Tom Spurgeon's Web site of comics news, reviews, interviews and commentary

May 4, 2012

Group Think: What Do You Want From Digital?

imageAs comics starts to get locked into more and more concrete digital strategies, or at least the appearance of same, I thought it might be a good time to reflect on what active comics-buying consumers of the kind that read this site actually want from the experience of comics via digital means. My own desire for digital comics has changed as I've become more used to reading comics on-line and, frankly, following a health scare that had me saddled with guilt that someone might potentially have to deal with 18 bookcases filled with dead trees.

I'm at the point, for instance, where I would be perfectly happy to have the entirety of my works about comics in digital form. That includes a complete run of TCJ, even though as a freelancer for that publication I bemoan the fact that a lot of that work wasn't meant for digital publication but that the way the laws have developed you can save that material for archival purposes shooting straight from the magazine. Still, as a consumer, I'm at a point where my two shelves of The Comics Journal inspires more sadness than inspiration. I'd also kill for affordable but not necessarily diminished-cheap old fanzines, the run of Amazing Heroes and even Comics Interview, despite the fact that I think the fanzines in particular are beautiful objects that I'd still love to collect that way. I'd pay a pretty good price for unfettered access to such works; I wouldn't have to have them deeply discounted. Further, I'd prefer they'd be offered this way rather than cut up like a clipping service.

A second thought is that I would gladly read the bulk of mainstream comics -- what I might see as disposable work -- in digital form, although I'd prefer it at a much cheaper price than what I'm paying for paper. That last bit isn't so much about the paper vs. the digital form but that I'm not really willing to pay $2.99 or $3.99 for a mainstream comic book and as a devoted follower of discount bins, I almost never have to. I do get a lot of enjoyment out of reading comics that I wouldn't in any way process as considerable artistic efforts -- dopey, average, run-of-the-mill comic books -- and in most cases I'd be happy to read bunches of them were the price right and the situation presented itself.

imageA third notion that comes to mind, just speaking as a consumer, is that I'd be delighted were someone to have an aggressive program featuring old underground and alternative comic book work that I could experience in that way at a reduced price. If I could have had 99-cent issues of Hate the last time I was in the hospital, I think I would have been out of bed two days earlier, and if I had a choice between five issues of old Bill Griffith undergrounds or Real Stuff and the latest issue of Sports Illustrated while sitting in the Dallas airport, I'd go alt-/underground every damn time.

A fourth thought is that I seem largely dissatisfied with the way comic strips are published digitally. Right now, comic strips have about the same place on my comics-consumption schedule as traditional webcomics: I get the notion that I want to see Doonesbury, or Cul De Sac, or Achewood, and I go seek it out and tool around the site that has it for a while. This seems so divorced to me from the way that those comics should be read -- as part of a super-easy-to-access, compulsive, regular experience -- that I suspect that the delivery system still needs a lot of work there. Why hasn't anyone developed a way to customize newspaper sites so that you can build a little comics page for yourself that's not a tremendous chore to access and use? I'm not certain.

Fifth, I have yet to enjoy any significant desire to read long-form works in a digital format. Nor do I have any desire to read them on my phone or anything really tiny. I'm not casting aspersions in either case; I'm just not there yet.

Sixth, the few times I've encountered directional reading tools with a comic book presented on-line, I've almost always freaked out and stopped reading. It's like being suspended on wires above a comic book and having large hands shove the back of your head to one place and then the other. I'm not sure if everyone else reads comics the way those programs say you should, but I find them uniquely terrifying.

To conclude: I'm a customer for digitized works about comics, cheaper on-line comic books from mainstream companies sold individually or as part of a group package, easy access to underground and alt-material published in comic book form at a cheap price point and even traditional webcomics/newspaper comics if they'd do more to meet me halfway. I could also do without reading experiences that fixed a certain kind of eye movement or way of looking at the page.

