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Friday in a cloud of electrons

A whole bunch of stuff has been happening to me and to comics and it all seems to be kind of pointing in one particular direction, when I think about it a little.

First of all, there was the recent kerfuffle over scans_daily. If I can go there without opening up the whole can of worms again, I did want to note one thing that struck me about the argument that blew up all over the internet.

Without weighing in on either side, I just want to suggest something about the way I saw that fight play out here and all over other comics news sites. The piracy/not-piracy argument seemed to be based in a fundamental disagreement about what the actual comics reading experience consists of. There are those people who consider that getting a Cliff's Notes, online version of a comic story is close enough to having the actual book that it's detrimental to persuading an audience to purchase and read the comic... and then there are the people who think that's a ridiculous position, the two experiences are in no way comparable; looking at a partial scan is no substitute for reading the real comic book.

What this got me thinking about, in a roundabout way, is what the reading experience itself is morphing into as we get further into the computer age.

The way people read is changing, and publishing is being faced with change-or-die choices to make as a result. Newspapers and magazines are failing right and left, supplanted by blogs and web sites. Many 'brick-and-mortar' bookstores are going out of business, unable to keep up with the ease and convenience offered by online dealers. No longer is it necessary to purchase a book or a magazine if you want something new to read, not with the entire internet at your disposal. More and more, the act of reading is becoming something that's ephemeral, an activity you can do on your laptop or your iPhone whenever you have a couple of minutes to kill.

This is a concept in direct opposition to the origins of comics fandom as a collector's hobby, something that for many years placed so much emphasis on mint condition and unbroken runs and key issues and so on. That's why I think there's a certain disconnect for so many fans with the idea of a digital scan being the same as a real comic.

Here at CSBG we get our review copies digitally, as PDF downloads or as links to scans, for the most part. So I am routinely getting books full-on spoiled for me all the way through, let alone just by seeing a partial scan of a given issue of something. But it's difficult for me to think of these books -- and they often are full books, we get PDF files of entire trade paperbacks sent to us for review -- as the equivalent of actual, printed, paper books. It doesn't affect my purchasing habits in any real way. Except (as many scans_daily supporters pointed out was the case for them) I probably end up buying more stuff than I would otherwise.

I just got one e-mailed to me not too long ago that I rather liked, as a matter of fact. The Pen, scripted by British writer Rob Bray, and illustrated by Randy Valiente, who hails from the Philippines.

It's a nice piece of work, maybe covering overly-familiar ground... it's very much in the tradition of Gotham Central, except instead of regular beat cops having to deal with superpeople, this is set in a penitentiary and shows how a regular warden and guards deal with superpeople. The first four issues are available here, either to read online or as a PDF download.

Now, I don't really want to get into a big review of this particular comic, though I enjoyed it well enough. You don't need me to review it, anyway, it's free. You can just click through the link and see for yourself. The first four-issue arc is available for anyone to download. And to be honest that was what struck me about it.

Think about it. Here are two guys, literally a hemisphere apart, who have put together a nice little graphic novel and got it in front of an audience without having to spend a nickel on printing, or find a publisher to subsidize them. More, I would bet that if either of those things had been necessary -- if Bray and Valiente had chosen to do The Pen as a self-published book and tried to get it in stores, or waited to get a big publisher interested -- then probably the project wouldn't have happened.

Consider for a minute how incredibly difficult it is to get a printed comic book in front of an audience.

I've worked in printing for a number of years and I can tell you that the production costs, even for a little photocopy 5x7 'zine, get very high very quickly. To even approach getting to a competitive price in today's marketplace -- let's say you're planning to charge $3.50 for a standard-sized 32-page black-and-white booklet comic with a full-color cover, which I'd think would be the bare production minimum for an indie comics startup project -- you'd have to sell upwards of three thousand of them just to make it possible to break even. (You're selling them wholesale, remember.) And how many buyers do you have?

One. Diamond.

If everything breaks your way, if you can manage the printing and the shipping and everything else... realistically, in today's comics marketplace you still only have one shot with one buyer. Sell Diamond and maybe they'll list you in the back of the book. If you can't get Diamond on board you're done before you start.

