In a recent feature on Newsarama.com, comic book creators were asked what they thought was the biggest opportunity for comics in 2009. More than one answer involved digital comics, and the comments section of the article struck up an interesting debate about the topic. So the question is, is it sensible or feasible to move comic books into the digital age?
We've already seen at least one industry balk at the notion of embracing technology and end up regretting it. Now that it's been proven that people are more than willing to pay for music downloads (and fancy devices to play them), there's no question that the record companies should have embraced the digital age much sooner than they did.
TV and movies have changed in their own ways, piggybacking onto iTunes, but also using websites and DVRs to keep pace with their consumers. Photography has also evolved quickly and efficiently into something we can all agree is infinitely easier, if less mysterious and lasting. Most newspapers and magazines have added online formats, and it's not really hard to imagine their physical counterparts completely disappearing (though when that happens what will we read on the plane and the toilet?). Maps will probably soon give way fully to GPS.
The last bastion of physical media would seem to be books. The idea of ebooks has been around at least since the late '90s, but failed to catch fire until the recent Amazon Kindle craze. Whether it's Kindle or some derivation, the doors have been opened on ebooks. They aren't closing.
That said, I pretty much hate the idea of digital comics.
Now I don't consider myself a stick in the mud, but I can be slightly resistant to change, especially when it comes to things I love. Though I have an iPod and am buying more and more whole albums via iTunes or Amazon.com, I'm not getting rid of my CDs or vinyl anytime soon. Thanks to too many Ray Bradbury short stories, I also have an inherent distrust of technology. I am never surprised when technology fails. So there's that.
But there's also the matter of comics being non-analogous to any of the other media I've mentioned. Unlike TV and movies they are meant to be read. Unlike books they are completely reliant on visuals (you can't have a comic book read to you, at least not satisfactorily). Like music and photography they are artforms, but unlike those two things, they appeal to a very specific and small group of people.
Though Marvel Comics especially has made strides in digitizing their back catalog (you can get a collection of every issue of The Amazing Spider-Man - 500+ comics - on a single DVD-ROM for about $40, which is, well, amazing), but it hasn't quite caught on yet. In the above-mentioned article, writer Greg Pak brings up the idea of comics on iPhones and other handheld devices, because of how much people (especially kids) love those things. I see his point, but this brings up lots of problems. For one, if a regular comic page was iPhone sized the captions would appear at about a 0.5 font size and be unreadable. I suppose it would have to be individual panels, which would likely ruin the flow of storytelling.
An idea that could really have legs is a sort of comics Kindle. It'd have to be big, at least 8" x 10" and you'd have to have some sort of download service where any issue you want is available for a nominal fee. I could see people really digging that.
But the problem with all three of these (DVD-ROMS, iPhone apps, comics Kindle) is that they all involve staring at a screen. I'm not an optometrist, but I'm pretty sure increasing the time our eyes spend bathed in electronic glow is not a good idea.
I also don't like removing the physical aspect of reading and collecting comics. It's easy to overlook this part of the hobby, but I actually enjoy sorting through my comics, putting them in bags, looking for that elusive issue at comic book shops across the cities, digging through the quarter boxes for hidden treasures. Being a music obsessive has the same tactile allure; just look at how the digital revolution in music has led to a resurgence in vinyl collecting.
And I don't even consider myself a collector, at least not in the sense of the word as someone who owns things just to own them. Any comic I have it's because I want to read it or read it again someday. I don't care about value at all.
But many comic fans are completists and fetishists. I've been selling some of my old issues online and accidentally listed that I had both a first and second printing of The Uncanny X-Men #303, when really I only had the first. Well, a guy tried to buy that second printing and I assumed he picked that one because it was priced lower. So I wrote him an e-mail and asked if he minded if I sent him the first printing instead, at the same price. I figured he would be thrilled. He wrote back that he was looking specifically for the second printing.
Out of curiosity I looked into it. The second printing of that issue was included as a free giveaway in an X-Men board game. It is no different from the first save that it features a gold background on the cover rather than white. There is no additional story or artwork. The only reason I can think that this buyer would want that issue is because he's attempting to get every single issue of X-Men in every iteration that exists. This is a goal I don't envy at all.
But people like him are the reason the collector's market will never go away. Amazing Fantasy #15 (the first appearance of Spider-Man) is not going to suddenly be in the giveaway box because you can download it for a dollar. There will always be people willing to pay for the actual thing.
And to a certain extent that applies to new comics as well. Many comics fans rely on their weekly fix of new product. When I was in high school I worked too many hours at K Mart and was of no interest to any girls, so new comics day was often the only thing I had to look forward to. Now you might point out that the logical extension of the argument for digital comics - the complete elimination of new printed material - would essentially allow new comic book day to be everyday, because publishers would no longer be limited by shipping schedules.
That might happen, but again, what about the physical act of going to the store? Of being there and seeing all the new stuff displayed? Of discovering something great because it caught your eye and you decided to flip through it? And what about the comic shops themselves that rely on that weekly influx of business? There's no doubt in my mind that the comic book industry business model (from publishing to distribution to sales) is long overdue for a reinvention. I have some ideas about that, and I'll be sharing them soon. But they certainly don't involve the end of comic shops, or the complete cessation of printed comics.
I rarely have a "this or that" type of mindset, so my hope is that digital comics can coexist with their printed brethren. It might bring some new readers into the club. And I'm sure some old schoolers will embrace the new medium and love it. But I won't be one of them. I'm all for technology improving our lives, but there are some things that just don't need to be compressed and sent along cable cords and stored on hard drives. Comics are one of those things.