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Comixology was never going to save comics, but it tried

It’s monopolies all the way down

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The Amazon logo on three screens speckled with polka dots Graphic: Matt Patches/Polygon; Source images: Leon Meal/Getty Images
Susana Polo is an entertainment editor at Polygon, specializing in pop culture and genre fare, with a primary expertise in comic books. Previously, she founded The Mary Sue.

The Comixology app, the mobile incarnation of the digital comics platform owned by Amazon since 2014, has finally shuffled off this mortal coil. On Dec. 4, individual Comixology libraries and Comixology Unlimited subscriptions were swept into users’ corresponding Kindle libraries, where those comics can now be read using the Kindle app or the read.amazon.com browser experience (still in beta).

It’s been a slow-moving and inevitable apocalypse for Comixology users. In 2018, Amazon shuttered Comixology Pull List, a service that allowed readers to order comics from brick-and-mortar shops through Comixology.com. In 2022, the company merged the Comixology Submit program into Kindle Direct Publishing and shuttered the Comixology.com storefront, forcing comics purchasers into its general retail experience. (You know your UI is bad when even Patton Oswalt is tweeting about it.) Earlier this year, Amazon laid off swathes of Comixology staff, with those remaining saying they “felt like their hands were tied in making major decisions.”

Arguably, the tension between Comixology and its corporate mothership has been there since the 2014 acquisition of the digital comics platform. After Amazon acquired the app from its founders, the company removed the ability to purchase comics from all iOS versions of Comixology, so as not to pay app store fees to its biggest tech competitor, Apple.

But this isn’t a clear-cut case of a huge monopoly throwing its weight around a small industry. Comixology was already a monopoly. It’s monopolies all the way down.

Comixology was supposed to revolutionize comics

A screenshot of the classic Comixology storefront, showing new releases like Saga, and sales on Convergence and Secret Wars. Image: Comixology.com

Before I ever read a comic on Comixology, I used Comixology Pull List to keep track of upcoming releases — there was a time when that was all you could really do there! At its 2007 launch, the service was largely dedicated to offering online community and independent resources for keeping track of what comics you wanted to buy. A digital comics reader service, “Comics by Comixology,” wouldn’t launch until 2009, and in 2011, when DC Comics announced that every issue of its paradigm-shattering New 52 relaunch would be available digitally same-day-as-release, it felt like a tectonic shift.

In a very short amount of time, being able to buy a digital, monthly-release comic on the same day that it hit physical shelves became not merely normalized but expected. And in that time, Comixology became synonymous with digital comics distribution in the English-speaking market. Even Marvel and DC’s own digital stores, now shuttered, were just branded and siloed Comixology storefronts.

Retailers shrieked (granted, they’re a pretty shrieky bunch) that day-and-date digital would nail the coffin shut on every comic shop in America. But in the end it turned out that some people like digital comics, and some people like physical comics. There was overlap in those audiences, but not in a way that threatened brick-and-mortar retail. Books could succeed in digital sales when they flopped in physical. We know this is true.

But we only know it because of the few times that Comixology and publishers have deigned to let us know.

Being “Netflix for comics” had its drawbacks

Alana and Marko, the adult leads of Saga. Alana has brown skin and translucent, green insectoid wings, while Marko has the pointed ears and curling horns of a mountain ram. From the cover of Saga #1, Image Comics (2012). Fiona Staples/Image Comics

Comixology shared many of the fundamental drawbacks of the cinema streaming services, including that audience figures can be need-to-know, with the publishers deciding who needs to know.

The great digital media scarcity problem applies here, too. If your local comic shop refused to sell Saga because the cover featured Alana breastfeeding her infant daughter, you could go to the shop the next town over, or mail order a copy from the next state. When Comixology decided not to sell Saga #12 in 2013 out of an overabundance of caution in respect to Apple’s own monopolistic App Store rules, you couldn’t get a digital copy of it from a competitor because there weren’t any. And if Saga hadn’t been one of the most popular books on the stands at that time, with a passionate audience willing to raise social media hell, Comixology and Apple might not have relented and allowed its sale. A smaller title could have been SOL.

But even this belies the fact that most people don’t actually own their Comixology comics in any real sense of the word. Unless publishers opted in to offering DRM-free downloads (and the biggest ones never did), the money you forked over to Comixology was never for a comic book. It was just for permission to look at a comic through their proprietary service, the consequences of which are immediately apparent to every Comixology app user currently trying to figure out how the Kindle app works.

So what now?

“Sorry, something went wrong on our end” says an error page on Amazon.com, with a picture of a worried-looking corgi. Image: Amazon.com

Well, there’s the subscription option — Marvel Unlimited, DC Universe Infinite — and some smaller publishers offer their own digital retail services. There’s your local library, and there are some up and coming in-beta digital retail platforms trying to fill the vacuum. But as of publish, there isn’t a true à la carte, same-day-as-release purchasing solution (especially if you want to read a Marvel or DC book, which are at the moment only available through Amazon’s systems).

Comixology made it look easy, but it needs to be emphasized, as we pour one out for it, that the comics game is hard. Comixology standardized Guided View, the feature that allows users to read a comic one panel at a time — a must for rendering the American monthly comic book pamphlet readable on a smartphone. And Guided View is formatted on the digital storefront end, not the publisher end. Any company trying to get started in this space will be shouldering the subjective, week-after-week, human-hand work of converting page-by-page files into panel-by-panel reading, on top of running a digital storefront, storing a digital library, and keeping up relationships with print publishing, app stores, and mobile tech companies.

Neither DC nor Marvel Comics are so replete with assets that they have the manpower or bandwidth to maintain, in perpetuity, their own à la carte digital comics libraries and storefronts. But even if Disney and Warner Bros. could be expected to hand their teeny weenie print publisher subsidiaries that kind of product development money, that’s still not what the audience wants.

You don’t go to one book store for Penguin Random House books and another for Macmillan books. You just go to the freakin’ Barnes & Noble. There is a demonstrable need for a flexible, industry-wide solution here — but the monthly U.S. comics industry is small. There just isn’t a lot of market pressure for a bespoke, comics-specific digital platform, much less multiple healthily competing ones.

Nobody gets into comics — or at least nobody stays in comics — to make money. They stay because of passion. The folks who kept Comixology going through ups and downs had that passion. It drove the creation of the site as a comics-focused online community (shuttered under Amazon management). It drove Comixology Pull List (shuttered under Amazon management) as a service to help smooth communication between buyers and retailers. It drove Comixology Originals (head of the program resigned under Amazon management), the company’s creator-owned digital publishing lineup.

Comixology was never going to save comics, but it tried. It tried to provide what comic book creators, comic book publishers, comic book sellers, and comic book readers needed. There might be a better solution out there. But if the death of Comixology has demonstrated anything, it’s that Amazon doesn’t care to find it.

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