What about you? As a consumer, and without being glibly unrealistic as to what companies and creators would be able to do, what would you buy and read right now if it were made available to you that way? For what are you a customer right this very minute? I think it might be worth to think about what we'd like from this material as more and more options as to how we might get it or gently pushed off of the table.


Martin Wisse

Let me tell you.

I want to get the latest American comics as soon or even earlier as they are in the shops in the US -- here in Europe we're usually a couple of days to a week behind at best, but I also want to be able to pick up complete runs of a creator or series, not to mention classic Bande Dessinee or Manga series. If I really needed, I would like to be able to download everything DC has ever published.

And I would prefer to be able to do all that through one site, rather than have to struggle with dozens of different distributors, who all want me to use their incompatible software. Finally, I would like my comics to be DRM free, in a format that I can use on every computer I own, whether it's my android based mobile, my mini laptop using Linux, my Windows desktop or even the multimedia player that's hooked up to my telly.

The good news is, I can do that. The bad news is, all the links above go to The Piratebay and neither the creators, nor the publishers would get a lousy dime for it if I did download any of this. (Which, just in case any Disney lawyers are reading, I would be legally entitled to do here, as Dutch copyright law has a provision for making copies for home use, permitted even if the source itself is illegal: can download, can't upload.) Obviously, though good for me, not so good for the comics industry as a whole, nor for people already struggling to make a living out of their art. But it shows what the legitimate digital comics sellers need to do to make it worthwhile to buy them.

Get the stock online, make it easy to buy and price it in such a way that it becomes an impulse buy. I don't want to see old Marvel or DC back issues for a buck: I want to see whole miniseries and story arcs for a buck. A good example of what I'm talking about is the Good Old Games site, which sells computer games, both new and classic. The older games are priced anywhere from three to ten bucks, right in that impulse buying range, but they're not just shovelware: you get the extension packs as well, they're tweaked to run on modern computers/operating systems and they're DRM free: you download them, you can use them. It makes it literally easier for me to drop a couple of bucks to get a game there that I know I have in my shed on cd somewhere...

For comics, the format is already there: CBR/CBZ, basically just renamed rar and zip files, which can be read properly by a range of comics readers on almost every operating system under the sun, are easy and quick to download (ten to fifty megabyte per issue gets you decent quality) and means that you're as a customer are not tied to one particular reseller/comics reader. Best of all, it's DRM free so no worries about not being able to read your comics if the reseller ever vanishes.

imageNow I am fully aware that getting the various comics publishers to go DRM free is going to be difficult, as nobody in the comics industry has ever shown any capability to learn from examples outside it, but as the music, movie and finally even the book publishing industries have found out, DRM doesn't work, only hacks off your customers and drives them towards piracy. Heck, the very fact that I can download everything DC has ever brought out (roughly a terabyte of comics), including dozens of titles they themselves can't or won't ever reprint (Fox and Crow or all those Bob Hope comics, or Big Town or...), should be proof positive that DRM don't work in a medium where it's so easy to exploit the analog hole: anybody with a scanner can route around your copy protection. Most of what's available on the Piratebay was there long before most comics publishers even started to toy with the idea to go digital.

Worse, with DRM encrusted comics, the real winners might not even be the comics publishers, but the middlepersons selling them, as Charlie Stross explains has been happening in book publishing where Amazon has emerged as the 800 pound gorilla. You can easily see the same thing happening to digital comics as well, as it already might be.

To sum up: make it easy to get, make it cheap enough (at least for the overwhelming majority of back issue stock) to get it in the impulse buy range, make sure that it's easier and nicer to use than going the pirated route would be. That's what worked for iTunes and Netflix, that's what can work for digital comics as well.


Jay Davidson

I would definitely pay for high-quality digital copies of classic comics, like Ditko's Spider Man and Lee / Kirby Fantastic Four. It's a crime that we can't just pay to download Moebius, or Wally Wood, or whatever we want from R Crumb's oeuvre. There's so much great stuff out there (early Lois Lane!). There are numerous current creators I'd also love to buy in a digital format, mostly the higher end small publishers like Fantagraphics.

