Comic book geeks have never had it so good

Blogs Luke Dormehl 11:45, 11 Sep 2013

There has never been a better time to be a comic book geek, says Luke Dormehl

Comics and high-tech have a lot in common. Both marginalized niche hobbies in the past, the past decade has seen the geekdom associated with each reach a kind of apex of public acceptance.

One only has to witness the kinds of crowds an uber-geek like Kevin Smith draws at expos like MacWorld – or read the recollections of a reporter who took to this year’s Comic-Con International armed with a pair (is it still a pair?) of Google Glass – to realise that there is significant crossover between lovers of four-colour art and the latest gadgetry, too.

Nowhere is this conflation more evident than with the rise of digital comic books. While webcomics have been published since the mid-1990s (http://www.artcomic.com was among the first) and today number at around 50,000, it is in the last few years that digital comic books have truly hit the big time.

While it is far from this writer’s intention to demean the always-excellent likes of Nedroid Fun Times and Zac Gorman’s Misc. Comics, it is the arrival of companies such as comiXology which have truly signalled that the concept of reading sequential art on a computer screen has gone mainstream.

For those unfamiliar with it, comiXology is an easy-to-use cloud-based digital comics platform which offers some 40,000 downloadable single issues and graphic novels from renowned publishers including Marvel, DC, Image, IDW, Dynamite, BOOM! Studios, Oni Press and Top Shelf (in many of these cases as the sole licensed digital distributor).

Founded in 2007 by CEO David Steinberger, John Roberts and Peter Jaffe, and launching its digital app two years later, ComiXology quickly made its impact felt in the industry -- rising to become the highest-grossing application in the Apple App Store by September 2011. As of last month, it had seen 180 million comic downloads during its lifetime.

Despite not being an Apple product, comiXology has the same type of easy-to-use interface as iTunes or the App Store. Perhaps most Jobsian of all (in its intuitive simplicity) is the company’s patented “Guided View” technology, which smoothly guides readers’ eyes as they move from panel to panel: not only providing gorgeous close-ups of the artwork in more granular detail than would normally be possible with a print edition, but also opening up new storytelling possibilities by turning each new panel into a potential cliffhanger. 

COMICS FOR A DIGITAL GENERATION

As part of this article, KnowYourMobile spoke with Dan Humphry, editor of the UK’s acclaimed bi-monthly free comics anthology OFF LIFE (“Comics for A Lost Generation”).

As a person whose life revolves around finding and pushing the hottest indie comic book talents, Humphry was the perfect person to ask about the future of digital comic books -- and the possibility that digital editions might threaten to cannibalise the printed issues he grew up on.

“We do both digital and print editions,” Humphry says. “Print numbers go up a little bit each month, but it’s online where we see the real growth. We produce a tablet edition through the Sequential comic app -- where they’re featured as their free ‘taster’ comic -- as well as a downloadable one in PDF format available through our website have soared.”

Humphry added: “We’re close to two-thirds digital now, with a readership of around 30,000 per issue.”

Even with that being said, Humphry points out that fans still like to pick up issues in print – often contacting him after downloading issues to ask for print editions.

“It’s just a different experience,” he says. “Not necessarily better, but certainly alternative.” With this observation in mind, a number of comic companies are currently engaged in innovative work that treads the line between digital and print.

DC Comics, for instance, is not only digitising its existing archive, but publishing entire new digital comics, which can later be repackaged in print. Its new Batman Beyond series, written by the talented Kyle Higgins, takes the form of tri-weekly digital issues, which are then collected in print as an ongoing 48-page comic book.

Meanwhile, comiXology has demonstrated its intentions to run alongside (rather than replacing) traditional “brick and mortar” comic shops by incorporating its HTML5 retailer digital storefronts, thereby allowing those customers loyal to their local shops to still buy through them and thereby profit from the growing success of comiXology.

FLASH! IT’S A MIRACLE

One other question that is likely to be faced by creators and those working in the comic industry is where digital comics can go from here. It shows a shallow understanding of technology to simply see it as a quantitative change, rather than a qualitative one – or to view it solely in distribution terms.

While there is no doubt that “going digital” can help cut down on print costs, and as noted can influence creators’ storytelling choices – but what other changes might be on the horizon? 

Working at Xerox PARC back in the 1960s and 70s legendary computer scientist Alan Kay envisioned computing as a “meta-medium” that could bring disciplines as varied as writing, composing and painting under one metaphorical roof. What can the codification of comic books do to shake up the medium then?

“There’s some really exciting work that has been done with Flash animation,” says Dan Humphry. “Motion comics are increasingly popular, and can even be seen on the likes of Netflix and LOVEFiLM. Not only can you have comics that move from panel to panel, but there’s also the possibility of incorporating sound effects; perhaps other digital effects like rain -- or even cinematic devices like pans or other camera moves. It’s a great way of combining 2-D imagery with the possibilities offered by computation.”

The question of just how far you can push comic books before they become something else entirely is, of course, one that needs to be asked – and will likely play out as time moves on.

For now, though, there has never been a better time to be a comic reader…

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Hear hear! ComiXology and digital distribution in general has done a lot to break comics out of the direct market rut the industry's been stuck in for years. It's hard to imagine how bad things were for comics in the '90s now.

By the way, the link to OFF LIFE doesn't seem to be working.

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