Digital Comics and the Return of Disposability

A lot of comics may be seen as cheap, but so what? That also makes them fun.

One of the reasons for comics historical reputation as “low culture” in the US was the medium’s literal and figurative cheapness. Printed on pulp and used to tell simple, quick reading stories comics, for decades, were seen primarily, if not exclusively, as consumable entertainment. Buy. Read. Toss away. Forget — at least until next month’s issue shows up at the A & P and you put down your ten cents for another ten minutes of amusement.

The fact that comics were, until the last decades of the 20th century, actually thrown away played a role in the development of a collecting culture around monthly titles, a change that, ironically, contributed to making comics seem less disposable. Instead of tossing out the pamphlets, many regular readers began to store their books, leading to routine use of bags and boards and long boxes for archiving.

Publishers responded to this new valuation by printing on better paper. Because comics were no longer being made scarce by means of disposal, publishers also began to manufacture scarcity with devices like alternate covers. Indeed, part of the market for comics has come to be driven by individuals who are more collectors than readers.

Today, it might still only take ten- to 20-minutes to read your typical single issue from Marvel, DC, or Dark Horse, but the book itself, the object, seems more durable.

This re-valuation of comics also plays a role in the contemporary valorization of creators. If the books are valuable it’s not only because they might be scarce in a material sense, or because production values are higher, but also because they were made by somebody. Readers and collectors alike frequently invest in writers and artists, and not just in titles, characters, or publishers.

This awareness of a comic as a work of art and letters further functions to give the books more “weight”, though in a cultural, rather than a physical, sense. I know that one reason why I have boxes of comics in the garage that I haven’t opened since we last moved is because I value the creative work the books represent and feel compelled to preserve that work rather than recycle it.

However, I have noticed that my adoption of digital platforms for part of my monthly reading has started to rework my thinking about what it means to “dispose” of a comic.

When I buy comics digitally, I am more likely than I am with print to sample titles, and if I am not persuaded after a few issues, stop reading. But I do so knowing that, if I change my mind, I can always go back to reading.

While digital media are not indestructible, and publisher practices may change at some point, for the moment, the electronic “printing” and distribution of comics means that scarcity is essentially non-existent. For readers who have been only by default also collectors, this is liberating, and re-enables a relationship to the medium that is primarily about reading and pleasure and less about preservation. I have held onto any number of titles in print simply because I had hopes for a book, hopes that may not have been immediately validated, but the only sure way to see the promise fulfilled was to keep having the book pulled, or risk having it be unavailable when and if it became what I wanted it to be.

More importantly, digital platforms like comiXology and Dark Horse Digital allow readers to dispose of their comics without destroying the books. “Deleting” in this context means to remove a book from your device. The issue remains accessible via the company’s server. Unlike a book that I put into the recycling, I can always access a digital copy of my purchase, so long as that title remains available on my chosen platform, which, of course, is the trade-off with a service like comiXology. What you purchase is access, not ownership. So, while this means you can let someone else deal with the storage of your purchased titles, it also means that you are dependent on that provider for continued availability.

Some publishers and creators, notably Image in the case of the former, and Bryan Vaughn’s and Marcos Martin’s Panel Syndicate, for an example of the latter, have made their own digital storefronts where readers can buy books that are free of Digital Rights Management restrictions, meaning that when you make your purchase you download a copy that you actually own.

Right now, I have a small number of books in this category. If this becomes a viable business model that can compete with comiXology and similar platforms, and here it is worth noting that Top Shelf recently began selling DRM-free copies of selected books, I imagine that I will increasingly turn towards these independent storefronts for books where I desire the rights, and responsibilities, of ownership, and not just a right to read.

Somehow, the thought of deleting a book or title from my laptop hard drive or tablet memory feels more permanent of an erasure even than putting a pile of issues into the recycling does; at least there I have the sense that the material of the comic will live on, maybe even in another comic. At present, Image addresses this issue by allowing customers to re-download purchased books. Vaughn and Martin allow readers to name their price when buying, meaning that after paying once you could go re-purchase for free. Both options lack the ease of use afforded to readers by comiXology and Dark Horse Digital, both of which allow for in-app management of one’s books.

I estimate that I have 140 titles in my comiXology library, a small number of which are self-contained works, but most of which are series that I am either currently reading, used to read, or tried and gave up on. For most of these titles, the convenience of pay for access to, not ownership of, individual issues is compelling.

