A few weeks ago I had my first experience with digital comics on my brother’s iPad. I read the first eight issues of Saga, and some recent Walking Dead. And I fell in love. Not with Saga’s lead character Alana, (ok, maybe a little), but with the digital experience. The retina display made the pages appear to be higher quality than the actual printed books. The colours were pure and perfect; even the whites seem whiter. It was easy to read, a simple flick taking me from page to page, and even issue to issue. I started reading in an armchair, and finished it in bed. In between, I read issues on the move, and never had to worry about carrying too many issues with me.
Recent events with Saga have coloured this experience somewhat, but I think that backward censorship policies are just an aberrant blip, albeit an annoying one, in the broader digital vs. print debate. This is a debate that should not be clouded by the completely separate issue of censorship, which exists in print stores as it does in digital, just in different forms.
So, back on topic; despite my overwhelmingly positive experience with digital, I am still sticking with print. Not because I like printed comics, but because I love comic stores. I love what they offer. There I can have a friendly, social experience: browsing, chatting about comics, seeing what’s available, flicking through new series. Because of this unique, niche experience that a store can offer, I don’t think digital is going to kill the comicbook store.
I think it is more likely that print itself will kill the comic store.
Or to be more precise; the publishers of print comics. In a nutshell, variant covers are most often at the retailer’s expense. The retailer has to order a certain number of the regular cover for every variant he can get. So orders, and the market, is artificially inflated, and retailers are left holding the can.
Rich explains it well here, so I will quote;
retailers are ordering huge numbers of comics, far more than they can sell, to get these rare covers. Which means standard comics go unsold, or hit the quarter bins fast. Which brings down the perceived value of buying a new, standard, every day comic. And eventually the penny drops – why buy a full priced comic when in a few months you can buy it for pennies?
When these combine, and people stop buying the variant comic for a massive markup, leaving retailers stuck with tonnes of unsellable comics – because customers know that if they wait, they’ll get a bargain – then that is the end time for the comic shop.
In order to boost numbers, publishers are targeting and promoting collecting comics rather than reading comics. They are cashing in off the back of speculation, limited variants, and collector’s editions; all these aspects that fetishise the hobby, and help to ensure it remains a niche pursuit. And they are doing this at the expense of comic stores.
Case in point: SEX #1, out last month from Image comics had ‘First Issue –Collector’s Item’ on its cover. Not ‘great story’ or any review quotes and praise. No, the main selling point of this book, in the view of either the creator, editor, or the publisher was that it would seemingly accumulate value over time. Talk about a lack of faith in your product, or at the very least, highly cynical selling of your product.
All this brings me back to Comixology. What I really love about Comixology is its ability to neatly separate ‘reading’ comics from ‘collecting’ comics. Obviously there is crossover in these terms, so let me be clear; for the purposes of this article, I define reading comics as buying and enjoying them for story, art, and characters. Collecting is all other aspects of the hobby. Everything you will not find on Comixology. There are no variant covers here, no limited or ‘collectors’ editions, no foil or embossed covers. There are simply the comics and the stories they contain. And timing is no longer an issue. If I miss an issue, I don’t have to go to eBay and pay over the odds because it was under-printed and is now considered ‘rare’. If I hear about a comic I think I would like, and it is already on issue 4, I can simply click a button and pay cover price for the previous issues.
Comixology, and presumably other apps like it (I can’t speak from experience here), take away the flotsam and detritus of collecting, and allow me to simply read and enjoy my comics. This is what will bring new readers to the hobby; this is what will increase comic sales and grow the industry. Story and art. Nothing else. No marketing gimmicks are going to bring sustainable growth and attract new (not lapsed) readers.
If the publishers don’t realise this, they will lose the stores that support and help grow their industry.
[Rich adds – Since you quoted me, I thought I’d jump on I don’t see this quite so plainly, Marvel and DC have stepped back from their cover excesses since I wrote that piece, something Bob Wayne calls “maintaining a balanced diet”. And collectability can be a real way to reward artistic experimentation from the fringes. If you had bought a copy of Rachel Rising #1 in print, then you could sell it and buy quite a lot of digital comics on ComiXology,,, or your local store.)