Digital Comics Part 3: Threat or Menace?

Okay. So I've talked about comics made FOR the internet put on the internet, i.e. webcomics, and the creativity they display in Part 1.

I've talked about comics made for print delivered THROUGH the internet by official channels: Digital Comics Unlimited, Wowio, Eagle Media and so on as well as the aesthetics of their presentation in Part 2.

But let's talk about pirates. (Arrr.) Then we'll talk about the positive implications of all this.

For quite a few years, people all over the world have been spending some of their free time scanning printed comics page-by-page into their computers with an optical scanner and then combining those image files into one 'zipped' file which merely retains the images and their correct reading order. Those files can in turn be read by specially designed programs that present two images at a time to imitate the recto-verso page-turn of printed comic-books and graphic novels. If you access any large P2P sharing network with one of the programs designed to do so like DC++ or Shakespeer and do a search for any popular comic-book series by name, you will most likely find a surprising number of these files. Then if you download one of the programs designed to read them like ComicBookLover or CDisplay all you've got to do is drag one of those zipped CBR files into one of these reader programs and you are bada-bing reading what is probably an illegally scanned-and-uploaded print comic for free. Nothing about the program is illegal, it functions just like iTunes used to (i.e. with no internet-ready iTunes Store function).

There is also a legal source of scanned print comics files. Marvel Comics and a few other companies (including Archie Comics!) released CD-ROM and DVD-ROM packages with a company called Graphic Imaging Technology INC. with tons and tons of scanned comics in PDF format. (Wikipedia has a list of these CD-ROMs.)

The most exciting of those, to me, were the ones which collected all the comics in a particular crossover 'event'. If you've read my old rant about the way these stories are collected, you'd understand. Marvel produced a "House of M" The Complete Collection Collector's Edition CD-ROM as well as "Civil War" The Complete Collection DVD-ROM. I'd try these out if they weren't so bloody expensive. Especially since Marvel unveiled Digital Comics Unlimited and discontinued these sets in 2007. This might actually be the best way to experience these highly splintered stories. Buying something in the neighborhood of 100+ comics to fully understand one big story is a pain in the neck!

This is why we most need an 'iTunes for comics.' I did receive one of these type of sets as a Christmas present. I'd like to be able to read those files on whatever I'm reading my comics on.

(The question that leaves is: Where the hell is DC Comics in all of this? Archie Comics can be bought digitally in two formats and DC/Warner Bros. does nothing? Perhaps the company that brought us the first comic-book with new material, the first superhero, and the first corporate webcomics site is biding its time to wait for the right solution to the entire digital conundrum and slap all the competition upside the head. Who knows?)

Of course like I said in Part 2, Marvel doesn't put out its brand new comics in digital form either in their old boxed DVD-ROM sets or on Marvel Digital Comics Unlimited or on Panelfly/the Marvel Comics app. They seem to have an unwritten six-months-or-older-only rule. They're protecting their interests. But that will only last as long as there is a sizable interest to protect. And the digital pirates get an entire new-comics-Wednesday's material worth of comics on the net for illegal download in a matter of hours anyway. Anyone in the world can read pretty nearly every single comic ever published for free. Illegally.

So will digital comics replace print comics?

The short answer is: Yes they will, but not anytime soon.

It was pointed out that I wasn't very specific in Part 2 of this article series. I should have written: as academics and creators, we should be prepared because comics will be largely digital within our lifetimes. As artforms move into the digital format, the relationship of dependence between the art-concept and the art-object (vinyl/plastic, paper/vellum) changes. A huge amount of music is available for download on iTunes. Prose of all kinds is available on the Kindle. And newspapers are moving digital, of course they really, really should as there's very little about their product that is dependent on visuals and even less that is dependent on layout. But a newspaper has images and a layout. A comic is images and layout. It may be a 'book layout' instead of a 'page layout', but it's still about organizing visuals into a sequence.

Comics = Sequential Art
Sequential Art = Art + Sequence
Comics = Images + Layout

You take away either of those elements? You no longer have comics. Moving comics into digital files is very problematic for this reason, among others. But these are formal concerns and not financial ones.

Let's talk about money.

