In my initial early-adopter enthusiasm about Apple’s new iPad, I may have said some intemperate things about the future of the comic-book industry because of new distribution and readership opportunities presented by this type of emerging digital platform. My co-worker Beth-Ann suggested that since we’re both comic book readers, we should take the opportunity to ask some of the comic-book store owners in the area what they thought about the issue, and if they had any concerns, hopes, or expectations about digital comic reading.
I had a conversation with Sarah Titus, the new owner of The Comic Book Shop in North Wilmington, and Beth-Ann spoke with Joe Murray, owner of Captain Blue Hen Comics, about what they thought the actual impact of this type of technology might be on their businesses. They both had a number of interesting observations–first, importantly, they are both not worried.
Sarah noted that since comic books are an artistic expression that is very diverse, it’s entirely possible that some will not come across very well on the new platform–digital comics are very bright and “pop,” while there are many comic book artist who deal in subtle shading, line, and tone. She said some artists may embrace digital publication and adapt their work to its constraints and advantages (such as being linear, highly dynamic, and cinematic), while others will prefer the benefits of traditional print.
Joe, who frequently lectures on comics, said, “The iPad can be a useful teaching tool. The ability to zoom in on a panel can show how the artist positioned the scene to lead your eye to the next panel.” He demonstrated this using the iPad and an issue of Red Hulk. Joe also cautioned, “When you read a comic on the iPad as a single panel at a time, you don’t see the whole relationship between the panels and lose a little bit of the big picture.” For more information on the magic of comic panels, Joe suggested reading Scott McCloud’s excellent book Understanding Comics.
As business owners, both Sarah and Joe are interested in the increased awareness that backlist, niche, and independent comics will gain from being digitally distributed. In many cases, first issues of less well-known titles and artists are available for free with some e-reader applications, such as the nice one from Comixology. There’s little doubt that people who wouldn’t normally have taken the risk in buying an unknown new series will be happy to try it for free online. If they like what they see, they could very well go off to their local comic book store and buy an issue, as long as the store is aware of what is hot online and makes sure to bring those titles in.
Finally, Joe noted, “We are a nation of collectors. Twenty-five thousand comics on an iPad don’t look any different than two. For collectors, the physical still has value.” Both Joe and Sarah talked about how for a lot of readers, physical ownership and collection is as important a part of the comic experience as reading the title. “It’s always good to have a comic in your hand,” Sarah said (and one customer, overhearing our conversation, called out, “Don’t forget about the smell!”). Readers get a lot of enjoyment from going back over their collections, filling in gaps, and revisiting old favorites.
When we were done talking about comics in the age of the iPad, Joe and Sarah went back to doing what comic store owners always do—recommending titles that their customers haven’t tried. Coincidentally (or is it a conspiracy?), they both recommended the same series, called Fables. I can’t wait to check one of the trade collections out of the library. As noted above, there’s every chance that if I like it as much as I like Hellblazer, Buffy, and Unwritten, I won’t be able to wait for the collected editions and will pick up the comic every month from the store! We’ll see if Beth-Ann suffers a similar fate and has to add Fables to her pull-list, which currently includes X-Factor, Witchblade, and Batgirl.