Lying In The Gutters

Mon, October 10th, 2005 at 12:00am PDT

Comic Books
Rich Johnston, Columnist

LYING IN THE GUTTERS VOLUME 2 COLUMN 21

Welcome to the most popular and longest running comics column on the internet. In its various forms, Lying In the Gutters has covered rumours and gossip in the comics industry for twelve long glorious and quite scary years. All stories are sourced from well connected sources and checked with respective publisher representatives before publication. The veracity of each story is judged by me and given a spotlight - Green is the most reliable, Amber means there's likely an interest involved or the likelihood isn't set and Red means even I can't quite bring myself to believe it.

Lying In The Gutters is for your entertainment. Neither Fair Nor Balanced.

DOWNLOAD OR BE DAMNED

[Green Light]Theres' a downloadable file on the internet called "What's Scanned & Unscanned In The Marvel Universe." Shouldn't take too long to find, and it gives a regularly updated list of every Marvel comic you can illegally download, for free, using Bittorrent clients. The October version is available in most of the usual places.

The figures it gives are startling. Of the total number of Marvel comics ever printed, 29,633, 21,452 have been scanned in and are available for download. Out of the 2,704 different Marvel titles ever published, 1,813 have 100% of all the issues scanned and available.

That means 72% of all Marvel comics are available, free, illegally, online. If you take out imprints such as Marvel UK, Amalgam, Star, Razorline, Frontier, Malibu, Epic, Timely or Icon, leaving the Marvel Universe, 83% have been scanned.

DC's position is slightly better, due to their longer and broader publishing history, but for recent works it's pretty much the same. You want it, you can't or don't want to buy it, it's yours free on the screen.

Two years ago, when I first wrote an article on downloading comics, it was harder and less convenient to download such items and did need some technological knowhow. But I predicted a near future where the downloading of comics was more mainstream and easily accessible through the user-friendly Bittorrent. That is the new reality. Anyone in the world can download a torrent program and take whatever they want with ease.

While much of the existing and aging fanbase is uncomfortable reading off the screen, that's not the case with new readers. For younger audiences, more used to getting everything they want off a close, bright-lit screen, reading comics online is as valid and acceptable an experience as reading them off the page. Plus, the colours are brighter, the lines sharper, there's no dulling brought on by a printing process.

Some people have wondered why the industry has not been attracting new readers, even as the Hollywood machine goes to work. The reality appears that they have been, it's just the new readers haven't been paying. They have bypassed the inconvenient, expensive and often non-existent comic shop and have gone directly to their peers, who upload comics in return for respect and admiration.

Comic companies, especially the big two, need to think about how they can make their product available at a cheap price, for download. It shouldn't take a lot of effort of manpower-- hell, these guys have done the scanning and converting for you. But something has to be done and fast, or you'll end up in the situation the music industry was in. Yes, it's illegal. But for many, that doesn't make it wrong. Music has slowly worked that out and found a new approach. Film and TV are starting to learn, with the BBC looking like it will present broad consumer-friendly brushstrokes that certain hostile commercial studios and broadcasters are afraid to promote. And the previously-stunted ebooks industry is gaining new momentum as a result of the widescale the illegal distribution of Harry Potter and Dan Brown titles.

So now we need an iTunes for comics. Whether on the PC screen or the PSP, the work needs to be done now, before revenue and industry sustainability is lost. And it's not just the big guys who are suffering. A few years ago, it was just Marvel, DC and manga attracting major download attention. That's no longer the case. Any comic you could possibly want to read, is probably available. Don't believe me? Take a look.

Stop laughing, you bastards.

I talked to Todd Allen, friend of LITG and author of "Online Comics Vs. Printed Comics: A Study in E-Commerce and the Comparative Economies of Content."

RICHARD: Todd, I've been talking about this issue for a couple of years now. Nothing seems to have changed in the publishers' favour. What's going on?

TODD: The piracy issue is an old one for established media that comics, as an industry, is a bit slow to come to grips with. Alas this is not unusual. Elements of comics management have always been a bit leery of technology, finding it a strange and dangerous place. You have two problems set against the backdrop of online distribution-- management brought up pre-multi-media and channel conflict.

