Brainiac On Banjo: The ComiXology Kamikaze

When I look over my shoulder, what do you think I see? Some other cat looking over his shoulder at me. And he’s strange, sure is strange. – Donovan Leitch, “Season of the Witch.”

When it comes to the digital world, sometimes all those zeroes and ones just don’t add up. Let’s look at ComiXology, what I once considered to be a genuine revolutionary force in the medium.

In the history of paper publishing going all the way back to papyrus, it’s often been a crappy way to make a living. Oh, sure, some folks have been enormously successful, but on the same hand some folks win the lottery. Expenses are high and nobody knows what the market wants. Paper is getting hard to find (soon we will have to make a choice between having paper and having oxygen and trees), and places to buy the finished product have run thin. “Book browsing” and impulse purchases have become 21st Century rotary dial telephones.

We needed an alternative way to get comics. In 1981, Marvel Comics published Dazzler #1 and made it available only to the then-growing number of dedicated comic book stores, and that showed us there just might be life after the newsstands and candy shops. To make a long story short, around that same time I turned to theatrical producer Rick Obadiah and said “hey, you know, we could do this.” And that’s the shortest origin story for First Comics ever told.

Things went pretty well until the overwhelming number of distributors bellied up after exclusive distribution deals kicked in. As those distributors were coughing up blood, the “smaller publishers” (meaning just about everybody except Marvel and DC) started getting paid late, if at all. Again, I’m making a very long story short.

Things lumbered on with sale figures plummeting down to coral reefs. Comic book stores closed left and right. Big media outfits started investing in content-generating companies and that breathed a little life into the whole affair. But, once again, we needed a new and useful way to get our stories to the people who wanted them. Comic books stores work only for those who lived within a reasonable drive and didn’t mind the gloomy, testosterone-filled environs where a casual newcomer would likely feel that were on a different planet.

In April of 2010 Apple released their first iPad, a digital tablet with which one could work, watch movies, listen to music, and read stuff. Visual stuff. Like comic books. Hey, maybe this is just what the comic book medium needs! At that time I had lunch with Pop Culture Squad’s future HBIC Adriane Nash and legendary comics journalist and woman-about-town Heidi MacDonald where I mentioned this was the week of great opportunity – if it works and if people can get past their need to hold on to stapled paper and, instead, focus on content.

By this time, David Steinberger, John Roberts, and Peter Jaffe had started a company called “ComiXology.” Three visionaries who jumped into the water before the iPad came out. According to Wikipedia, “in 2012 ComiXology was ranked as the number three top grossing iPad app — the only app from 2011 to stay on the top ten list… (In) 2013, it was revealed that ComiXology’s app had been the top non-game iPad app for three years running.” By 2016, they also were creating their own “original” comics.

ComiXology at WonderCon 2012

This captured the attention of Amazon, the only remaining store on Planet Earth. They needed fodder for their Kindle e-reader (also available on most all computer appliances), and by 2014, the year of acquisition, it was clear that dedicated comic book readers also were early adopters of nifty technology and were willing to spend good money to feed their habits.

Of course, as most of us have learned the hard way, Amazon’s definition of customer service is not the same as Saxs Fifth Avenue’s. Over the next couple years they severely undermined ComiXology’s comic book reader, they screwed up the website and made spending money on the damn thing more difficult. These steps disenfranchised many of the faithful while Amazon and its founder Jeff Bezos were beginning to leave a sour taste in some people’s mouths – not to mention more than a few urine-filled two liter soda bottles in their wake.

So, in response to an undefined and seemingly ignored future, Amazon just laid off – according to published reports – up to 75% of the ComiXology work force. More firings (the great Bobcat Golthwait used to say “I didn’t lose my job, there’s just some other guy doing it”) are anticipated as the year progresses and ComiXology retreats into the haze of their shitty Kindle reader.

75% means, for the math challenged, if you worked next to three other people, they’re gone and you’re looking over your shoulder.

So much for the future.

Be glad you’re not a tree.

PCS Note: In the aftermath of the layoffs former ComiXology program manager Scott McGovern posted a Twitter thread that details the human cost of the corporate decisions Amazon has made. Feel free to click through and read the whole theread.