Delivering Sequential Art

Print vs. Digital
by Bill Knight

As entertainment is changed by online presentation, writing—even the “sequential art” of graphic novels and comic books—may be affected, too. And considering the consequences to consumers, creators, stores and stories still results in more questions than answers.

Over the next five years, digital platforms will continue to expand, and the economic downturn hasn’t slowed the pace of change, according to PricewaterhouseCoopers’ latest Global Entertainment & Media Outlook. Jim Lee, co-publisher of DC Comics, says the industry is looking for new readers.

“I really feel that we’re at a pivotal point,” Lee told ICv2.com, which covers the industry. “The preliminary data has shown that we are reaching new eyeballs, or we’re reaching lapsed fans that we weren’t reaching before.”

Readership New and Old
Others hope that going digital will revive a stagnant industry. It just might. According to ICv2.com, sales of graphic novels dropped 20 percent in 2009, while comics grew slightly (about 1%), and digital comics grew six-fold, from $1 million to about $6 million. Graphic.ly, iVerse, comiXology, Panelfly, Longbox and Japan’s mobile comic outfit Bitway have joined Marvel and DC as digital providers, but print is sagging, historically. Still, print in 2009 accounted for $680 million in retail sales of graphic novels and comics.

“Ten years ago, a great title for me sold 100 copies; now it's 50,” says Bob Gordon, owner of Peoria’s Acme Comics, Illinois’ biggest comics retailer in volume. “If comics were eliminated, the [big] companies could probably roll merrily along via movies, TV, licensing, etc. Anymore, comics are a proving ground for the next Hollywood endeavor, rather [than] a cheap form of fun literature.”

Jay Lynch is the founder of Bijou Funnies, one of the first underground comics of the 1960s, and creator of alternative comic strips like Phoebe and the Pigeon People and Topps’ Garbage Pail Kids. He has noticed a drop in popularity, too. “Circulations of printed comics are lower now than at any point in their history,” Lynch says. “Mad magazine's circulation today is lower than Zap's circulation was in the days of underground comics. Once, Mad was three million. Now, it is under 200,000.”

Comic creator David Gallaher is seeing new readership online. “There is absolutely a demand from readers,” he says. “I got my start in digital comics at Marvel back in ’99, and now two of my biggest properties [Box 13 and High Moon] are available digitally. I love digital comics…I'm not scared of the opportunities. Digital comics have afforded me a tremendous amount of success.”

But Lynch is more circumspect. “I think DC's audience now isn't people who read the comics,” he says. “It is people who collect the physical books.”

Acme’s Gordon agrees. “Customers prefer the ‘comic shop experience,’” he says. “It's a meeting place. Of the customers I have asked, all said they prefer paper over digital. They want a tangible item upon purchase. Plus when you have a 20 to 30 year accumulation of comics, why stop now?”

“Digital may encourage some readers to purchase a hard copy,” he adds. “If an entire storyline is available for a minimal cost, I believe casual readers will be more apt to go digital.”

Springfield resident and comic creator Chris Ward is more skeptical. “Until you can roll an iPod up, stick it in your back pocket and take it to the bathroom, it's never going to meet the demand of all readers. The dirty secret of print is that it's a somewhat disposable medium, and a lot of people like it that way…I think eReaders like the Kindle or iPad are only going to fill a very specific niche market for a long time.”

A Novel Way of Storytelling
There’s not an obvious preference for a digital platform yet, but it seems likely that the venue that can best accommodate advertising will prevail—perhaps mimicking the old print model’s ad vehicle, featuring X-Ray Specs, Charles Atlas’ bodybuilding programs, games and toys. After all, the comics reader has emerged as a key target demographic, and most companies are looking to do more than just post PDF versions of existing material.

“I believe content should be available in multiple streams,” says Gallaher. “DC has done that. Their comics are available on the web, iPhone, iPad and Playstation, and as books. They do some cross-platform migration, too. For example, if you buy High Moon on the DC app, you can read it online through comiXology’s website for free. As technology evolves, I believe you’ll see the content available on even more platforms.”

“[Digital] is a far more fluid medium than print,” he continues. “I can make changes on the fly and adapt when I need to. Print is a very finite, unchangeable format. Once something is printed, you can’t really un-print it.”

Few creators are yet exploiting technical opportunities such as adding music loops or stories with non-linear narratives. But, says Ward, “The opportunity to do something amazing and innovative is just within reach. Check out the interactive Arcade Fire video [“Wilderness Downtown”] by an artist who uses the technology behind Google Chrome to do something that has never been done before: create an interactive music video that takes the song's emotional core and personalizes it with your own childhood. It's staggering. Storytelling has never quite been done like this.”

Lynch is critical of how the industry’s storytelling model has evolved—or not. “Serialized stories [were] a good idea in 1962, when readers still had the idea of continued movie serials or TV shows as part of their entertainment experience. [It] is no longer effective. Readers have shorter attention spans now, and demand instant gratification. So, the serialized books are dinosaurs. However, that is what Marvel and DC continue to specialize in.

“So in Marvel and DC’s case, online delivery won't eclipse comic shop sales unless the content becomes self-contained, shorter stories.”
DC’s Lee sees cross-promotional content as key. “Things tied to TV shows or video games do very well for us, comparatively much better in the digital channel than in the print channel.  I think that speaks to reaching new eyeballs. As we pull those guys in, we are going to see more foot traffic in the brick-and-mortar store.”

