I’ve mentioned before that the first comic I bought for myself was 2011’s Batman #1, written by Scott Snyder and with art by Greg Capullo. What I don’t think I’ve mentioned is that I bought that comic book on the shiny new Kindle Fire that I’d gotten as a Christmas present in 2011. I bought that comic book on a cool little app called Comixology. A lot has changed in the last decade. For example, when I first bought a book from Comixology, they were an independent company and they didn’t always have day and date digital releases. Now, the Comixology app is just a small part of the juggernaut that is Amazon, and you can buy pretty much every book published by one of the Big Two or any number of smaller comic book companies the exact same day that the hit store shelves. Scott Snyder and Capullo turned that first Batman comic into a 50+ issue run, which was followed by a tenure with Justice League that was itself capped off with two of the most bombastic crossover events of the decade, DC: Dark Knights: Metal and it’s sequel Dark Knights: Death Metal. All the while, Snyder has also become an elder statesmen in the current generation of comic book writers, helping to foster talents across the industry. It’s safe to say that Snyder has nothing left to prove. Which is why it came as a total shock that a few months ago, Snyder announced a massive new project. He was starting his own creative studio, Best Jacket Press, and partnering directly with Comixology to publish a slate of brand new IP. Each of which would be released throughout the month of October. What’s more these books will be completely free to read…if you happen to subscribe to Comixology Unlimited. This is a pretty big deal, and I want to talk about it.
Digital Comics have always been a controversial point with both creators and fans. For example, your average serialized comic book will set you back about 2-3 dollars USD. Certain special events or annual issues might be more expensive, but generally an average physical comic book won’t be more than 5 bucks unless things are extra special. But why, the fans have inquired since the early 2000s, should a digital comic book cost as much as a physical one? There’s also the matter of digital ownership. If some time in the distant future, Comixology stops being profitable for Amazon and they shut down their servers, I will lose every single digital comic book that I “own.” Granted I can ameliorate this by buying physical copies for books I really like, and such but the point remains. There are a lot of issues and points of discussion to be had with the idea of digital comic books, but I am and have been an ardent defender of them for a long time. I love physical media but without digital comic books I would have never become a comic book fan. This is an issue that goes back to the late 80s, when distributors more or less completely stopped shipping comics to news stands and grocery stores (i.e. places where people actually buy things) and shifted their focus to specialty comic book shops. Now at the time, especially the 1990s, this lead to incredible profits for all involved. But in the long run, it was a short-sighted business strategy that actively prevented the medium from reaching new fans, which lead to a boom and bust in the late 90s and early 2000s. Growing up as a kid I loved superhero stuff and I was an avid reader, hence I would hypothetically be the perfect mark for getting into comics. But I was stymied by the fact that I was a normal kid with no knowledge of how to find these fabled “comic shops.” Digital comic distributers like Comixology have gone a long way to solve this problem of availability and for that alone, they’re worth defending. What’s more, I’m probably not the only one who thinks that way since Comixology in particular has been very successful in the intervening years since I bough that first comic. In fact, they’ve become so successful that they have taken the big step that all digital distribution platforms have taken in the past decades by becoming a SaS or Subscription as Service platform with the launch of Comixology Unlimited.
Comixology Unlimited was launched in 2016 and from the beginning, the company’s goal was self-evident – they were going to become the Netflix of comic books. Comixology Unlimited is even structured like Netflix. For 6 bucks a month, users get access to a frankly ludicrous number of free comics from all of the big names. There are limits though. Unlimited’s free library of books is usually about a year behind current releases, so if you want to stay up to date you’ll still need to pay for new releases. What’s more, technically you can only “borrow” fifty or so books for free at any given time. That said, in terms of value for monthly investment, Comixology Unlimited is a fantastic deal. I’ve discovered a lot of new comics, some of which have gone on to become favorites (The Immortal Hulk and We Only Find Them Dead both spring to mind) because I could get started with these series without an immediate upfront investment. And in recent years, Comixology has taken the next step on the path to Netflix-style dominance, i.e. original content. And unfortunately, this is the part where I have to say some unflattering stuff. Up until very recently, Comixology Unlimited’s lineup of original content has not inspired a lot of interest. Part of that is just because it’s really hard for new publishers (and in this case Comixology is essentially making the jump from distributor to publisher) to make a dent in what is already a very niche market. But, the winds might be turning for Comixology. But in order to talk about this sea change, we need to talk about a different online media platform. For now, we need to talk about Substack.
