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Tue, November 3rd, 2009 at 2:28pm PST | Updated: November 3rd, 2009 at 3:26pm

Comic Books
Augie De Blieck Jr., Columnist

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THE WINDS OF CHANGE

The march to full digital comics distribution continues. It's all baby steps, but we're getting closer each week. Let's break down the three big news items from last week:

"Wizard: The One Time Guide To Comics" has dropped its price guide to comics.

"The Comics Journal" is dropping its mostly-monthly magazine in favor of a serious web presence.

And Marvel is selling its comics across four different comic reader apps on the iPhone.

The price guide thing is long overdue. How such a thing continued to exist in any form on paper is beyond me. The market moves too fast, thanks to eBay and the like. If you thought the news got old in a hurry, imagine how volatile comic prices based off that news can be.

It's not that I disagree with the concept of comics as collectibles. That will always be around. It's only bad when it drives the market. As a subsection of comic buyers, it's not the end of the world, and the price guide was a defining part of "Wizard"'s presence early on. Times have changed, though, and "Wizard" has finally changes along with this part.

Those pages are better put to use for valuable content that will help round out a reader's experience. Now, this is "Wizard." They're probably just dropping out a chunk of pages from their magazine and not replacing it with anything that they might have to pay someone to write. Which would be a shame, because strong editorial content that isn't time sensitive is the only way to compete with the web, but it's also the least exciting thing to sell on dead wood.

Let's chalk this move from "Wizard" as a huge environmental win. As recyclable as "Wizard" is as toilet paper, I don't think enough people use it that way to justify its existence.

Ironically, Wizard also appears to have deleted its message board. Not very Web 2.0 of them. . .

Fantagraphics' move of "The Comics Journal" to the web is somewhat sadder. They had a tough line to hold over the years, though I thought they did it rather well. They did a good job in mixing up interviews between mainstream and independent/alternative creators, they focused on the career-spanning interviews over breaking news, and maintained a high standard for serious comics criticism, whether it's something you agreed with or not.

Even when interviewing a "mainstream" creator, TCJ still felt authentic, asking the questions that fansites never bother with, or that the creators didn't feel comfortable talking about. I wonder if this move to the web - where the link economy will render TCJ's separate identity moot - will cause less lips to flap. It always seemed to me that you could say anything to "The Comics Journal" as a creator. It was almost as if the place was an understood neutral territory where one could speak openly about anyone without fear of retribution or backlash. Maybe I'm naïve, but that's how it always "felt" to me.

On the web, though, everyone's equal. The most inflammatory statements will make for a brushfire of blog links. I can't help but think that might help to stifle the conversation.

I also like Gary Groth's attitude on all this. He's giving interviews and explaining the reasons for this shift, but also admitting that the plans are not written in stone. He admits that the on-line version of TCJ is a work in progress, while leaving open the possibility for anything to happen - old departments returning, new multimedia departments shoring up (more audio!), etc.

I'm sure that we'll see "The Comics Journal" as a major contributor of content to the web for all the other sites to link to in 2010.

Fantagraphics isn't the first magazine publisher to go down this road, by the way, though it is the one making the most decisive move. TwoMorrows also makes digital download editions of all of their magazines available in PDF format, often improved upon by being in full color. They still publish the print editions, though some of them have closed up shop in the last year. Sadly, it's only a matter of time before TwoMorrows goes deeper down the digital hole, I believe. I wouldn't be surprised if they dropped to a single print publication and went straight-up digital in the next six months.

Finally, Marvel dropped the biggest bombshell as I was going to sleep on Thursday night: you can now buy their digital comics on ComiXology and three App Store applications that I've never reviewed. And, as I tweeted the next day, the first thought that came to mind was, "This means Longbox will launch with Marvel comics."

In retrospect, the thing that might hold Marvel back against that idea is that Longbox is meant as a desktop application. Marvel might be timid about putting out full-sized files for people to read on their larger screens. Right now, the threat from iPhone apps isn't as great - they're still showing up on a tiny screen, often with additional whiz-bang crap added on top to make panels push around automatically, or word balloons appear and disappear sequentially. There's a big leap from that to full-screen reading of the latest issue of "New Avengers" as the page is meant to be seen. That might be a market Marvel would want to capitalize on, itself. Surely, paying to create an app of their own would be worth it when it comes to distributing full sized content.