If Diamond agrees to list you, then if you want to spend more money you can buy some additional advertising space in Previews. So then-- after all that -- maybe some of the larger retailers will think about ordering a couple of copies of your book, if you catch their eye and if they have some extra capital and if they're thorough enough that they don't just order from the big four, throw in some special-order customer requests and stop reading the catalog.

If I'm Rob Bray and Randy Valiente, I've got an extra hump to get over-- I have to persuade Diamond, and through them the retailers that read Previews, that The Pen is different enough from other superhero stuff that it's worth taking a chance on, that it's different and interesting enough to grab readers who are already getting this genre in Astro City and The Boys and so on... and that it's got a better shot in the marketplace than Gotham Central, a very similar concept (with added Batman name familiarity) that a corporate entity like DC Comics still couldn't sell enough copies of to keep on the schedule.

If I'm doing all that --and remember, I'm already out thousands of dollars just to print one issue -- how the hell do I manage to hang in there long enough to get through a four-issue arc without going bankrupt? And remember, you better stay on schedule through all this or there are penalties there too.

The most aggravating thing about the entire process for any first-time comics creators? Almost none of it has anything to do with talent or creativity. It's all strictly business, market-driven forces you have no control over.

Sit down and do the math and pretty soon you'll realize that it's a miracle any indie publishers try to do superhero stuff through Previews at all. (But they do, every month... and God love them all for daring to live their dream. I just hope they don't end up homeless over it.)

Look at the number of well-funded publishing ventures that collapsed trying to sell superhero/SF/adventure comics in a marketplace saturated with the stuff. Valiant. CrossGen. First. Eclipse. Comico.

No wonder Bray and Valiente put out The Pen as a digital comic. That way they're just out their labor and the cost of a domain name. There's no comparison.

Or try it another way. I'm a big fan of Marvel Comics, and Spider-Man in particular. Let's say I want to get a copy of every Spider-Man story out there. I can buy trade paperback collections, I can haunt eBay and back issue dealers, I can drop hundreds of dollars on a quest that will take months or years... even just sticking to the Essential Spider-Man reprint books I'm out a pretty fair hunk of dough for all eight volumes, and that only takes me through the late 1970's.

Or I can spend about thirty bucks on the CD-ROM version.

We bought one of these for our nephew a few years ago and he loved it.

Now, I'm not proclaiming this format as being the best way to go. There are a lot of problems with this from where I'm sitting. The standard 7x10 comics page is not really designed to be read on a monitor. There's something fundamentally unsatisfying about the experience, as far as I'm concerned.

On the other hand, my friend Kurt Mitchell has been writing books about the Golden Age DC heroes for a number of years now and the digital option is the only one available to him for his research materials, most of the time. Moreover, Kurt's in a wheelchair and tapping a keyboard to bring up a digital file is quite a bit more convenient for him than getting old comics out of a box on a shelf.

Even a crotchety old coot like me has to admit that the standard 32-page comic book is a really poor delivery system for most modern superhero stories, especially if I want to keep and reread them. And I don't even bag and board my back issues. When you collectors out there want to reread a Batman story from, say, 1983, how many of you are having to deal with something like this?

Let's be honest. Put aside your fan obsessions and your decades-long collector habit for a second and try to look objectively at how most of us experience comics, at the process itself. We read them, we put them in boxes, we stack the boxes.

This is a colossally stupid way to store a library you want to go back to more than once a year.

And yet this is how most of us organize our comics, if we're trying to take care of them and keep them around to be enjoyed in the future.

But take a moment to really think about how damned annoying it can be to get the things out again once they're put away. Honestly now, how many of you are pulling out those back issues to reread? A great many of us put comics in plastic bags and keep them out of the light, so once they're in their stacked boxes they're there to stay.

Maybe you're more about the collecting than the reading. But even as a collection of rarities it's not on display out where it can be admired, we can't even enjoy them on that level.

I am convinced that one of the reasons trade paperbacks are such a hit with the modern comics audience is simply because the stories are so much easier to get at. You buy the book, you read the book, you shelve the book. And then you pull the book off the shelf and reread it whenever you feel like it. Simple. No box, no mylar, no freaking out about condition. (Quick poll-- how many of you have bought trade paperback collections of stories you already owned in single issues? And did you make that purchase so you'd have a 'reading' copy?)

