Screenshot of a row of collected editions on sale at Comixology

We Need to Rethink Digital Comic Book “Collections”

We’re doing collected editions of comics wrong in the digital world.

The entire system needs a complete rethinking: Publishers need to reconsider how they sell comics digitally. Until that day comes, the Comixology interface needs an update that I think could help comic readers, especially newer ones.

The root of the problem, as always, is that Digital Comics are still made with protectionism towards the Direct Market foremost in the publishers’ minds. They’re afraid to do anything differently that might cut into DM sales, no matter how much it harms digital comics or the potential to find new audiences for comics. That includes formatting as well as pricing.

Combine that with a publisher workflow (dare I say “pipeline”?) that emphasizes efficiency over logic. They take the final digital package created for the trade paperback and just export that to the digital comics format, as well.

But shouldn’t the digital comic be a different package? Do the same lessons of shelving at stores make sense for the virtual shelves of a digital bookshelf?

Digital Comics Distribution/Retail should be a different experience from print retail.

The way you buy comics, the way you find comics, the way you learn about comics, the way you collect and store comics.

Everything. Should. Be. Different.

Why are we still stuck with the mirror image of a comic shop, just with a bigger back issue bin? It’s limiting and it prevents all the potential and possibilities that a limitless digital store could bring to us.

We still buy comics as individual issues or as trades that collect those issues as singular books. We don’t buy digital comics that tell full stories or full series or complete runs by specific creators — unless they happen to be broken down in the same way that the print editions are.

It’s blinded the publishers to opportunities and to new ideas. Digital Comics in their current format have been around for more than a decade now. Certainly, we’ve learned enough from those experiences to inform bigger changes in the future.

That’s what I want to talk about today. I have some ideas. Some are very nitty gritty user interface things. Some are more pie in the sky suggestions for rethinking digital comics from the ground up, and changing the way everything works. It’s far less likely to happen, but maybe it spurs on some useful discussion…

But, First: I Come to Praise Comixology…

These are all not strictly Comixology’s problem. There is a UI change that they could make and a new feature I’ll propose here that they could add. But the bigger issue it out of their hands.

The biggest problems are with the publishers and how they want to handle pricing and format of comics distribution. It’s their raw material that’s at the center of all of this, after all, and so they dictate the terms. Comixology is at their mercy for those larger issues.

Comixology brought us digital comics on this large scale. They bring us DRM-free comics. They bring us day-and-date comics. They bring us every North American publisher. They fund original comics. They have a pull list style of subscribing to comics, and even have an overall subscription service which, while not perfect, is still filled with a lot of amazing comics.

They have great digital comic reading apps that are, indeed, different from the paper experience (with Guided View). Their servers are rock solid.

This isn’t a hit piece on Comixology. Some of this is frustration with design choices that nobody questions. Some of it is annoyance at the way the comics industry chooses to work and protect one income stream while stifling the other. That trickles down to how Comixology does business, but that’s their position in the industry.

You’ll see what I mean, because I have some good examples we can look at here.

Trade Suggestions Make No Sense

We’ll start with a Comixology web site interface design that doesn’t work as expected.

Open up to the page for the first collected edition of “Invincible”. It’s a virtual trade paperback that collects the first four issues of the series.

Check out the box at the bottom of the page that shows you more Invincible stuff that you might want to buy. What stuff is it?

Comixology's recommended collections for Invincible

If you’re new to Invincible, there’s no way to know. There’s no label. Those covers are so small that you can’t read the volume numbers on them. You might assume that they’re volumes 2 – 5 of the trade series, because that would make the most sense.

You’d be wrong.

When you hover your pointer over the covers, a pop up will tell you a little more. This is not useful if you’re on a phone or iPad, since you can’t hover there.

This is where you’ll discover that while viewing the first trade, Comixology is showing you, left to right, the first three Compendium books plus the same trade you’re already looking at.

Sure. Of course.

Go to Amazon, instead, look up “Invincible volume 1”, and scroll down by a screen’s height or so. You’ll see this:

Invincible trade reading order

Look at that — a helpful resource. When you’re looking at the page for the first Invincible trade paperback, they give you a carousel that shows the Invincible trade paperback collections from volume 1 through volume 25.

If you go to the Invincible Compendium v1 page, instead, you get a similar carousel that shows the three compendium books:

Amazon list of all Invincible compendium books

It’s like for like. It’s helpful. It’s clearly labelled, well laid out, and informative. It even displays ratings and price points and the title. I can read it, even at its small size.

I wish Comixology’s worked the same. It can’t be an easy task to redesign a site with as much information and as many SKUs as Comixology, but there is a lot of little functionality changes that could go a long way in making the site more user friendly.

