Look! It Moves! by Adi Tantimedh: The Loneliness Of The Long-Distance Comics Buyer

I’m currently travelling around Southeast Asia, stopping by Bangkok, the Laos border, and Singapore, away from the familiarity of First World Problems in the West.

Contrary to what a lot of Westerners like to think, it’s not primitive here. They have wifi, fibre-optic cable, coffee bars and Western food. Gaming culture is big in Asia, and Thailand alone publishes over a dozen magazines devoted to console games, PC games and MMOs. E-Sports tournaments are held in just about every country in Asia.

So while spending time by the Mekong River overlooking Laos, from a small town whose airport was originally built by the US military during the Vietnam War as the primary staging area from which they launched planes to bomb Vietnam, I suddenly remembered it was New Comics Day. I happened to have a few hours with nothing to do, and felt like reading something with lots of drawings in it. Of course, there weren’t comics shops up here… but I did have my handy-dandy iPad with me.

Even after I touched down at Singapore, a place that is definitively not Third World but fully Developed, I found myself preferring to buy digital comics rather than physical ones. I’m travelling light, and I don’t want to be bogged down by a large stack of comics I spent a small fortune on. Singapore is a place with lightning-fast internet, an increasingly enlightened attitude to Green Living and Healthy Eating and has one of the highest standards of living in the world. Video games are massive here, and by my estimate, there are more video game shops and vegetarian restaurants there than in New York and Los Angeles put together. Comics are also big – there are nearly a dozen comic shops here but in two flavours: one chain catering to US comics, specifically Marvel, DC and some Image titles, and the other catering to Asian and Japanese comics translated to Chinese. The latter chain is the bigger one and shows no interest in US comics at all. Comics shops in Singapore also sell figures, merchandise and video games, and they take up prime real estate in main roads and upmarket shopping malls rather than tucked away in obscure backstreets. Hell, Singapore now has its own high-profile annual comics convention that Reed International, who run the New York Comic Con, are heavily involved in, and they invite creators from Marvel and DC like our own Kieron Gillen over to attend.

Still, I was too busy to spend much time at the shops, and I would have had to pay a higher price for physical copies because of import duties, so it was going to be digital download editions for me.

Time to test out some comics apps.

The DC app. Reasonably clean design, books easy enough to find. Hmm… Okay, DC seem to take a while before offering day-and-date releases, since they don’t show up on the app until very late on New Comics Day. Except not all the new titles are there but I can find them on Comixology’s app. Weird.

Now Comixology’s app is more like it: a one-stop shop for all the week’s new releases in one place, except for Dark Horse keeping their own app, of course.

Hang on, where the hell is Brian Wood’s DMZ? It’s not on DC’s app or Comixology’s. Seriously?! One of the most significant political comic series of this century and DC won’t sell a digital edition??

Now the Marvel app.

This is a pain in the arse. I have to download the fucking Marvel app in order to be able to get Mark Waid and Paolo Rivera’s DAREDEVIL because it’s not on the Comixology app. And the way Marvel lists their weekly new release sucks. Unlike DC or Comixology’s apps, Marvel lumps a whole bunch of old comics together with whatever they see fit to release on day-and-date, so I have to wade through titles from years ago to see where the new comics are. That’s odd, there seem to be less new comics than I thought. Then I go on the web and read on this week’s Diamond release list and Twitter that Brian Bendis has a new issue of AVENGERS and MOON KNIGHT out this week and hey, maybe I feel like an impulse-buy and reading them…

…And they’re nowhere in sight on the Comixology app or the Marvel app.

Really, Marvel? At a time when you’re hard-pressed to make 70,000 copies in sales on a single title, you don’t want my money? You don’t want people to get to read your bestselling writer who’s been singlehandedly shaping the direction of your entire continuity and universe? Seriously? You think you should sit on his content like you’re hoarding it for the apocalypse and basically deny him royalties?

All right, then, I won’t be buying any of his books since you clearly don’t want me to. I’m off to read some lovely manga instead. Onto the Viz app!

Let’s see… Viz have taken SHONEN JUMP to an digital-only edition and upgraded it to SHONEN JUMP ALPHA, with serialized chapters only two weeks behind the latest chapters published in Japan, narrowing the gap down from over two years in the case of some of their titles. With six manga series per issue, that’s an anthology of over 120 pages every week for an annual subscription of $25.99. That’s a much better price point than Marvel and DC are offering, with their 21-22 pages of content each demanding either $2.99 or $3.99 while each issue of SHONEN JUMP ALPHA comes down to about 55 cents. Mind you, there are titles I’m surprised not to find: FULLMETAL ALCHEMIST, which just completed it’s decade-long run, is strangely absent other than early volumes. The intriguing espionage-and-mercenaries thrillers BLACK LAGOON and JORMUNGUND are also missing. I’m assuming this has something to do with publisher and creator demands. No Naoki Urusawa manga – no MONSTER, no PLUTO, no 20TH CENTURY BOYS. Hm. But then the real faces of manga, the bread-and-butter of the whole industry are there: BLEACH, NARUTO, DRAGONBALL Z, ONE PIECE, the ones that sell tens of millions of copies worldwide.

So what have I learned in my dive into the deep end of digital comics-buying? That the approach of the US comics apps reflect the fears, prejudices and cluelessness of the US comics industry in general, the hesitation in offering some of the best comics for sale, the resistance to just letting the new books out as soon as the old books, there’s no single storefront to buy all the books I want, which is a hassle. The approach of the manga publishers are still light-years ahead of the US comics model. Offering an automatic subscription download at a nice low price is genius. Punters don’t have to go to the damn storefront and hunt down their desired titles every week before they can get a hold of them, assuming they’re there at all. Also offering a lower price for digital editions is an incentive to readers. Of course, all this is still early days and they have a long way to go, but at a time when I’m seriously considering curtailing the number of dead-tree editions of magazines, books and comics I buy because I’m running out of room at home, this might be the future I reluctantly accept. I’ll only buy print editions of graphic novels and books when I really like them, as a permanent copy rather than digital bits that will vanish when the form factor evolves into something else or when the apocalypse occurs and there’s no more electricity. Then we will be explaining to the young’uns that these “books” are really analogue data-storage devices that require no power… if we’re not using them to beat the feral little buggers off and trying to stop them from eating us.

All these digital editions will be lost… in time… like tears… in rain… at lookitmoves@gmail.com

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Look! It Moves! © Adisakdi Tantimedh