Comixology was genuinely a gamechanger. Before the platform came along, I knew very few people who had ever read a comic on a phone or tablet. There was entirely too much friction in the process to prioritize screens over print. The app proved a viable option, courtesy of a stocked store and a clever UI that both embraced and adapted the sequential form.
In 2014, Amazon gobbled up the startup, as it continued a Galactus-style buffet through the publishing world. There’s plenty of cause to be concerned when a major corporation acquires a beloved startup (particularly one in the habit of…let’s just say cornering markets), but the retail giant proved mostly a good steward, launching a subscription service in 2016 and its own in-house publisher two years later.
The last few years were less kind, however. Amazon’s push to integrate the brand into its exciting service was an unforced error that’s eroded more than a decade of good will. More recently, Comixology has reportedly been disproportionately impacted by mass layoffs, leading many wondering if it’s past the point of no return.
Co-founder and one-time CEO David Steinberger and former head of content Chip Mosher can claim credit for much of the good that came out of the service. The pair had become — as my friend Heidi MacDonald puts it — the public face of Comixology. But no one sells a company to a monolith like Amazon without understanding that there’s a reasonable chance things might eventually go pear shaped.
Steinberger left Comixology in February of last year to help Amazon launch a new internal business he said he had been pitching for some time. The project remains in stealth.
“We had a great run,” Steinberger says of his time at the company. “I learned a lot from Amazon. I feel like when you sell a company, it’s not yours anymore. Eventually you’re ready to let it go.”
Not long after, both he and Mosher would leave Amazon entirely. “We had a great eight-year run,” says Mosher. “Comixology Unlimited, Comixology Originals. We got to support a ton of different shows and events: Though Bubble, CXC, SPX, TCAF. We got to do a hell of a lot of good stuff in the comics community and learned a whole hell of a lot.”
The pair reunited not long after their respective exoduses, launching a new company that has remained in stealth until this morning. In spite of a name that screams Web 2.0 whiskey app, DSTLRY finds Mosher and Steinberger embracing the comic roots. The firm describes itself as a “next-generation comics publisher,” with feet in both digital and print publishing.
Mosher quickly pushes back on the suggestion that this a less than ideal moment to enter the print publishing business. “I violently disagree,” he says. “I think this is a great time to start a new company. Bookscan did a presentation in February, where they said that most people are going to be retrenching into older IP, not doing stuff, not taking risks. Whenever you have a marketplace where no one is taking risks, I think it’s the best time to come out and do something new.
DSTLRY prides itself on a creator-first approach, offering “Founding Creators” equity in the firm. The list at launch includes:
Scott Snyder (Batman, Wytches), Tula Lotay (Barnstormers), James Tynion IV (Something Is Killing the Children, The Joker War), Junko Mizuno (Pure Trance, Ravina the Witch?), Ram V (Detective Comics, The Many Deaths of Laila Starr), Mirka Andolfo (Sweet Paprika, Mercy), Joëlle Jones (Lady Killer, Catwoman), Jock (Batman: One Dark Knight, Wytches), Becky Cloonan (Wonder Woman, Batgirls), Brian Azzarello (100 Bullets, Joker), Elsa Charretier (Love Everlasting, November), Stephanie Phillips (Grim, Harley Quinn), Lee Garbett (Spider-Man, Skyward), Marc Bernardin (Adora and the Distance, Star Trek: Picard) and Founding Editor Will Dennis (Y: The Last Man, Snow Angels).
More writers and artists will be announced before year’s end. An additional 3% equity will be portioned out to additional creators who join up in the first three years, based on the performance on their individual series.
Print issues buck the standard comics single issue floppy, with a larger design and 45 pages. Mosher says the company will distribute books to “all the comic shops in North America and beyond,” with news around its specific partners coming down the road.
Unsurprisingly, digital is probably the biggest piece of the puzzle here. DSTLRY’s books will be available through its marketplace and available in its app. The company considers resale to be the real secret sauce on that side, however. It’s offering that aspect of the marketplace without NFT and blockchain technologies, which have become highly controversial topics among cartoonists, among others.
“The idea was, how do you take the best parts of whatever you want to call web3 or NFTs and then make that work,” says Steinberger. “That allows us to have things like provable ownership, the capability to resell something and an actual perpetual royalty back to creators as those things get sold. You don’t need the environmental impact of a public blockchain to do that. You don’t need to have crypto in a wallet to do that.”
The other (largely unspoken) aspect to all of this is something that’s propped up the big two comics companies for years: IP. One doesn’t need to look any further than the investors backing the company (DSTLRY has yet to announce a dollar amount). Publishers Kodansha USA and Groupe Delcourt are joined by gaming vet John Schappert, Michael Vorhaus of Vorhaus Advisors and Lorenzo di Bonaventura, who produced the G.I. Joe movies, among others. Those three will also serve as advisors.
“Everything we’re doing tries to align the creators to bring epic work to publish with us, because that’s where you start,” says Mosher. “The [IP factory] idea is a non-starter for us. We are making great works that will sell well as comic books, first and foremost. The rest of it is gravy.”