Maybe that’s in the works for the next iteration, but who knows? I’ll just leave that here in the suggestion box.

Digital Reading Order

Comixology has a ton of information on the site, but it isn’t laid out in a way that’s helpful in many circumstances.

You may need to open up a bunch of new tabs to find out creative teams or release dates along a series of items to figure out what it is you’re looking for. Go back and forth a bunch, do your comparisons, find what you were looking for, then close a bunch of tabs. (I’m only using it on a website on my computer. I can’t imagine how awkward it is to use like this with the iPad app. Since you can’t buy comics directly through the iPad — not Comixology’s fault — I don’t use it that way.)

But the website doesn’t go the extra step to guide the reader through picking out the comics they may want. Take, for example, the classic issue of finding a reading order.

It is very easy to get lost in picking out what books cover which stories or which eras of a given title. This is doubly true in recent memory where every series restarts with a new #1 issue on an almost annual basis.

If you want to read “X-Men” #1, great! Which one? Comixology will show you a LOT of covers and the first 20 characters or so of the book’s title. Roll a 20 sided die and pick a book.

I’ll never forget the weekend the “Captain Marvel” movie hit theaters and Comixology had a sale on Captain Marvel books. There were five of them that were volume 1s. Two of them had come out in the same year. Which book was it that the new reader fresh out of the theater should buy to read? Nobody was there to help you figure it out.

In fact, here’s the start of the search results for “Captain Marvel 1” today:

The first 12 results of a search on Captain Marvel 1 returns a LOT of results

Good luck with that. (You can narrow it down to a mere seven results, based on the costume.)

At the heart of it, that’s a Marvel Comics problem. They didn’t position a book to take the lead. They didn’t design a trade dress that would put the spotlight on the right book. They didn’t have a singular Captain Marvel title to make things easy to follow, the way a manga series isn’t afraid to run 40 volumes.

Comixology offered nothing extra to help, though, either. Forget “extra.” It should be part of their storefront that they can help explain what’s going on to new readers. There’s seven books starring the same character as a reader may recognize from the movie.

Where should someone start? Which #1 goes first? Perhaps a better question: Which #1 is the best choice to get a new reader excited about comics?

Would it have been difficult to write 250 – 500 words to guide a new reader through this?

We’ll get to that in just a bit.

Spelunking Through Marvel Continuity

Let’s walk through an example. I’m picking Ed Brubaker’s X-Men run.

I wasn’t reading X-Men in those days, but let’s say that I’m enjoying his crime stories so much with Sean Phillips that I jump to Comixology to buy his run on “Uncanny X-Men”. From what I remember, he only lasted a year or two on the title, so there shouldn’t be too many books to pick up.

This should be simple, right?

Here’s the results page I get for searching on “Ed Brubaker X-Men”:

All Ed Brubaker X-Men search results on Comixology

“Graphic Novels”. “Series”. “Single Issues”. I can see the structure there. It makes perfect sense for the industry with the way comics used to be twenty years ago.

In the modern world where no series lasts longer than 12 issues, it’s only asking to confuse the readers with every series having five or six volumes. (For another example: “Which Daredevil v1 do you want to buy? Stan Lee’s? Kevin Smith’s? Mark Waid’s? The other Mark Waid’s? Charles Soule’s? Or Chip Zdarsky’s?” That’s six. And when they’re collected, it’s all under different series name formats. Do you want “Marvel Knights Daredevil” for the Kevin Smith run? “Daredevil by Mark Waid” spanning both of Waid’s volumes? Or Charles Soule’s run which, I think, is “Daredevil: Back in Black”?)

Again, this is not Comixology’s problem, but they do have it within their power to help fix it, and it wouldn’t take a huge investment. We’ll get to that, I promise.

Running Down the List

For what I want with Brubaker’s “X-Men,” the simplest way to go would be to buy the collected editions of Brubaker’s stories. I probably only need three or four of those.

Let’s click on the “View More” link in the Graphic Novels section. (We can argue semantics about using “Graphic Novels” here in lieu of “Collected Editions” another time…)

I am presented with this:

The collected editions of Ed Brubaker's X-Men work on Comixology

OK, so it’s obviously not as simple as buying “Ed Brubaker’s Uncanny X-Men” volumes 1 – 5. In fact, only one book has a volume number attached to it, though the first three books have a similar enough design that they are calling out to me first.

Those are three “The Uncanny X-Men” trade paperbacks. I bet those will get me the bulk of what I need.

I’m also sure those three are in order, too, right? I tried hovering my cursor over the cover images to get expanded names in a pop-up, but that doesn’t work on this page. Odd.

