Monday, March 12, 2012

Perspectives on Digital Comics: Print vs. Digital

A lot has been happening in the last year with digital comics, and I think at this point it's a safe bet to state that digital is beyond simply emerging on the scene.  It's arrived, and for better or worse, it's here to stay.  From the e-book reader wars to same day digital delivery to digital-only content, there is simply too much going on to ignore its impact on the comics industry, reading habits, and even purchasing habits.

I've had a couple of conversations lately about digital comics with various people, and I've been more than a little astounded at the range of opinions out there about it.  Many comic shop workers feel the medium is a long-term threat, in the form of an attempt to remove the middleman and cut them out.  Comic readers have a wide range of opinions on it, ranging from hating it and staying with print only, to loving it so much that they would buy it instead of print if it were only cheaper.  And as always, there are plenty of permutations of in-between perspectives on them, with issues of price, interface, platforms, and much more coming into play and influencing how comics enthusiasts view this new beast.

I find myself somewhere in the middle, balancing an excitement for the possibilities of digital with a reverence for the old-school ways of collecting print.  Both have their advantages and disadvantages, to be sure.  Print collections are the only way to guarantee perpetual access to what you purchase--which is something most comic book collectors find sacrosanct--but you do have the worries of making space for them, the possible ravages of time, well-meaning but clueless mothers, and a number of environmental factors that simply don't exist with digital comics.  Digital comics--being as light-weight as a comic collection can be--can potentially travel with you anywhere, depending on what device and services you use, but those considerations and others like them create some potentially unsettling long-term choices if you're into owning everything you pay for.

I told a buddy of mine a couple days ago that I was excited about Marvel's decision to offer free digital access to digital versions of their $3.99 titles when you purchase the print version.  He responded that access to the digital version of a title you already had in print was silly, and that Marvel should instead offer free digital access to another comic of your choosing.  I can understand how that might seem redundant, but as someone who's curious and enthusiastic about digital in addition to print comics, it really gives me a chance to experience both forms of collecting without any extra expense.

I responded with a hypothetical situation to him.  With the print version of, say, Amazing Spider-Man, I could purchase it, read it if I wish, and store it in my collection or personal library.  But if there was a particularly cool scene or spread of pages or artwork from the comic that I wanted to show my buddy (who is not a big comics reader), I could simply whip out my phone, pull it up, zip to the scene in question, and show it to him, no problem.  With print, I'd have to transport it from my collection to my car to our destination, take it out of the bag and backing board, flip through the pages, show him the scene, and then re-bag and re-transport it back home, all the while risking environmental damage to the print artifact.

A touch paranoid, perhaps, but collectors know I'm talking about a very real possibility.  My friend acknowledged that, when I put it that way, it made sense, given the way I approach collecting and reading.

Another gentleman I spoke to recently said something that genuinely astounded me.  He enjoys reading comic books, but treats them in much the same way most consumers treats magazines: he reads them and then throws them away (!).  He basically sees no value in the print artifact, just the story, and once he's gotten that, he's good.  To that end, he resents the high price of comics these days, and would like to go digital-only, if they'd only start lowering the prices to less than what print costs.  He makes some good points: digital distribution, at least in theory, shouldn't have the overhead that print would; and the technology will only improve over time, despite a lot of the current gripes people have with it.  His most fervent was was, of course, that it would all get here as soon as possible; yesterday, if they didn't mind.

Playing devil's advocate, I acknowledged his points, but also brought up the fact that digital content providers have not always been steadfast in guaranteeing digital access to the content you pay for.  Who's to say that purchasing a subscription to Marvel Digital Comics Unlimited is going to always guarantee you access to the library they currently make available when other content aggregators continue to raise prices, re-package their digital libraries, and rewrite the terms of usage for the access they provide?  These things are done in the name of making money, and you can bet that Marvel Comics, as well as the others, are in the business of making money.

There are and continue to be a wide range of opinions about digital, in various situations and scenarios and among different types of comics enthusiasts.  I'm well aware that I'm only touching the tip of the iceberg with this, and am eager to hear about others' experiences, opinions, praises and issues with regard to digital comics, how they will affect print comics, and where this will all lead us in the years to come.

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