Superheroes on Demand

By Mike Musgrove
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Comic book publisher Marvel said yesterday that it has made thousands of vintage comics accessible online for a subscription fee.

The service, called Marvel Digital Comics Unlimited, is intended to attract new fans with online versions of the hard-to-find early adventures of such superheroes as Spider-Man and the X-Men. Though the publisher has occasionally posted issues of its classic comics online, this is the first time it has tried to make a business with Web content.

"We wanted to find a way to get more people to take a look at our comic books," said Dan Buckley, president of Marvel Publishing.

Recent movies and video games based on Spider-Man and the X-Men have been financially successful, Buckley said. But Marvel has suffered from a waning sales at newsstands, and it has thousands of other characters and properties that it hopes will find a larger audience with the Web's help.

"Comic-book fans are Web-savvy," Buckley said. "We feel like it's a good overlap with our core demographic."

Marvel isn't the only comic publisher working to find its way into the online world. Its traditional rival, D.C. Comics, has a Web division, Zuda Comics, that went online last month.

Marvel's comic-book content is available for $59.88 a year, or $9.99 a month, at Marvel.com. The company is initially putting about 2,500 titles of its back catalog on the service and intends to add 20 comics each week.

Subscribers will be able to view the vintage comics on their computer monitors, in the window of a software browser designed for the service. The software is designed to keep users from saving the pages to their hard drive or from making printouts.

To win an initial audience, Marvel is offering a free online sampler of 250 titles for an unspecified time. Because of heavy traffic at the site, the service was sluggish or unavailable for much of the day yesterday.

Brad Meltzer, who has written stories for comic books such as Justice League of America, said the comics industry has trouble bringing in new waves of young readers. Marvel's move sounds like a good idea, he said.

"They're building the next generation of readers; they're creating geeks as we speak," Meltzer said. "This is how you, potentially, save comics in a world where kids just want to sit in front of a glowing computer."

The new service isn't Marvel's first move into the digital world. It has also made much of its back catalog available on CD-ROM and DVD-ROM. Web-savvy comic fans have long been able to illegally download issues of vintage comics via file-trading services such as BitTorrent.

To guard against undermining sales of its latest comic books, which cost about $3 apiece, Marvel plans to post its latest comics -- the ones on sale in stores today -- six months after publication.

Joel Pollack, founder and primary owner of Big Planet Comics in Bethesda, said he was ambivalent about the new service.

"Some of my fellow retailers are kind of upset, but I think you can't turn back the hands of time and it's inevitable," he said. "If it hurts the sale of Marvel Comics, it's more self-destructive of Marvel . . . than anything else. . . . I don't know if it's going to have any impact on my business or not."

Matthew Klokel, who owns Fantom Comics in Tenleytown, was more enthusiastic.

"I think it's a great idea -- it'll get more people reading comics. Hopefully, it'll get people comfortable with some of the characters and they'll decide they want more," he said. "I think it will be a gateway drug to further comic book reading."

If that's true, it comes at a good time for Klokel. His new shop in Union Station is scheduled to open Friday.


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