Content, Delivery and Profits
And then there is the matter of paying comic creators for their work. “Creating a ‘pay wall’ can help provide creators with the finances they need to further develop their projects,” says Gallaher. “If the content is compelling enough, I believe people will pay for it. I think the ideal price point is 99 cents.

“A bigger hurdle,” he maintains, “is creating compelling, engaging and age-appropriate content across the board. The idea of ‘creating tomorrow’s readers today’ has a lot of appeal to me, but if the only books that are available are more adult-themed properties, I don’t think that helps anyone.”

Lynch is impressed, but doubtful. “Online delivery allows for distribution in numbers unrivaled by any previous method in the history of the printed word. However, the content of the books isn't the ideal content for online reading.

“It improves the delivery system,” he adds. “Anyone who has a computer and the Internet now has access to the material, which means a greater amount of readers. So far, there isn't something like YouTube for comics, though, where you can plug into an existing system, get subscribers and have them billed small amounts for your title through PayPal. Now, the only way to profit off online comics is through ads, the profits of which are dependent on how many hits the page gets. Without a central base, the likelihood that the hits will come diminishes.”

Does comics’ digital presentation merely shift the cost to consumers?  Yeah, Lynch replies, so?

“Didn't the consumers always bear the cost of reading material?” he says. “Aside from bootleg online material, there is nothing with a billing system as efficient as the Japanese publishers have, where 90 percent of all reading material is now delivered over cell phones.”

Comic-shop owner Gordon is suspicious, saying, “Nominal fees are fair to charge, but I don't think many will pay. The Wall Street Journal just started [a] pay format, and page hits drastically reduced. $2.99 for an online comic is too much; $1 would be about right—and would affect my sales. With an economy in the doldrums and seemingly moving to more ‘green economies,’ I think the publishers will pursue online. It is cheaper to produce, [potentially] interactive from reader to publisher, and it's good PR not killing trees.”

Lynch also sees the lousy economy separating the creators. “There is a class system at the root of all this,” he says. “Free comics were put on the web for free by people who didn't need the money. Thus, it’s only the upper classes that have a voice on the web through their comics. The lower classes can't afford to do stuff for free. So the voice of the lower classes has been effectively silenced.

“If a person is dumb enough to throw his work into any of the existing online publishing systems where he isn't paid directly for his own work, but splits payments with all the other artists who are part of that package,” Lynch adds, “then how intelligent could his stories be?”

Ward, perhaps selfishly, is hopeful, saying, “If artists are getting a good cut of that [cover price], that's fair. Otherwise, who needs it? Arguably, there's not really any overhead for distributing anything digital, so $2.99 seems kind of like an arbitrary price. [But] if companies can find a way to keep the lion's share and get artists and writers to do more work for less pay, they will.”

Social Comes Full Circle
Reading print used to be a solitary activity, but the digital experience makes it more social. In fact, Graphic.ly is releasing an app that makes it easier for readers to annotate and trade comments on online titles. “The social component will flourish,” says Gallaher. “We have, after all, become a 'sharing' culture thanks to the Internet, Twitter, Facebook and YouTube.”

Lynch believes that content will drive reader interaction. Socialization, he says, would happen “if there were enough short, good material. Some people email me Zippy [the Pinhead] strips. I don't see anyone emailing anyone a long Batman story.  I don't see these people sharing links to long stories on Facebook. But this is perhaps because the standard DC or Marvel book doesn't have self-contained stories—only never-ending sagas.”

Ward says it’ll be tough to socialize what’s already social, saying, “We nerds have been gathering for years now in giant digital “basements,” or message boards, to praise, complain and argue about comic books. Comics don't lend themselves to ‘live-tweeting’ the way we do with television shows or webcasts, and I'm not sure they should, either.

“I'm hoping comics will remain one of the last non-social things I do,” Ward continues. “In fact, I predict that as we reach social media overload, it's going to be seen as ‘uncool’ to sit by yourself somewhere and read something without anyone else's input or knowledge about what you're doing at that exact moment. You know, like it used to be! And I predict these new, strange social outcasts will be called ‘nerds’—kind of a full-circle thing…I'd say until President Obama promises ‘an iPad in every pot,’ form is going to follow function. And what's functional for me, on my budget, is the $4 floppy issue in my back pocket.”

Gordon admits he’s anxious. “My biggest concern is [that] publishers may drastically reduce hard-copy issues, relegating mini-series, specials and lesser titles to online only. Comic stores may only have core titles left to sell, which may not be enough for most stores to survive. Also, lesser-selling graphic novels or out-of-print books may go digital only.”

Ward, the self-described nerd, shares this anxiety. “I'm worried about how it will affect the local comic shops, which could go the way of the video arcade if they get any more blows to their incomes. The relationship between comic companies, comic distributors and comic shops is incredibly sensitive, and I know companies like Marvel and DC tread verrrry carefully about how they show their public excitement for digital comics.”

Gallaher tries to be reassuring, saying, “This is still a very trial-and-error scenario.”

But in his comic shop, Gordon worries about his customers—and his future. “[Proposed publisher] revenue sharing is just an appeasement to the retailers to give them a glimmer of hope that they care. [It’s] bad enough we have Amazon, eBay and Walmart—now we have to compete against the same publishers that we are selling.”

Meanwhile, Michael Murphey, head of iVerse Comics, says, "Digital comics are still very much an experiment, but with the arrival of the iPad and iPhone, things have started to rev up faster than most people in the industry thought they would.” a&s  

Bill Knight is an award-winning journalist, professor and deputy director of the journalism program at Western Illinois University. 

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