Changing From the Ground Up

October 5th, 2010 by | Tags: , ,

Near as I can tell, the Wednesday crowd at the comic shop is driven there by a few things.

1. New comics come out on Wednesdays.
2. People like to sit around and talk about comics.
3. Continuity-focused tales push you to “keep up” with the stories.

Is that fair? I think that covers most of the reasons, right? Generalization, caveat emptor, etc etc. There are other factors–the Direct Market has encouraged a specific kind of culture, the Big Two push continuity over quality fairly often and emphasize reading it now now now, the way you can build a social circle out of your comic shop’s patrons–but those three are the biggest, I think?

New books, movies, and video games come out on Tuesdays, but you don’t really see people hanging out in Borders to discuss the latest Tom Clancy knock-off or in Best Buy to talk about how crap the packaging on most Blu-rays is. The culture is different.

My question is–how will digital comics affect that culture? That Wednesday ritual? Digital comics saps some of the emphasis on buying comics immediately, doesn’t it? You don’t have to rush to your shop to make sure you get your copy of whatever because it will always be available digitally. Trade waiting will change. Filling up a hard drive with comics is easier, cheaper, and more aesthetically pleasing, than having a stack of floppies on your coffee table. Some of the bonuses of waiting for a trade (complete story, cheaper price, easier to store, durability/longevity of format) will be decreased, leaving really just getting a complete story in one shot as the main bonus. I know that I switched to mainly trades because having a lot of “part 3 of 8” floppies stinking up the place is frustrating.

What I like about the oncoming digital future is that everything is on a level playing ground, barring name recognition. There is no real difference between Brightest Day and Comic Book Comics. Comic shops no longer serve as the first line of defense/tastemaking. In comic shops, you might see New Avengers with sixty rack copies and King City with just six. Online, they’re both just covers and titles on a list. That in and of itself is revolutionary, isn’t it? I don’t think Marvel and DC will ever stop being the “Big Two,” but I could see their stranglehold on the comics side of things being lessened once the playing ground evens out.

A lot of series are making money off inertia and nostalgia, too. When you introduce a new factor into that equation, a buyer who is ignorant of the past and has no nostalgia for the series, those series don’t have a chance. Comics companies can barely sell Ms. Marvel or War Machine to comics fans, and they’ve been around for thirty or forty years. When you put Ms. Marvel on a level playing field with Empowered or Battlefields, well, what would make you pick Ms. Marvel over either of those, other than personal interest? If digital comics do what they’re supposed to do, which is bring in new readers, then there will be a whole lot of people who don’t care about “checking up on” all these dusty old characters we’ve invested years in. If we’re being perfectly honest, a lot of current comics readers don’t care about checking in, either, so why would newbies?

This is how the nostalgia trap is defused. Comics would have to live or die according to their own merits, not according to how intricately they’re tied into the past of whatever universe they live in.

The more I think about it, the more I think that digital comics is something that could move comics culture from an inclusive subculture to a general part of culture, like books or movies. The general focus of comics would widen, since there’s suddenly a lot less risk in making your action dramedy about wacky romantic hijinx in a slaughterhouse and a lot less money in bowing down to the past. Or, to put it pithier, we’d have more Scott Pilgrims and less Cry For Justices.

Or am I totally insane here?

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29 comments to “Changing From the Ground Up”

  1. Even as a fan of comics I feel awful walking into a shop sometimes because the insularity is totally off-putting. Hopefully the smart people in charge will realize that Digital Comics are a blessing for getting money from folks who don’t want to go to one instead of trying a roundabout, silly attempt to “get people to go to shops” – which is, like “I download it and buy it if I like it”, an argument that makes me wonder if the person actually believes it or just thinks everyone else is a moron.

    It’s certainly going to change the state of Webcomics, but to what extent it’s too soon to tell. This might just shape up to be the next platform for big-time comic strip syndication.

    In short: Nope, I’m hoping it works out too.

  2. @Jordan: Are you saying you don’t believe there are people that download comics and then after reading them go purchase them? (I am one of them, for a variety of reasons). Or are you saying there are people that use it when they never have any intention of actually going to buy the book?

    I think the internet has largely cut away at 2) and 3) with message boards, blogs and news sites giving people more places to talk about comics when they come out over the comic book shop (my LCS isn’t the the biggest place)

  3. I’d love to think that the digital marketplace would provide a more even playing field but I’m becoming a little bit sceptical about it.

    I have a huge fear that whichever digital provider ends up on top (the itunes of comics, if you will) will end up taking payouts from the big two and giving them the lion’s share of it’s on-site visibility and promotion and therefore leaving the lesser known books on the outskirts.

