There was applause from the crowd as "PvP" creator Scott Kurtz took the stage at New York Comic Con with fellow webcartoonist Brad Guigar and comiXology CTO and co-founder Johnny Storm to announce, "Rall wussed out."
A few days earlier, Ted Rall emailed the panelists saying he'd never agreed to the date and time of the debate, leading Kurtz to engage in a lengthy back and forth via email with Rall, who was on the West Coast for a book tour.
"There's no reason for this debate except for me and Ted to be assholes to each other," Kurtz stated, "which is entertaining. I certainly think so."
Kurtz continued, citing some of the numbers thrown around at the recent ICv2 digital conference and scoffing at the idea of debating whether digital is a viable business model. He mentioned that he bought the recent "Hagar the Horrible" collection published by Titan and that he would give anything to be a syndicated cartoonist in the sixties and seventies. "Nothing but drawing dicks, eating ice cream and celebrating life every day," he said. "The life I have as a cartoonist today is nothing like what I could have as a cartoonist back then. But we're here now."
"I proposed to Brad that we make this debate, 'What are the realities of digital comics?'" Kurtz said. "Are they destroying print? Is this push to digital destroying this industry that inspired us?" Kurtz then went on to argue that the crux of this concern is fear over a changing industry and what it will change into.
Brad Guigar raised the question of why is the print model faltering with Storm responding that it was the expense. Kurtz's theory about the steady cost increase is that it is due to a finite number of people buying comics in the direct market.
Kurtz cited the direct market as an impediment to bigger sales and a bigger audience, referring to his time at Image where he was told repeatedly how he needs to think about retailers, for example. He was advised not to release books until after a convention because convention sales will cut into comic store business. "My question to Image was always, 'Why? Why do I have to worry about their businesses?'"
Storm brought up the recent resurgence in vinyl records, explaining many bands and companies release new albums as records in addition to digital and CDs. He made the point "Digital won't kill print. Print is doing that on its own."
Guigar made the point that while monthly comic sales may dwindle and are increasingly replaced by digital comics, trades and collected editions would be more important.
Storm said that in the discussion about the future of digital comics, they've talked about the impulse buy. He used the example of someone watching the "Batman: The Brave and the Bold" animated cartoon who, during the commercial break, decides to buy a Batman comic. "You buy one," Storm said, "and you buy a million of them. I hate zombie movies, but I love 'The Walking Dead.'"
Kurtz had perhaps the most insightful comment of the panel when he observed that the format will be determined not by what's the best quality, not by what the people in the room want, but by what kids want. For those who doubted his statement, he challenged people to ask audiophiles about the mp3 format.
Guigar's conceit is that print vs web comics has been misnamed and that to his mind the debate is corporate comics vs. independent comics. The question he focused on is what will replace webcomics, and if the answer is app comics, does that mean a return to corporate controlled content?
Storm made the point that app comics don't necessarily mean giving up control and that there are many options for creators to work with, including comiXology and others. He did observe that motion comics are one way that publishers tried to assert their dominance. Not everyone can make a motion comic because it requires a lot of money and people behind it. Meanwhile, anyone can make a webcomics because all you really need is internet access.
Guigar reiterated his point, arguing that even if comiXology is acting less like a traditional publisher than say, Apple, it still represents a return to a publishing system in that it's a move away from independence and requires cartoonists and their work to be accepted by and depend on comiXology.
For Storm, the issue was about publishing options. For Kurtz and Guigar, who make their livings as cartoonists and wrote a book about how people could make webcomics, not working with a publisher is fine. However, most people either can't do it all themselves or don't want to and are happy to let comiXology do some of the work in exchange for a percentage of the profits. For those concerned about questions of control, Storm made it clear that comiXology has competitors and lots of people are building their own programs and systems.
One fan in the audience brought up video games and that many publishers have toyed with the idea of digital releases of new games. Kurtz said that people he has talked with have told him that many publishers are ready to offer day and date digital releases, but they need the big box stores to sell hardware, leaving them relying on the support and continued success of those stores.
Kurtz summarized the panel's topic, saying he and his fellow webcomics creators are concerned about this unique medium, making the point, "If the material is grade A stuff, the delivery method is incidental." He encouraged fans to seek out Alan Moore's Green Lantern tale about a Green Lantern trying to explain the very nature of the Green Lantern ring to a species that lives in constant darkness and does not see. "You'll never believe that a Green Lantern story could affect you like that," Kurtz said. "Then, read 'Blackest Night' and you'll be pissed."