One Fan's Opinion

Fri, January 15th, 2010 at 1:28pm PST | Updated: January 15th, 2010 at 6:19pm

Comic Books
Erik Larsen, Columnist

Welcome to the future!

There's been a lot of talk about comics in the future.

And welcome to the future, by the way. Oh, and that's "twenty-ten" not "two thousand and ten." It should've been twenty-something from the get-go, but folks are lazy and "two-thousand" is so much easier to say than "twenty-hundred" much less "twenty-oh-one" and so forth. But we didn't call 1999 "one-thousand, nine hundred and ninety-nine" so calling 2000 "two-thousand" really didn't make much sense. Anyway - if you're still saying "two thousand and ten" when the flying cars are delivered, you don't get one.

So - comics in the future. My first column back after my vacation generated some feedback and whatnot and, as expected, some trade-waiters got all huffy and defensive about waiting for the trade. A number of them accused me of "living in the past" and said, "that's the direction things are going, man, in the future there won't be 'floppies' anymore - there'll only be graphic novels."

Did I tell you that my New Years resolution was to punch anybody that called comic books "floppies" or "pamphlets" square in the gonads? Thought this would be a good time to remind people.

In any case - I'm not so sure.

The 32-page, saddle-stitched comic books aren't going away anytime soon - as long as they continue to be profitable (and they are) they will be published. And trades will be published, too, but it's doubtful that either one is going to replace the other. Trades will continue to come out, and the folks who prefer that format will buy them and comic books will come out and folks who prefer that format will buy them. And some comic books will never be collected as trades and some trades will never be serialized in comic book form.

But beyond that - I don't think the comic book format will ever go away - not completely - period. I do think, however - in 20 years time they'll be like vinyl or CDs to the more popular mp3s.

Y'see, digital comics are coming.

Digital comics will be a reality - and all of us are going to be pulled, whether we like it or not, kicking and screaming into the 21st century. It's just a matter of time before people will be saying, "Print? That's old school," or, "that's so passé."

There will be comics that continue to be published in this format - possibly for decades to come - but as digital takes off, print will look less and less appealing and the numbers will dwindle.

I don't know about you - but my shelves are full. I have stacks of books and comics all over my office. It looks fucking scary in here. It looks like the kitchen of your crazy uncle who's never thrown away a piece of paper in his life and has stacks of magazines and newspapers reaching the ceiling. People talk about what a pain it is to store comic books, but trades are just as bad once the shelves fill up - I can shove 200 comics into a long box and pile those in a heap. Trades need a shelf, and I'm long out of shelves.

Digital files will replace most comics - and trades as well.

Welcome to the future.

The silver jumpsuits don't work for everybody. My wife Jannie looks totally awesome, but Grandpa - not so much. I'm just saying, if you can tell you've been circumcised, your silver jumpsuit is too tight.

In any case - here's what I'm anticipating. We'll still get monthly comics - but they'll more often be files on a screen (either on your phone or on a reader or a computer or all of the above). Some comic books will make it to print and some won't.

Brick and mortar bookstores will never carry everything. They don't carry everything now. They don't have the space, they only want to stock books they know will move (big names, movie tie-ins, etc.) and they'll never embrace a non-returnable product the way comic book stores have.

The trades will likely dwindle as well - replaced by digital files. Why fill your shelves or litter your living room if you have your entire collection in a handy reader no bigger than a single trade paperback?

Will the mythical iSlate be the future of comics?

How many of those books on your shelf do you really look at again and again, anyway? How many really need to be a permanent obstacle in your life, to be packed in boxes and moved from house to house and apartment to apartment, to be damaged and take up space forever more? A good chunk of books on my shelf just sit there, slowly gathering dust and turning yellow.

Yes, there are books I refer to all the time and I absolutely do want those to be there, in print and accessible forever but with a good many comics - I just want to read the story and having done that - I just don't want to have to store them or dispose of them. If I could have some magic place where I could put books so that I could refer to them only when I wanted to - that would be awesome.

The big winners in this will be places like Amazon.com who can ship out printed TPBs to the home of print freaks everywhere - the big question is what happens to comic book stores? Many may become something akin to used bookstores. They'll carry what few comics make it into print and trades but a lot of the draw to them will be from those who still embrace the old technology - who want to be able to read a book even when the lights go out and find and flip through books with their own hands.