The iPad is a beautiful way to read comics, both long and short form. The zoom function and lighting make it better than paper. I'm not a fan of "guided view" applications, which feel like I have to wait for someone to turn the pages for me. Keep it simple -- just let the art speak for itself and forget all the bells and whistles.

The key for me is that these digital comics should be DRM-free pdf files that I can keep on my hard drive and not have to access from somebody's website or iPad app. Otherwise my library is contingent upon some random company not declaring bankruptcy 10 years from now.


Ugis B

I completely agree that you should be able to sign up for a strip service that everyday sent you a page of comics, that really does not seem like a stretch. Perhaps because of the format, I have never enjoyed reading floppies digitally. Things have of course changed now that tablets, nooks, and kindles are becoming the Hitchikkers Guides to the Galaxy, however I still feel like I'm loosing out. I too have many boxes filled with paper that in my case aren't even an investment, so there is appeal to replace that mound with something the size of one trade.

I suppose my biggest obstacle is the tactile interaction, I enjoy the smell and the feel of turning pages. I'm not just interested in the stories, and the art presented digitally somehow just looks too crisp. It's like watching Dirty Harry in BluRay, it's not the same and it does not make it better. The price is also an obstacle, I can't wrap my mind around paying the same whether it's infinite or not. However the moment they drop the price for digital comics we may be saying goodbye to the printed ones. Digital also changes the whole format, what happens with ads, what about page counts, does any of that matter anymore? Someone could read the entire run of Hellboy from beginning to end, but it's no longer the same experience. I suppose why are comics the way they are now, is it an aesthetic choice or a response to printing requirements or just a way to save money? If the only goal is to get those stories out then I think we might be missing the point, there are several aspects to what comics are and I don't think the soap opera plots are the only thing.


imageRussell Willis

Like you, I'd love to have The Comics Journal on my iPad as well as classic stuff that's out of print: Spiegelman and Griffith's Arcade would be a great start. I agree that issues of Spider-man etc. are suited for the iPad but I am also happy with long graphic novels. I would be fine with having Habibi or Blankets or Maus on my iPad, if the software is done right. I understand the almost totemic power of the printed object though... but I feel that that can be overcome in most cases, especially for new materials... I used to want to have DVDs of great movies on my shelf, now I'm happy with them existing only on Apple TV...

As the publisher at Panel Nine, I'm looking to publish things of this type. We've already published Eddie Campbell's Dapper John collection and David Lloyd's Kickback, adding a whole host of extras, including page-by-page commentaries in the case of Kickback. These are deluxe digital graphic novels, the "absolute" versions if you will.


Michael Grabowski

Like you, I find tremendous value in the way digital media can help save space/conserve mass. I have a thousand comic books I want to leave behind but I can't bear the separation from them, in case I ever actually had the time to reread them. Even knowing there's a digital archive, whether or not I access it, would help me do that. The Comics Journal archive is a wish come true, even if the form it takes suggests monkey's paw more than good fairy, and it allowed me to unload a massive collection with a clean conscience.

Next I would love to see a Netflix/Overdrive-type model that maintains a comprehensive subscription-access digital lending/renting library. I have a tremendous interest in reading a lot of the comic books, books of comics, and comic strip collections that are being published these days but I don't necessarily want to continue owning many of them, even in space-saving mass-of-an-electron form.

I have enjoyed using my iPad to read some comics works but it's a bit of a pain that some are self-contained apps, some are iBooks, and some are ComiXology books. This is on the level of complaining that old issues of Cerebus don't fit in normal comic bags and my Acme Novelty Library collection can't all go on the same shelf. A dumb thing to be annoyed by, but it's an annoyance.