    Of course, these lesser known books will still actually be available (unlike most brick and mortar stores) but they still need a good push and a good level of visibility in order to sell.

  4. I wonder why you think digital comics will bring new readers? Is printed comics on paper really a hurdle for new readers? Are new readers considering the stacks of long boxes in their future when they decide not to read comics? Lack of comic shops has long been alleviated by online service and stores like amazon – but i dont think that resulted in any large up take of new readers.

  5. Actually, Jordan, I don’t think digital downloads is going to affect webcomics much at all, except to add an additional revenue stream to the work. The format difference between the web and download formats are big enough that they each have different strengths and weaknesses. Certainly they have bigger differences that hardback, trade paperback, and regular paperback for novels, all of which manage to exist in the market. I expect digital downloads will shape up like the trades – the one format where comic books, comic strips, magazine comics, original graphic novels, and webcomics all get repackaged.

    I will suggest that digital downloads will become very important to the drama side of the webcomic business. The webcomic industry produces them, but the industry leaders are largely semi-daily comedy strips. I suspect being able to read them in large chunks (comic book size or trade size) will make the digital download revenue stream more profitable, with the web side either a loss leader or just covering production. I’d love to see Goats reissued in the format to see what happens. After all, it lapsed because it wasn’t profitable to run.

  6. I take your point, but as unpopular as it is to say on the internet, actually like monthly comic books, I like the look and feel and the objects as a whole. I like paper. Also, as someone who works 9-5 in front of a PC screen, I don’t want to stare at a screen too much when I go home. I try to make the trip to a comic shop once a week, on a Friday or Saturday, I tend to go with a few friends because it’s a nice jaunt and you can all go to the pub afterwards. It’s nice.

    I move around a lot, and I like trying different shops so I don’t have a pull list, and there’s no way the 3 or 4 issues of Bulletproof Coffin or whatever will be on the shelves more than a day or two. Obviously digital would make it easier to have but less fun. Making them something you just download in private takes away a fun social aspect of the hobby.

  7. Is hobby the right word? Is that thinking part of the problem?

  8. @Valhallahan: I don’t think that’s actually a problem. I think the hobby method being the only (or at least main these days) way of consuming comics is. There are people who are “like us” when it comes to movies, music, etc. It’s just that they’re one aspect of the entire audience.

    There’s nothing wrong with floppies, or the social club that gets together every Wednesday to talk about what Captain America is up to, it’s just that it’s so dominant it feels like there’s something wrong with it. It’s like the old school indie attitude towards superhero comics, it’s so prevalent that it must be bad.

    I want comics to just be another thing, that you can consume how you want, when you want, and that includes the current ways as well.

  9. Digital distribution do get new readers, readers like me from south america who doesn’t have a comic book shop nearby, trusting only boutiques to bring weeks old Spider-Man singles at roughly $15, for us in the far corners of the world is actually the birth of a culture, one of buying comics instead of downloading scans

  10. I think that you are missing a big factor: new comics will be competing directly with old comics.

    If you walk out of AVENGERS, log-on to the Marvel ap and look for Avengers comics, then you will be confronted with Avengers #1 from the ’60s, Avengers #1 from ’96, Avengers #1 from ’98, New Avengers #1 from ’05 and Avengers #1 from ’10. Also, The Ultimates, Avengers Next, Young Avengers, the West Coast Avengers, the Dark Avengers, the Avengers Academy, the Secret Avengers and the Mighty Avengers.


    This new reader will select one or two based upon the cover and the first few pages. If they like that issue, then they will probably continue reading that particular series. If they love it, then they might follow the crossovers spinning out of that series. What are the odds that they seek out a different Avengers series?

    Pretty low, I am guessing. In theory, you could have people reading Avengers (vol. 1) through issue 100 at $2 per issue. Let’s 5,000 people do that. That is a million in gross revenue to Marvel, which is probably roughly equal to $2 million in direct market sales. At $4 per issue, that is 500 thousand units. New Avengers doesn’t ship 500 thousand units over an entire year.

    Oh, and who has the more favorable royalty deal: Brain Michael Bendis, or Roy Thomas?

  11. I still do go in on Wednesdays, even though I only really buy collections and books now – in part because my schedule works that way, and in part because I do like to glance over the racks on the off-chance that I’m missing something cool. Haven’t bought anything like that in a while except for some single-story reprints, though. If I like how something looks, first I ask about it, and then I wait for the book to come out.

    When it comes to talking comics, people are in my LCBS most days I go in there if I want to do that. The store I buy at is more successful, and less Wednesday-release-oriented, than most comics stores in America, though, so I can’t speak to the campfire aspect.

