Digital Comics: Revisiting the "Future"

first-internetI love digital comics. Anyone who knows me knows that's no secret. Truthfully, I am the perfect customer for digital comics. Unlike my partner-in-crime, I am not a comic book collector. I don't buy comics and bag them and store them in boxes, in dark closets, never to read again. I don't keep a spreadsheet of issues I own, cross-referenced by title, characters, and creators. I don't have a pull list, and I don't anxiously await Wednesdays. I read comics solely for the stories, and when I'm done with the stories, the comics often go into a stack in my closet, where I sometimes pull them out again months down the road and reread them, gaining new perspectives on the stories within. While I have great memories of brick and mortar stores, right now, in my life, at the moment, I am a horrible comic shop customer. But, digital comics. Digital comics are made for me. They always have been. Four years ago, I wrote an entire essay on a different site arguing in favor of what I perceived to be the future of comic books: digital comics. In that piece, I wrote about the access that digital comics could offer, and the potential for savings for the consumer. I painted digital comics as a perfect utopia, the wonderful and glorious future we are destined for. You can read the whole piece over here. I'm not super pleased with it. I was young and shortsighted and not very good. I wrote that essay shortly before Dark Horse released its digital store. At the time, they were offering some big plans for their digital comics, and I wanted all of them to come true. Cheap comics, same-day releases, the ability to access your comics from any device, cross-platform even. For a guy who used to get his supply of comics in the mail from a shop four hours away, these ideas were exciting. For once, maybe I would be able to participate in comic book discussion online the same day as everyone else. Maybe, for once, I wouldn't get left behind. As with every big dream, the truth turned out to be somewhere in the middle, and in the years since, I've watched the landscape of digital comics change in some interesting ways, as major publishers struggle to find their way through this new comic book market. I've seen it grow and shift and change and become something all together new, exceeding my 2011 expectations in some ways and falling short in others. For starters, I wrote a lot in that piece about access. As someone who didn't have a local comic shop, the prospect of buying new comics every week, on the same day as the print comics were released, greatly appealed to me. When Dark Horse announced that their digital store would be working toward this goal, no other publisher was doing this. As I mentioned in the piece itself, DC used Comixology, but the newest comics were months old. Marvel was talking about their upcoming digital platform, but how they would handle same-day releases was still unclear. And Image Comics hadn't even come close to being ready to go digital. In fact, at that time, digital comics were largely an independent venture, which was great for the indie publishers. It offered a low cost way to get their comics to a huge audience. But, the big movers and shakers -- the big four, so to speak -- hadn't moved yet. Kindle FireIn the four years since I wrote that, though? Wow, has all of that changed. All four of the companies have a huge digital presence, and they all offer same-day releases on their digital comics. 2011 Chris is jumping up and down, even though 2015 Chris has a comic shop less than a mile away. I also love how digital comics have expanded across different platforms. I have apps on my phone, my computer, and my Kindle Fire that can all read comic books, and all of those devices are loaded to the gills with digital comics. I can share those comics from device to device, ensuring that no matter where I am, or what device I am on, I can pick up where I left off and continue reading. And, ultimately, that availability can only be good for the industry. If comics are available to the masses, one stands a better chance of the masses getting on board. And making those comics available across a variety of platforms makes this process all the easier. Of course, as is usually standard in the comic book industry, we take two steps forward and one step back. In terms of digital comics, that step back has been concerning price. When Dark Horse announced their platform, they made a big deal about offering digital comics at half the price of their print counterparts. It made sense. They weren't going through a distributor, and there were no publishing costs. The only costs the company would incur would be staff and marketing, and that should be doable even at a lower price. When I praised Dark Horse for this decision, I knew that their proposed price of $1.50 was a bit low, but who was I to judge? Even if they increased it a bit, it should still be cheaper than expected. Of course, as the dust has settled, we've found that companies have made some interesting price choices with digital comics. Just a cursory glance at Comixology shows digital comics to be priced the same as their digital counterparts. Even Dark Horse with all of its posturing has reached the point where new comics are priced the same. Now, to be fair, older comics see a dramatic drop in price at most places, with most publishers, but I still find the choice to price day-of-release digital comics the same as the floppies interesting. I think that there are a few possible reasons for this, namely that publishers don't want to draw away from print sales at local comic shops, so they price digital comics the same. The cynic in me kind of believes that the companies are money hungry, so they price the comics the same to maximize the profits. That's just silly, though. Money-hungry corporations, what am I thinking? Regardless of the reason, I don't think I like it. For starters, there's the issue with ownership. I'm paying $3.99 for a comic book, but I don't actually own the comic book. As the Frequently Asked Questions at Dark Horse Digital says:
As with Amazon, Nook, and other e-book companies, you don’t own the book you buy. You are licensing the right to read the book on supported and authorized devices.
I think that's a shame, because if I buy the same comic in a store, I at least own the comic. And I find it interesting that they refer to Amazon, a company that has a history of revoking that license. I love digital comics, but the idea of the company reaching into my device and just erasing them scares me a bit. And that's a dangerous reaction to a new technology that I've previously supported whole-heartedly. The other reason I have a problem with the price point is that I think it ultimately hurts the ability of digital comics to reach the masses. If I price a Wolverine comic at $0.99, and some kid who loves Wolverine sees it, there's a good chance that his parents are going to snag it for him. $3.99? Not so much. Most people in the developed world carry a computer around in their pocket, and every one of those people are potential customers. But, when you price your 25-page comic at almost five dollars, you destroy much of that potential. Case in point: Marvel's recent Star Wars comic. The Star Wars franchise is huge, and you have an amazing potential to grab a lot of new readers with this title, especially with the new movie coming out in less than twelve months. Price that comic at $4.99? Not so much. Now, I understand: comics are expensive to produce. I get it. Trust me. I've released a comic, and we're planning to release two new comics shortly. But, with digital comics, so much of that cost just doesn't exist. The reason we're planning to release two new comics instead of one is because digital releases are so much easier and cheaper to produce. Now, I also know that Comixology charges a fee per copy sold, but we're talking about giant corporations. You can't tell me they can't contract those prices down a bit. Additionally, Dark Horse and Marvel both have their own digital stores, skipping the middle man altogether. Yet, the price of these digital comics don't change. Ultimately, I love digital comics, and I still think that digital comics hold a potential for the future. I do, however, think the system isn't yet perfect, and there's a lot that companies could be doing to continue embracing that potential. When I wrote that post 4 years ago, I had no idea how quickly digital comics would become a viable force in the industry. I'm happy that companies have made as many strides as they have. I just hope they continue to make strides, because the market is young, and there is definitely room to improve, to shape and inform what this new addition to the industry looks like.
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Christopher David Lawton

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  • Mathew D. Rhys says:

    I have yet to read your old essay, but I did skim the comments, and I have to mock you for your 2011 insistence that the color Kindle was ‘years away’.

    • Christopher David Lawton says:

      To be fair, even today, there’s is no color Kindle. There is a Kindle Fire, which is a different beast: specifically, an LCD tablet. I’m referring to the fact that the idea of a Kindle e-reader that utilizes E-ink would never have a color counter-part, and that’s still true. Even the latest version of the Kindle, the Voyage, still uses a monochromatic display.


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