RICHARD: What's the effect of that, as you see it?

TODD: The pre-multimedia bias is fairly obvious. You're used to comics in print. Online isn't something you can hold in your hands. Heck, you may even have something against computer lettering as cold and sterile. You'll find a lot more of this in the 40+ club, than you will among 20-somethings. That's just how it is. I ran into similar sentiments with physicians when putting the American Medical Association's medical journals online a few years back-- this is normal for tech adoption. Still, if the digital stuff makes you a little nervous, you're less likely to get heavily involved with it.

RICHARD: You talk about channel conflict a lot. How does this affect comics?

TODD: It's all about the direct market. If you think comic shop owners scream bloody murder when there's an exclusive with Barnes & Noble, imagine how they're going to scream if you can download your X-Men or your JLA from the publisher website (never mind the piracy), instead of setting foot into the shop. But the channel conflict problem, pre-supposes the downloader has access to a comic shop. As someone who grew up in a rural area and would probably not have convinced the parents of the periodic 40 minute drive to the shop, if the co-owner hadn't been the high school government teacher, I can assure everyone the proximity to product issue is a very real one in the brick and mortar world.

RICHARD: Okay, so what can publishers do? Is this a matter for lawyers right now?

TODD: If we look at the world of music, we see a bunch of lawsuits against minors. We see very bad publicity. And we see the emergence of iTunes and Apple, selling music at a nominal price in an attempt to offset piracy. And they're selling a lot of music. If we look at film, we're seeing a few lawsuits. Mostly they're going after the people who initially upload current films, which doesn't give you the publicity backlash suing minors does. And we're seeing (very recently) a media summit and the announced intention of Hollywood having a download mechanism in place, as soon as the various interested parties can get the details ironed out, and the site built.

RICHARD: And comics? What situation are they in?

TODD: Comics is a subset of publishing, which hasn't adopted anything approaching a uniform approach to the topic. With comics, mainstream anyway, we have heard that the companies don't think it would be wise to sue their fanbase. With the print circulation seemingly capped around 200K, you can't afford any widespread alienation. We have not heard much else. I personally broke out laughing in the back of the room at Wizard World Chicago, when the Cup of Joe panel attempted to discuss a particularly insipid question from an apparent bittorrent fiend. Their policy was obviously less than crystal clear. The majors are just plain lagging behind. On the other hand, lagging means they haven't done anything silly, either. The record industry is still trying to live down some PR blunders revolving around their suits against children. On the other hand, lets consider the numbers of web audience. Go take a peek at the web comic audience table.

RICHARD: Where?

TODD: Here. Big audiences? At least bigger than mid-tier titles from the Big 2? Yes. And you'll see some of them jumping to print as a _supplement_ to their original edition. "PVP" at Image. "Penny Arcade" coming to Dark Horse. Consider I have it on good authority that Lying in the Gutter has a viewership of between 60-80K each week.

RICHARD: You may think that, I couldn't possibly comment.

TODD: Looking at ICV2's numbers for August, 80k would put Lying in the Gutters at #14 and 60K at #32, for comic books. Yes, this is apples to oranges, comparing paid content to advertising supported, free to the consumer, content... however, it's a good illustration of how powerful the difference in audience size is. "Girl Genius" has already gone direct to the web. "Wolff & Byrd" just switched. Finder is on the way.

RICHARD: This is a voluntary move though. Isn't that a different world to piracy? In scale, if nothing else?

TODD: We don't have numbers for downloads. It would be hard to even estimate a number for them, but it's probably not low. The thing is, even pirated downloads have their potential benefits. Marvel used to regularly put their comics online when sell-outs occur, particularly in the early days of the Ultimate line. Bill Jemas has told me those online editions definitely helped boost sales. Tony Panaccio, who many of you may not be familiar with, but was a VP at Crossgen, has told me that releasing online editions created a drastic sales boost when launching a title. Giving away content will result in a percentage of the downloaders buying a print edition, be it the monthly or a trade. That's just how it works.

