On Tuesday, at the opening of a new exhibition at the Time Warner Medialab in New York, DC Entertainment's president Diane Nelson and co-publisher Jim Lee announced a new storytelling technology that would soon start appearing in DC's digital comics line.
It's a concept that Friedrich Nietzsche would have appreciated, had he been into Batman. Because: when you read a digital comic book from the new DC2 Multiverse line... the comic book also reads you.
A 'Multiverse' comic (which can be read online or offline through mobile apps and Web apps) is a technological mashup. It contains features from conventional comic books, multipath video games such as DC's successful Batman: Arkham series, and the old-fashioned 'choose your own adventure' books that are familiar to anyone who was a child in the 80s or early 90s. Each chapter of a Multiverse title contains several breakpoints which prompt the reader to select one character, weapon, or action from several options. Each decision unlocks new content, and sends the reader down a different direction for the story.
Here's the twist: the comic is also sending data back to DC Entertainment. If readers show more interest in Alfred Pennyworth than The Penguin, the comic's creators and editors will ultimately learn about that.
I spoke to Diane and Jim about the DC2 publishing initiative on the morning before their announcement.
"At the end of the day, two different readers can experience two different storylines and two different conclusions," Jim said, when I asked him about the story reading experience. "The reader can move straight through, or they can explore every branch of the storyline."
It isn't as crazy as it sounds. Many of today's most creatively and commercially-successful comic book writers also write video games, and are familiar with the "if this then that" tree scheme of plotting.
But how does this immense structure influence how the creators put together a story?
"It's a creative and logistical challenge," he said. "Creatively, we're making one story, with many different outcomes that are just as satisfying. We have to open ourselves to a story structure that fits that. And from the logistical side, we need to create assets that support all of these different elements from the same story tree. To do it in the smartest fashion, using assets here and there, and be very smart about what we're creating so we're not overwhelmed. If we do 8 different outcomes and every one of those is very different, it can be a strain on the production system. So you have to be smart about the sort of stories you're trying to tell."
The data is anonymized and aggregated; DC later told me that they've no interest in connecting specific preferences to specific users. But another obvious concern remains. Will the data that DC Entertainment sees change a writer's plans for an ongoing storyline? And is that a good thing?
I reminded Diane and Jim of the famous Batman storyline, A Death In The Family. In 1983, readers were invited to phone in votes on whether Robin would live or die at the end of the story they were reading.
Theu laughed. "We'll know what interests [the readers] in the kind of response we get – as they make those choices, that data will have an influence on what we do next," Jim allowed, but he downplayed the idea that the tail of technology would wag the dog of storytelling. Mostly, the influence of the data will be subtle...it'll suggest to DC the characters and concepts that they should be developing further.
But: Jim didn't completely dismiss the idea that an unexpected groundswell of interest in a specific character's storyline could, say, motivate the publisher to keep him or her around for a while. The first Multiverse-enabled title will be the digital-first Batman: Arkham Origins, based on the same-named video game that's set for release this fall.
Besides DC2 'Multiverse' comics, the new DC2 initiative will also include linearly-plotted digital comics that include multilayered artwork, sound, and dynamic action sequences. The first such title is Batman '66, which is based on the tone of the classic camp Adam West-starring TV show.
"Our major initiative is about finding those elusive new fans," said Nelson, citing the success of DC characters in games such as Arkham, in TV shows like Smallville and Arrow, and in movies. "Casual fans enjoying those experiences could become comic fans. We're finding that as much as 30 percent [of DC's 'Digital First' customers] are new readers."
DC wants to use these storytelling tools in a way that suits the nature of the incoming reader. "We want to apply this technology where it makes sense organically; we don't want to be gimmicky," Jim said. "We want to choose the right stories and the right characters to use the tech."
"Arkham Origins speaks to the limited world franchise familiar to gamers," explained Diane. "DC2 and its ability to use all those classic sounds and balloons really spoke to Batman 66. It felt organic to that show. Fun, and all-ages."
"A parent would feel very comfortable handing that to a kid to read," Jim agreed, when I asked about the differences between catering to an older, established audience and appealing to the upcoming generation. "The level of fun and interactiveness of that project lends itself to bringing in younger readers."
DC was one of the last publishers to embrace digital comics. Their moves indicate that their late entry was less a case of cold feet than a desire to jump in with a considered plan and full commitment. DC says that their strategy has paid off well so far: their first-quarter digital sales figures of 2013 are up 35 percent over those of the same quarter in 2012, and even their print comics are experiencing double-percentage-digit growth.
Are they using digital and quirky concepts like Batman '66 to incubate ideas for the traditional print comics, I wondered? Nope, say Diane and Jim.
"Part of our digital initiative is about experimenting and bringing in new fans," Jim said. "We're doing things that wouldn't be economically viable. Like shorter-form storytelling. We have 10 page chapters in some of our stories and doing them at a price point that's viable."
"We'll reinforce doing what will be great for digital, while making sure it's available in print," said Diane. "Not to the extent of using digital publishing as an R&D space. We have a pretty good understanding of what works in our print business and for our retailers."
Which is a great thing to hear. By publishing digital content day-and-date with printed comics, DC, Marvel, Dark Horse, and other publishers have completed an important step towards embracing phones and iPads. It's still just a transitionary step, though. Movies didn't truly flourish until they stopped being filmed versions of stage plays. As a reader, I'm eager to see digital comics that aren't just rasterized versions of printed pages, and a digital publishing plan that would move forward and engage audiences even if the dead tree-ware business all went away.
At press time, I've only seen static screen grabs of Batman: Arkham Origins and Batman '66. By definition, that can't convey anything of the interactive DC2 experience that Diane and Jim were describing to me.
Comics publishers have been experimenting with new digital formats and content types for years, without much success. So we'll have to wait and see. Pricing and release dates have yet to be announced, but DC2 titles are expected to show up in late summer or fall, and to be priced at about the same level as a digital comic.
When that day arrives, it's possible that the most valuable opinions about DC2 successes and failings won't come from readers like me, who first experienced Batman and Captain America on sheets of blotchy newsprint. The best arbiters might be the readers who first got hooked on these characters through a screen, whether it was by playing a game, becoming a fan of a TV show, or watching a movie.
If DC2 were a big hit with those people, it would probably please DC Entertainment just fine. "Is there any type of person out there whom you're still not reaching, but whom you'd love to have?" I asked. Diane Nelson replied quickly and confidently. "Our goal is world domination."