by Nathan Ellis
Physical media as we know it is dying and the consumer audience now values convenience more than ever. Writer Mark Millar (Kick-Ass, Civil War) recently redacted a statement about how the digital format could have the potential to cripple retail comic stores. His initial concerns were expressed in 2011, a notably poor year for the industry (May of that year was the first time in the business' history that not a single title sold over 100,00 units). It would be in bad taste to pick on a talented man for a statement that he made during a time when his profession sat on a razor's edge, a statement he has since publicly changed his mind on (albeit only to pitch a digital comic he was about to release). It does, however, bring up an important talking point about how we enjoy our media now and if there's any danger at all in this specific market not surviving the digital transition.
Comic books find themselves in an odd microcosm of the business world, representing the source material for countless blockbuster movies, games, and television shows. Yet comics in particular are usually a last priority in entertainment, even for the target demographic. It's a business founded on not just extra income, but the income left over after that. Not for one second do I believe that the comics industry is disposable, but the majority of the money that keeps these companies afloat represent those last few working class dollars circulating through the economy every month. It's been described before as an industry run on sticky dimes and lunch money and while I can agree with that sentiment, dimes don't cut it anymore.
Serialized magazines featuring high fantasy, drama, romance, and adventure could be found on local newsstands across America during periods of post war prosperity. Accessibility wasn't an issue (pun intended) for this new popular format, becoming so successful that entire magazines were being dedicated to single characters. The neighborhood kids could dig through their pockets for those last few lint covered cents with one hand, the next issue of Action Comicsor Tales of Suspense in the other, and smack them down with a furious excitement. With the help of extraordinarily talented artists and writers exhibiting endless imaginations, publishing companies were selling metric tons of seemingly worthless, low-grade paper. They were action packed, colorful, and compelling visual experiences for the youth of America, cornering a market that film had yet to compete with.
Fast forward to the present day and you can watch high budget movies and television shows on your phone almost anywhere in the world with a monthly service that costs less than a book. And with a small investment a person can grab a controller and interact in a computer generated environment for literally hundreds of hours. To say the entertainment industry is competing for our attention is putting it lightly. Compare these to the growing cost of single issue comic books ($3.99 is fast becoming the standard price) and newer generations are understandably more interested in spending their allowance on these infinitely more cost effective and content rich hobbies.
The consumers who stuck with the glossy paper versions of these characters are rewarded with inflating cover prices, crossovers that encourage the purchase of unrelated titles, and terrible sales gimmicks that end more often than not in rebooted numbering or continuity. These practices only serve to punish loyal readers. They are poor trends that resulted in so many new series that newsstands just didn't have the room anymore, forcing the audience to buy from few and far between niche stores. It's the very same success driven inflation that almost killed Marvel in the 90's. If accessibility is a problem and the solution is a few keyboard strokes away, then it comes off as a cruel joke to play on the dwindling customer base for artists to wag their fingers at people for not purchasing the way they supposedly should have.
Creators who show their bleeding hearts for the poor little retailers neglect to consider that the business existed before said establishments. While our entitled bitching over their choices might induce aneurysms in the offices of comics publishers, at the end of the day it's up to the consumer to decide which middle man they choose to get their books from. To top it off, the hesitation against more options for the fans becomes a complete slap in the face when you take into account that over all other media, comics still hold the edge of collectibility.
There's this very insightful article over on the website Giant Bomb about how physical media still has an economic market with things like collectibles/special editions and the desire to support and display our favorite content. The resurgence of vinyl is a testament to that. Hell, the industry this discussion is about comfortably houses terms like "reader copies" and "variants". It's not out of the ordinary to see someone walk out of your LCS with 3 or 4 issues of the same book anymore. Now, I could understand when people like Jonathan Hickman put so much work into attractively presenting their book, masterfully incorporating graphicdesign and meticulously going over page layouts with the artist, that they would be worried about how all their hard work is displayed through the Comixology app or on cbz files. What I don't understand, is how a more highly available format becomes the subject of contention.
Is it because of how difficult convincing the consumer to buy 10 digital variants of Kick-Ass 2 all to complete one fucking sentence on the covers would be? God forbid an unsightly symptom of the comics boom like excessive variants goes out of style and retailers have more room on their shelves for all 52 Batman titles and X-Men spinoffs. The overflow of product spilling from one franchise to the other and confusing entry points that scare curious newcomers away does far more damage to retail businesses than digital sales. To put it bluntly, if the advent of a more accessible means of purchase forces publishers to trim the abundant hedges on their product lineup, it might be time to embrace the shears and cut the shit.
This doesn't mean I encourage anyone to cancel their pull list and boot up the computer or the iPad, far from it actually. After all, this discussion so far is solely about availability and in that regard I think it's very safe to say easier access granted to us through the power of the magical interwebs is a great thing. But if there's a local shop in your area with decent customer service, no question about it go with them. Even if they're insufferable assholes (I'm looking at you Mile High Comics) at least you'll still technically own the books you just bought. What do I mean by that? Comixology, the leading and pretty much only digital storefront with same day access and major publisher support, is now barely letting readers download directly to their devices as opposed to only being able to enjoy your favorite titles through their in-browser app. Meaning if your internet connection goes kaput, or even more terrifying, they get in some legal or financial rut that shuts them down for good, say goodbye to everything you spent your dirty dollar on. The latter is unlikely, but you're still technically just renting a vast majority of the items on Comixology for the same price you could own a real copy with the potential to become a collectors item.
Compare that to the Marvel Comics Unlimited business model of allowing people to read from their massive digital archive for ten bucks a month. You're still just renting until that subscription is up, and you'll have to wait months for new issues to be included in their library but I do appreciate that there's no illusion of ownership on the buyer's part. Other companies including DC, Dark Horse and Image seem to go down the cover price route but you do get the benefit of downloading directly to your hard drive.
So digital isn't necessarily this consumer friendly bastion either. So, now what? It's all up to you my friends. There's an endearing satisfaction in holding the physical copy in your hands, it's at your disposal to read or lend out at any time. You're also supporting the people in brick and mortar stores, most of which offer better sales and incentives than any legal outlet online can. And If you find that elusive gem of a shop, the owner might actually be happy to see your face pop in every Wednesday. On the other hand, if the alternative is not reading comics at all because of your location or social anxiety, sleep safely knowing that you can click, flip, and swipe your way to that next issue of Batman or Captain Marvel because hey, it's 2015 and we live in the God damn future.