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What's Lost in Translation When Print Comics Are Digitized?

Be they in analog or digital form, the struggle between art and commerce in comics presses on.

At the beginning of this year, I wrote a series of columns on digital comics, addressing the reading experience (see, "Killing the Page: Comics's Digital Conundrum", 12 January 2012), the culture of sharing and exchange (see, "Digital Comics and the Limits of Sharing", 15 February 2012), and on the continued relevance of local comics shops (see, "Pulp, Bricks and Mortar: Why Local Comics Shops still Work in the Digital Age", 28 March 2012). It has been roughly a year since I bought my first generation Kindle Fire and wrote the first piece in that series.

comiXology, and allied apps, remains my primary digital storefront and reading interface. I have, however, noticed how infrequently I now use the "guided view" technology. Instead, I have trained myself to read smaller resolution print and images and have begun to manually pinch and zoom where I think I am missing too much of an individual panel or image. As I argued in "Killing the Page", guided view sacrifices the page to the panel, the whole to the parts, which results in missing vital pieces of narrative context. I've found that manually adjusting the image is an easier and more convenient way to maintain the integrity of the page.

I continue to experiment with ways to read mainly because one point I made in my initial column on this topic is still salient: ".... digital comics are almost entirely being made from print comics or comics that are made with print as the primary format and digital as a secondary or adjunct release." While one can find comics that are made with digital as the primary format and that also experiment with the different possibilities of digital -- like, for example, the previously referenced Valentine by Alex de Campi and Christine Larsen, Power Play by Kurt Christenson and Reily Brown, or the books in Marvel's Infinity line -- such offerings are the exception. The vast majority of digital comics, even those made expressly for digital distribution, are built on the established book and pamphlet template.

One consequence of the continued dominance of the printed page is that choosing between digital and paper versions of a title necessarily entails compromising on either image quality or the nature of the reading experience. As was the case when I wrote my original columns, I have yet to convert a subscription from print to digital, but for new books, more often than not, I have a choice between formats. While I give consideration to variables such as availability, both at my local shop and on my digital platforms, and whether I want to be able to easily share a book, my choices in this regard are increasingly driven by one factor: the art.

The issue here is not that comics art looks inherently better in print, but in most case print is the intended format. As a consequence, in practice this means that the artwork in a book will be more fully appreciable on the page than on the screen. Any title I'm considering that has as a central attraction art that is unique or distinctive, I will choose to add to my pull list at my local shop. Pedestrian work, I am content to buy digitally, even when I may be paying the same price as I would for print.

Earlier this year, that question, pricing, was at the center of debates over digital. For the moment, that issue seems to have been settled. Currently, same day as print titles typically have one price, regardless of format. However, if you are willing to wait to buy your comic, you will typically save a dollar, or so, on many digital purchases. Likewise, books from publisher back catalogs are generally priced lower than current offerings. While there's variation in pricing strategies between publishers and titles, the above is common practice for publishers who produce regular serials.

Given the routine discounting of digital books, a reasonable question to ask is, Why pay full print price? For me, the main answer is habit. Visiting the comiXology store is part of my weekly comics routine. Furthermore, at some level, if a comic is worth $2.99 or $3.99 to me in print, then why not also in digital? For the most part, what I want is to read the comic, and not a particular container except, of course, where I think that format will have an effect on that experience I want from my purchase.

However, as I have built my digital library, I have begun to think more about ownership, an issue on which there is a clear line of difference between paper and digital comics, at least given the basis on which the latter are typically sold.

In effect, what consumers pay comiXology, or other service providers for, is the right to read, not the right to own. So for the most part, I do not possess my digital comics in the same way that I do my print comics. I can lose access to my digital library, in whole or in part, for a variety of reasons that would not adhere to my paper library. With print, it doesn't matter if, for example, a creator-owned work moves from one publisher to another.

However, in digital, your access to, or ability to buy, a title might be affected depending on contract terms and whether both publishers have agreements with the relevant service or not. If comiXology were to go out of business, or have a technological meltdown, there's a real question of what would happen to the books I read through the service. I have no such worries with paper. My dependence on my local comics shop ends after I make my purchase and while it would affect my future purchases if the store went out of business, there would be no effect on past purchases.

The lack of authentic ownership is, I think, a primary reason why pricing is an issue for some consumers. So long as digital largely remains a secondary market for print titles, it seems unlikely that the model is going to change anytime soon. For the most part, people who want print can still have print, and individuals who think that digital should be cheaper because of ownership, or related, issues, often just have to wait before being able to get their discount. Those who just want the books they want are unlikely to parse the differences between formats when it comes to their purchases.

For me, second thoughts about pricing and ownership are most acute when I have purchased titles that I would otherwise buy in print but for reasons related to availability or convenience, have bought digitally, instead. Obviously, I don't want to "lose" any of the books for which I've purchased rights of access, but the intensity of those feelings are not even across my collection, anymore than they are for the books I have in print.

As quickly as digital comics have grown and developed, the format is clearly still a transitional form. The reading experience, the economics of digital, where the balance with print will lie, are all key concerns that are far from being settled even as creators, readers, publishers, and service providers have all shown a willingness to buy into the platform.

Ideally, the form of publication and availability of titles in different formats would be driven by what make sense creatively and for readers, but resolution of these matters is more likely to be driven by the economics of production and distribution. Analog or digital, the struggle between art and commerce presses on.

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