Last Tuesday Brian K. Vaughan (Saga, Ex Machina) and Marcos Martin (Daredevil, Amazing Spider-Man) released their new creator-owned book “The Private Eye”. It would be exciting to see something from either of these creators under normal circumstances. They both do truly great work in the comics medium and it’s the same team that previously produced “Doctor Strange: The Oath”. However, that’s not what makes this release special. “The Private Eye” is being released only through digital means and you choose the price (meaning it can be free). It is not connected to any publishers (e.g. Image, Marvel) or distributors (e.g. Diamond, Comixology). It stands completely apart from the rest of the comics industry, relying on its own website and word-of-mouth for distribution and advertising.
This is not the first time something like this has been attempted. The most famous example is likely Radiohead’s 2007 album “In Rainbows”. It was also released in a digital, DRM-free format where purchasers could choose whatever price they would like to pay for it. “In Rainbows” was an excellent experiment. Radiohead earned a good profit on the album, although not as much as previous releases. It also gained the band some new fans and a lot of free publicity. However, this style of release has not become common in the music industry since. It did not affect a great deal of change. “The Private Eye” is part of a very different industry and is more likely to be a harbinger of new trends.
There’s no reason to expect this to become the norm in comics, but it is a significant break from the factors which currently dominate monthly publications. First, it shows the potential to make money outside of the big two publishers (Marvel and DC Comics). Online publication circumvents the editorial control and incredible hurdles offered by going to mainstream publishers. Even smaller, independent publishers which allow for more to total creative control like Image Comics, IDW, and Dark Horse are still difficult to utilize when first attempting to enter the industry.
This method of distribution also avoids the single largest monopoly in the comics industry: Diamond. If you’re unaware of what Diamond does, they are the sole distributor of comics to retail outlets. Their pricing makes it exceptionally difficult for small publishers to survive. The internet and online distribution outlets, like Comixology, have already begun to show the demand for alternative distribution methods. “The Private Eye” and its website PanelSyndicate represent a truly independent break from all previous distribution methods. Even Comixology has begun to open its doors to individual creators seeking publication. It’s not a perfect solution, as many readers prefer to have paper copies, instead of digital copies of books. It is a first-step in breaking down what has thus far been monopolistic control of mainstream comics distribution.
The establishment of PanelSyndicate and other online alternatives is not a cure-all for problems in comic publishing. The success of “The Private Eye” will more likely be based upon the reputation of its creators than people seeking out new, quality comics online. It also fails to address the importance of print books. Image Comics remains the leader in helping to support creator-owned and controlled comics. There are still large problems to be faced in changing the comics industry.
This is not the moment everything changed, but it’s a sign that things are changing for the better. “The Private Eye” has kicked off to a great start and is giving comic fans, new and old, the entire world over, a chance to realize that there are alternatives to both the largest publishers and distributors of comics. It’s a break by two of the best talents working in the industry, which will provide an alternative path for the great talents to come. It’s something exciting and new, exactly what the comics industry needs.
So go try a new comic. There’s no risk and you can decide how much you think it’s worth.