Thoughts on The Digital Comic and The Future of Comic Books

“It’s a little ironic, perhaps, that a medium obsessed with technologies that have the potential to transform and destroy — Phantom Zone projectors and repulsor rays, unstable molecules and cosmic treadmills — has at last bumped into such a technology right here on Earth-Prime. And just as you’d expect, it’s a technology that could change the (entertainment) world. Some print comics might survive the shift, of course — most likely the ones that are satisfying as physical objects.

Wired (“The iPad Could Revolutionize the Comic Book Biz — Or Destroy It”) provides an overview of a comic book industry still trying to feel its way around the new digital world it finds itself in. I’ve been looking at this issue in terms of how it in some ways parallels the books/ebooks issues. But in some ways, there certainly are differences. One of them, for instance, is the fear of losing the shared communal experience of buying comic books with other comic book geeks in a physical store. What happens to the comic book store in the age of the Digital Comic Book?

“Local stores — and their devotees — drive not just the industry’s steadiest profits but its development of new material. If more than the tiniest fraction of that fragile market gets cannibalized by digital sales, then those stores will start folding. If that happens, the majority of print readers who don’t have fancy tablets will have nothing to buy on Wednesdays anymore. And if digital sales alone aren’t enough to cover writers’ and artists’ fees and publication costs and underpin a marketing apparatus, the entire structure will blow up like Krypton.”

What struck me about the arguments in favor of the importance of the comic book store was the importance placed upon that sense of community and sociality. My point of reference was at first to compare this with the experience of buying books in a bookstore, but clearly there’s a difference in character between the bookstore and the comic book store experience. Book reading and book shopping, is a relatively individual experience — while we might talk to some helpful bookstore clerks for recommendations or directions, we browse through the books we want to read.

It’s not an either/or situation, but the comic book reading and buying experience is different; perhaps because comic books are meant to be talked about as much as read? In fact, many articles seem to emphasize the buying experience of the comic book store as of key importance to the entire industry (for example — Los Angeles Times: “Digital Comics: Nemesis or Sidekick to Comic Book Culture?”). This is all from the perspective of an outsider looking in, but it’s something to think about.

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Comic books are certainly a big business. Especially in recent years, with big budget movies turning the comic book genre as background mythology for the summer movies. Wired has more in-depth scrutinizing of the Digital Comic Book question, a million (or, closer to a billion) dollar question:

“In all their printed forms these days, they’re roughly a $650 million annual market in North America … Digital-comics sales are even smaller potatoes: Last year in North America, they brought in somewhere between $6 million and $10 million, roughly 1 percent of the revenue generated by comics and graphic novels printed on dead trees, according to ICv2, a website that tracks the business of pop culture.”

The Beat (“Digital is The New Direct Market”) has a good breakdown of how digital is changing the mode of distribution.

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In addition, Comics Alliance has a very thorough state of the comic book nation, “The State of Digital Comics: Censorship, Price, Distribution, and More.” Some of the main points worth mentioning —

On in what sense you own digital comics:

“With digital comics, scarcity is irrelevant. There are infinite copies of everything available digitally, so scarcity is no longer a selling point. At the same time, you don’t physically own the comics you’ve bought. You cannot print them out or touch them. They exist on your portable device, on a web server, or in the cloud. They’ve become intangibles. “

It looks like Marvel Comics had its own Amazon Kindle/1984 moment (New York Times: “Amazon Erases Orwell Books from Kindle”) — and this made some people understandably peeved and suspicious. Digital content is certainly a different kind of ownership. In fact, what both the Marvel app and Kindle/Orwell incidents seem to suggest is that we are moving away from ‘owning’ our content, and towards owning a license to access and read that content.

On the reading experience:

“Moving traditionally printed comics to a computer or phone screen results in an unavoidable change in terms of reading experience. Most comics book pages are taller than they are wide, while most computer screens are the exact opposite … . Every method has its own pros and cons, and while none of them are wrong, exactly, they aren’t quite right, either.”

We looked at the reading experience recently. Just as much experimentation has gone on with the transition from book to ebook, I can’t help but wonder in what ways we might see the comic book as a medium re-imagined into something new.

On what digital comics should cost:

“Marvel offers hundreds of comics at a price point of $1.99 or higher. While two bucks is mostly reasonable for new comics, classic have the exact same price point. $1.99 looks a little absurd when the Stan Lee/Jack Kirby run on Fantastic Four costs 19.9 times what it originally sold for and you’re getting almost exactly what the kids in 1961 read. Two dollars a piece for comics that Marvel has surely made a profit on several thousand times over by this point feels like price gouging, and customers aren’t dumb enough to fall for it for long. “

I was wondering about this very same question of the value of digital vs. print comics (here are my earlier musings):

A $1.99 download seems like a great price to be able to read Amazing Fantasy #15 (prized for being the first appearance of Spider-Man, the print copy of which seems to worth a lot) but not so great for Amazing Spider-Man #414 (the print copy of which is worth a lot less) … right? The point is, this seems to be a question unique to the comic book that we’ve not seen with ebooks thus far — comic books are about the value of the reading experience, and also something else. There’s something unique about the value of the physical, printed copy of the comic book that people care about very much.

Here’s another divergence between the book/comic book parallel. While I’d love to get my hands on some of the books in the Rare Book Room at Powell’s, I’m not really tempted to read and handle the rare books on an everyday basis. They belong in museums, or perhaps as objects of contemplation, or as ways to impress bookworm friends. But again, there seems to be a something else that differentiates the rare comic book.

On this topic, check out Time Techland’s thoughts “Emanata: What’s a Digital Comic Book Worth?

“One of the genuinely wonderful things about comics culture is its sense of history: the work of preserving this medium and everything attached to it is distributed among tens of thousands of collectors, and as easy as it is to make fun of bags and boards and boxes, they do what they’re supposed to do in the long term …

The meaning that accrues to physical objects. That sounds kind of woo-woo, but think of it this way. Which would you rather have: a printed copy of Amazing Spider-Man #50, from 1967, or Marvel Tales #190, which reprinted it in 1986? The Marvel Tales reprint is almost certainly “scarcer,” technically, but the original printing has more of a historical aura, which makes it more desirable.”

Some of the same arguments about the ‘thingness’ of the physical comic book certainly also apply to printed physical copies of books — some of us certainly prize first editions of books more than others. Most of us don’t care. But the collectible value, that real or imagined sense of scarcity seems to add to the emotional value of the comic book as physical object. I could imagine, for example, a time in the not-distant future when digital comics are the mainstream, and perhaps printed comic books are the new ‘collectible editions.’ Who really knows?


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I run the ThinkLab at the University of Cambridge, and research digital habits, productivity, and wellbeing.

tyler shores cambridge

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