CBD’s 52Qs | #11: "What's your feelings on digital comics?

Every week CBD’s Editor in Chief Pete DeCourcy asks the question and the crew (and special guests) give their answers, we’ll be doing this for 52 weeks. Tip of the hat goes to the gang at Scans_Daily for the inspiration.

Today’s Question: “In honor of Tony’s last WHOEVER HOLDS THIS HAMMER column – What’s your feelings on digital comics?”

Scott VanderPloeg (writer of CBD’s Bound Together column; his ramblings can be found blogged at eBabble.)

Digital comics will be great once we have a light and cheap handheld device with which to read them from.  The technology is already there to have all currently printed comics in a digital format since anything printed today is from a digital file: the real issue is readability.  Grayscale eBook readers such as the Amazon Kindle are light, easy to use and fairly inexpensive but lack the two things that make reading most comic books entertaining: colour and size.  Forgoing the double page spread we’re used to reading 6.75×10.25” comic pages: a colour device approximately that size will be the winner.

Unfortunately we’re on the cusp of a tablet and eBook revolution with single use devices such as the Kindle versus general use devices such as the iPad.  Current colour eBook readers are basic tablets based on Android with reduced features and a battery life under ten hours.  Grayscale eBook readers are predominantly using e-Ink screens and have a battery life of a month; power is only used when the screen is drawn.  The first colour e-Ink eBook reader will launch in China sometime this year so we should have a raft of choices in early 2011.

The lurking issue over all digital media right now is ownership.  We can buy a book at Comixology or Amazon but what happens when they change format or close up shop?  If Apple went belly up tomorrow there would be a lot of people with big investments in iTunes out of luck when trying to access their purchased digital media.  Short of fire, water or theft my shelves stuffed with books will be with me for as long as I want.  As well we can’t easily transfer ownership of digital media to another user: the back issue comic market and second hand books are reader’s havens.  Amazon has announced eBook lending for two weeks as a trial project so we’re heading in the right direction.  Digital rights issues need to be addressed and handled before the bulk of readers will take the plunge.

When digital comics and eBooks in general can mimic the experience of reading a book print will be dead.

Kevin Boyd (Director of the illustrious Joe Shuster Awards Committee)

While I do read webcomics – which are generally free, the idea of paying for a comic book digitally from a publisher rather than buying an actual physical copy holds no interest for me. It makes a comic a transitory entertainment experience and I’m not interested in changing my old dog tricks. I’m an end-user type of reader anyway — I wait for the deluxe hardcover treatment and there’s plenty enough product coming out on a weekly basis to catch my dollars. While I’ve flirted with the idea of getting an iPad, the enlarging and shrinking of panels (instead of the static grid/page) when reading a digital comic is annoying and a further turn-off.

I think that as Digital Comics are becoming more predominant, especially to those who are used to digital downloading their music/movies/tv shows, the problem with them in my mind is essentially a rights and compensation issue. When a company produces or reprints art physically, the original creators are compensated financially for their efforts commensurate to revenues generated from the reprinting of their work. As with other digital media — television, motion pictures, photography, print, other audio/visual recordings… there must be a defined set of rules in place for comic book creators to be fairly compensated for every digital download of their work and I’m not sure such a plan exists.

In this same context, illegal scanning and downloading of comics not authorized by the copyright holder is theft and there needs to be more of a crackdown on this, which I know is almost impossible to do given the nature of file sharing.

Andrew Ardizzi (Roving reporter for CBD and student of journalism at Humber. He writes for the Humber Et Cetera. You can find him at his blog Come Gather ’round People Wherever You Roam.)

I think it’s definitely the direction that multimedia is heading, especially with the onset and arrival of mobile devices like the iPad that allow you to read comics on the road. It’s definitely much more accessible, and obviously allows you perform any number of tasks and offers a number of entertainment options. It’s surely a new development in the industry, but is more of a reflection on where the presentation of mediums are headed.

How will it affect the comic book industry in the long-term? Will it render physical books obsolete and will they be phased out? Potentially. How will it affect comic book shops is also a relevant question to ponder. What happens to them? On a more personal level, I enjoy walking into a shop weekly and interacting with others and talk about the latest books, especially the things we hate or love. I’ve made a number of friends just from frequenting comic book stores.The problem I see here is that in a more social analysis, it depersonalizes that interaction and further disconnects us.