It's going to be a long process. It'll be gradual. It's not going to happen overnight.

Thus far, we're still searching for the platform which will deliver the goods. The guys formatting things now are too greedy and shortsighted. Eventually, somebody's going to come along, having seen the eBay model, and say, "you know - if we take 5% from rights owners instead of 50% and make this easy enough and cheap enough - every publisher is going to use us - because it won't be worth their while to go anywhere else! It'll be too much of a headache - too much of a hassle - and too expensive," and they will become the only show it town and everybody else will die off, but that hasn't happened yet.

It will happen though.

And every comic book that's ever seen print ever will suddenly become available.

There will still be new comic books - new singles - and there will be trades - but I imagine that there will be fewer original graphic novels (in a way) because everything will get serialized!

When it all goes digital, most everything will be broken into pieces and sold a chunk at a time. If a publisher or creator can make money as a book is being worked on, why not? If it can be sold six times as it's assembled it will be. If a publisher can recoup their costs as a book is worked on and comes together it will make it that much easier to put books together. And, like with MP3s on iTunes you'll be able to upgrade and complete your trade or graphic novel or album or whatever it's called.

You're likely to be able to buy works in progress even - to see pencils - plots - inks as books come together. Process junkies and aspiring creators would be all over these things, plus, there would be spoilers galore for those fans that just can't wait to find out what happens in the next thrilling episode.

It's all pretty exciting, actually.

I read a few books in digital form now. Robert Kirkman sends through Invincible, the Walking Dead, the Astounding Wolf-Man and anything else he's working on to be proofread and gone through in jpeg form. The Luna brothers do the same with their books, sending PDFs. I've read them that way for years and it's fine. It kind of sucks looking at those books on a phone, but on a computer - it's not too bad. Print looks better, of course, but what the hell, I get to read these books a couple weeks before they see print - that's a decent tradeoff. When they're printed, I give the comics a cursory glance. Because I've read them already, there's no need to sit down with them next to the fire with a pipe and slippers (I just like that visual of that, by the way - I don't actually read anything with a pipe and slippers, but it sure does sound cozy, doesn't it?)

The bonus for bellyaching publishers and creators alike is that, with digital comics, they're no longer at the mercy of storeowners with limited space or faith in their product. If a reader wants to read a given book there would be nothing keeping them from getting that book in their hands immediately.

We can all be that balling baby that wants that titty slapped in their mouth at 3:00 in the morning. We can get that next issue - that next chapter immediately.

And - how great it would be to see a footnote on page 10 of issue #157 to "see issue #155" and be magically able to make that book materialize out of thin air!

Thinking about the prospects, the applications, the possibilities, is truly inspiring.

And yes, God yes, I do love print. A picture on a tablet can never have the impact of that Little Nemo collection that's the size of a car door I have sitting on the coffee table in my living room, but the vast majority of the books in my possession aren't Little Nemo collections the size of car doors, and a lot of those books really wouldn't lose much in translation.

Again - this isn't happening tomorrow, and comic book companies will keep printing comic books as long as comic books continue to make money. And right now, comic books are doing quite well. It's not a time to panic.

But the future is coming. This Christmas Day, Amazon.com sold more Kindle books than they did of traditional books. Comic book enthusiasts are uploading and downloading comics illegally right now. It's the music industry all over again as freeloading fans stumble over each other to obtain a bootleg version of a product we're not selling. Bit by bit, slowly but surely readers will make the shift and opt to buy digital comics over printed ones. If the quality is better and the price is low, they'll pay for them instead of downloading them illegally.

Some publishers are already trying to come up with ways of keeping comics "collectable" and make digital "limited editions" with "variant covers" and whatnot, but this too will blow over. Eventually, digital comic books will be as readily available as MP3s and the only comic books with any serious monetary value will be those in print.

Print will be there for the collectors - the investors - and those who prefer the aesthetic of ink on paper. Digital comics will be there for the readers who don't want books taking up space in their lives.

And, in any form, there'll always be something worth reading.

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