One Fan's Opinion

Fri, February 5th, 2010 at 2:58pm PST

Comic Books
Erik Larsen, Columnist
76

So--this iPad thing is on its way and the reaction has been somewhat mixed. Some are hailing it as the greatest device since the invention of the wheel while others are saying it’s just a big iPhone--only without the phone--and the camera--and a whole lot of other things.

The comic book field is abuzz because it seems as though--finally--there’s a reader which could really deliver digital comics.

It’s the old digital comics conversation that’s been batted around for years but talk about the iPad seems to have kicked it in the ass. Digital comics are on their way--and it’s likely to be in a big way.

The thing is--the comic book industry has seen this wave coming toward us for years and has known it was coming for years and has been absolutely baffled as to how to deal with it. Creators and publishers want to make a living, after all--and thus far most of the sites promising to deliver the goods have either folded or have been met a lukewarm reception. There hasn’t been that perfect platform that everybody’s embraced or the perfect reader. The iPhone sure isn’t it--unless you’re an eye stain enthusiast. It’s too small and too hard to read. But this may be it. The combination of iBooks and the iPad may be just what the doctor ordered.

For some time, everybody’s been running around like chickens with their heads cut off screaming that the sky is falling as fans have busily scanned and uploaded comics. Illegal comics are thriving. Guys scan in and upload new comics all the time and you can get new comics on your computer the day they hit the stands in many cases. The big difference for those who care is that these are scans out of comics--and they simply don’t look as good as real comics do.

Clearly, most people do not give a shit.

Most folks just want to read new comics at an affordable price and free is quite affordable as affordability goes. So a crude kind of digital comics are out there now, readily available, and you can get your grubby mitts on nearly everything published with a few clicks of your mouse.

And for the record--no, I am not even remotely cool with that.

But the thing is--in addition to pirating new comics, a lot of these guys have scanned in and uploaded old comics, long out of print, many of which are unavailable elsewhere and in public domain. So, at times these guys are performing a genuine public service.

Other times--it’s outright copyright infringement.

Clearly fans want comics on their computers and getting something for nothing? Even better!

With music the problem for labels and bands is that illegally downloaded songs are virtually indistinguishable from those loaded from pay sites. It’s more than that, really--because the reality is that legal, authorized songs are actually worse than illegal, unauthorized ones. Sites like iTunes have made it so that songs can’t be easily passed from one computer or device to the next whereas illegal ones can be easily copied and passed around. Anybody who’s had a computer crash or switched from one to another can tell you about the nightmare they had restoring their collection. I had a meltdown of both my work and home computers and I ended up syncing my phone with my new computer at home and getting everything back in place was a real hassle (and I lost that iTunes exclusive Aimee Mann download-only album forever since it’s no longer available).

Thus far a comic in print has been a very different animal from the illegally downloadable version. The physical comic book looks better, reads better and even smells better.

But if comics go digital-- that’s going to change.

Here’s a reality check: some printed comics are going to go away. Not today--maybe not tomorrow, but it’s going to happen. With illegal downloading chipping away at sales already eventually something will have to give and many comics will either go digital or go away. As we move from a print format to a digital one the legal and illegal comics are going to look more alike and we’ll have much the same problem that the music industry has with their legal and illegal music. They will be virtually indistinguishable from each other. And copies will be made and copies will be distributed and it absolutely will cut into the bottom line.

It’s happening already.

As stores have closed and prices climbed more and more fans are finding the comics they want to read on the Internet. And those lost customers have a shopping list of reasons why downloading comics is perfectly fine and, to some, a noble battle against “the man,” and wholly justifiable.

“Hey, if I buy a comic book I can loan it to my friend to read, right? So, I’m just reading a comic that a friend loaned me, really. We’re just sharing and trading comics. What’s wrong with that? Times are tough.”

“If I had to buy comics I wouldn’t do it so it’s not like they’re losing a customer--I wouldn’t be a customer regardless. Comics are too expensive.”

“I don’t want t keep the comic book. I don’t want to own it. I don’t want to store it and bag and board it. I just want to read the story. Why should I have to buy it if I just want to read the story? I could do that standing in the comic book store. I could get it from the library.”

