I tried reading comics on my computer awhile back. It was a fairly nice presentation, but honestly I didn’t care for the experience. Something about the “comic” being set back away from me on my monitor, just didn’t feel right. I wasn’t holding anything. More recently I purchased a tablet, and have read some comics on it. It’s a MUCH better experience than on a standard computer. That said, I rushed to the comic shop to purchase the new Daredevil #1 when it came out. Even if Marvel had released a digital version of it [they did], I would have gone to the shop and picked up a “real” copy. There’s still something about a tactile experience. Even though the content is 100% the same, holding the actual comic is a different experience. It’s an experience that can never be duplicated with tablet – but it could be replaced by it.
Digital comics are currently in a similar situation that the music industry found itself when file sharing sites like Napster and such debuted and mp3’s took over. Yes, comics can be downloaded illegally. Often old comics that are not available in any other legitimate digital form can be found online. Oddly kids in their basements with a flatbed scanner seem to be able to output as much digital comic material than the multi-billion dollar comic industry itself – and the kid’s stuff is retains the original comics look. That is, it hasn’t been garishly re-colored digitally. Digital coloring is terrific and has its place – that is with artwork that was specifically created for digital coloring. Over Wally Wood’s stunning splash page to Daredevil #6 for example is NOT that place.
Unlike the music industry which pretty much threw the nation’s record stores to the wolves, the comic industry does seem to be trying to introduce digital comics to the market without destroying its base of local brick & mortar comic shops. With little exception, downloading the digital version of a current release comic from any of the “Big Three” publishers will cost you exactly the same amount as the paper version – a staggering $3-4 per book. [Yeah, for you old-timers out there that haven’t picked up a comic in a few years, indeed they do actually cost $3-4 each. I’m looking at the latest issue of Batman right now and can’t believe my eyes. $3.99. Yikes.] Downloads of older comics (such as DD #6 seen above) typically are $1.99 each.
Marvel Comics has a hybrid system of sorts where if you purchase the paper version of some of their books (why not all of their books is a mystery to me), there’s a code inside which will allow you do download the digital version of that book to your computer/tablet/etc. This is a terrific idea and I believe it should be implemented across ALL of their titles. It encourages people to continue to purchase the paper versions of their books, but also introduces buyers to digital comics.
It could even work for collectors who like keeping their comics in pristine condition (bag & board the paper version and read the digital version) – except for one fatal flaw. For some reason Marvel has concocted a ridiculous system of peeling back a sticker within the book to reveal the code required to download your free digital comic. No self respecting collector is going to want this comic now! It’s ruined!
This hybrid system also doesn’t sell any digital comics. So how does that bring in new, younger buyers? What they need to do is offer the free digital version for those who purchased a printed comic [to us old farts], but sell the digital only versions online at a steep discount. Beyond the difference in experience in reading a digital comic, there’s the financial one as well. I downloaded a few classics using the ComiXology app on my tablet (The Killing Joke and The Dark Knight returns #1), and while the quality was outstanding, I realized very quickly that I was not willing to dish out that kind of coin for a digital comic. Because it is digital, all you’re getting is the entertainment. There’s no intrinsic value to what you’re paying for. Once you’ve read the digital comic, it has pretty much zero “value”. You can’t sell it on eBay. You can’t seal it in a acid-free bag and hope it rises in value. You can’t even line your canary cage with it! Therefore it’s not “worth” full price.
While I applaud the comic industry for not callously discarding its comic shop heritage, don’t think for second it’s out of the kindness of their hearts. The fact is, while comic book sales are up (nearly 16% ytd), they’re bringing back old-timers into the shops – new readers are still very illusive. Any time I visit my local shop it’s filled with 30-40 year old men. I rarely see anyone who could pass for the “youth market”. So, until they can get those new, younger buyers purchasing their digital comics they’d be slitting their own throats if they didn’t take care of the mom & pop shops. Sales numbers may be up, but they’re still a LONG way from what they were. In 1985 The Amazing Spider-Man sold an average of 326,695 copies per month. Today, Marvel’s flagship title sells under 60,000 copies.
Us old farts may hate to admit it, but new readers is what will keep our hobby alive and thriving for the future and new readers means younger readers – and young buyers don’t buy tangible media. Whether it’s music, games or comics, they’ve been born into a digital world. Buying a CD is as foreign to them as walking into a comic book store to buy a comic would be. Young buyers are also VERY aware of value. Not only has this generation grown up in a digital age, they’ve also grown up in one in which the US economy has sucked – hard! Throwing around money is not how they do things.
At $60 a pop, which sounds steep, a video game can very easily provide 30+ hours of entertainment. That’s less than $2 per hour. Going to the movies, something pretty much everyone agrees is overly priced works out to about $5-7 per hour. Compare that with a $3.99 comic. A comic will provide approximately 10-20 minutes of entertainment. That’s $12-24 per hour! Now take a look at the most successful digital media – the mp3. 99 cents will buy you a song which you’ll very likely listen to over-and-over-and-over again. Years later you’ll still be enjoying songs you’ve downloaded.
The comic companies need to realize what they’re competing with. It’s not only illegal downloading, it’s value for your dollar. Right now comics are one of the most expensive forms of entertainment there is. If they want to sell digital comics – if they think that’s where their future lies, then they need to change their business model. $3-4 for a digital download is not going to work. Comics need to make it easy and just as importantly – cheap to have any hope gaining that all important youth market. The music biz did it, and people are gladly happily purchasing their music legally online. They made it easy, safe and cheap. It took Apple’s iTunes only 82 months to sell 10 billion songs – that’s an average of 122 million songs per month! The lesson to be learned? Make it cheap and they will come.
In the end it won’t be the user experience that makes or breaks paper comics vs. digital comics. It’s economics. Digital comics could create a whole new resurgence in comics. They could usher in another “Golden Age” when titles sell hundreds of thousands of copies per month again. Before that happens, they have got to take a lesson from the music industry and make it easy, make it safe and most importantly, make it cheap. 99 cents cheap.