How Digital Comics Changed the Way I Think About Print

It took three years and a few months, but I recently crossed that point in our new house where I no longer had room for my monthly print comics, at least not in the planned storage space. This time, though, instead of trying to manufacture additional storage, I decided to sort through the books and make choices about what I wanted to keep and what I would recycle. I think that the past few years of also buying and reading comics digitally is what prompted me to let go of certain of books instead of continuing to collect single issues for all of my periodical purchases.

In Digital Comics and the Return of Disposability, I wrote about digital and the “disposability” of comics or, how digital publishing had made it possible to “safely” read and enjoy comics, especially pulpy, silly, generic comics, without treating them as “collectibles”. The widespread adoption of digital formats by comics publishers, including back catalogs has, effectively, ended scarcity, at least for many regularly published titles. Most digital services also make it possible for readers to “dispose” of their books by deleting from their devices while still retaining the right to access those comics from company servers at a later date

Of course, there’s no cloud storage for print, making the decision to recycle a bunch of my print comics qualitatively different from my decision to delete a book or title from my tablet. And yet I think that making those kinds of decisions with my digital comics was instrumental to my even considering “disposal” as a viable option.

For one, I know from using my accounts with comiXology and Dark Horse that I have access to hundreds of books that I never go back to after deletion from my local reading device. Digital has afforded me a chance to a do a kind of controlled experiment in the value and purpose of storing comics. If I had found myself repeatedly going back to my account to re-download books, I think I would have approached the problem of my overstock of print comics differently. However, because I have not done that, I could look at those books with a more critical eye and make the choice to recycle rather than seek new storage.

For another, digital and print exist in relationship to one another, and not in isolation. Digital publishing means that, particularly for current and recent titles, readers usually have the option to replace a print copy with access to a digital edition. If, for some reason, I decide I need to go back and read back issues of, say, All New X-Men, I will be able to do so. Yes, I will have paid twice for the same issue or issues, but additional storage comes with costs as well. I am more than happy to pay a discounted price for a few back issues if it means not having to buy or make new shelves or stack more boxes in the garage. However, the first point is the salient one: most monthly comics are perfectly suited to being read and enjoyed in the moment, and once that moment has passed, I can let go of the book.

The “My Backups” feature that is now part of comiXology has given me another way to test my preferences for what comics I want to own and keep versus those I feel less compelled to have at hand. When I wrote “Who Wants to Read Comics on a Computer?” last August, this functionality was still new and I had just done my first round of downloads to my laptop, which numbered 13 out of a possible 188 books or issues. Since then, I have downloaded an additional five copies of titles I’ve purchased through the service. According to comiXology, I have an additional 312 books that I could download right now. I probably will choose more titles to backup locally at some point, but I haven’t actually thought about doing this for months

Digital does not fix storage problems when it comes to comics; it reframes those problems. A digital comic can be read without needing a place in the house after, but the number of books I can have downloaded to my tablet at any given time is limited by available memory. When I download a comic from comiXology, or some other source, I don’t need a box or shelf, but I do need storage memory on my laptop and associated backup drives. That necessarily means using megabytes that I might also want for some other file.

Preserving local digital storage space means always making choices about when and where to leave purchases in the cloud, which is an option that, currently at least, comes as part of the digital price. Obviously, the print version of the cloud, which would be to rent or acquire some kind of offsite storage, does not have that advantage, but the convenience of offsite digital storage typically comes at the cost of not fully owning a book.

My preference for my digital downloads has been to use this feature for, largely, longer form, single-authored works from smaller and independent publishers. In the case of my print comics, I am only addressing monthly pamphlets but, the same basic pattern holds: when I reduced my books down to the “essential” issues, I as left with comics that were almost entirely from publishers like Image and Dark Horse. The Marvel titles I kept are ones that are, or have been, more “auteurist” and outside of the publisher’s mainstream continuity (so, for examples, G. Willow Wilson’s, Adrian Alphona’s and Sana Amanat’s Ms. Marvel and Matt Fraction’s, David Aja’s and Matt Hollingsworth’s Hawkeye).

These preferences are, of course, mine and mine alone, however much they may also rehearse some fairly predictable habits for someone like myself (40-something adult reader and academic that I am). What I do think is important here is that these are preferences that reflect my priority as a reader of comics and not a collector. The collecting ethos is such a powerful force in American comics culture that I did keep a few number ones and issues with notable covers but, mostly, when deciding what to keep on the shelf and what to recycle, I focused on my reading experience. Those titles about which I care the most and have the most invested in terms of time and character attachment, and that seem more “precious” narratively, are the titles I kept. The titles that I enjoy enough to buy and read on a regular basis, but in which I have less of an emotional and narrative investment, are the titles I chose for the recycling bin.

How I value these issues is likely to change over time, which is the risk of doing what I did with my current “excess”, and is a risk I don’t have to assume with my digital books, but one of the reasons why I think I put most of the Marvel comics in the recycling and kept many of the titles from smaller publishers on the shelf is that Marvel’s publishing strategies tend to cheapen individual issues and titles (do I really need to keep all of the issues of the X-titles I read which were caught up in some crossover I was barely tracking? No, I don’t). Within that corporate structure, there is room for titles, issue runs, and creative efforts, that stand on their own, but such efforts tend to be more limited in scope and duration than the comparable creator-owned works from the smaller publishers, such as the Hellboy/BPRD books published by Dark Horse or a title like Bryan Vaughan’s and Fiona Staples’ Saga from Image.

Of course, in the end, all I am really saying is that I like what I like and what I like most is what I kept. Before digital comics were part of my routine buying and reading, I felt more compelled to keep everything I read. My experiences with managing books in the newer medium have led me to rethink print. While it’s tempting to see print and digital as two sides of a binary, I think that, in practice, and for the foreseeable future, in comics, like most creative forms being remade with new media, the relationship between these formats is less either/or and more both/and. Digital may become more prominent, and even primary, but there will always be a demand for print.

What is in process of being sorted out between creators, publishers and readers is not simply a transition to digital, but also what role print will have during and after that transition. At whatever scale you consider this question, there are no absolute answers to how best to make, read, or store and dispose of comics.