Perhaps this is an eventuality, and perhaps the necessity for comic shops and the industry as a print medium will become obsolete. I think it’s where we’re headed, but contrarily feel it would be a shame if shops and printed books were phased out and no longer necessary. It amplifies the social disconnect, and quite frankly, I like my physical books.

Shelley Smarz (Comic Book Daily’s resident Comic Book Goddess)

The simple answer is: I’m torn.

On the one hand, I’m absolutely tickled by the idea that I’ll be able to read my monthly comic books and graphic novels on my long commute into work. I mean, to carry enough books to keep me entertained for the whole of my three-hour daily commute is prohibitive – not only is it terribly heavy but also it’s – and this is especially the case with monthly comic books – horribly cumbersome. I grumble about how big of a pain in the ass it is to carry a hardcover book, never mind a graphic novel/TPB (or three) or a big stack of monthly books. Complicating things, I’m a VERY fast reader. I can read a good-size paperback daily and this is only counting the time I spend commuting to and from work.

So, digital distribution of comic books, graphic novels, and ordinary books and magazines is absolutely ideal for me. I can load up all my stuff onto my digital device and I’d be entertained without having to worry about transporting anything more than said digital device and without having to worry about either finding a place to store a physical item – which is very good since my bookshelf space is quickly dwindling (don’t even get me started on how annoying long boxes are – yet another of the reasons why the majority of my comic book collection is now in graphic novel form) or with trading in my books to a second-hand store (more an issue with novels and other books than it is with comics). Digital books also tend to be a bit cheaper, which is a bonus. The only problem with digital consumption of printed materials is the cost for the digital reader device.

Now, a Kindle or a Kobo are out of the question (as tempting as it is to have my comics converted to grayscale, I’ll pass). For comics and graphic novels, you need a full-colour display. Now, I have a netbook and I have tried reading comics and graphic novels on it, but I just don’t like it. I don’t like flipping it onto its side and I miss the experience of the full-page if I don’t and have to scroll down the page.

Therefore, if I were to exclusively read comics in its digital format, I’d have to have a tablet reading device exclusively for that purpose or I’d have to invest in a new netbook that has tablet functionality. Since my main computer is a 17”-MacBook Pro my netbook is for supplementary computing. I originally purchased it for school so I wouldn’t have to lug my MacBook – which has my life on it – everywhere I went. It’s handy for writing on the fly and incredibly convenient when I travel. However, this also means that I’m unlikely to invest in another netbook just so I can get one to transform it into a tablet.

Despite its flaws (no Flash support, no integrated camera, and the inability to run more than one App at a time), I absolutely love Apple’s iPad. The flaws that everyone mentions don’t bother me because I don’t need it for anything but a digital reading device. Another consideration is that I also run a lot of useful Apps on my iPod Touch that can be transferred over to my iPad. But, since I don’t have an iPad, I’ll have to get one. This means that, were I to move to digital, I’d have to purchase the device and its accessories (carrying case, warranty, etc.).

I’d also have to (eventually) re-purchase a good chunk of my collection (I’m a little bit of a digital hoarder); granted, this can be done bit by bit. But the price of digital comics versus printed ones (especially since Marvel and DC both announced a price cut in their monthlies) isn’t large enough to entice me over to digital…yet. And, I have to admit that, on the rare occasions when I’m missing some random book in the middle of the series (and one I can also no longer get at my local comic book store (LCBS)), I don’t have to order it online, or scour conventions/other comic book stores for it. I can download it. (Also, if the subscription service for digital comics works like a podcast subscription, it would just download automatically.) That is a definite bonus.

Another reason why I haven’t moved to digital comics – or even for novels and other printed publications – is that, while I find it a lot easier (and enjoyable) to read things on the screen than I used to (whether by improvements in technology or by necessity), I know that I’d miss the tactile feel of the pages between my fingers. I’d miss the joy I get going into bookstores. Is it more convenient to order my book off the internet? Yes. There’s also the immediate gratification factor as comics – especially hard to find ones and ones with limited print ones – are immediately delivered without hassle. I’d also miss the displaying my physical books (though having digital bookshelves will allow me to de-clutter quite a bit) on bookshelves.