While, in an economic sense, I may not be getting the full value of my purchase, I am getting what I want, which is the ability to read the comics. In most cases, I will read these issues once, delete from my tablet and never download again. In effect, I am back in the ’50s, except that my “disposal” of the issue does not forestall future readings, whether by me or by others.

The reasons for the transformation of comics into collectibles are varied, but I think that the initial impulse was related, at least in part, to readers pushing back against assertions of the medium’s lack of cultural value. Even if those feelings are reduced to ones of nostalgia, that still represents a valuation above and beyond the material cheapness of the product.

And yet most comics published periodically aren’t meant to be collected; they aren’t made to be timeless or enduring. They are meant to be read and consumed in the here and now, enjoyed in the moments that you have them in your hands or in front of your eyes. What digital publishing and distribution of comics enables is a re-embrace of this disposability.

Digital stores, in effect, become warehouses as well as retail outlets, allowing readers to be readers, not collectors or archivists. My enjoyment of an issue need not come at the cost of, or with some thought to, whether the book will be there for someone else to enjoy at some future date.

The acceptance of comics into the larger world of American art and books has generally come through awards, reviews, and academic study of longer form, “literary” comics, the kinds of books to which terms like “graphic novel” and “sequential art” are routinely attached. The implication that only certain kinds of comics merit critical attention ignores or denies the actual art and craft required to make comics serials, and to making “good” single issues in particular.

Series can and do showcase some of the best of what can be done with the medium, Terry Moore’s Rachel Rising and Marvel’s Hawkeye, written by Matt Fraction and art primarily by David Aja and Matthew Hollingsworth, are both current ongoing comics that are as interesting and artful as any National Book Award nominated graphic novel, but what makes these books reader, as well as critical, favorites is the fact that the individual issues are consistently entertaining. For many, that by itself, would be sufficient payoff for the $0.99 to $3.99 you would typically pay for a monthly comic at a digital store, or the $2.99 to $3.99 at a brick-and-mortar shop.

Not everything worth reading, or watching or listening to, needs to stay with the reader for days or years, or needs to have layers that require further consideration to see. Not every creative work needs to have the power to enter your thoughts unbidden or to gnaw at your mind and emotions over a lifetime. Very few works of art or literature, regardless of medium, actually conform to any of these notions of “greatness” or “genius”.

But the truth is that being simply entertaining or engaging is also, if not rare, then not as common as is often assumed. The idea that these qualities are commonplace is partly why comics were long seen as nothing more than a medium of cheap consumables. The fact that those who are exceptionally talented and skilled in being entertaining, in bringing pleasure to audiences, are frequently only recognized later in their careers, or after their death, is one index of how uncommon this quality actually is, and how hard it is to recognize in the moment.

Cary Grant never won an Oscar for a film performance, and was only nominated twice. Jack Kirby not only never got nominated for a National Book Award, I doubt his name would have ever entered into the discussion. Both brought, and still bring, a lot of joy to a lot of people. Still, both men made films and comics that are largely thought of as disposable, meant to divert or thrill or excite for 20 minutes, or a couple of hours, but not much else.

Monkeybrain Comics is a digital publisher that appears to be specializing in the kind of content that first earned comics the reputation as low, consumable culture. The titles in its catalog are full of mad scientists, super-powers, lurid crimes, action-adventure, humor, low and high fantasy, anthropomorphized animals, and daring capers. Two of these books, Amelia Cole, written by Adam Knave and D.J. Kirkbride, with art by Nick Brokenshire in collaboration with Rachel Deering and Ruiz Moreno, and Bandette, with art by Colleen Coover and written by Paul Tobin, are both among my favorite ongoing series right now.

I value these titles not as objects to collect nor for their profundity. I value them because they are a delight. The stories move quick and are full of carefully crafted surprises. Both also feature wry humor, though there is more winking at the reader in Bandette than in Amelia Cole. The art is lively and fun. I would recommend them to anyone who loves comics or who is looking to get into comics.

But I don’t feel any sense of loss from not “owning” the issues or having a print copy. The fact that I particularly enjoy these books may mean that I keep the issues on my tablet longer than I would otherwise, but when too much time passes between installments, I delete without second thought.

Of course others may see these books differently, which is likely one reason why Monkeybrain titles are also being released in print collections through IDW. The point is that you don’t have to be a collector to enjoy Amelia Cole or Bandette; you can just be a reader.

While any kind of comic can be published and distributed digitally, digital seems particularly suited to stories and ideas that don’t conform to standards of prestige in publishing. In other words, digital is perfect for “cheap” comics, the kinds of books that many readers and creators probably loved in the first place.

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