So I clicked all three books open in new tabs on my web browser and read the fine print.

Turns out, those three books are not in order. They are, in fact, the first, the third, and then the second books.

But, wait! There’s less!

Those three books will get you issues #475 – #491, and then #495 – #499. Where are issues #492 – #494?

Let’s check out the next book in the results, which is “Uncanny X-Men: The Complete Collection by Matt Fraction.” That’s exactly where I’d think to go to find more of Ed Brubaker’s work, right?

Thankfully, I remember that Brubaker and Fraction worked together around that time on “Iron Fist.” Maybe that partnership started here? Or came over from “Iron Fist”? I don’t remember anymore. I clicked through on the book, to find that it covers “Uncanny X-Men” #500 – #511. It doesn’t indicate how many of those issues carry a Brubaker credit at all, but I’m sure it’s all covered.

Still, where’s #492 – #494?

Let’s go to the next book: “X-Men Milestones: Messiah Complex” features three issues from each of the mutant titles running at the time, including Uncanny X-Men #492 – #494.

Essentially, this is “Uncanny X-Men by Ed Brubaker” v 2.5. I have to pay for a lot of other books, but I can get the complete story including all of Brubaker’s issues.

I could also go buy the single issues for $1.99 each and save a few bucks, if I wanted to, but then I don’t get the whole story, and those issues show up on a different reading list on my Comixology App. I hate going back and forth.

I know, I’m spoiled.

The Non-Uncanny X-Men Comics of Ed Brubaker

Back to the search results: Brubaker has a credit in the “Avengers vs. X-Men” 13 part series that ran around that time, so I could pick up that book if I was a completionist.

“Uncanny X-Men: Manifest Destiny” collects issues #500 – #503 and assorted other comics. The Uncanny issues are already collected in the “Complete Matt Fraction” book, though, so I can skip this one. (Are these the only issues with a Brubaker credit in them, by any chance? I don’t know. I can’t tell from the description of the book, and I don’t want to click through all the single issues to look. Life’s too short.)

“Giant Size X-Men 40th Anniversary” collects “X-Men: Deadly Genesis” #1 – #6, a mini-series that I seem to recall Brubaker wrote around that time. It also includes a bunch of other comics from across the decades at Marvel.

But, wait! “X-Men Deadly Genesis” is a separate collection at the end of the list of Ed Brubaker X-Men comics on the search results page. I should just get that and not pay for the rest!

We’re almost there, I promise, and then I’ll really blow your mind in the conclusion….

“X-Men Krakoa Lives” collects four random X-Men comics with random titles. As someone who isn’t at all familiar with what this event was, I don’t know what it all means. I think Brubaker wrote “Giant-Size X-Men” #1 (volume 2, I presume)? That’s starting to sound familiar. This same book is also reprinted in the 40th Anniversary book mentioned above.

I can buy “Krakoa Lives” and “Deadly Genesis” and skip the 40th Anniversary books for the purposes of this discussion, right?

OK, great.

The Final Purchase List

Now, I have all the books I need.

I have collected editions that cover “Uncanny X-Men” #475 – #511.

I have the six issue “X-Men: Deadly Genesis” mini-series.

I’ll even go ahead and get “Avengers vs X-Men” and “X-Men Krakoa Lives,” for “Giant-Sized” and whatever Brubaker did for that crossover series.

Perfect. Got them all.

Putting Order to It All

Now, for the punchline to this whole shopping experience:

Which book do I read first?

I’ll add some paws here for dramatic effect:

Dog paws added for dramatic effect

How would I find that information? Each book has a listed print and digital release date, but these are trades and those don’t all necessarily come out right away. In fact, some came out years later. I’d have to do a LOT of clicking around to find the individual issues from all of these collections and see their initial print release date.

Or, more likely, I would need to Google around and hope someone has a suggested reading list for this kind of thing. There, I’d find, which has a list I’d go with.

But why do I need to do that? Comixology is a website. They have all the space in the world. They can offer reading guides to help explain this kind of thing. It’s a daunting task, to be sure, but there are fan-run websites who are already doing the work. Why can’t Comixology?

In fact, wouldn’t having a set of reading guides on their website bring them more traffic through Google? I can’t imagine how high Comixology’s Domain Rating is. (UberSuggest gives it a 77 out of 100. I’m sure AHrefs would put it in a similar category.) They have a massive amount of authority in the comics space. I’m sure they could outrank all these fan-run sites in a heartbeat with the right articles.

Start with some explainers for people looking for the top selling comics or the comics that have movies and TV shows at the moment, and slowly work your way down. Look at what searches people are making on Google or on their own website (a treasure trove of data!) and write to those. Answer the readers’ questions and integrate that with the search results.

