It was the proverbial shot heard around the Internet we'd been waiting for. Or the one I'd been waiting for, anyway. The first blockbuster comic from a big-name creative team to go digital-first. The first digital comic that could really really really show that non-physical comics can be a viable format both creatively and commercially. Ladies and gentlemen, Brian K. Vaughn and Marcos Martin's The Private Eye is a thing in the world, and this may well be the start of the digital indie break-out no-one's really been talking about.
You may, if you wish, wade in to tell me I'm jumping the gun here. At the time of writing, after all, we don't have numbers to confirm that The Private Eye is a commercial success. And maybe I am jumping the shark here. It's certainly not proven as a big seller yet. But tell me you think I'm wrong.
Twitter was abuzz when the news slipped out (the way it slipped out, with brief, minimal marketing, warrants further discussion at some point too) and within a matter of minutes it seemed everyone on the Internet had bought a copy. Reviews were popping up within an hour or two. And, even if that was just the enthusiastic chatter of early adopters, there's no reason to think there won't be further uptake as the ripples spread.
Saga sells like… well, we can say 'hotcakes' or we can say 'like a comic with the letter X in the title'. And you could probably count the number of comics readers who don't have Internet access on two of Nightcrawler's hands. And with a pay-what-you-fancy price tag, the barrier to entry is very low. But, even if I am wrong, The Private Eye and its host website, Panel Syndicate, add up to a very strong declaration of faith in digital not just as a place to shovel your made-for-print content as a secondary concern, nor as simply a place to have a play and experiment, but as a viable creative and commercial space.
It's strange how little focus there is among the mainstream comics community on digital as an outlet for indie work. Yes, there's the alternate comics universe of webcomics in which some creators are doing well, primarily through selling merchandise. But, the traditional comics industry that is used to making money from selling actual comics doesn't seem interested. Even as creator-owned print comics are booming, everyone is far more hung up on how digital affects the big existing players, or retail, or how it might bring in new readers. What about the fact that it offers creators a chance to reach a very wide audience with whatever sort of material they fancy and to directly profit from it? No editorial controls. No middle-men to decide what will or won't sell based on past performance and the natural conservatism that comes from worrying about your overheads.
It seems a little odd, because over in the world of prose book publishing all anyone's talking about is how ePublishing empowers the writer to go it alone without the established publishing houses, and all the creative freedom that goes with that. Yes, that sort of environment comes with its own (substantial) drawbacks, but the fact of the matter is that we've yet to see anything like the breakout digital success of a Joseph Konrath or an Amanda Hocking.
Yes, Chris Roberson's Monkeybrain is interesting and seems healthy, and yes, Mark Waid's Thrillbent is really pushing at what the digital medium can do (and they're not the sum total of the story so far, either). But nothing that has come before has had both the clout and the conviction of The Private Eye. Vaughn and Martin are big-name creators who could be publishing anywhere. They've clearly put a lot of sweat into the project, and they've planted their flag and said 'we're going to make money off this thing'. And this very well may be the breakout hit that drives future big ticket indie books down the digital-first avenue.
Pay-what-you-fancy isn't going to be viable for everyone. The creators (and BKV in particular) have an established fanbase that a) knows they're in for something good and b) likes and wants to support them. An unknown without that kind of support doesn't have that goodwill to bank. And, frankly, Panel Syndicate is a bit low-tech and inelegant when compared to an app like Comixology or the formatting of Thrillbent.
(While we're picking at my argument, it would also be nice to see a huge hit from someone who hasn't already built up a massive following in print. A Walking Dead for digital, if you will).
Still, there's a strong statement of intent in The Private Eye, and suddenly digital-only looks like a much more compelling prospect for creators wanting to plough their own furrow than it did a few weeks ago.
It looks suspiciously like the creative future of digital comics has begun in earnest.
Mark E. Johnson is a writer and professional nerd. He tweets from @Spinface. Copyright © 2013 [Mark E. Johnson]. All Rights Reserved.