WoQW: You've Gotta Be Kidding Me; Comics on Shiny Disks

Words of Questionable Wisdom
You’ve Gotta Be Kidding Me; Comics on Shiny Disks
By Paul Sebert

From the 1958 Ford Edsel to Pepsi Blue the history of the consumer market is filled with ill-fated products that have been rejected by consumers. Every year hundreds, if not thousands of new commodities are introduced and only a small handful stick around. Some of these are done in by poor marketing efforts that fail to convey their value, while others are just flat-out stupid ideas.

In Ann Arbor, Michigan there’s a museum called NewProductWorks (formerly “The New Products Showcase & Learning Center”) founded by an economic advisor named Bob McMath where you can rummage through thousands of failed goods. Highlights of the museum include garlic cakes, eggs you prepare by putting in your toaster, buttermilk shampoo and Premier: a smokeless cigarette that Proctor and Gamble spent $325 million developing. Which got me to thinking… just would this museum look like if McMath was a comic book geek? What just what kind of comics, and related merchandise would you find? For decades comic fans have had dozens of dubious “collectables” marketed at them. So let’s take a brief walk down memory road in the first chapter of a possible ongoing series I like to call “You gotta be kiddin’ me?”

Malibu Ultraverse CD-Romix(1994)

One year after launching their initially successful “Ultraverse” line of superhero comics, Malibu decided to extend their newfound empire into new mediums. A television show based on the Nightman went into production as did a Ultraverse cartoon. Prime and Hardcase appeared in video games on the Sega CD. There was even talk of a Prime movie that Avi Arad to this day is still trying to get off the ground. Also the rights to a non-Ultraverse Malibu title called “Men In Black” were sold to Sony Pictures.

In the middle of all this, Malibu decided to release a daring new product into the newly expanding computer software market CD-Romix; comic books on CD-Roms! While Marvel and DC had released superhero screensavers and print programs, Malibu was getting their “books” on the shelves of video game and software stores across the nation exposing their characters to people who would normally never set foot inside of a comic book store. The first and only batch of these CD-Rom comics consisted of Prime #1, Freex #1, and Hardcase #1 which leads to one of the key problems with Malibu’s business model. First off by only offering one issue on each disk Malibu ignored one of the key advantages of the CD-Rom format; namely the large storage capacity of the disks. Malibu tried to justify the relatively high price of the disks by adding voice acting, sound effects, and even music to these additions only seemed to make the awkwardness of the new format stand out. It was not quite a cartoon, and not quite a comic. It also lacked one of the key advantages of comics as an entertainment medium, their portability. You can read a comic anywhere, on the subway, at a coffeehouse, the bathroom wherever. CD-Romix could only be read on a computer and in the world of 1994 Laptops were just barely starting to catch on. In the end Malibu wound up losing a fair chunk of cash in their experiment and CD-Romix languished for years in discount software bins long after Marvel had bought-out Malibu.

Intec Interactive Digital Comic Book Series(2003)

Just shy of a decade following Malibu’s debacle a new company named Intec Interactive got the idea of putting comic books on DVDs. Not one but two publishers fell victim to the allure of bright shiny disks, so both Marvel and upstart rival Crossgen signed deals with Intec. Marvel was the more cautious of the two only releasing a few of their most popular titles in the new format (Kevin Smith’s Daredevil run for instence) while Crossgen went absolute full throttle with plans on releasing nearly every single major book they had going at the time.

Wisely these DVDs contained about a trade paperback worth of comics, and were fairly slickly produced packages. Unwise however was the disks main selling point “Brings COMIC BOOKS to life with AMAZING Voice-Overs… …and COLORFUL images” Boon , the protagonist of Way of the Rat boasted on a DVD cover that must have made creator Chuck Dixon cringe. Like Malibu, Intec thought that comic fans were actually going to pay money to have someone read the text onscreen for them. Furthermore Intec’s distribution lead to the titles being sold in some unlikely places, resulting in the absolutely surreal site of seeing Crossgen’s violent series Negation being sold next to kiddy-friendly cartoons on Toys R. Us shelves.

For Marvel comics this was just a short-lived quickly dropped experiment but for Crossgen this was one of many serious problems the short-lived publishing outfit could not afford. One of the biggest problems with Crossgen’s business plan was their multi-pronged approach to releasing books. A new fan of a book like Crux would have to choose between spending his money on a full-sized trade paperback, a digest, DVD, back issues of the ongoing series, and finally back issues of an anthology the same story ran in. Crossgen bigwig Mark Alessi liked to compare his products to Coke, and boasted of producing different sizes for different audiences but in reality the people who were the most likely customer for a trade or a DVD were most likely the very same people who would be willing to buy a digest for a cheaper price. A person who buys a smaller bottle of Coke receives less soda, but a person who buys a digest trade receives the exact same story as the full size version. In some cases Crossgen’s own biggest competitor was Crossgen.

Not only was Crossgen not selling for different formats for different people… in the case of the DVDs they were selling a format for no one. Almost all of the problems with the CD-Romix still persisted. They were more expensive than a digest. (At least until Toys R Us put them in discount bins.) They weren’t as portable as a comic. (You still couldn’t read them in the bathroom.) As well produced as the voice acting was it still felt cheesy and a little insulting to watch the text on screen be read off to you. Finally for the price of one of the Intec DVDs a person could simply buy a few episodes of Batman The Animated Series or X-Men Evolution, a tempting offer as releases from those series often shared shelf space with Intec’s releases.

Disk based comics weren’t the sole cause of the undoing of Malibu and Crossgen, but they proved to be costly mistakes that the upstart companies shouldn’t have made. Though the producers of Malibu’s CD-Romix and Intec’s interactive comics deserve some praise for trying to apply new technology to the industry, but alas that is faint praise as thus far these innovations proved to be ugly evolutionary mishaps.

Alas with UMD disks on the market along with HD-DVD and Blue-Ray disks on the way I fear that before all is said and done yet another publisher will succumb to the allure putting comics of shiny disks.