What I really hope to see is that digital publishing frees up comics creators from the boundaries imposed on physical comics distribution by the Marvel-DC-Diamond oligarchy. Digital should make self-publishing easier and more affordable than ever if not necessarily any more profitable. But I see it as a method by which more of my comics-purchasing dollars can go to the creator(s) responsible, assuming they can get good arrangements with app designers and "distributors."

I look forward to formal development of comics that really uses the capabilities of digital presentation in new and astounding ways. Something that takes Frank King's Sunday page design, Kurtzman's Hey Look! tricks, or Zettwoch's schematic diagrams to a whole new level that says "This platform/format is the only way to read this comic." It will be interesting to see older comics adapted to this presentation, too, though. I am pleasantly surprised at how well the Bone comics read in the app in its panel-to-panel mode. Smith's cartooning and pacing is really enjoyable in that format.

And eventually I hope we see development of an ongoing online comics anthology that is as important as Mad! and Raw were.

For now, I enjoy most being able to zoom in freely to examine particular comics panels on a tablet, because holding a book an inch away from my face to look closely at something isn't as much fun.


imageDarko Macan

My initial reaction was to say that I don't ever want to have to pay for anything on the internet but then I remembered I am already paying $20 a year to read about twenty daily strips on King Features' Daily Ink in a customized format (I could read all of them, but I don't want to) and would pay about the same for Universal's offerings if the same result was more easily achievable and if I could find the way to bypass the automatic subscription renewal.

Thus shaken in my freeloader beliefs, I tried to figure the acceptable (for me) amounts for different types of material and came up with a quarter per manga chapter (maybe 50 cents for Bakuman), not more than a dollar but preferably fifty cents for a really good US comic book, 2 to 3 dollars for the European sized album, and no more than five bucks for a 200 page OGN. First chapters or significant previews should be free. This way I could see myself spend 20-30 bucks a month on sampling stuff and reading comics that I don't really want to keep. Providing the economy doesn't get much worse in which case I revert to the sentiment from my very first sentence.


Jamie Coville

Truth be told, I don't ever see myself buying a digital comic book.

I think the years of really great free webcomics has spoiled me.

When I do buy comics, I buy GNs and I'd rather read them on paper then on a screen.

The elephant in the room is the easy access to pirate scans, those have been available for more than a decade and I don't see them going away anytime soon. I suspect most people who really do want to read comics online have been doing so for free for a long time and trying to get them to pay for them is going to be very difficult to do.

The cynic in me suspect Waid's work, no matter how good it is, will be pirated quickly. Even if it isn't, he's competing against almost everything else in print being online for free. There is more decent free entertainment out there than most people can absorb so I have doubts that super awesome material will bought. I hope I'm wrong though.


Shannon Smith

I don't live in an area of the country where broadband-wi-fi-satelite-tower-whatever access allows me to use cell pad pod phones. Apps and all that nonsense have absolutely no meaning to me. But my family does have multiple computers and a Kindle. We have tried to read digital comics using these devices and we agree that there is not currently a digital comic reading platform that is worth wasting any time on. I've recently took a chance on a few new digital comics offerings thinking that my daughter would enjoy them and they have been very problematic. The bells, whistles, zooms and bonus features just don't even work. Marvel and DC seem to be thinking only of cell pad pod phones with their digital iniatives. We want to read digital comics the same way we read digital books. One page at a time. We already have video games and do not need our comics to be video games. So, at this moment, digital comics is a total bust.

Webcomics I like just fine. I read several daily and I read them at their creator's own sites or in my blog reader. So far so good.

If a digital comics platform were to work for me it would need to be almost exactly like Netflix. I want to subscribe. I don't want individual transactions. I want to watch it on whatever device I happen to be using at that moment including my television. I want my family to be able to use it at the same time I'm using it. I want my daughter to be able to read the latest Life With Archie on her laptop while I scroll through random Marvel Team-Up issues from the 70s on my television. And I want it to cost about what Netflix costs. Whoever pulls that off first has me as a customer for life.