Then you have Chris Anderson, of "The Long Tail" Fame, arguing that a little piracy is a good thing. Bottom line is three-fold. You're going to have a certain amount of piracy. Added exposure of content has some value, even if it isn't the optimum value - unless, potentially, your product is just that bad. And if you're not offering alternatives, ala iTunes or the upcoming Hollywood attempt, you're only encouraging digital media fans to do downloads.

RICHARD: I think that's a fairly clear message,

TODD: I would also add a cynical comment directed more towards DC and Marvel. Between "Infinite Crisis," "House of M," and the various and sundry cross-overs (moreso with "Infinite Crisis"), a reader who skipped either mini might not have a clue what's going on in the aftermath. Hypothetically speaking, if a reader doesn't like one of those series enough to pay for it, is it better for a download to catch up with what's happening, or run the risk of complete alienation and possible loss of sales when the oh-so-hyped great reprecussions hit the titles said reader is normally picking up? Cynical question, but a legitimate one.

RICHARD: Thanks Todd. Sounds like, as an audience, if we want to stay legal, we either wait for the trade... or wait for the industry. And this could be the end of the comics collector as we know it...

CALL HOUSE

[Yellow Light]Want to know just how House Of M may affect Wolverine in the long term? Spoilers on again.

Okay, Brian Bendis asked me not to tell you, even without spoilers. And I'm feeling rather generous right now, after enjoying his latest "Powers" arc. Suffice it to say, people who think the end of House Of M will be a simple reset button are wrong. There will be a serious change to Wolverine's status, and you aren't just going to be able to put the frog back in the box.

And we're back. Actually, you're probably safe to highlight that one. But not the one coming next. Definitely not.

NEWS FLASH

[Green Light]According to one very-reliable-in-the-past DC source, Mark Waid will be writing "The Flash" after "Infinite Crisis," kicking off with the One Year Gap.

Whiteout spoilers on folks. Remember thar be spoilers.

It will star Bart Allen as The Flash. Wally West? RIP.

Some of you are happy. Some of you are angry. Some of you are going to pick up the first issue and be surprised because you didn't just highlight the text. Well done you.

STRIKE BACK

[Green Light]What could the biggest comic book reconciliation be? John Byrne back at Marvel? Alan Moore back at DC? Erik Larsen drawing a Peter David book again? No.

Striker has returned to The Sun newspaper.

An ongoing soap opera football strip in the British Sun newspaper, Striker became a CGI comic strip mid way through its eighteen-year run and gained a large number of avid readers. So much so, that in 2003, creator Pete Nash decided to leave The Sun and launch Striker as an ongoing newsagent-based comic.

Its move was to have been done with the cooperation of The Sun newspaper, who were reported to have promised full page ads for the new venture. But things soured, the ads never ran and a new strip suddenly appeared in a similar style, entitled The Premier, set amongst a different football club in the same fictional town as Striker, leading with the news that the team from club from Striker had all been killed.

The comic was cancelled in May, dogged by poor orders and a low profile. But six months later, the strip has returned to The Sun, with "The Premier" being relegated to the paper's website.

Muddy Mildred.

KOCHI KOCHI KOO

[Green Light]Oh no.

NOVEL, SHE DREWE

[Green Light]The "Tamara Drewe" serialised graphic novel from Posy Simmonds now has an archive page at the Guardian website. Remember, folks, you read it there first. So no going and voting it Best Original Graphic Novel when it's published.

GONE TO MY HEAD

GREEN

Cosplay has gone mainstream.

Now being advertised on my tube station.

There'll be Klingon foreheads from Wella next.

SMALL PRINT

For other comic and non-comic book related nonsense, check out the Twistblog.

Discuss this column at the Lying In The Gutters Forum.

Contact me on richjohnston@gmail.com or on AOL Instant Messenger as TwistRich

You can also write to me at 8 Robin Hood Lane, Kingston Vale, London SW15 3PU ENGLAND

Or call me/text me on 0780 1350982 from the UK or 01144780 1350982 from the US.

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