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Digital vs. Print Comics: How Long Can They Co-Exist?

There is this perceived battle between digital comics and print comics, one that I have believed in as much as the next person, but a new batch of industry numbers may undermine the notion that these two factions can’t co-exist… at least for now.

According to ICv2, the comic industry brought in $750 million in 2012, a 13% increase from last year’s tally.

While single comic books are up from $300 million in 2011 to $345 million in 2012, graphic novels are actually down a touch; bringing in $335 million in 2012 versus $340 million in 2011. The digital market, though, had the biggest gains in terms of percentage, tripling from $25 million in 2011 to $75 million in 2012.

So, what does this tell us? Well, so called “gimmicks” like the New 52 and Marvel Now have been commercially successful and the relationship between Hollywood and comic books continues to be mutually beneficial, inspiring blockbusters that help to both draw in new readers and reignite the dimmed blaze of dormant collectors.

This also tells us that the digital market is becoming too big to ignore with a 10% share of the overall market in a year that saw the creation of Mark Waid’s Thrillbent.com, the continued growth of digital stores like the ComiXology app (which just surpassed 180 million downloads), and Marvel’s fuller commitment to free digital codes in their print books.

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Are we at the dawn of digital’s own “Golden Age”? Quite possibly, but it doesn’t mean that paper books are suffering because of it.

Here’s Mr. Waid, one of comicdom’s most prolific writers, telling us why digital and print co-exist:

I’m not surprised in the least that digital hasn’t destroyed brick-and-mortar–they seem to serve, as a rule, two different audiences. There will always be print fetishists (myself included, frankly) who want to visit comics shops, but digital gives access to that 60-70% of the country without easy access to a good store–and 24 hours a day, to boot. At Thrillbent, we’ve found that our site drives new readers further into the medium–and whether that’s digital or print, either is a win.

Now, in the past, I have failed to give much traction to the notion that there will always be people who prefer print, or at least, that their numbers would somehow slow the inevitable sea change and the digital takeover. “People like vinyl records too”, I reasoned, but they are a small minority that resist digital music, and they are sadly failing to keep record shops open.

Why would comic shops be any different? Well… because.

I mean, yes, the demographics are probably a bit different, but it boils down to this unyielding love for the history of paper that the masses can’t resist. I assume vinyl fans have a similar love, but I also assume that it is more widespread with paper comic fans because they’ve never known another delivery system (whereas vinyl fans have seen their numbers dwindle while fighting off the separate cassette and compact disc revolutions). So, comic shops are different… because.

The question is, is that sustainable?

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Unmistakably, an actual comic book is a better gateway drug than a PDF or a digital comic. Magic exists, and it is palpable in the pulp of a page.

You can’t deny that digital takes a few of our senses out of the experience. I can hear a page turn, I can smell the paper, and there is a more natural appreciation of the art. I know this, because I chose to quit on those sensations in the name of convenience, and I don’t mean the convenience that Mark Waid was talking about.

I am fortunate enough to have about 6 comic book shops in a 15 mile radius. Of those, I frequented 3. One was for my basics, one was for indie books (which the first shop did not have in abundance), and one is so close, that I could walk there.

In terms of finding comics, that is all pretty damn convenient, but in the way that we often do, I wanted more. I love waking up on Wednesday mornings, flipping open my tablet, and finishing my comic shopping in about 5 minutes. That’s the extreme level of convenience that I favor, but beyond that, digital also allows me to more conveniently find this honeypot of indie comics right there at my finger tips. There are so many books that I would have never known about had I not embraced digital — Theremin from Monkeybrain, Moth City from Waid’s Thrillbent service, and a few of the submit books from ComiXology’s nascent, truly indie “submit” section.

I feel like I have a brave new world in front of me when I open up my tablet, and it is thrilling in a way that overwhelms the pull of those past sensations.

With that said, though, there aren’t just people who have decided that they are 100% committed to print and people that are 100% dedicated to digital. There are a plenty of people who straddle the line (and a later revelation may reveal me to be more like that then wholly digital), and they will continue to do so; but while that is a fine arrangement for digital, it may be more frightening for brick and mortar shops, because those customers can be so easily alienated or seduced to simply buy that weeks books online, and then that week’s books, and then the week after that, and so on until they have to be moved to a different column.

Those are the customers that brick and mortars need to constantly appeal to, they are the ones that they can never afford to lose, and in that pursuit, they do have some advantages.

