Alternate Cover: can digital comics work?

James returns from a house move, fresh from humping umpteen back issues of comics around. And it set him thinking...

Is the future digital?

Part of the reason there’s been no column the last two weeks is because I’ve been moving house. Part of that process also means the inevitable moment where I have to make sure all of my comics are in boxes, and transport them. The ridiculously tiring nature of this boxing, stacking and hauling activity led me, as it always does, to the conclusion that I probably have more comics than I reasonably need. Which leads me to the dilemma every rabid comics reader will one day face, possibly many times over his or her lifetime. I have to decide which comics to get rid of.

It’s a difficult process, and the only way I can approach it is to additively evaluate my collection. Uncanny X-Men and X-Men stay. Those two series form the cornerstone of my comics-fandom, and they’re the only ones I’ve bought every month since I entered the hobby. That’s two long boxes worth of issues. Then there’s all my X-Men peripheral titles, which is another, even larger box. And there are the Hulk and Fantastic Four runs that still rank as some of my favourite issues of all time stay. We’re now getting towards six boxes deep and I haven’t even touched non-Marvel stuff, or graphic novels, or any of the other boxes I’ve filed according to some bizarre logic I invented solely to give myself a good reason to file Daredevil and Ms. Marvel comics alongside one another because they fit in a box neatly.

The thing is, I don’t often re-read these comics, but there’s nostalgia attached to each issue, and a genuine wish to keep these stories available to read again when the time comes. The amount of space they take up is an unfortunate side-effect. Which, naturally, leads me to mentally reopen that aging discussion point – just how important is the physical aspect of comics?

It took some getting used to, but these days I’m largely of the opinion that CDs are a rare luxury purchase rather than a weekly endeavour, and that’s because I can simply pay to download music tracks instead, safe in the knowledge I’m not damning myself to storing a plastic disc for, potentially, the rest of my life. Similarly, then, one has to question just how necessary the physical medium of a comic is, and whether I could bring myself to give it up  in exchange for the return of my floorspace.

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Now, like many modern Internet-users, I’ve downloaded a comic or two in my time. I’ve read web-comics, and even a full graphic novel that was published on the web prior to being printed, and I’m fairly convinced that these days, technology is ready to take over from the printed page, in terms of aesthetics, if not necessarily economics.

Portability is an issue, but I’d expect that most readers, like me, only read comics in a small number of places anyway. Personally, I read them either at home or on public transport on my way home from buying them. If I could download the week’s new issues, they’d be accessible in every place I’d want to read them.

Unfortunately (for this column, as much as the industry) there’s no easy answer. The solution I can come up with for making monthlies work in a digital format is to devise a hybridised system, where comics publishers charge for each new issue to download, then release a collected TPB at the end, effectively digitising the hardcore direct market while catering to casual readers and collectors. TPBs, after all, take up less space than single issues and cost less. As I understand it, only reason comics rarely go straight to TPB is because, on a basic level, the production of the story is funded by the immediate profit from single-issue sales – without those, the story wouldn’t get finished enough to be collected as a TPB. It’s unlikely to happen, but it’s not a solution I’ve seen proposed before. Unfortunately, the people losing out here are the retailers, who in the event of any digitisation movement will quickly find themselves running out of single issues of comics to sell.

Still, even if I could get every new comic in the future through some kind of download service, I’m still left with a tonne of boxes full of comics. In the long term, the only way I can even consider getting rid of most of the comics I own is if back-issues start being released in a downloadable format that can then be archived locally (Marvel Digital Comics, for example, is close, but hampered by online-dependency.) In the short term? I guess I’ll have to find a bigger house…

James writes Alternate Cover every Monday at Den Of Geek. His previous, pre-house move column can be found here