John Platt

What do I want from digital?

1. I want a format that will last forever. I fear that many of the comics being digitized today will not be readable in the not-so-distant future, either because the file formats become archaic or because they were not created at a high enough resolution for future high-definition devices. I just looked at some photographs that I scanned 10 years ago, and while they were fine then, they look like crap now because I scanned them at 72dpi. What happens when we get to the next thing beyond HD?

2. I want 99% of everything digital. Like Tom, I don't want to have to bag, board, box and store all of the comics I buy so someone can be forced to go through them after I expire. Heck, I don't want to do it now while I'm alive.

3. I want compatibility and flexibility. I don't want digital comics in 16 different proprietary readers. I want one format and I probably want the files to reside on my hard drive instead of in the cloud. (I might be dissuaded from this eventually, but I work at home so I don't need cloud storage. If I were more mobile, that might change.) I bought the 2012 New Yorker cartoon-a-day calendar for my Kindle and it looks absolutely awful. It was not designed to be read on a 7-inch screen. And you know what -- it also looks terrible on my big computer monitor. They succeeded in making a cross-platform file, but it fails in every platform.

4. I want all digital comics to be truly digital products. All text should be searchable, as should all images. I should be able to click on something for more information. I should be able to zoom in and out as much as I want. I should be able to look at a page of artwork as published and then, with the click of the mouse, see the original pencils or script. Embrace the qualities you gain when you escape from paper.

5. I should be able to read the story in my own way, not be guided through every panel, one panel at a time. Dark Horse's online format looks nice, but it's a pain in the butt to read. If I want to go back a couple of pages, it takes forever.

6. I want more creators putting their old material back into "print" digitally -- or companies doing it for them. What's that, you can't get the rights to an entire old underground comic (to use one of Tom's examples) by 16 different creators? Find one creator and put out all of his old work. Where are my S. Clay Wilson or Spain Rodriguez or Skip Williamson digital collections?

7. The more enormous the book, the less inclined I am to buy it. IDW's X-9 books (to name just one example) look awesome, but they weight a ton, cost a lot, and will need to be put in boxes and carted around the next time I move. And I foresee myself moving at least three more times in my life. You put all of that effort into digitally restoring that series, so why not sell it to me digitally? But again, sell it to me in a format that I can read and which will be flexible for all eternity.

image8. This is really a stretch idea, but I think we need a secondary market for digital files. Kindle files can be loaned to friends, but not resold. I don't like spending ten bucks or more for a book I'm going to read one time that no one else will read. Printed comics and books are "greener" because they tend to get read multiple times, making the energy spent on their production more environmentally friendly. Plus, printed comics and books and CDs and DVDs have a secondary market, even if it does not support the authors/copyright holders. I just sold some early Walking Dead issues for hundreds of dollars. That's my right with print. That's not my right with digital. What's different? (Well, obviously that's the issue of how easily something can be copied, but piracy is a whole other discussion.)

Can you tell I've been thinking about this lately?


Leigh Walton

To several points in your recent digital groupthink post:

Are you familiar with the Underground/Independent Comix digital archive assembled by Alexander Street Press?

It's priced and marketed to libraries, not individuals, but I believe you can request a trial membership and explore. Your local library may also have purchased a subscription and allow you to login via their account. Or perhaps they can be encouraged to do so!

If you haven't explored it already, do so - come to think of it, maybe talk to "Greg Urquhart" and see if he'd be interested in your analysis, which I think would have some value to them as publicity!


Some Nice Man Named Jim

Hey Tom, saw your piece about digital comics and thought I would chime in.

I started thinking about this a few months ago as I have been looking at a cross country move. As it stands, I have a ton of comics and trades/hardcovers around. Currently, I don't have them organized worth a darn at all, and so if I want to find something (for instance, my son asked about a hard cover of Invincible yesterday), I really have no idea where to look. Figuring out what to take with, what to get rid of, and how to get rid of it is a mess really. Paper is heavy, and takes up a fair amount of space. Is the cost of moving these worth it?

