For the last four and a half years or so I’ve co-hosted a comics and geek culture podcast called Comic Book Outsiders. We recorded our 127th episode the other night and we spoke to an independent comic book creator, artist and writer, called Terry Moore. He’s written some incredible comics including Strangers in Paradise, Echo and his most recent series is Rachel Rising. You can listen to it here. We talk about his comics and also what he thinks about digital comics and how it will help or hinder him. Recording this episode, talking to Terry about digital comics, but also the end of a favourite podcast of mine, Geek Syndicate, made me think about the rate of change and how fast we adapt and embrace new technology.
When we first started the podcast not that many people were doing comic book podcasts and the number of podcasts in general was small by comparison to the present. At comic book conventions we even had a sign on the table which read ‘Ask us about Podcasting’. Several people came up to the table each day to ask what a podcast was and how it worked. Now most people don’t need to be told what they are and there are thousands of podcasts across pretty much every subject under the sun. MP3 players, smart phones and lots of other devices now allow people to listen to podcasts at any time. The tools to analyse where our listeners come from have grown more complex and they show a remarkable breadth of people from all over the world. In a previous job I was asked to pass on my knowledge of podcasting – editing audio and distributing it – to the business to help them with their social media strategy. I trained and taught other people, something I learned as a hobby, so that they could deploy it in a professional capacity. And all of this has happened in less than five years.
Podcasting is yet another form of entertainment which allows the user/listener to choose what to consume, where and when in their own time. TV has adapted to become similar service with various recording devices, but it didn’t start out life in that fashion. We were all locked in to schedules but not any more.
All of this made me think again about the future and the reality of where we might be in another five, ten, fifty or a hundred years with technology and specifically comics. There was a recent article in the Financial Times of all places about comics and digital comics. Someone was quoted as saying that in a year’s time we will be looking at paper comics in the same way as the music industry views vinyl. I believe this person is wrong for several reasons, a few of which I wanted to explore by looking at what might actually happen and what it would take to get to that place on the horizon.
Paper comics will be around for quite a long time in one shape or another and the collected editions – trade paperbacks, hardback, ultimate editions, absolute editions, omnibuses etc – are not going to disappear. Comparing paper comics to vinyl and music is apples and oranges, it’s just not the same.
Let’s pretend that monthly paper comics vanished and went completely digital, what would it take to get there? Reading comics on an electric reader, tablet or other, is only feasible when the screen is almost as big as the original page. You can read comics on your smart phone, but it’s awful. I’ve tried and I hated every second of it for several reasons. It’s a much more controlled experience for one as the software takes you around the page, guiding you from panel to panel or you have to zoom in and out, and it’s just hideous. There’s no flow, no movement, no time to think about what happens between the panels that you don’t see but is implied. A page isn’t a page anymore. It’s just a collection of cells like stills in a film. Turning it into a motion comic is just a horrible halfway house because it’s neither an animation or a comic book but a weird amalgam of the two that is always disappointing. Also the art was never designed to viewed on such a tiny screen and squashing it down like that doesn’t do the art or artist any justice. Don’t even get me started on single splash or double splash pages.
So ignoring smart phones, the current alternative is to view comics on a tablet. All of those that currently exist which are decent, and by that I mean those with a good sized screen, good resolution so it doesn’t look pixalated, are all fairly expensive. MP3 players are now dirt cheap and they come in a hundred colours, brands, shapes and sizes. I’m old enough to remember how expensive Walkman’s were and personal CD players back in the day, and eventually they too become cheap and cheerful. The best tablet I’ve seen for reading comics is still very expensive. The device is not specfically designed for comics and so it comes with a lot more toys out of the box which are pointless for me and I have access to all of the features in other places. So it’s a lot of something I’ll never use.
If there was a stripped down version (a Kindle or Nook equivalent for comics) with almost no other functionality apart from being able to read comics, and with a price point to match, I would buy one tomorrow and say goodbye to monthly paper comics. However, that isn’t a reality, not yet anyway, as not all comics are available digitally. We are inching towards that place, but even the big move by Marvel and DC to go day and date is just a stepping stone. No one will actually say what percentage digital sales makes up of their monthly figures but I would estimate it’s less than 20%. Also there is no Amazon equivalent for digital comic book distributors and although Comixology is perhaps the most popular, the scale compared to Amazon is very small.
So, until every publisher (indy, small press and mainstream) has day and date for all of their monthly comics, and until the balance between digital sales and paper is more even, or it leans more heavily towards digital, and until there is a device that is very easy to get your hands on that is cheap and specifically bent towards comics, or it has inbuild tech that was added with comics in mind, paper comics are not going anywhere
I estimate paper comics will be around for at least another 20 years and that is probably being conservative. As a point of interest the first Walkman was developed in 1979. The first portable CD player in 1984, but I would argue it took another six years or more before they were readily available and enough me-too versions existed that the price came down across the board. The first portable MP3 player was on sale in 1997 and it was 2001 when Apple release their first iPod. The two largest comic book publishers, Marvel and DC, have just gone day and date with all of their titles, so this is really just the start of the journey and it’s going to take years before all of those requirements are met. Then there’s the fans themselves, the retailers, the conventions and getting sketches and signatures and a whole host of other elements.
I really believe a physical comic will always exist in some form , even if, to go back to the beginning, it exists like vinyl today, which is a collectors item for older music, and certain bands release special limited editions of their new albums on vinyl, such as Radiohead.