CT Soapbox: The Digital Stance

| January 18, 2012 | 4 Comments

Hear ye, hear ye! Welcome back as I once again stand on the ComixTribe Soapbox, ready to take a stand and defend it.

This time around, I want to talk about something that’s been on everyone’s mind a lot lately, and it doesn’t look to change anytime soon: digital comics.

Digital comics have their strengths and weaknesses. Personally, I find their weaknesses to be extremely weak, and while it is in its infancy, I see them becoming stronger and more viable down the line. I’ll talk about that in a little while.

As a creator, I’m a market watcher. As a self-publisher, I have to watch the market a little more closely, because I have to find different ways to sell myself and my wares. Digital comics provide a platform that makes it easy for anyone with a book to get on. It’s really a no-brainer. You don’t have to deal with Diamond, or anyone else if you don’t want to. All you need are a few basic things in order to get your book out (with the caveat being that you have a book to sell—this is not always a given).

I look at digital comics as they are today, not as what they could be tomorrow. Today, digital comics are weak. There are a few reasons for this. The biggest reason is that they’re digital.

Think about that for a moment. They’re digital. That means you need to have some sort of electronic device to read them on. Personally, I have an iPhone. I don’t yet own an iPad. There are millions with a smartphone, and there will be millions more in the coming years, because every phone will be a smartphone. But right now, while almost everyone has a cellphone, not everyone has a smartphone.

Not everyone has a tablet device, either. Nor an e-reader. There are lots of manufacturers that want to be in this space, and there are lots that are very excited about Amazon’s Kindle Fire, which is a souped-up e-reader; the Kindle, which is a regular e-reader; and Apple’s iPad, which is the only viable tablet on the market. (Don’t get me wrong: there are other tablets on the market, but when it comes to ease of use, number of apps, battery life and overall aesthetic, nothing else compares to the iPad.)

So, in order for digital comics to be viable, they have to have two things: they have to be easy to read, and they have to be ubiquitous. While interesting at first, I do not find reading comics on my iPhone to be an enjoyable experience. It’s too small. I’ve played with an iPad, and even read a comic on it, and while that was better, there were still some things missing (which I’ll come to).

So, if not everyone has neither a smartphone nor a viable tablet, how is digital in its current form going to save comics? Simply put, it isn’t.

There are other downfalls to digital comics, as well. Most people don’t think about this, but I have. Space. Yes, you lose a lot of clutter when it comes to longboxes in your basement or garage, but doesn’t your collection now take up space in your device? Where are you going to put your other apps? Or your music? Or your movies? See how that space starts to fill up?

The cloud? That could be an answer, but now you’re possibly talking about paying for storage. With the cloud comes the problem of access. Do you have stable WiFi in your area? You’re not always at home, right? Does your friend have a connection being broadcast that you can jump onto?

Then there’s the battery. Why should you need electricity in order to enjoy your comics? What happens when you’re out and about? Are you going to bring a power cord with you everywhere?

The next downfall to digital comics is the format. I’m not talking about proprietary format for reading, I’m talking about the improper use of screens. Right now, the bulk of digital comics are not taking advantage of the form of the reader. They’re still trying to emulate the physical page, and I think that’s wrong. If you’re going to be digital, then go all the way! Creators should embrace digital, which means that they should create a comic that will not be printed. Stop thinking in panels and pages, and start thinking in screens. This was attempted with Zuda, and there was a specific format that was used to take advantage of the computer screen. Embrace the smartphone and e-reader/tablet screen with the stories you’re telling! Screw the guided view. Get with the program of truly embracing digital.

The biggest downfall of digital comics comes in a couple of parts. The biggest one is fragmentation. You’ve got proprietary stores such as comiXology and Graphic.ly, and there are lots of publishers that are on both. Then you have smaller and self-publishers who are on one or the other (if not both), but who are also selling their comics on their own digital stores, DRM free. This is an effort to create the widest net so that they can reap the largest benefit in both readers and money.

What happens, though, when one of these digital distributors goes away? Remember, these are proprietary stores, and the only thing you’re truly buying is a license to read the comics on your device. If one of them goes away, what then? Is that money just lost, along with the comics? Or will they allow you to actually download DRM free versions of the comics before the lights go out? What is the exit strategy?

Right now, digital comics are a novelty. The numbers aren’t reported, because they’ll blow everyone away in a bad way. The numbers will be startlingly low. DC touts selling millions of copies of the New 52, but you haven’t heard a peep about how they’re selling digitally. Want to test me? Answer this:

How many of you know someone who has thirty or more digital comics? Even the most jaded of you can get thirty comics in six months. Please leave your answers in the comments below.