On the other hand, I have myself and two boys, and we all have access to tablets. When I buy a digital comic, its so much nicer as a consumer. I don't have to worry about damage, its easy to find what is being looked for, etc. I am to the point now where just for the space savings alone, I am all digital for monthly books. If its print only, I just don't get it and hope that they catch up. I am not crazy about paying the same amount for it, but as time goes by the "cost" of ownership of a physical item is just higher and I have to factor that in.

I can't say I am 100% happy with how digital comics are set up. I would like the prices to be lower and I stress over the platform lock in. If a company I have spent a lot of money into goes under, where does that leave my investment? What if they don't support a device that I like? I don't think these are items with answers at this point, and that sucks.

If these were answered well, I would likely sell off my entire physical collection and be done with them, then use that money to buy more digital. As it stands, I have too many things I own in print because thats how I first bought it, then it went on sale at some point so I buy it again as its easier to read on digital.

I think it is hard for people that have not really done digital for a while to understand. I grew up reading, and loved physical books. I always poo-pooed ebooks as a waste of time, preferring to have the physical item. But, I ending up buying a kindle for travel as then I had one small device to travel with rather then say two big technical books. As I started to use it over time, I found I never bought physical again. And I ended up getting rid of most of my physical books, just keeping ones that were special in some way. Also, it helped to know that really, Amazon is not going to go under.

That recent company that stopped doing digital comic is concerning. Sure, you can access their content from the website and in existing apps. But, you know the apps won't get maintained. As time goes by, that content is going to be less and less easy to get too to the point where no one will use it anymore or the company thinks they can get away with just shutting down the access all together and save money.

So, I understand why some people don't like digital comics and say they are a bad idea. In a sense I am rolling the dice with this and hoping the companies I buy from will be solid. The only reason I am doing this is because its easier to read this way, and frankly if it was not for digital, I dunno that I would be buying much of anything right now just because I don't want the weight of all these physical items on me anymore.

In the end, its all about the content. I want the content in the easiest way to consume possible, and for me thats digital. With 2000AD now selling DRM free cbrs, that's a REALLY easy choice to make as I don't have to worry about companies going under. Thats really the perfect solution for me as a consumer.

Honestly, something I would be interested in as I am not a serious collector, is what is the best way to sell off a collection and get the most money for it when what you have is really just mainstream stuff that there is not a ton of demand for? It would be slick to have a "trade in" program where I can for instance send a company a stack of "Fables" trades and in return they give me access to the digital items instead. If I could do a 1 to 1 trade of physical to digital I would be all over that.


Iestyn Pettigrew

I continue to believe that the whole model could do with looking at the idea of levels of payment.

You can rent the work for a very small amount, either get it for a number of days or until you have read it all the way to the end.

I think that something that would cost you say 50p (uk money) that you could read but not own, much like the current comixology model.

Then there would be the option to download a PDF or whatever type copy that you can keep digitally, which could be much nearer the physical cost of the item, maybe with this being offered at the end of your rental period with the rental cost knocked off if purchasing at that point.

I sort of equate this to listening to radio, maybe you could even pay to join up to specific archives and they provide channels - like television -- of lied interest items. I think that the chance of finding things you like by stumbling upon them will otherwise be destroyed.

I think it's just too hard to stumble upon good stuff, you have to know about it. If you set up channels then people will be able to associate with the type of content and stumble upon what they like.

Imagine a comics sci-fi channel, or romance or detective etc...

You could have Dalgoda and Finder and such all curated to be similarly interested. You could even have critics choice channels -- you could have one where you choose what comics to make available and people will go, "that Tom Spurgeon is a comic guru to me. I'll try anything he suggests".

posted 7:00 am PST | Permalink

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