What Do We Do When Our Online Comics Collections Explode?

by Shaun Huston

18 April 2014

Complications or confusion aside, the hacking of comiXology demonstrates a disconcerting vulnerability in digital comics.
Above: Pop Art explosion Background uh oh! image from Shutterstock.com.

Complications or confusion aside, the hacking of comiXology demonstrates a disconcerting vulnerability in digital comics.

At the beginning of this month, comiXology alerted users that a database containing user names, e-mail addresses and passwords had been hacked and that account holders would be required to change their passwords (see, Stephen Gerdling, “Comixology Urges Users to Change Passwords in Wake of Server Attack”, Comic Book Resources, 6 March 2014). This announcement came the week after my February column celebrating digital and the “return of disposability” to comics posted here at PopMatters (see, “Digital Comics and the Return of Disposability”, 26 February 2014).

This event put to immediate test my embrace of the transience of digital comics, particularly those in my comiXology library. Complications with my password reset related to an older “ghost” account I had with the service left me without access, or at least thinking I had no access, to my books for about a day, which was plenty of time to re-consider what I had written previously.

Complications or confusion aside, the hacking of comiXology, in and of itself, demonstrates an unique vulnerability to digital, particularly where access to books is controlled by DRM and readers are largely dependent on a single platform for purchasing and reading their titles.

One can, of course, lose access to one’s print books from fire or flood or rambunctious children, but those are events that affect readers on an individual and not a mass scale (and if an event like that did affect people and their comics on a mass scale, I am thinking that, for most, comics would be among the least of their worries). If my local comics shop, or say, an Amazon distribution center, were to be similarly vandalized, resulting in damage to books, that would have an effect on future purchases, but not on any book I currently owned. Only in a digital context, where access to books is also controlled by the service provider, will damage on the retail end be of immediate consequence to readers seeking to read “their” books.

When I went to Twitter to see if other users were also experiencing access issues after changing their passwords, I found that, yes, others were having similar problems and anxieties about access to their libraries, as well as wanting to take advantage of sales and promotions but being unable to because of errors or glitches in the reset process. Elsewhere still others were taking the opportunity to promote DRM-free books or to simply raise the issue of DRM. Most of the messages related to the hack and password change were simply passing the information along. Looking at that stream of tweets gives a palpable sense of how dominant comiXology is in the digital market.

After going through the reset, I was able to login to my account, but my library was empty. When I logged in on my tablet, I could see the books that I had previously downloaded to the device, but was not able to read any of them. My larger list of purchases was also empty on the tablet (I did not even get to the point of checking my phone).

Like many of the users I saw on Twitter, my most immediate frustration (panic?) was over books I had not yet read, and even, to some extent, whether the service was secure enough to start making purchases again. I was not among the smaller group of readers taking to Twitter in the aftermath of the data breach expressing anger or frustration over the loss of my investment, despite the fact that the total amount I’ve spent is likely in the range of $1,000 (maybe even approaching $2,000. This is my rough estimate based on number of titles and what I typically spend on individual purchases. In any case, not an amount to take casually).

Which is an interesting reaction. I am certain that if, for example, our garage were to be flooded and the boxes of monthly issues I have in storage were to be, effectively, pulped, I would be more upset about that than I was at the thought of losing access to already read books on comiXology.

One of the questions that I address in the February column is that of value. I think that many comics readers are used to thinking of their books as having some kind of value beyond their immediate use, whether economic or cultural or both. I don’t think this only applies to comics. I think that most of us who grow up with consumption as a social norm are used to thinking of our cultural artifacts, books, CDs, DVDs, as having value that needs to be preserved.

Some part of this is about making sure that these media are available for future use, but as anyone who has moved, and has faced the decision of whether to try and sell or donate the stuff you don’t want to take with you, can attest, in a capitalist context the sense that there should be some return on one’s investment, even at a loss, comes fairly naturally (whether you act on that initial sense or not is another question. In a capitalist context, the idea that time is money also comes fairly naturally and may tip the balance in favor of donation rather than resale).

Digital comics, particularly on platforms like comiXology, have no such implication of value, and their particular materiality doesn’t pose the same problems as do print books regarding storage or movement. Reader access to books cannot be resold or even given away like a paper book can. No one, I imagine, harbors any expectations or illusions that digital comics will increase in value with time, and certainly the vast majority of the devices used to access the books begin decreasing in value almost from the moment they are unboxed.

The investment that one makes in digital comics is, despite their commodity form, purely about use. That is the only “profit” to be made from buying comics on comiXology and once that profit has been realized, for many titles, there is little to nothing left to be lost. By contrast, my monthly print comics, though many of them sit in the garage, are nonetheless protected against loss not only by being sealed into boxes, but by being bagged and reinforced by boards.

This sense I have of the value of my comics on comiXology is partly related to that service’s use of DRM to regulate the who, what and where of access to purchases, but I also think that, in most everyday contexts, digital media inherently carry a different sense of value for users.

While I have a different sense of ownership regarding the DRM-free comics I am able to download and store locally, I don’t think that I value those books in a substantially different way from the ones I have on comiXology. Were my access to the former to be compromised by a device malfunction or the actions of hackers, my sense of loss and frustration would come more from the underlying problem and destruction of media that I had produced, than it would from media I simply owned.

Growing up in the US in the ‘70s and ‘80s, and into young adulthood in the ‘90s, I thought of books as objects of art and markers of identity. Putting them on display was a way of telling others who you are and how you see yourself. I store my monthly comics, but we put collected editions and longer form works on display on shelves, and that includes one deliberately curated shelf in the living room. That display is about who we are as a family, what we read and what we like, and is positioned to spark interest and curiosity in guests. This is a value that digital comics do not have.

Of course there are other ways to memorialize one’s tastes and pop cultural affiliations. Publishers and comics artists have long made available prints, original pages, sketches, toys, t-shirts and other merchandise to fans and readers. Referring to an example I also used last month, in addition to selling their The Private Eye series to readers via digital downloads on their website, panelsyndicate.com, Bryan K. Vaughn and Marco Martin also have prints from the book available for sale and unlike the comics, these are paper and therefore publicly displayable. As noted last month as well, some digital publishers, like Monkeybrain, are also collecting their series into paper editions for those who prefer to read that way or, more likely, who want a print copy for their library after reading the issues electronically.

Not unlike musicians who now make more of their money from performances and merchandise than from music sales, in a digital comics economy that effectively eliminates scarcity and where the market seems to favor lower or discounted prices, comics creators may increasingly need to rely on ancillary products for income. Fortunately, demand for such product not only exists, but may even heighten as more people opt for digital for their books and therefore want other ways to mark what they love in public.

When I thought I had lost access to my library on comiXology, my sense of frustration came from not being able to read the comics, not from no longer “having” the books. Maybe the future of digital comics will lie somewhere between DRM-restricted works and the current DRM-free model where readers download and store their books locally. In the meantime, I didn’t have to face the loss of my books after all, and maybe that makes it easy enough to continue valorizing the right to read over the right to own.

Topics: comixology
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