Essentially, hire a comics blogger to start putting these together and figure out a way to integrate them into your site. Your programmers and designers can figure out a way to do that. It’s Web Site 101 stuff. The next time I type “Ed Brubaker X-Men,” there could be a section with links to articles like “The Ed Brubaker X-Men Reading Order” or “X-Men in the 2010s”.

Don’t ask me to do it, though. I don’t know the answer to any of this stuff anymore. But if you needed an Asterix Reading Order article, I’ll write it for you right here: “Start at volume 1 and keep incrementing until you run out of books, around volume 38 or so. Option: Stop after volume 24, when Rene Goscinny died.”

For a brief time, I did write some small essays on why you should buy the comics that were on sale that week for Izneo. They figured out how to include editorial content next to their sales pages, though those pages disappeared when the sales ended…

Comixology’s Knowledgeable Comic Shop Employee

You know what this is? This is the digital comics version of the comic book store employee. It’s that helpful voice that can answer your questions on site to help you find what you’re looking for. Right now, that’s missing.

Comixology is just all the wall shelves and back issue bins. It doesn’t have that friendly helper to break down the walls that prevent you from buying more comics. It is left to the user to perform countless clicks and take bountiful notes to figure these things out.

Wouldn’t it be better to have a resource to ask? Right now, that’s Google. Comixology ought to try capturing those hits for itself. It’s a much better sales funnel.

As much as I say the digital store shouldn’t be a mere mirror of the brick and mortar store, that doesn’t mean they should ignore the parts that are actually useful. There’s an argument to be made about the physical location being a community of readers, too, but I wouldn’t dream of suggesting that Comixology add a social network. That way lies madness.

Why Are Digital Trades Mirrors of Print Trades?

OK, let’s leave Comixology alone for the moment and talk about the kind of practices Marvel and DC engage in that drive me nuts.

The best example I can give is Frank Miller and Jim Lee’s “All Star Batman and Robin the Boy Wonder.” The series ran ten issues. The first print collection has issues #1 – #9 in it.

The digital collection also has issues #1 – #9 in it, and then you can buy issue #10 as a single issue.

Why? It’s digital; Publishers don’t need to follow the print standards. They can even adjust them afterwards. It costs them pennies more (at most) in storage and bandwidth to sell that digital file with one more issue in it.

Why not make the digital collection a “complete” collection and include the tenth issue in it? Heck, future print editions should add the tenth issue in, also, though I’m sure that would mean moving the price point to a number they didn’t want to pass.

There’s no excuse not to include the tenth issue in the digital collection. Even if they have to raise the price point by a dollar, just do it. Why not?

By the way, the Absolute Edition of the series contains all ten issues. At least there’s one edition that’s correct.

Think of the larger picture, though. Why are digital collections only 5 or 6 issues? Why do they need to be the same size and price as the print editions?

Oh, that’s right — protectionism of the Direct Market.

There’s no reason why collections couldn’t be twice as long for the same price. Comixology does offer bundles in some places, packaging multiple issues or collections up for a slight or better-than-slight discount. You can buy “Invincible” #1 – #144 for $149.99, for example, which is basically a buck an issue. I can’t argue with that, though I think the books should be a buck an issue to begin with…

I’m pretty sure it’s up to Marvel and DC to dictate the SKUs here, and they need to reconsider how they collect comics for the digital format.

The Crazy Big Idea: Let’s Blow the Whole Thing Up

Spider-Man reading a book in a window
Photo by Road Trip with Raj on Unsplash

Let me throw a wild idea out there: Why do we have “collections” in digital comics, anyway?

Wouldn’t it be easier if everything was single issues? Wouldn’t it be cool if major storylines could be presented in the Comixology UI in some way?

Why is it that if I buy issue #1 of a series, digitally, I then need to pay full price on the collection of issues #1 – #6. Why can’t I get a discount on the collection and just get issues #2 – #6? It’s digital. This can be done.

Or, if you want to keep things closer to how they are now, then give me the discount, let me keep the single issue, but also have the collection. Or take that single issue off my collection if I want to do this? It’s digital. This isn’t that hard to do.

(Maybe there’s a way for someone to take advantage of this that I haven’t thought of yet. Leave a comment if you can picture the money-making scheme someone would pull off with this.)

What if there were no digital “collected editions” and everything was single issues? Maybe the “Collections” section is a list of the storylines that link to the individual issues that fall under it. You could Check All and buy those issues together to get the whole story, maybe even at a slightly improved discount for your bulk purchase.