  12. You know, practically speaking, I think another aspect that will cut into the Big Two’s ability to bank on nostalgia is the fact that so much of their past libraries aren’t available digitally yet, and may not be for a good long while.

    The selection is so limited currently, that new or previously-estranged readers are out of luck even if they do want to delve into decades’ worth of comic history. IMO the current continuity-heavy product output isn’t going to be enough to hold the interest of a reader who has maybe only ever experienced those characters in other media versions. I can’t buy a digital version of the complete No Man’s Land storyline from DC right now, and my other options are out of print trades that left stuff out, or the painstakingly scanned and organized digital bundle made available by pirates via bit torrent.

    I think the interest or nostalgia in the Big Two’s characters will remain as long as they continue to appear in other media, but I doubt most newbies will find the current digital selections to be all that satisfying. Sustaining that interest with only the current product is the challenge, and I’d say it’s a huge one.

    There probably are lots of newbies who would love to read comics about Ms. Marvel or War Machine once they’ve found out who they are, but it’s the same challenge as with print: making those comics available and accessible to those potential readers. Poking around the DC and Marvel digital collections right now, Marvel’s got much better organization. I can search for comics by character, but then again, looking up War Machine only 8 comics come up. Surely there’s a lot missing, so that’s a failure on their part. If I do a search for “Batgirl” or “Blue Beetle” in DC’s collection, nothing comes up, so that’s another big fail right there.

    It’s curating their digital libraries, expanding them, and making them as affordable and easy to obtain as possible, that’s the biggest challenge for the Big Two. It’s similar to the comics store stocking Brightest Day over other titles, in that within those companies’ collections, there’s bias for what those publishers believe people should read, and not necessarily what’s good or accessible to new readers or the wider audience they should theoretically be trying to court with digital comics.

    So, yeah. That does give non-mainstream stuff an edge, and I think it’s possible they’ll be more likely to hold on to new readers, even if nostalgia may still be what attracts them in the first place.

    The advantage DC and Marvel have in terms of material, is their sheer wealth of it. But it’ll be difficult for them to actually use that advantage in the digital arena, as I imagine working out the royalties on top of properly digitizing all those old comics would take a lot of time and resources on the publishers’ parts.

  13. I will continue to go to my brock-and-mortar store for the forseeable future both because it’s where I get to play HeroClix every other week, and because my regular customer status allows me to read books before deciding whether I want to buy them.

  14. […] Digital comics | David Brothers wonders how the rise of digital comics might change comics “culture,” and the Wednesday ritual. [4thletter!] […]

  15. No, you’re totally insane.

    [had to do it, sorry]

    Real thought: I agree in general principle. But I feel that the traditional comic shop has a lot of cultural importance to the comics medium. I like the idea of a public place where people can congregate casually to talk about comics. I do understand that many people can take or leave shops and don’t have much of an attachment to them, but I grew up with comic shops, and the vital small talk, tips and human hand that goes into learning about comics.

    That is something that the digital marketplace has yet to replicate in comics or in any of the other arts. Legitimate downloads are the future and marketplace equality is the future. But I feel my personal connection with music and stuff like that has deteriorated over the past decade. Part of that is not being young and in school anymore. Part of it is there’s very little hand-to-hand, face-to-face aspect. I cannot economically justify buying an eighteen-dollar CD (no more dirt-cheap prices now that the big stores are closing up) and the listening experience is the same, so I download music from iTunes. The one clear advantage that COMICS have is that the experience between my iPhone comics and the comics I buy on paper is a very different reading experience.

    I would also like to add onto the comment about digital download comics as opposed to webcomics. I am also of the opinion that the application-based internet (I tried App-net, but seemed too close to “Apple-net,” but whatever) is a different beast from the “wild” internet that websites, blogs, webcomics and so forth live on. As we move more toward an app-based mobile internet and away from an all-expansive, largely free site-based internet, the sensibility in purchasing a thing makes more and more sense.

    Psychologically, it feels “right” to purchase apps for their content because an app is a “thing” that you “get” which is added to your device. A website has the feeling of a place such as a street, a park or a store that feels comfortable to “visit,” but doesn’t seem like it should be attached to a fee. This difference in perception has added real money to internet businesses, including comic-based ones. Where charging you to VISIT my site is inconcievable, charging you to POSSESS my app seems fair and decent and inherently logical.

    Lots and lots of thoughts brewing over this stuff.

  16. I know it was just an example, but I never get tired of jabs at Cry for Justice. 😉

    Serious thought, part of what scares my Luddite brain regarding digital comics is that I actually like holding the tangible physical book in my hands. There’s just something to be said for the tacticle experience, for what that’s worth.

