Digital Comics and the Limits of Sharing

[14 February 2012]

By Shaun Huston

As noted in my previous column (”Killing the page: comics’ digital conundrum”, PopMatters, 12 January 2012), there are a number of ways in which reading digital comics is a qualitatively different experience from reading in print. Digital publishing and distribution not only changes the nature of reading for readers/consumers, it also has implications for another important aspect of American comics culture: sharing.

Like many adults who read comics, I often act as an advocate for the medium with family, friends, and colleagues. Sometimes this is a question of knowing both that someone has a particular interest and also that there is a good book, or books, I could recommend. Sometimes the impulse to share is more general, stemming from another person’s tastes or aesthetic preferences. Sometimes I think I can introduce a book that will be a gateway to more reading and sometimes a recommendation is simply about an individual title.

Whatever the case, loaning a book is the best and easiest way to get a text in someone else’s hands. Thus far, digital comics present barriers to lending. Even without constraints like DRM and proprietary formatting, there is simply the question of the e-reader itself, which not everyone will have. Physical books have clear advantages over digital when it comes to sharing, and that’s true whether I’m addressing my wife and daughter or a friend at work.

I think about my daughter, in particular, when thinking about sharing. Parents and adults often worry about accessibility in terms of age appropriateness, which is more a matter of making books inaccessible than making them available. This is arguably more of a concern with comics than prose because kids who have been brought up on picture books may gravitate towards comics because of their apparent familiarity and because they often look fun even if inside they deal with themes and images that are beyond many young children.

At home, I have a system of separating out “appropriate” from “inappropriate” comics so that my daughter can browse “safely”, but as she gets older it becomes more difficult to draw those lines, particularly as she increasingly shows independent judgment and thoughtfulness about what she likes and dislikes, or what she gets fannish about and what she relates to more casually. Now, I am more concerned about what I make available in a positive sense than a negative one. I want her to browse like I did when I was her age, and leave her free to “discover” titles for herself.

When it comes to this kind of browsing, one of the great advantages of digital for the individual, the ability to carry one’s library wherever one goes, becomes a disadvantage when trying to share with others. Handing an e-reader to someone so they can explore your books means giving up access to not just one text at a time, but to an entire collection. This is not so significant for a short look, but more problematic for longer time-frames and the actual reading of books.

An aspect of sharing in American comics culture likely to be challenged and transformed by digital is collecting, a pursuit based on tactile rituals of display, inspection and exchange. Having someone tap and scroll through the “My Comics” page in comiXology hardly has the same effect as laying out physical copies of a complete series or flipping through long boxes.

Even more significant is the way that digital eliminates, or virtually eliminates, the problem of scarcity, which is the premise for hardcore collecting. There’s no real advantage to publishers in putting limits on how many copies of any issue of any comic that they make available digitally; the economics of being able to sell as many copies of a book as there are people wanting to buy it far outweigh any potential crankiness on the part of collectors.

Of course, rather than bringing about the end of collecting, the digital expansion of the comics market could just as easily lead to a retrenchment, (re)focusing its adherents on long out of print titles, long out of business publishers, and books unlikely to find an additional life in electronic format. Collecting necessarily makes a fetish of what is collected, but assuming that print itself becomes more scarce, eventually paper comics could become what vinyl records are today: objects collected for both their medium and their content. As with vinyl, that subculture will be even more of a niche market than it currently is, where print is not just widely available, but remains the publishing norm for comics.

For people more interested in comics for reading than for collecting, the current market, increasingly more often than not, poses a choice for every title: digital or print. When it comes to back catalogs, digital is a boon for readers, as it eliminates the problem of scouring comics shops and bookstores for older out-of-print or hard-to-find books and issues. Thanks to digital, for example, I now have an easy way to catch up on the X-Men history I missed for the period I gave up on comics. And while I might prefer for all of those books to be readily available to my daughter, the simplicity and economics of digital are too difficult to ignore for old story arcs and back issues.

For more recent and current titles, the choice is more difficult, assuming you have the same dilemma I do regarding sharing. Each new series or graphic novel I want to read, I find myself weighing the pros and cons of the two formats and deciding, essentially, what do I want to have lying around so that it can be picked up by someone else and what do I really only care about being able to read myself.

I’ll also confess that having grown up in an analog world, there are some titles I know I will always want to have “in hand” and not in a data file. For the most part I can rationalize this in terms of sharing, but there’s also a part of me that does feel like I want my “best” books to still be in print. However, even that is not absolute. There at least one or two titles that I’ve bought recently where I would have thought I’d want print, but the ease of acquiring the books digitally outweighed any considerations I had in favor of paper. One thing I have not done yet, though, is switch a regular print subscription to digital.

Everyone who reads, especially monthly comics, whether issue-by-issue or in trade, ultimately becomes a kind of collector whether they want to or not. In that regard, the ability to compress one’s library into digital form, while a bug when it comes to sharing, is actually a feature when it comes to storage. Anyone who has had to deal with the problem of finding more shelf and storage space for comics can’t help but be attracted to the idea of digital for the way it changes that equation, even as it raises new concerns about ownership of works kept in cloud storage.

For both readers and collectors digital is less likely to become a total replacement for print than a force that opens up changes in the ways that people make, read, and consume comics. What do I want to do with this book is the salient question for creators, publishers, and readers alike. While digital is likely to support many answers to that question, it won’t suffice for all purposes. And for now at least, when I want to share, print is the clear choice.

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