Marvel is trying a little of everything with this move. They're experimenting with both major models: purchase vs. rental. It's the iTunes Store (pay per download) versus the Microsoft Zune Pass (pay per month, download as much as you'd like.) And, as much as everyone in the tech industry says that Apple is missing the monthly subscription fee to make its service complete, I can't think of too many people in the comics industry who are dying to rent their comics. Most people want something to own. Is that a leftover of the collector's mentality? Or is it just human nature, that people want to own something when they throw money at someone?

Personally, I'm sick of having to pay monthly fees for everything I do. I prefer to pay once and be done with it. Even my original TiVo had the lifetime service plan, and it's still in use eight years later.

For now, Marvel is choosing to partner with extant digital republishers to bring their content to the masses. I wouldn't be surprised to see it all yanked off them in a year or two if Marvel finds a better deal. What if this is Marvel's move to soften the market and buy them time while they create their own iPhone app, for example?

It also means different reading experiences. I've talked about it here before, but trying to force a comic book created for the printed page into a format suitable for panel-by-panel viewing on a sub-three inch screen is often painful. Even the most whiz-bang-gosh-wow solutions on the market today are merely functional, not terribly enjoyable. If Marvel, et. al. want to gain a foothold on the web with the die-hard fans as well as new ones, they'll need to produce material specifically for the smart phone market that takes advantage of the size limitations those screens have to offer. Repurposing content not made for the format is ultimately limiting.

These three stories are hardly the last we'll hear of the comics-to-internet move. I'm sure we'll get another one or two before the end of the year. As these experiments continue and provide results, both positive and negative, other companies will respond and copy or innovate. It might be moving at a snail's pace, but digital comics distribution is a fait accompli. It's only a matter of time before it's an acceptable major alternate distribution path to Diamond.

I wonder what might happen this week? Could DC announce a digital comics initiative for some of its titles, at last? Is "The New Yorker" doomed next? Might "The Comics Buyer's Guide" announce that they're closing down the printing presses to go digital only? (Don't get me wrong; I subscribed to the paper and enjoyed it for more than a decade. But this is the least likely possibility.)

It's a fascinating time for comics right now. I can't wait to see which domino falls next.

BRUCE TIMM, COMICS CRITIC

I ran across "Amazing Heroes" #15 this weekend while doing some cleaning up. It has cover date of September 1982. While there's a lot of fun stuff to be seen in there - including a crudely-lettered ad for "Groo" #1, a letters column started off by Stephen Scott Beau Smith, and a review of "Marvel Team-Up Annual" #5, written and drawn (!) by Mark Gruenwald - two contributions from Bruce Timm deserve airing.

Yes, this is the Bruce Timm who designed that "Batman: The Animated Series," as well as most of the best DC comics on television animation.

In 1982, though, he was beating Batton Lash to the punch by a decade, with this header from the news page:


Yes, that's The Punisher pointing a gun at Archie, well before their eventual meet-up officially happened.

Also, Timm took a page to point out some of the recurring themes of Chris Claremont's X-Men work at the time. Remarkably, it's not much different from the recurring themes people poke at Claremont for today.

It's good to see Ms. Marvel and Spider-Woman so happy together, two and a half decades pre-Bendis.

I know I promised a different kind of review for this week, but digital distribution sank it. Assuming no big news breaks in the next few days, I'll be doing that review in the next column.

I'm on Twitter again at AugieShoots, commenting on the breaking comic news of the moment, Pipeline updates, pop culture factoids, lots of photography, and so much more. My ego demands more followers. Please, stop on by.

My photoblog, AugieShoots.com, has some nature photography this past week, including a couple of nice salvaged fall foliage shots.

The Various and Sundry blog is at a standstill. I have more I'd like to write, but I'm running out of time. Just subscribe to the RSS feed and enjoy the occasional surprise.

Don't forget to check out my Google Reader Shared Items. It's the best of my daily feed reading, sometimes with commentary!

You can e-mail me your comments on this column, or post them for all the world to see and respond to over on the Pipeline Message Board.

More than 800 columns - more than twelve years' worth - are archived here at CBR and you can get to them from the Pipeline Archive page. They're sorted chronologically.

TAGS:  pipeline, the comics journal, wizard, digital comics, bruce timm

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