Here’s another angle to digital comics that I think has been ignored or under-explored. While everyone else explores the economic factor ad nauseum, there’s a bigger consideration.
One of the big themes lately is “going green”, or reducing one’s use of energy and environmental resources to make them last longer. (I refuse to use the absurd phrase, “saving the planet”–that’s another column.) For some reason, a lot of people put paper in the “bad for us” category, though I never understood it because trees are a renewable resource. The more you use, the more you plant. The more you plant, the more you can use. Fossil fuels, as a contrast, are limited. True, we are discovering more and more sources of oil, but getting to it and refining it has been more controversial, and simple logic dictates that eventually we’ll run out. This is especially true with more and more people using more and more of it. (Someone gave me a 1954 copy of Popular Mechanics and after reading, I realized world population has more than doubled since then. Yikes.)
So regarding Digital (or “virtual”) Comics/Books, some folks think they’re “helping the planet” rather than making or buying Paper (or “real”) Comics/Books. Is that really true? And if so, how much?
First, let’s look at the energy requirements each type requires for production and consumption (I’m not including what’s used to create them as it’s basically equal):
For Paper Comics, you have the equipment to harvest the trees and create the paper, the printing presses, the transportation involved to ship them (trucks, trains and planes) and the consumers to buy them (whether ordered online and shipped or bought in person at a comic shop, there’s more gasoline involved). Once that’s over, however, there’s no energy involved in their actual consumption, other than light to read them. (Not including plastic bags, paper boards and boxes, which are optional. But feel free to throw that in if you think it’s more accurate.)
For Digital Comics, you have the equipment used to make the digital-reading devices (think of all the plants involved in making Kindles, Nooks, iPads and so on–from their chip foundries to metal factories to chemical and plastic firms, mining companies to battery manufacturers), all the transportation involved in getting the parts to the manufacturers, then to get the completed devices to retailers, and then to the consumer–that’s three layers minimum.
Now you add the energy of consumption: every one of those devices needs a battery that has to be charged periodically (or replaced), which means huge coal- or gas-powered plants to generate electricity. (The same applies to “green” electric cars–contrary to popular belief, the energy from that outlet one plugs into does not come from elves.) There’s also the energy involved in keeping a connection to the Internet necessary for purchase–huge metal towers, modems and such, also made from metal and plastic parts of all kinds.
Granted, the Internet and digital device usage involved is not just for books/comics on PCs, laptops, iPads and smart phones, so one would have to figure out what an average portion of usage would be to make an accurate determination. But for Kindles and Nooks, a good 95 percent is devoted to consumption of digital reading.
If I were a math whiz or Sheldon-Cooper type, I could take the average number of paper copies printed and sold and compare it to the number of digital books and comics offered and sold and figure out some kind of quantifiable data for comparison regarding an “average” energy usage for an “average” copy of each format. But I have neither the numerical acumen, the access to data, nor time to do so. (If YOU do, please share the data here below. I’d love to have it!) So let’s just say for argument’s sake that there’s a not-insignificant amount of “bad” energy used for BOTH versions, okay? Neither one is completely “green”, and I suspect if proper numbers were indeed crunched, the discrepancy would be smaller than one suspects.
The other major difference is a matter of longevity and usefulness.
A paper comic book, if properly cared for, can last a century. That’s 100 years of being read and enjoyed by up to multiple dozens of people before it disintegrates. And when it does turn to dust, it’s 100 percent biodegradable and recyclable. Dust to dust.
A digital comic? Theoretically it lasts forever. Realistically, only as long as the format is relevant–which, in the world of technology, is about ten years. Maybe twenty. Don’t believe me? How many of you are still using those 3.5” or 5” floppy discs to access your files? Syquest disks? Zip disks? Files in Basic or WordPerfect? I have doubts that twenty years from now we’ll be able to read the same PDFs and digital comics we have now–not to mention 50-75 years from now. (I have no issue of readability with a 100-year-old newspaper, other than finding one.)
Worse, the devices on which those files are read have an even shorter shelf life. And while some have recyclable parts, they certainly aren’t all biodegradable. Assuming, of course, the owners take the time and effort to recycle them. So all in all, there’s probably a lot more energy and materials going into making and keeping all those digital comics and their devices than the printed versions.
Before the Digital Mob hurl virtual stones at me, let’s make it clear that I am NOT, by any means, judging one format as superior, nor suggesting that one be eliminated. It’s really a matter of personal preference.
There are many great reasons to buy digital comics and even use them exclusively over printed ones.
But being “green” ain’t one of them.
So what are your particular reasons for using one and/or the other? Do you still use both? Have you eliminated one? If so, why? Please comment below.
P.S.: Friendly reminder: I will be available for your cool commission requests at the end of the month! Just ask Craig here.