Clare's father K. J. pointed this out to me: consider music. Only sixty years ago music first became available for affordable mass-consumption on Long Playing records, i.e. LPs. Forty years ago music became available on 8-Track. Wasn't a disaster, but didn't last. Lower quality and slightly higher convenience. Twenty years ago came the Compact Disc, i.e. CDs. Lower quality (compared to LP), but higher convenience. Ten years ago music became illegally available on Napster and the Recording Industry had a conniption in their general direction. Today music is available for download from various sources legally. Again at lower quality (when compared to LP), but with extreme convenience. Now iTunes is the #1 source of music, but CDs are slipping from the #2 spot. Vinyl outsells CDs in some markets, collectors and audiophiles want them more than ever. It's a niche market. I buy very, very little music: but I pretty much buy only vinyl. There are many collector edition LPs. There is an annual Record Store Day. Convenience and quality, right?

I can see a world that wouldn't be so horrible:
My comic arrives in my digital device. Maybe it is a 'comic-book' with multiple 'pages'. Maybe it is a 'comic-strip' with a single 'page' that I scroll smoothly through for a good hour. I read it on the same device I used to buy it with a credit card number, on which I can buy comics made by people from all over the world. I review and discuss it online when I'm done. I have a digital 'subscription' with a list of preferences which can be changed instantaneously. ('Would you like to subscribe to the new upcoming superhero crossover event: only the main title, all the tie-ins, or continue with your subscriptions as they are, sir?' 'Would you like to be alerted about new comics by this artist, sir?') I can read old files. Maybe I have pre-sets as to how I want to see panels, pages, splash-pages, balloons and in what order. Maybe if I really, really loved seven random issues, I follow a few links and pay again to buy a nicely printed trade-paperback collection to MY specifications. Maybe if I really liked a mini-series I wait a few months and then shell out big-bucks for the glossy hardcover at a bi-annual 'Comic-Book Store Day' where I meet some real people and have a nice time.

There is, in fact, already an annual Free Comic Book Day to be held this very Saturday May 1st! Its main goal is to drive people into comic-book stores. Go take advantage of the fact that many, many publishers will be putting out a free non-digital old-school print comic on Saturday!

There will still be people who will buy books and comic-books and vinyl for a long, long time. People will probably buy the things they want to keep forever in physical form. In the words of my friend Aaron LeBow: "a book can't get a virus". But we as a culture read/hear/watch a huge amount of stuff every day! In a complimenting sort of counter-point my friend David Bustlin is planning to go digital with his comics as soon as possible for very practical reasons: freeing-up closet space and reducing paper waste.

If we combine the physical promotion of Free Comic Book Day with: ComicBookLover
(Which is like iTunes, the program. Easy, flexible, and compatible with all kinds of image files.)

and with: Panelfly
(Which is like iTunes, the online store. Simple, inexpensive, and compatible with all kinds of publishers.)

Get it on ALL your digital devices, make it CUSTOMIZABLE...
And maybe we've really got something exciting there.

There is only one thing that can be said with definitiveness: Print comics will continue to be made as long as publishers continue to perceive it as a solvent business and as long as individuals continue to find comics challenging and exciting to work in. And digital comics (of all kinds) will continue to be produced/made available as long as publishers continue to percieve it as a solvent business and as long as individuals continue to find comics challenging and exciting to work in.

Like J. Jonah Jameson, the long-time persecutor of Spider-Man, you can choose to frame the question as: "Threat or Menace?" or you can choose to ask: "What can digital comics do for me?"

Simple as that.

UPDATE 5/7/2o1o: Apparently the days of the comics scanning pirate may one day come to a close: A press release can be read here about the recent joint effort of the F.B.I., a law firm specializing in intellectual property, the U.S. Department of Justice, and a coalition of comics publishers including Marvel Comics, DC Comics, Dark Horse Comics, Bongo Comics, Archie Comics, Conan Properties LLC, and Mirage Studios Inc. in the seizure of the servers propping up, one of the websites hosting scanned-and-uploaded comics.

Be wary pirates. Be wary.

UPDATE 5/8/2o1o: Marvel publicized here a long while ago about the various formats and devices its comics were becoming available on. The problem is all three of these devices use separate formats meaning none of these programs can swap files. Not very convenient.

1 comment:

  1. This fella here makes some damn good points about the future potentialities of digital comics that I agree with.