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It’s a good time to be a comic geek: thanks largely to Marvel Studios, which not only produces brilliant movies for geeks, but also brilliant Netflix originals. Then there is Image Comics’ The Walking Dead TV series, which continues to go from strength to strength.
This all means comic books are more influential than ever before. It’s now cool to own the original Civil War issues, have The Dark Knight Rises to lend out, and know more about Batroc the Leaper than is healthy.
As Nick Abadzis, writer of Titan Comics’ Tenth Doctor series, says:
“I think it’s brilliant and healthy that a language like comics (as opposed to the medium and industry itself) is embracing new ways of getting itself seen. I’ve always held that it’s the most flexible language humankind ever invented, that it’s in fact very, very old and here it is evolving and adapting itself (via its creators) to new areas.”
Comic book publishers are embracing this brave new world, and changing their businesses to make the most of what will come to be known as the Geek Age. However, while publishers are right to move with the times, the move into digital comics isn’t necessarily a good thing.
Digital comics won’t be fully embraced en masse by fans until their shortcomings are addressed. Until that happens, we, true comic book fans, should avoid buying digital comics. Here are just a few reasons why…
1. Digital Comics Are a Rip-Off
Digital comics should be cheaper.
Most comics are now $3.99, with some edging closer to $4.99. If it means comic creators get decent rates, that’s fair enough, but that’s not always the case.
So what are you paying for? Printing and distribution, mainly. Both of which are very costly. While digital comics still need distribution, it’s nowhere near as widely or time-consuming as print. On digital, you’re paying for timeliness. Comics from Marvel and DC are generally available for the RRP (Recommended Retail Price) of the physical comics; prices only decrease after some time.
You’ll pay $1.99 for most Silver and Bronze Age issues, boasting stunning recolorizations — but you’ll find the same quality in, for instance, Marvel’s Epic Collection books, and at a cheaper price too. These graphic novels are also available digitally, but typically at their RRPs, whereas you can easily find cheaper physical copies elsewhere. The RRP reflects superior page and print quality, which you can’t take advantage of on digital.
— Russ Leach (@Kre8uk) October 21, 2015
ComiXology Unlimited gives “endless access” to anyone taking out a $5.99-a-month subscription. But these are entry point issues, intended as tasters to draw you into buying further storylines, and it doesn’t include titles from Marvel or DC.
“[Digital comics are] good for the quick hit rather than the prolonged, sensory experience. Where a quick hit might allow you to catch up on the antics of your favorite superhero, I wonder if it’s an experience that stays with you…? I love physical books and collections, so where I might read episodic comics digitally, if I love a story, I’ll almost certainly want a printed book. In certain instances, if it’s a creator or story I love, I’ll go straight for print anyway. It’s a fan choice too – are you content just to be fed at the drip, or are you hungry enough, adventurous enough, to go looking for a deeper, and ultimately, more fulfilling experience? I’ll always go for the latter.”
2. Digital Comics Dilute the Medium
You might think this is just the ebooks versus print debate again with a slightly different format, but it’s not. Novels have morphed into serializations and short stories, but comics are defined by their unique format.
Comics have stayed relatively consistent in their delivery, a natural extension of artistic plates, adapting into newspaper strips and, in the early 1900s, comic books as we now recognize them. They have stayed in this form for such a long time because comics have reached their optimal medium for consumption.
In other words, this is the best way to fully appreciate and enjoy them.
It comes down to narrative flow. Just as with books, one sentence should flow into another, which should in turn flow into another paragraph, your eye should be naturally drawn to the next panel, to the next speech bubble, and to the next page.
It's nice writing #DoctorWho comics 'cause artists who you're working with show you sneak previews of amazing stuff they're working on…
— Nick Abadzis (@NickAbadzis) April 28, 2016
This is why artists aren’t asked to provide pin-ups of characters, but instead a full sample page. It’s not enough to be able to draw; you need to direct too. Russ Leach, artist for the UK’s Draw the Marvel Way partwork and the Doctor Who Adventures, says:
“As a sequential artist, my first duty is to the flow of the story and then to the art. The real test is to construct the page so that a reader can follow the action without word bubbles. As the reader moves from one panel to another, those panels should be constructed to facilitate the flow of the story. This is not just a script progression; it’s also about mood and drama as well as making sure that a panel is constructed to allow the script bubbles to work progressively.”
Most digital comics aren’t designed to be read on a device, so they function primarily as physical books. This is how their flow can be fully appreciated because it should come naturally; digital comics, however, force you into either zooming and dragging the page around, or guided view. It’s a counter-intuitive way of reading.
