Staring Down the Inevitable Reign of Digital Comics

by Matthew Derman

6 November 2014

With comics in particular, I love the ritual of going to the shop each week, sorting every new stack into a reading order, then putting everything away in an organized manner after I’ve read it.

I love hard copy comicbooks. Generally speaking, I prefer to read everything in hard copy rather than digitally, be it comics, novels, articles or whatever else. It’s easier on my eyes, and there is a sensory experience that gets lost in the digital space; you can’t touch or smell something on a screen. Plus with comics in particular, I love the ritual of going to the shop each week, sorting every new stack into a reading order, then putting everything away in an organized manner after I’ve read it. When I need something to read, I find great comfort in flipping through my collection, letting covers and title banners provoke various memories of first readings as I pass them, until eventually I find something I want to revisit. When other people want a recommendation of a comic to read, I like being able to actually hand them something.

There’s an intimacy in that exchange that I enjoy, and it gives the recommendation a bit more weight, literally and figuratively. With real issues in my hands, I can easily flip back to past scenes when needed, take each panel on its own or study entire pages as the meta-panels they are, and otherwise engage with the medium in a dynamic, physical way, actively participating in my own reading experience, contributing to the ultimate effect it has on me as much as the creators do. Much if not all of that goes away in a digital format, so for now I insistently live in a world constructed mostly of staples and glossy paper. Yet I know I can’t stay there forever.

Digital comics are already quite popular, growing in popularity, and produced in large numbers, with no signs of slowing down anytime soon. Most of the big comicbook publishers put out digital versions of their new stuff as quickly as possible, in many cases (like Marvel and DC) on the same day that the hard copies are released. These companies also produce many digital-first series, which are often later published in paper as well, but only after they’ve been available digitally for some time. And then of course there are the countless independently produced webcomics, with new ones being launched online every single day. So if I were to try and pretend that the digital comics wave was something for the future, an eventuality rather than a present-tense reality, I’d be fooling myself. I’d also be pointlessly cutting myself off from a ton of good material; there are plenty of webcomics I do follow now, despite my preference for hard copies, because they’re too high-quality to write off simply because of how/where they’re being published.

And for all the stuff I love that goes away in a digital landscape, there’s a lot of awesome innovation happening in the medium thanks to the new options that technology offers. Digital comics aren’t as restrained by page size or shape, so each installment can theoretically be as big or small as needed. The story can dictate the length and speed, rather than the available number of pages dictating the pace of the story, and that’s a good thing, to be sure. Not every digital comic even defines itself by pages and panels; I’ve seen comics online that are essentially one long panel that you side-scroll to read, or those that present themselves one image at a time, the only panel border being the screen itself. Changes in focus within a single panel, animated movements of the characters and/or the POV, soundtracks, voiceovers, and other such things are being introduced to comics to change the way stories get told there. Not all of these things are inherently improvements, and it always matters how and why they’re employed, but the larger point is that the medium of comics is opened wide by existence of the digital space. It’s far easier to experiment with the ways a narrative can be delivered when you abandon the old format and adopt a new, more adaptable alternative.

There are practical considerations as well. Digital comics don’t need to be printed or shipped, huge cost savers for the publishers. As a fan, this bums me out, because it could easily mean the end of the (already dying) industry of direct market comicbook stores. I have to admit, though, that were I running a comics publisher, the ability to cut out two middle men by eliminating the need for either distributor or retailer would be outright impossible to ignore. Not taking advantage of that would just be bad business and, like it or not, comics is a business like anything else. Not to mention the environmental impact of no longer putting out thousands upon thousands of hard copy comics each week. The reader in me never wants to say goodbye to that system, but the environmentalist in me has to acknowledge that the responsible thing would’ve been to say goodbye to it years ago. It’s a crazy amount of paper and ink being devoted to what is essentially a niche artform, and sustaining it seems needlessly destructive and reckless in the face of digital comics. When a greener, cheaper option is out there, why continue with what came before?

The bottom line is that the current momentum does not favor fans like myself who prefer our comics the old-fashioned way. Digital comics can, will, and arguably should have already become the norm, and it’s easy to imagine that in the not-too-distant future they might replace hard copy comics altogether. And why shouldn’t they? There are obviously benefits to making the change, and a lot of exciting possibilities in terms of how comics can look and act, so why not embrace the impending shift now and prepare ourselves for the day when digital comics are the standard?

I wish I had a convincing reason or, better yet, a long, detailed, fully fleshed-out argument as to why I remain so ill-at-ease when staring down the inevitable reign of digital comics. Trouble is, my discomfort is mostly powered by gut feelings and personal taste, neither of which are especially compelling in the big picture. There is, however, a clear source from which all my comicbook Luddism springs, a part of my past that powerfully informs both my current preference for hard copies and my anxiety over losing them down the line.

As a kid, so much of what drew me to comics in the first place was my dad’s collection. Though badly organized, completely unprotected save for some crumbling cardboard boxes, and largely incomplete, my dad’s comics held an intense allure for me for several reasons. There were the usual things like awesome-looking characters, superpowers, action, etc. but also stuff like the smell of the aging paper and the satisfaction of digging through on old box in the attic to find all the issues or a particular series or arc. The physical exploration and discovery involved in sifting through my dad’s comics were as much a part of the fun as actually reading them, and that has continued to be true throughout my fandom, even when I found other sources of new material. The shelves and back issue bins of comicbook stores still present a uniquely enjoyable challenge, and the work of making my way through them and finding the things I want remains an essential piece of the puzzle for me. As I mentioned above, that’s lost in the digital realm, which not only bothers me for my own future but the futures of my imagined kids as well.

I don’t know if any children I may someday have will even give two shits about comicbooks ever in their lives, but if they do, I want them to be able make their way through my collection like I did with my dad’s. And should that happen, I also want them to be able to find the same joy elsewhere in the world like I’ve been able to do. I want them to go back issue diving, to peruse the shelves of new comics meticulously every week and make sure they’re not missing anything interesting, to partake in a tradition that has meant and still means so much to me. I want to share that with them, and for them to share it with other fans as I do now. Is that selfish? Sure, but I imagine every parent must mourn the absence or evolution of certain beloved aspects of their own childhoods once they have kids. This will hypothetically be one of mine, and so I’m doing some of the mourning preemptively, knowing full well there’s nothing I can do to stop it.

Nor do I want to stop it, really. I understand the advantages of digital comics, and part of me is looking forward to seeing what they become as they mature and grow more ubiquitous. But I only have my own lens with which to view the world, my own experiences to use as filters. And because my relationship with and adoration of comics is so closely tied to things that only physical comicbooks can provide, I naturally recoil at the thought of losing them forever. Intellectually, I can see what direction we’re headed in, and I can appreciate what amazing things the destination promises, yet in my heart I can’t help but long for what we’ve already passed. It’s my comics fan origin story that’s being undone, and while I can come to terms with the inevitability of that, it doesn’t mean I have to support it wholeheartedly, either.


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