Substack is an online blogging platform like Blogspot, Medium or, well…Wordpress. Ostensibly, Substack is designed for newsletter publications, but in practice it is essentially a platform designed to allow solo writers or small teams the ability to promote themselves and manage their own subscriptions. Substack has not been without controversy but in 2020 they started picking up steam as a premiere place to see the writings from a lot of popular voices. And starting in 2021, that has included comic book creators. Earlier this year, the CEOs over at Substack announced that they were hoping to invest as much as 30 million dollars in developing a comic book publishing arm that would immediately set out to compete with Marvel and DC, not to mention smaller publishers like Dark Horse, Oni, IDW and Image. It was immediately clear that they were essentially paying directly out of pocket to get the biggest names they could, announcing the initiative with the news that former Marvel scribe Nick Spencer would be writing comics exclusively on Substack going forward. Soon after, industry luminaries ranging from Saladin Ahmed to Johnathan Hickman announced their own deals with Substack. Even the subject of our piece, Scott Snyder, announced that he’d be publishing a comics newsletter on the site. This initiative has been met with a lot of skepticism. Even disregarding the controversy inherited from Substack’s other ventures, it’s been pretty clear that Substack hopes to simply buy its way into the realm of comic books by hiring recognizable names and hoping the rest will follow. And while deals that let creators hold onto their own creation and earn more money have always been a good thing there have been a lot of critics who feel that the Substack initiative is a house built on sand. But whatever the case may be, Substack has created another platform for independent and original comic book content. Suddenly, Comixology might have legitimate competition. Which has probably lit a fire underneath Comixology Unlimited. Enter Scott Snyder and Best Jacket Press.
This isn’t the first time Snyder has entered the realm of what is essentially self-publishing. Earlier this year, he and artist Tony S Daniel published the first five issues of a series called Nocterra. It was an enjoyable ride, and I want to see more of it, but in hindsight, it feels like Snyder testing the waters to see if his own name alone can help a book land solidly without the support structures offered by the bigger publishers. Which brings ups back to Best Jacket Press and Comixology’s big gamble. See, the big weakness in Substack’s strategy at the moment is that a lot of their new properties are essentially nonexistent. These writers and artists are promising new and original stories, but very few have manifested as of yet (as far as I know). In contrast, Comixology and BJP are erupting out of the gate with not one, but three new series, each written by Scott Snyder and with art by a different artist. For the first three weeks in the month of October, a different issue #1 will be released for free. So will this blitz of new, original content give Comixology Unlimited some breathing room? Well, a big part of the gamble relies on whether or not these new series are any good.
So it’s pretty lucky that Scott Snyder is a really good writer and has a pretty stacked little black book of excellent comic book artists. At time of writing, all three of the books have dropped, and so far it’s been smooth sailing. If anything this initiative has demonstrated how versatile Snyder is as a writer. Of the currently released books we have action horror, sci-fi noir, and historical suspense thriller. Each one comes with a different tone and radically different art styles, courtesy of the cadre of exceptional artists that Sndyer has recruited to join Best Jacket. My thoughts on the lineup are as follows:
We Have Demons:
First impressions are important. Which is probably why We Have Demons was the first Best Jacket book to be released. With art by Snyder’s close associate Greg Capullo, this book is a statement of purpose. This is an all-star team reuniting for a completely original story, which is like a full bingo card of hype for hardcore comic fans. We Have Demons is probably the most straightforward story in the bunch too. It’s an action horror romp about a young woman who discovers that her father, a Pentecostal preacher, has been living a double life as a demon hunter. The issue primarily consists of breezy exposition and set up that leads into a brief but bloody fight scene. The whole thing is told with a lot of bravado and the story already has a really distinct, and even idiosyncratic style. For example, the protagonist’s preacher father has a tradition of telling his congregation to “give evil the finger,” during sermons. And while I’ve never met a Pentecostal preacher who would actually minister like this, it helps gives the reader a good idea about what to expect. This is a horror comic, yes but it’s a horror comic about punching evil right in its stupid face. Paired with Capullo’s distinctly chunky but expressive artwork, it’s exactly the sort of mood I’m looking for in a new book this time of year.