3. Digital Comics Kill the Community
The first victim of digitization is bricks-and-mortar retailers. If you don’t support your local comic store, they will die. Digital comics mean that even those who live in remote areas without a nearby comic shop can digest them, but if the industry goes that way, there’ll be no incentive to open more anyway.
Away from vile commenters online, readers are generally amicable and always enthusiastic when face-to-face. Even the people you buy comics from will likely take a few minutes to chat about your grab pile, creators, and recommendations.
This fan experience is essential to properly belonging to that community. It doesn’t mean you have to be gregarious; it means you have peers to talk to. It’s that enthusiasm for immersive storytelling that keeps comics alive, and without passionate fans interacting, comics would die.
“There’s something artisanal about a printed item, especially if it’s been lovingly handcrafted, as many items are these days… Even in a social-media-governed age such as this, primates love a gathering.”
Conventions are a core part of this “gathering.” If digital kills print, these would be very different beasts.
“At the end of the day, I’m in the business to entertain by telling stories. Mixing with fellow creators is stimulating for the process and meeting the fandom is humbling. So many great people just enjoying the medium is wonderful… There’s absolutely nothing better than having someone say they love your work or a kid’s mum on twitter posting a beaming child with a poster you signed!”
Artists may still sketch for you, but writers would have nothing to sign; collections that populate events would vanish. Some stalls might still offer rare issues — origins, and variant covers (now also a moot point) — but with print dead, the prices on these would sky-rocket further. Collecting would become an elite hobby.
4. Digital Comics Can’t Be Lent or Sold
Going digital might be seen as a way of making comics relevant to the next generation, but in reality the opposite is true.
Comics started out as something for a younger audience, and many of us were introduced to them when someone lent us a single issue. Just think of how many kids are converted into life-long fans because they borrowed Amazing Spider-Man from a friend, or even how many will now be fans because they like Captain America: Civil War and their older brother has the original comics!
Russ says comics are a great way of encouraging young readers:
“Personally I couldn’t imagine how I would have read the novels I have if I hadn’t had time with comics as a youngster where I experienced amazing pacing, characterisation and not least an expanded vocabulary. As a youngster hungry for pulp fantasy I eagerly read comics of many types! Comics are often picked up for their art but are kept and continued reading for their stories. That’s how I think it works for kids as well. The medium is easier to dip into and is visually engaging, thus delivering an immediate stimulating story experience. Once you’ve been there, and the story becomes the most important aspect of the comic, then you start looking to expand your intake and adding purely the written word, description and your own imagination to the process of reading a story. The end result is a healthy dose of both mediums!”
The limited shelf life of devices would also kill your children’s inheritance. Your kids can pore through boxes filled with thousands of physical issues, the passion you have for them proving infectious. Whereas with digital, you’re giving them some account details. (That’s leaving aside the debate over whether youngsters should even own tablets)
“My own daughter loves and enjoys comics culture, and she’s very aware that it is an ever-expanding thing. I suppose she soaks up a lot via osmosis simply by virtue of living under the same roof as me.”
If your kids don’t enjoy comics, or if you’re strapped for cash, paper comics do have a resale value. It’s painful to sell your collection, and the industry is a rare one where prices decrease for common issues — unless you have Amazing Fantasy #15 tucked away — but they’re far from worthless. In fact, your comics could generate some serious dollar. Digital comics, meanwhile, can’t be sold on.
To Be Continued…
If you’re desperate to read digital comics, many publishers include codes to download a supplementary digital version when you buy a proper comic book. However, the argument won’t end here, and neither should it. Comics need to adapt, but in my view, that means in terms of storytelling, not in delivery or medium.
“I don’t think digital will ever entirely kill off print. A lot of people define themselves with the physical artefacts they keep – it’s the old collector’s instinct. That will continue to change in response to technological advances, but I don’t think it’ll go away entirely. At some point, it might mean the interiors of our houses will look a bit more Spartan, with only certain well-loved and cherished items as physical artefacts and all your entertainment and media contained within some VR cube, but I bet you’ll still have a corner containing some well-thumbed books from childhood.”
The important thing, of course, is to keep buying comics through thick and thin. And while we’re advocating for good ol’ paper comics over digital comics, either one is better than not buying comics at all.
So, on what side of the fence do you sit? Do you still buy real comics made of paper? Or have you moved onto digital comics, having sold the collection weighing down your spare room? Please let us know your thoughts in the comments below.