But what about the extras in the back of the collection? Again, let the website figure it out. Once you own all the issues, it’ll give you an extra “issue” that’s a collection of all the back matter. That’ll show up amongst the issues in that “Collections” section’s listing.

Before you say it — yes, I know, this is perhaps a bridge too far. Some “collected editions” are meant to be read as a single graphic novel, to the point where, perhaps, credits are removed from all issues and there are no chapter headers, and everything is meant to be read as one big book, not six little ones.

I’ll grant you that one. It’s an imperfect solution, but I think the system we have now is imperfect, too.

Final Thoughts

Comics bookshelf

Trade paperbacks are five or six issues for a reason: Size, weight, space, cost, final price, profit margin, etc.

The format becomes the decider for how creators tell their stories. They tell stories in discrete chapters, and then line up 5 or 6 of those chapters to tell one larger story — all because the single issues make for good cash flow (and the newsstand’s legacy), and the trade paperback is a good compromise of all the variables to create a book that bookstores and comic shops like.

In a digital world, what else is possible? Obviously, Webtoons is very opinionated on that topic. There’s very likely another answer that retains the page-by-page storytelling format, but sells it in a new way that best fits the digital distribution tools available.

Let’s think about these things. We’re far enough down the road of digital comics that I think it’s time to reconsider the parameters on which they’re built.

What makes sense in 2021? If the sky was the limit, how radical — or minor — an overhaul of the system would you do to help push the industry forward?

What do YOU think? (First time commenters' posts may be held for moderation.)

One Comment

  1. It’s obvious even to the casual observer that for a very very long time, digital was but an afterthought for many US publishers. But in pandemic times, access became more crucial than ever, so it would make sense publishers at least coordinate their output between both print and virtual. Not necessarily duplicate one to the other, as you point out, but still.

    Seeing all the kerfuffle that happened recently in movie studios, over Theaters vs Streaming, that gives an idea, albeit on a smaller scale, of the brainstorming comics publishers, creators and distributors need to have at this point to handle Print vs Digital for comics. Do real books have the same problems ?

    As I was buying, for many years, the DC Showcase volumes, the Marvel essentials, collection after collection, and cry in rage when they were discontinued without ever reaching a satisfying conclusion (notable exception to that being the Spirit Archives from DC), I have long wondered why the big two, both having a full library of archives, never switched from putting out collections based on random and dubious editorial choices and selections, to simply print on-demand for all their back catalog, offering a full variety of formats and prices. Same should be for digital, you should be able to add to cart, books or stories, by title, by character, by creator, you name it, and make your own buffet of compendiums. Sounds like a no-brainer, doesn’t it ?

    French Print collection of Marvel archives from Panini, similar in format to the Masterworks , are regrouped and labelled by year, not by title, series or creator. I mean, come on, it’s not hard to apply a modicum of common sense.

    In recent years, before buying a US collection of anything, I systematically go to the wiki page (and sometimes comicbookreadingorder, comicbookherald or tradereadingorder) and check if there are any holes in the contents of the trade, how to distinguish between editions, etc. In some cases, the HC and the TPB of the same book have different contents (The Great Darkness Saga for example, or the Byrne MOS volumes), this is just plain idiotic. Whoever does that should be fired on the spot, I dare say.

    Now when it comes to online stores design and layout, I understand that hiring someone to do what you suggest would cost a bit of money, but there is no doubt that sales would offset it exponentially, by word of mouth alone. I sometimes go to mycomicshop, just for the sake of checking the description before an Amazon or eBay purchase, because their listings are so good…

    On the subject of digital collection, I totally disagree with your idea that everything should be single issues. It’s really nice in the age of decompression to read a full story to the end in one sitting without having to open/close 6 or 12 books, or more, one by one. Also, collections have extra material, nice essays, artbook at the end, regroup all the variant covers, etc, you see my point.

    And most importantly, up to the Bronze age, the printing of the single issue was so bad that collected editions greatly improve on the readability. I remember buying the single issues of Giffen’s JLI at the time, I don’t regret shelving 100$ recently for the omnibus volumes, gives me way less of a headache to decipher Bob Lappan’s amazing scribbles. I’m just saying. Also, don’t get me started on the coloring.

    And sure, pricing of Digital is a whole ‘nother can of worms…

    Finally, I agree with you one one thing, the paradigm should indeed be shifted. For Print, it was all about format over content, for Digital it should be the opposite.

    BTW, For some reason the pictures in this post do not appear on internet Explorer as they do on Chrome. Not sure why.

    Oh, and when you wrote « I’ll add some paws here for dramatic effect” I was totally expecting some cute cat pictures 😉