Clear is a science fiction murder mystery with one hell of a hook. It’s set in a world where Augmented Reality has become the defining technology of the era. Thanks to brain implants that link the mind directly to the Internet, people can cover the world with “Veils,” that directly impact how they see everything. Are you a fan of Tolkien and D&D? Download a Veil that makes your world look like a fantasy kingdom. Are you nostalgic for days long past? You can cover the world in 80’s kitsch or maybe just sunny days and white picket fences. It’s a pretty blunt metaphor for how modern technology disassociates us from the real world, but it makes for a really compelling setting. We get to see the world through a bunch of different styles, and some tantalizing worldbuilding. Like, in a small touch we’re told that modern architecture and product design is deliberately boring and beige so that it can be a blank slate for everyone’s Veil. As such, if one isn’t tapped into a Veil the world looks dystopian and hopeless. This fits perfectly as the hero is a classic noir archetype, the hardboiled private investigator who exists on the cynical periphery of this world. He’s pulled into a murder mystery involving his ex-wife and so far that’s all we really have. The whole thing is accompanied by some gorgeous art by Francis Manapul which does a fantastic job of demonstrating how everyone sees this brave, new world differently. Given that this is a mystery, I expect Clear will be a bit of a slow burn, so we’ll have to wait and see for now.
The Night of the Ghoul:
So far, each of the Best Jacket Press books have touched upon several of Scott Snyder’s favorite themes and idiosyncrasies as a writer. We Have Demons recontextualizes the battle between good and evil into a contemporary setting with very soft sci-fi concepts, a theme we’ve seen in things like his run on Justice League and Nocterra. Clear is all about reimagining an archetypal story by placing it into a new setting, which we’ve seen in stuff like The Wake. But so far, of all the books in this lineup, The Night of the Ghoul feels the most…Synderish. It’s a mystery thriller about a lost horror film from the 1930’s that has some kind of dark connection to an incident from World War 1. The main characters are a father with obsessive tendencies and his son from whom he is already mildly estranged. Themes of fatherhood, historiography and obsession are common throughout Snyder’s work. Plus, a lot of this set up reminded me of Snyder’s previous horror stories like American Vampire and Wytches, both of which also featured ancient horrors and the more mundane evils that work to obscure them. That said, much like the other two books released so far, The Night of the Ghoul‘s first issue is largely set up. Though because this book features dual narratives, that set up had to be split between two separate stories. Count me intrigued to see where this one is going, but I’m worried about the hike to get there.
So what does any of this mean? Well, on one hand it means that avid fans will have a lot of fun new comics to read week to week, which is always a good thing. But from a broader, holistic perspective, deals like the one between Best Jacket Press and Comixology or the ones that Substack has been engineering, show that the comic book reading world is shifting. Digital comics aren’t just an afterthought anymore, they’re going to be a focus moving forward. Which is good for the whole medium, I think. As I said earlier, ease of accessibility has been the biggest hurdle to getting new readers to pick up comics for the last two decades. But all of these new ventures, from Comixology Unlimited to Substack are pivoting in the same direction as most media. That is to say, that they’re turning themselves into subscription services wherein the user doesn’t really “own” the media they consume. Granted, in this realm I think Best Jacket Press has the edge as Snyder’s announcement immediately made it clear that physical prints of his new series would be coming out via Dark Horse books. But it’s still a troubling sign of the times. I don’t want to pay for more subscriptions to access more content when I could just be buying individual issues or trade collections. Overall, I guess my verdict is that I’m excited by the content, but ambivalent to worried about the execution. That said, comic book fans live in exciting times. Plus, I haven’t even gotten to talk about how DC is entering into this brave new, digital first world. But I’ll be happy to talk about next time…