No, digital comics has a long way to go. Remember, they have to be easy to read, and they have to be ubiquitous. That will happen in about five years.

I predict that in five years, by 2017, there will be a titanic shift to digital comics. The price for them will have settled (which is a different Soapbox), questions of format and proprietary storefronts will be answered, the mass majority of people will have a device that they will read on, and creators will take advantage of the screens instead of thinking in panels.

Could it happen sooner than five years? Sure! And there will be a sign.

Marvel or DC will release a series that is digital only. I’m not talking about a limited series or a one-shot, either. One or the other will release an ongoing series that will be digital only. That is going to be the bellweather. Once that happens, you know that digital comics have become viable, and then, brick and mortar retailers will start shaking in their boots.

Why will they be the bellweather? Because they will have found the formula for storytelling for the device, which will include length of story, format (read: screens), and price, versus the production cost. The sales will be there to warrant the move. No, it won’t be a flagship character, but it will definitely be a B- or a C-level character. Personally, I think Marvel will do it first, and then DC will follow, each with a single title, and then more will follow from there, after they crunch the numbers.

So, here is my stance: in five years, there will begin a fundamental shift to digital comics, because the devices to read them on will be everywhere; that creators will take advantage of the devices by finding a new way to tell stories that is dependent upon screens and not an adaptation of the comic book to the device; and that Marvel and DC will let us all know that digital is viable by releasing an ongoing series digitally only. My stance is that digital comics, as they are currently, are crappy, with too many cons against their pros. My stance is that one of the major digital distributors is going to go out of business within this timeframe, and that will affect how the others do business going forward.

That is my stance. What’s yours?

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Category: CT Soapbox

About the Author ()

Steven is an editor/writer with such credits as Fallen Justice, the award nominated The Standard, and Bullet Time under his belt, as well as work published by DC Comics. Between he and his wife, there are 10 kids (!), so there is a lot of creativity all around him. Steven is also the editor in chief and co-creator of ComixTribe, whose mission statement is Creators Helping Creators Make Better Comics. If you're looking for editing, contact him at stevedforbes@gmail.com for rate inquiries.

Comments (4)

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  1. Conner MacDonald says:

    I own, maybe 200 digital comics, the majority of which are Marvel back issues sold on disc. They come in PDF format, so, what I do is, print them out, hole punch them, and stick them in a binder. Because I HATE reading comics on the computer.
    I don’t own an MP3 player, or cell phone, and I don’t plan on getting any type of E-Reader. I get the idea that you can, carry your whole library with you, where ever you go. But I’m carrying a library around on a expensive piece of a equipment. One that I could brake, lose, or have stolen. In which case I’m out what? 500 bucks, plus the price of my digital library? Or I can get a cheap, paper back, used copy, of what ever book I want to read and treat it like shit and not worry. about it.
    And as far as the clutter comment, I love the look of books on shelves, I have 800 DVD’s, 300 VHS, an X-box 360 and Wii with extensive game libraries, and don’t get me started on my comics. And I like having them there lining my walls.
    I know we’re moving towards an age of digital, but I don’t like it. I get the convince of it, but I’m not into it. If there ever comes a time that movies go 100% digital, then I’ll be downloading them and burning them to disk, placing them in a case and putting them on a shelf. It’ll be like scrap booking.
    So as a reader, and a consumer, digital comics, and books, don’t interest me. However as someone who wants to some day have a published work… I love it lol

  2. Tyler James says:

    I definitely have at least 50 digital comics on my iPad. Perhaps I pad for 40% of them, and the rest freebies.

    I think I’m going to have to get on a Soapbox in the near future to talk about digital.

  3. Dan Rivera says:

    My issue with Comixology is that you don’t really own the comics. You technically purchase a license because you need the application to read them. Let’s say they hypothetically go under; what happens to the comics that you paid for?

  4. DiRT says:

    comiXology can be backed up as jpeg images, but it’s rather time consuming and somewhat difficult to the uninitiated (and might be breaking the TERMS). I actually buy the majority of my books on comiXology every week (cloud storage, back-ups, and the reader that let’s me read on smartphone if I’m trapped somewhere for long periods of time). On top of that, I prefer to read them in full screen mode as if I’m reading an actual comic on the screen. I personally hate the “Mark Waid Special” of poorly animated motion comics that abuse the technology. I also find myself rarely pulling out old print comics and reading them again. They get read, bagged, and stored away, never to be seen again. I have actually read a number of comics multiple times on comiXology because it’s always available on my phone, tablet, or computer.

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