You get the idea.

Comic books are losing the battle to pirates and millions of comics are being distributed right now to eager customers. The big question is--will the emergence of a legal, legitimate source of inexpensive digital comic books halt the downloading of illegal ones?

Well, it hasn’t exactly worked that way with the music industry.

Sure, it has slowed things down somewhat and filled a void that existed prior to the music industry stepping up to the plate and giving customers a viable way of getting music legally. iTunes and the rest have made it possible for musicians and labels to see some kind of revenue for their efforts.

And that’s what we’re looking at here. With the advent of the iPad tablet and iBooks we may finally have a viable digital comic book to compete with the scanned in ones that pirates are making.

It’s not that the iPad device itself is going to make the world so radically different for comic books it’s that publishers are likely to all go through iBooks and that will make a huge difference. Up until now digital comics have been here and there--you can get a few from this company or that or this site or that but there’s been no central place to get all comics legally. Once there’s a bookstore in place with authors’ work cross-referenced and linked in we can really see some significant changes.

So I’m picturing a similar scenario with comics as there was with music. The iPad is not going to change things a whole lot. It’s not going to stop readers from uploading comics and others from downloading them but it might slow things down by giving readers with a conscious a viable and legal alternative. If that legal product is superior--even better.

What the industry is looking for is a way to deliver digital comics that can’t be hacked or copied so that people can get paid for their work. That hasn’t really materialized yet and the continued existence of print will prevent there from ever being a truly reliable way of preventing people from illegally copying and distributing comic books.

But before we get ahead of ourselves here--let’s take a deep breath.

Printed comics aren’t going away. The sky is not falling and stores will be able to sell comic books for decades to come--anybody who tells you otherwise is either delusional or clueless or trying to justify their own shortcomings.

Comic books are still making money and while that’s happening they will continue to be published. Some lower-tier comics will go digital and there are comics that would never have seen print that will have a shot at seeing the light of day in this format as well. The guys in this group are the ones yelling the loudest about the impending digital age.

“It’s ALL going digital! Stores are doomed!”

Except they’re not and they’re not.

There are a whole lot of people who depend on printed comics for their livelihood from distributors to storeowners and they have been very good to us over the years and the big publishers aren’t going to give these guys the shaft by going digital--especially when they’re still making good money.

And they are still making good money.

The doomsayers are largely struggling creators and publishers who are having trouble finding an audience now and are looking at digital as a way of finally achieving the success they so richly deserve. They see this as a way of leveling the playing field. Soon ALL comics will be available in the same place--it’ll be the world’s biggest comic book store--one that carries everything--it’ll be like Amazon.com only there’ll be more comics. Soon they will have access to all the readers who buy all the other comics. And while that may be the case to some extent--largely their books aren’t successful now because they’re not that good and in a digital bookstore they’re likely to be greeted with the same apathy they’d be greeted with in a brick and mortar store. But there will likely be a whole lot more comics available and that’s a good thing. But just because there guys can’t get their comics into print it doesn’t mean that print is going away--it just means that publishers don’t have confidence in their work. But print isn’t going to vanish just because a few vocal creators wish it would.

Besides--a lot of folks just prefer print.

Print is good for all occasions. Print can be read on the growler. Print can be read when the electricity goes out and during takeoff and landings on an airplane and if you accidentally drop a printed book it’s still perfectly readable. Print doesn’t crash. Print isn’t hard on your eyes.

Print is never going to go away but, like vinyl records and CDs, printed comics are likely to get more expensive and more difficult to find.

Sure, if digital comics really take off, SOME stores could close. No doubt about it. But there'll always be SOME printed comics and popular digital comics will be collected in print as trades so while a comic book store in 20 years may look somewhat more like a book store than it does now--it’ll still exist. Print will endure and, like in many music stores, you’ll be able to buy your loved ones gift cards for Christmas so they can download their own digital funnybooks.

The iPad may not be a game changer itself but it is likely to get things moving. Digital comics are a step closer to going mainstream--and that’s a good thing.

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TAGS:  erik larsen, ipad, digital comics

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