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For one thing, it is so very annoying that one cannot simply pass a digital book to a friend when talking to them about a specific book as one easily can with paper. That is becoming less of a concern, though, thanks to DRM free books like Brian K. Vaughan and Marcos Martin’s The Private Eye and Image Comics decision to sell books on their site that are DRM free.

That’s a swipe against, well, the swipery that is piracy, but while DRM free can be a game changer for the industry, it can also be a nudge at the back of those fans that are waiting to jump because they view sharing as a huge part of comic culture.

Collectibles are another part of comic culture, and that is one thing that will never be serviced by digital. You can’t frame a digital book, you can’t show it off, and you will never be able to bring a digital comic to a convention so that the writer or artist or colorist (cause after a year that saw the mainstream rise of Matt Hollingsworth and Jordie Bellaire, don’t tell me colorist’s aren’t worthy of rockstar status) can sign them.

When I read a book that hits me, one that is a classic in my mind, or something I want to hold on to, I still buy a paper copy, and I doubt that I am alone.

Shops can’t survive on the love of part timers, though, and they can’t persevere as a service station for the occasional paper connoisseur or as a repository for four color antiquities, though. They have to be more and they have to be something that they aren’t right now in an effort to get expatriates back into the shop and to keep others from straying.

Luckily, they have a little help.

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Marvel’s free digital codes are a love note to both shops (as is the stubborn refusal of many publishers to lower new digital comic prices to a more reasonable level that is line with their reduced overhead and production costs, but that is a discussion for another day) and customers who would rather live in both worlds. Were DC, Image, IDW, and Dark Horse to do the same, it would be a huge win for comic shops and customers who don’t want to chose.

Besides that, comic book fans often like other comic book relevant and related merchandise.

I still go to my shop in search of action figures and other collectibles, but while that is still a magnet, they also take up a ton of room and there is a cost commitment that can paralyze a small business if they get over their head with that merchandise because the profit margins are small and consumer tastes are fickle.

With all that said, though, I’d love to see more shops open themselves up to becoming an online vendor or a go-between. Be the one who can get your customers those obscure action figures and collectibles from Diamond. Have a crisp and appealing webspace and something in your store to show off products that you can get. Also, undercut online sellers whenever you can because you’re chief goal is to get people in your store and hope that your merchandising does the rest.

That’s another thing: comic shops need to learn about merchandising and marketing.

I don’t live a terribly exciting life, so a favorite pastime of mine involves going on long car rides with my friends to see comic shops (usually, I’m the designated window shopper). In the last two years, I would estimate that I have visited more than 75 comic shops in New Jersey, New York (city, state, and Long Island), Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Virginia. When you do this, you see great shops, good shops, and a ton of shitty ones.

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The fact is, some people have no business running a comic book shop. I know we’re supposed to be endlessly supportive of all comic shops, but it’s true. For some, it’s a dream, for others it’s a clubhouse, but for all of them, it should be something they take very seriously while realizing that they need to constantly be on the lookout for ways to do it better.

I’ve been in very well known shops that have food wrappers on top of merchandise you can’t get to because cardboard boxes and other impediments are in the way. I’ve seen tiny shops that are packed to the point where it makes it uncomfortable to shop, cavernous stores that have no merchandise, and stores that have painfully outdated merchandise with unrealistic prices.

I’ve also seen clean and shopable stores with reasonable prices and accessible clerks that don’t seem put upon. Places that are ingenious, a little weird, and a lot adventurous in the ways that they try to hook a customer. Shops that court new and old customers via social media and a web presence, using podcasts and YouTube videos to entertain and grow a bond between retailer and customer that will never exist with digital.

Right now,the comic book business is good, or at least as good as it has been in awhile. Digital is pawing at the door, but that doesn’t need to be a bad thing.

It is one of the oldest rules of business: give the customer something that the competition cannot. If comic shops dedicate themselves to that, if they are smart, continue to get industry support, and if they have a bit of luck, we’ll still be hearing about the inevitable death of paper comics 10 years from now and 10 years after that.

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The Author

Jason Tabrys

Jason Tabrys

In a white knuckled fury, Jason just deleted the bio he's been using for years so he can rap at you and come correct.

His name is Bing Bong, he's an archer and such. Also, he occasionally writes for Screen Invasion, Comic Book Resources, Screen Rant, Nerdbastards and elsewhere.
Jason is really getting used to this whole "referring to himself in the third person thing."