Digital is becoming ever more important for the comic industry.

Although the industry is guarded when it comes to revealing figures,  Comixology (which release digital comics from the major publishers and many independents) has cited reaching 50m downloads in January 2012 and doubling that figure to 100m only 10 months later in October.

Physical comic book sales have been pushing against the tide of declining sales in other print media for some time now, with 2012 showing a 15% increase in sales year on year, and 2013 showing a similar trend.

It’s clear the success of digital comics is increasing rapidly and concurrently with print, and it’s Marvel, who in the last few years has shown incredible skill in rebuilding its own brand, which is offering a lot more in terms of technology and service in its range of apps for mobiles and tablets. 

The Marvel AR app

There have been enormous strides in augmented reality (AR) this year, check out the latest Ikea catalogue and other great examples here, and Marvel has played a large part of the push to build a bridge between print and digital content since mid 2012.

With the Marvel app, you read through your physical comic book, looking out for the small AR symbol in the corner of a panel – there’s normally five or six per book, and they’re fairly unobtrusive – hold your smartphone or tablet over the page and quickly you’re transported to exclusive content and behind the scenes footage.

Here’s an example of the specially produced content on offer. A brief history of all the times Wolverine has lost his healing powers…

This kind of content is great for new readers, as Marvel characters have a long, complicated history, and this is a fast way to fill in any backstory for the new reader.

AR not only serves as a way to integrate printed comic books with the digital world; offering bonus content and a way to bring traditional readers online, but also serves the comic book writers who no longer have to shoehorn baffling exposition into everything they write.

The Marvel Comics App

This is Marvel’s own digital comic download service, currently offering over 3,500 issues, with new comics available on the day of physical release.

If reading a comic on a tablet or mobile fills you with the fear that you’ll be pinching and dragging your way through every panel creating a massive chore of a user experience, well don’t worry as Marvel utilises a surprisingly intuitive guided reading function.

Similar to Comixology’s Guided View, Marvel’s app lets you automatically navigate a comic book by merely swiping your finger across the screen.

First you view the full page, then individual panels, then the app instinctively zooms into specific relevant details within the panel, managing to mimic the reader’s own gaze in a satisfying way. Loading time also seems to be non-existent.

The Marvel Unlimited app

Marvel Unlimited is Marvel’s paid subscription service. For a monthly or yearly fee, you can have access over 13,000 comics from throughout Marvel’s history.

Previously only available online, as of March 2013 Marvel Unlimited is available on Android and iOS devices.

The app works by streaming content online, so a wi-fi connection is neccessary, however it is possible to download up to six comics temporarily to your device so you can read them offline.

Traditional readers in the digital age

The future of comic book reading is certainly tied into digital, and many other publishers are discovering this too. Image Comics, the third biggest publisher, has revealed that 15% of its total comic books sales are from digital.

It’s also interesting to note that trends previously designed to resuscitate the ‘ailing’ comic book industry – variant covers, limited print runs – are also the reasons why a lot of mature readers lost faith in the comic industry.

With digital, this collector mentality is out of the window as digital comics never go out of print or sell out. It removes the mercenary style hunt for variant covers or rare editions, as there’s no such thing as a limited edition online. Digital comics have to rely on the good old-fashioned techniques of story-telling, character development and quality of art to attract readers.

The ability to give away free comic downloads to entice new readers to digital could also prove to be a much more frequent and cost effective exercise.

Perhaps digital comics will attract back those traditional readers who wandered away from their comic book stores many years ago.