A lot has changed for comics in the past decade or so, but the most significant change hasn’t been the boom in superhero movies, any major publisher relaunch, or even the new-found attention paid to independent comics. By far the most important development in the recent history of comics is the rise of digital publishing.
While their impact goes much further, the most immediately apparent effect of digital comics so far has been on distribution and readership. Many readers have shifted their weekly pull list from their local specialty shop to a digital storefront like comiXology; and it’s surely a safe bet that many newer readers who get their comics via digital platforms have never even set foot in a comics shop. This has led, quite understandably, to some fear on the part of retailers that digital comics may soon sound the death knell for the LCS altogether.
On the surface, that seems like quite a reasonable thing to expect. After all, if new readers (and there are new readers every day, no matter what you might hear) are comfortable getting their music from iTunes, streaming movies on Netflix, and downloading the latest bestseller to their Kindle, what hope is there that they’ll be willing to start a weekly routine, perhaps miles out of their way, for something they could just as easily download from home for as little as half the price? Makes sense, right?
Yet this logic hasn’t held up in practice. In fact, not only haven’t comics retailers seen a drop in sales in past years, they actually reported significant growth in 2013.
So… what’s up with that? Two things, mainly: First, the culture surrounding comics hasn’t changed very much. Marvel Studios may be rolling in the cash from multi-billion-dollar blockbusters, but by and large, the people who are inclined to seek out comics are still seeking them out in print. Ours is still a community that values collecting, that simply expects that the greater part of your weekly haul of comics will be bagged, boarded, and longboxed for posterity. Retailers may sneer at the speculator bubble of the ‘90s that got them stuck with all those issues of Rai and Youngblood now crowding their discount boxes, but it’s a variation of that same attitude that is now helping to keep their businesses alive, if not quite booming.
The second reason digital comics haven’t yet killed the LCS is similar to the first, but it’s one I want to take a moment to pick apart: A lot of comics fans fear change.
Now, that might sound like I’m putting fans down, but nothing could be further from the truth. At the risk of generalizing, though, I think what I said above is true. And that isn’t a good thing or a bad thing; it’s just something that happens when something we care about starts to look quite a bit different than it used to. When you’re used to something, it’s natural to look askance at it being changed or meddled with. Big Two fans don’t like it when their favorite character is killed off, and comic book fans in general are a little uneasy about the slow but inexorable shift toward digital publishing. For many of these people, the word comics means comic books, and comic books are objects printed on bits of dead tree. I should know; I’m one of those people.
But the idea that digital comics somehow aren’t comics falls apart on closer inspection. Creators can tell the same story in twenty-two digital pages as they can on paper; it makes no real difference. Since the 1990s and even before, a great amount of the production work that goes into comics has been done on computers, and many books on the shelves right now had never even touched paper before going to the printer.
It won’t last forever, of course; digital comics will overtake their print counterparts. It may take longer than with newspapers, magazines, and books, but it will happen. And that is no great loss. Comic books themselves were a new medium once, too – longer compilations of syndicated comic strips already found in newspapers. But in that new format, creators found opportunity, and they went on to forge the history of twentieth-century comics as we know it today.
Now is a great time to be making – and reading – comics, no matter the format you do it in. We don’t need more print comics or more digital comics – we need more good comics. So go read them, and go make them, and try not to worry too much about whether it’s on paper or silicon.