The obese Comic Book Guy on The Simpsons now has a new target for his withering snobbishness: a little company called Amazon.com.
Amazon acquired ComiXology, a leading online hub for comics. The seven-year-old New York City-based startup offers 50,000 comics, from major publishers such as Marvel and D.C. Comics and a variety of independent publishers, on its website and via apps for all the major mobile phones and tablets. Terms of the deal weren’t disclosed. “There is no better home for comiXology than Amazon,” said David Steinberger, the chief executive of ComiXology, in a statement. Added Amazon’s David Naggar: “We’ve long admired the passion comiXology brings to changing the way we buy and read comics and graphic novels.”
The deal, announced Thursday afternoon, seems insignificant compared with other recent humdingers in high tech: Facebook snapping up the virtual reality firm Oculus Rift or Google buying Nest. But it is emblematic of the way that Amazon, outspent and outgunned by companies such as Apple, Samsung, and Google, has been steadily building an unassailable position in the race to create attractive ecosystems of hardware devices and digital services.
Apple produces perfectly polished hardware like iPhones and iPads. Samsung makes more devices, with more variation, than anyone else. Google owns the popular underlying platform for phones, Android, and has some of the best tools in the field like Google Maps, Gmail, and the Chrome browser. Unlike its rivals, Amazon is betting on content.
The online retailer has spawned a constantly growing set of services for authors and readers with its Kindle Publishing program. It’s building a games division in Seattle and a studio for TV shows and movies in Los Angeles. With ComiXology, Amazon will now own the leading distribution gateway for graphic novels. (The only media format Amazon hasn’t yet muscled into is music; perhaps that’s coming as well.)
It will be interesting to see how Amazon integrates ComiXology into its Kindle Fire tablets and even its new Fire TV box in the years ahead. The company vows it will continue to deliver comics to owners of Apple, Google, and Samsung devices. But Amazon is adept at giving its customers specific reasons to buy Kindles. Perhaps owners of the Kindle Fire will get one free comic book a month, as Kindle owners currently do with the Kindle Owner’s Lending Library. Perhaps a Fire TV owner, after she watches an X-Men or Spider-Man film at home, will be presented with opportunities to buy the source material or the comic book tie-in. It’s easy to imagine a new set of services to allow comic writers and artists to publish directly to readers—no Marvel or D.C. required.
The comics industry has been in slow decline for decades. Its core readers are aging; young people have a wide universe of other entertainment options, starting with apps on their mobile phones. Desperate comics companies are resorting to morose tricks to get attention. (Veronica, call me if you need a shoulder to cry on.)
Amazon-style experimentation may be the perfect antidote to the decay of the comic book business. Comic Book Guy will no doubt hate this deal, but he was always living in the past.