It's been a pretty tempting and easy leap for a great many of us to follow that progression to its logical end and stop buying 32-page booklet comics altogether, in favor of getting the collected paperback versions.

Why the hell not? I'm a book guy anyway. Nowhere am I happier than spending an afternoon burrowing through the stacks at some musty old bookshop or thrift store.

Seriously. When Julie and I go on road trips that's what we do. It's our thing. You don't have to explain to me about the pleasure of finding that one special rarity, of turning up an amazing find in a ridiculously unlikely venue.

I'm right there with you. I completely understand the allure of tracking down a first printing, of having "the original." I am at least as much an admirer of books and comics as artifacts as I am of them as a mechanism for delivering stories.

And I know I'm not the only one. (I believe our own Bill Reed has rhapsodized about the way old comics smell, even.)

Still, traditional monthly comics are so goddamned unwieldy to deal with in bulk that it just hasn't been that traumatic for me to switch to book collections instead of single-issue comics. I've even been letting go of back issues in favor of Essential and Showcase volumes.

However...

...we just got notice that our building's coming down next month and we have to relocate to another apartment in our complex. Nicer place, newly-remodeled, but nevertheless my heart just sank. Because it means packing and moving the books.

Suddenly my library that I've spent years amassing has become "All those goddamn boxes of books we have to hump down the street till we end up in traction."

And that doesn't even take into account our storage unit at U-Haul that's filled with another seventeen cases of books. I own a lot of damn books is what I'm saying.

That despairing assessment of my upcoming backache hit me, as it happens, on the same day that Amazon started leaning on me really, really hard to purchase one of these.

A Kindle. That handheld electronic-book thing, a literary iPod.

Yeah, I'm a book person, an antiquarian bibliophile, a collector. I know a Kindle's just not the same, it doesn't come close to equaling the pleasure of holding a real book in your hands, soulless computer blah blah. I get it. I do.

But I'm also a middle-aged man who walks with a cane and I couldn't help thinking, Man, I bet if I had most of my books stored on one of these things moving would be a snap.

Then there's the cost factor. Kindle books are cheap. On Kindle the complete works of Lovecraft and also of Robert E. Howard retail for a combined total of something like four dollars.

As it happens, I had my first brush with the literary digital age last week. Actor and writer Wil Wheaton, who is something of a Renaissance Man in the world of computer geekdom, self-published a small chapbook of memoirs and excerpts from his other books. This is his custom before going on tour to various comics and SF conventions throughout the summer.

Julie and I saw Mr. Wheaton do a reading at last year's Emerald City Convention and were instant converts, ordering his book Dancing Barefoot (containing the awesome Star Trek reminiscence about "William Fucking Shatner") almost as soon as we got home.

So I was interested in the new one and I like supporting small-press efforts in general anyway, but $13 seemed kind of steep. (I was sure that he probably couldn't feasibly sell it for less, given what I know about the standard printing and bindery costs involved, but... still. That's a chunk of dough for a paperback book less than a hundred pages long.)

However!

He also has made it available as a download for $5.

That was easy. I fired off $5 via online debit and it was on my computer in a couple of minutes. No muss, no fuss.

I own a lot of books that I love and would never give up. But I also own a lot of books that I just like okay, and a fair number that are just "meh." (If I'm honest with myself, I have to admit that it's just stupid for me to hang on to John Gardner's James Bond novels. I don't even like them.)

I suspect the day is coming that my library condenses to a digital format, except for the rarest and most beloved editions of my favorite books. Hell, it was good enough for Mr. Spock. (And hey, even Mr. Spock's library computer wasn't nearly as easy to use as a Kindle. Talk about backaches... clearly, the Federation didn't give a damn about ergonomics.)

No, I'm not there yet. But I have to own up to it. The day is coming. I love my books and I am delighted to have a library in my home... but realistically, there aren't that many books here that I wouldn't be perfectly okay with reading as just digital text files. There are only a few that I'm in love with to the point where the pleasure of simply holding the book is equal to reading the story.

As for movies and the DVD collection? Hell, I'm already there. For a devotee of old TV adventure like myself, discovering Hulu.com essentially doubled our DVD collection. (Seriously... Land of the Giants? And Time Tunnel? And dear God, Night Gallery? It's a miracle I ever get up to leave the office.)