  17. @ Justin – I share your thoughts on the matter. For me, reading digitally can not compare to being able to buy a physical copy of a comic I can hold in my hand. I expect to go trade-only before I ever buy digital, assuming I’m given the choice.

  18. People will want it on paper. People will want it on PC. People will want it on the side of a bus. Regardless wherever it is, people are going to want it. The way they want it. When they want it….

    it’s all just going to help each other out in the end. Everyone one will be happy with there own little comics whichever way they own them on there little world’s.. in there little homes inside there little human souls…

    Then when some great form of plastic super thin DIGI paper comes out… The two will be one. After that is when things get really fucked up. See you guys at NYC COMIC CON!!!

    inkbot.net love n peace
    Jan M Velazquez

  19. One reason I don’t go to comic shops as much any ore is because part of the Fu of getting a comic is…there being a copy for me to get.

    I’m sick of the race to epget the new releases and the wait to get reorders that may never arrive.

    So whatever else I may lose by going digital, I am gaining a helluva lot more in saved space, fast access, and peace of mind.

  20. Second the comment that the playing field will not be leveled by digital comics. After all, a lot of indie comics are in the Diamond catalogue, where they’re given a basic entry just like the big stuff, right? And yet somehow the big companies manage to be in the front of the catalogue, on the cover, buying color ads, getting bigger buzz at cons and on comics websites …

    I just went to the iTunes store, which I rarely visit/buy from. Granted, Apple has my ID and tailors its presentation, but among the dozens of musicians, TV shows and movies on that front page, I recognized 90 percent as major releases (and I don’t keep up with music, and don’t even have cable TV). Amazon’s main book page similarly spits up nothing but stuff/authors I’ve already heard of.

    Digital equalizes availability — I’ll be able to buy IndieMicro #1 as easily as Newest Avengers #1, but it’ll be Newest Avengers that I’ll have heard of, and that will get placement. IndieMicro’s lot is improved … but not as much as we’d like.

  21. The comparisons to the music & book industry are strong:

    People will be done with paper-based books in just a few years, as paper usage will be seen as ecologically wrong (therefore morally wrong). It’s paralleled by piles of CDs and DVDs that become wasteful (and space hogs).

    So, for comics, this means an end to paper distribution (not too far down the road).

    I don’t wish to be negative, but this future-trend tells me that comics end up the way that Big Little Books and Pulp magazines ended up: part of a generational history… When paper-based comics go by the wayside, so will the interest in the characters of comics.

    Time marches on (but I hope that the paper-based versions will continue for another decade, please!)….

  22. I am all for going digital. I’m at the point where my comic shop won’t even buy my boxes full of recent comics I bought from them for $10 per box, so I’m thinking about donating them. When my wife and I go to the comic shop, there’s typically either nobody there, or 1 or 2 “loners” who don’t talk, and just purchase and leave. We go on Saturday rather than Wednesday due to a time issue. Due to this, if I didn’t order a book 2 months in advance (before I even knew whether or not I wanted it), I potentially won’t get it, and re-orders never seem to work. So, I don’t have much of the social aspect, and I have no love for the “only buy what we can definitely sell” mentality of comic shops, which typically leaves me without books I end up wanting. I have already switched to buying my Kirkman books digitally, and Morning Glories as well, and I will switch over any other creator/publisher “brave enough” to have a small enough delay window between physical and digital. I feel guilty telling my comic shop to stop ordering me a book every time it happens, but I feel worse pirating a comic that I fully intended to purchase at the comic shop, but it wasn’t there, and wasn’t coming back.

  23. Time marches on for some.

    Hopefully that generational thing that you refer to is a reference to me being dead. Because I don’t see how comics can otherwise fade completely while the people who love them are still alive.

    Or: *There’ll be a way; there’s ALWAYS a way!*

  24. The nearest comic shop from me is an hour and a half away.

    Nuff ‘said.

  25. Admittedly I only got this far: “more aesthetically pleasing, than having a stack of floppies on your coffee table. ”

    Why? Because clearly we are two very different people. Few things I have ever laid eyes on, including my newborn daughter, “have been more aesthetically pleasing, than having a stack of floppies on your coffee table. ”

    But Seriously this site rocks, and no I’m not trollin.

  26. […] 4thletter! » Blog Archive » Changing From the Ground Up (tags: comics collectors digital) […]

  27. I know that comics has made well over $100 of my money that it would not have, thanks to the iPad. I am now getting comics almost weekly again, when I had not been for YEARS.

  28. […] David Brothers asks: how will digital distribution affect the Wednesday comic-buying ritual? [4th Letter!] […]

  29. […] 4thletter! considers: How will digital comics change the Wednesday crowd? […]