But those are things I could get used to and, on paper, the positives associated with digital comics outweigh the negatives. But, on the other hand, I won’t be going to my LCBS for my comics’ fix anymore. This is the negative that I can’t get past when it comes to digital comics. I like the ritual of going to my LCBS (although I don’t go as often as I’d like), picking up my books, and discussing comics with people at the store. And, yes, the interaction and discussion with other fans can happen on internet forums and the odd comic book convention but…it’s not the same. Perhaps if I had a horrible LCBS I wouldn’t mind this. But I don’t. My two LCBSes are awesome – two of the best that I’ve been in (and, no, I’m not biased because I used to work there) – and I really don’t want to contribute to the downfall of direct market retailing. Don’t get me wrong, there’s no doubt that it’s going to happen, but it’s a matter of when. It’s cheaper and easier for the industry to publish and distribute comics digitally; and, if it’s going to survive (and perhaps even prosper), it’s going to have to (eventually) abandon the direct market – especially if digital sales start to significantly cannibalize print ones. There will be a point where it’s simply cost prohibitive to produce and distribute print comics (either from the point of view of the publisher or the consumer) and fans will be forced to move to digital (whether they want to or not).

Yes, Egon, “print is dead.” But the amazing thing is that it’s going to take a long time to disappear. And, in the meantime, I’ll hopefully find a way to simultaneously support my local comic retailers (by buying print) while reaping the benefits of the digital wave. (And, no, I’m not going to scan the individual print issues so that I can read them on my iPad myself.)

Chris Howard (From Egesta Comics, one of the masterminds behind the fan favourite webcomic series Dressed For Success)

I think a lot of what’s already been said is bang on. As someone who’s done print comics in the past and has now switched to digital, it’s a weird shift, but has a lot of positives.

Print is slow. Once the work is done, it has to be stripped together, printed and bound, then transported to wherever it’s going to be purchased or distributed. Each of these steps takes a lot of time and some cost. With digital, once the material is created, it can be made available and instantly acquired. There are no shipping times or costs, nothing arrives late or damaged. Your work can be found as easily by someone in your city or by someone on the other side of the planet. As a means of spreading comics, it’s fabulous.

But there is a lot to work out yet. Absolutely right that the ideal reading experience has not arrived yet, or perhaps in the case of the iPad, is not widely used yet. I think in a couple years time, once the competitors products are available and people become most accustomed to them, some sort of tablet reader will become very common. I’ve not had a chance to really read comics on the iPad yet, (only checked how our’s looked on the one in Future Shop, I’ve got my name in on my Mother-in-laws in her will) but I’ve done the turned laptop and even read a few on my PSP. The experience isn’t ideal, the laptop is awkward and bulky, (not to mention hot) and the PSP screen is not really large enough to take in a whole page and only so-so for a scrolling page width. I’m not a fan of the one panel at a time approach, I think it takes away from page layout. Can you imagine trying to convert some of Will Eisner’s work to that format?

I’m also not sure I could go 100% digital. We are planning on print volumes of each Dressed for Success story, we view the web comic as the original airing and the collected volume as buying the DVD box set. As I’ve said in previous Q52′s, I love a well produced book. I might read it digitally at first, but if I decide I really like it, I’ll buy the book. Plus, if I’ve enjoyed it enough to purchase the physical book, chances are I’ll want to share it. My library is a lending library. That said, I’m not that keen on buying things twice. I love webcomics for that reason. I can read enough to decide I like it, then pay once to own and read it all. I use the public library in a similar way.

And I am in the weekly comic shop crowd. It’s been over 20 years, (good lord!) or going every week. It feels really weird if I have to miss a week. I too enjoy the atmosphere and getting to know the staff. I recently switched stores after more than 10 years and I miss some of the people. (But my new store is pretty great Walt!)

And then there’s the actual logistics of digital. I don’t have a solution for this one. I don’t think draconian DRM is the way to go. For me, it has to be as easy or easier to get it legally than it would be to get it from the library or from a download. I sold a gift MP3 player because it was too much of a hassle to use it, forcing me to use proprietary programs and software and jump through 20 hoops to get an audio book on it. I need to be able to say, yeah, gimmie that, and with a click or two, be reading. And the price, as I talked about at the start of this very long note, should and has to be low. The costs are lower, make the price reflect that. Chris Anderson’s book, Free: The Future of a Radical Price makes a good argument for getting that price point as low as possible. I think Netflix’s move into Canada will be interesting to watch as well. Pile’s of content that’s always expanding for a fifth of the cheapest cable option? Imagine being able to read anything in Previews for less than $10 a month? Throw in the ads, we’re used to seeing them in print comics and on-line. I think if you make the system easy and affordable people will go that route.

Now I just have to wait to inherit that iPod.That’s it for this week: feel free to chime in on the discussion below!

Comic Book Daily Staff

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