And for the really obscure stuff? Like Logan's Run, the TV series? I can get that as an Amazon download for $1.99 an episode.

Now, would I buy a DVD set of a show like Logan's Run (which is admittedly not good)? No, probably not. But in a fit of nostalgia I might well download one or two, just for the hell of it. I have the option now.

The point I'm trying to make here is that more and more, today we live in an age where almost everything in pop culture is available as an intangible -- as software. Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would live in an era where it was possible to own my favorite TV shows and play them on a personal computer. Or that publishers would be e-mailing me books to review.

So what about comics?

Not there yet.

Part of this is simply that the technology's not quite ready. Graphics are a lot harder to deal with on a computer than text, and by and large everyone trying it is still thinking in terms of a tangible page that then gets converted to a digital piece. As a result, there's a lot of fumbling around with how to present digital comics. The big publishers have experimented a little here and there, but so far the archival packages aren't really setting the world on fire, and I don't think the 'motion comic' is the format we're looking for, either.

So far downloadable comics are largely limited to unwieldy page-at-a-time PDF or JPEG files, and there's nothing out there yet that a Kindle can really deal with. The real digital comics format, I think, has yet to be invented.

The other problem is less easily defined. It's us. The fans.

Nowhere is there a group of hobbyists more set in their ways than comics fans, especially superhero fans. We want our comics just the way they are, thank you very much. No demographic is more resistant to change. We are the people that refused to embrace the graphic novel format until publishers made it the same dimensions as a newsstand comic book.

We pay a higher price per page than any other print format -- more than any other magazine, certainly more than any book -- simply to keep things the same as they were when we were young. Whenever anyone in the comics press suggests that there's no real reason comics have to stay at 32-page booklets that measure seven inches by ten inches, a howling mob arrives to scream bloody murder about what an idiot proposal that is and how wonderful it is to get our stories in 22-page installments once a month. (I know this is true because I've had them bellowing at me and I fully expect a large contingent of them to arrive here shortly after this column goes up.)

Look, I understand. I can't emphasize enough that I feel this way too, I'm just as hidebound and resistant to change as the next fan. In fact, my filthy secret is that all these digital books I get, well....

...I usually print a hard copy and bind it at the printshop where I work most mornings, because it doesn't feel real unless it's an actual book I hold in my hand. I did it with the Wheaton book and I do it with many of the digital comics I'm sent to review. I did it with The Pen. I'm old-school and set in my ways and I will absolutely confess to that.

But that doesn't make me right. It probably makes me stupid. In fact, as I look around the room where I'm typing this and see all these books I have to box up for our move, I'm certain of it.

As a comics fan of forty years' standing, I've seen a lot of publishers flailing around trying to find the Next Big Thing. And a great, great many of them are trying to anticipate what that's going to look like in terms of format. I talked about this in the first column I ever wrote for Comics Should be Good, and it seems we're still wondering about it.

What's the graphic novel going to look like? What are comics becoming?

I still don't know. But I'm more sure than ever before that a great many of them are going to end up as something you download to something that is probably a lot like a Kindle. It's not here yet. But it's coming. The guy that makes the handheld ComicPod, or whatever it is, that's affordable and dependable and easy to use? That guy is going to be rich as Croesus.

And the publishers that figure out how to use that format will dominate the industry. Hell, they might even turn comics into a mass medium again if our hypothetical handheld reader can download comics files interchangeably with regular book files.

What's more, the creators that learn to design their comics for such a device will be creating the same kind of artistic revolution that Will Eisner did when he pioneered the idea of designing the comics page as a single graphic unit instead of as stacked tiers of comic strips.

The third act of comic books -- hell, of all popular entertainment -- has already begun. It'd be nice to think that we're not all so habituated to our longboxes and mylar that we refuse to participate in it.

After all, I started my professional writing career as a magazine columnist in 1992, and it always startles me to realize that after three and a half years at CSBG, the largest single body of work I have in print is right here... at a virtual magazine.

If a hoary old dinosaur like me can be dragged kicking and screaming into the digital revolution, well... anyone can.

See you next week.

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