believe this is the way of the future especially in Hollywood. Many Marvel comics that have already been made into films have further scope in terms of spin offs. Script writers, producers and directors use original characters to write completely new stories thus attracting the loyal Marvel comic loving audience as well as audiences with no exposure to the Marvel universe. Having said which, the industry is getting increasingly competitive and it will be interesting to see how Marvel adapts and changes to succeed.
Interesting post! What strikes me as the biggest impact of digitization on the comic book industry is the proliferation and increasing budget of blockbuster movies. While superhero movies are no new phenomenon, the pace of new releases in recent years has surged dramatically, and new marvel or DC films regularly pull in over a quarter of a billion dollars in domestic box office sales. That said, these movies also often are costing upwards of $150 – $200m as computer animation budgets soar. I wonder if this high risk – high reward is actually a net positive for the industry. Are these films attracting new comic book buyers or are people purely interested in the fast paced high adrenaline action films? Can you think of any ways in which the digitization of the film industry has helped or hindered the broader comic book industry?