The panel at Comic-Con International was provocatively titled "Digital and Print: Friends or Foes?" but there was no blood on the floor at the end of it. Rather, the consensus seemed to be that digital and print are coexisting quite nicely, and several panelists questioned whether it was even worthwhile to make the distinction any more.
JK Parkin of CBR's ROBOT 6 moderated the panel, which included Chris Ross, director of digital at Top Shelf; Joe Field, owner of Flying Colors Comics in Concord, California, former president of the retailer association Comics PRO, and founder of Free Comic Book Day; John D. Roberts, co-founder and CTO of comiXology; Jeff Webber, vice president of e-publishing at IDW; and Mark Waid, writer of "Daredevil" and "The Green Hornet" as well as a vocal proponent of digital comics via his own site, Thrillbent.
That may look like a strongly pro-digital lineup, but in fact everyone had good things to say about both formats. Perhaps that was because, as Field pointed out early in the discussion, both digital and print sales are growing. "In my 27 years in this business, this is probably the closest we have gotten to having all cylinders clicking at the same time," he said. "There are a lot of reasons for that, and I'll grant that digital plays a part in that because digital has created a universality in the availability of comics. Had there been some way to instantly open 10,000 good brick and mortar stores, well located, in places all around the globe, maybe digital wouldn't be growing the way it is."
"Friend or foe? No, we are all friends," Field concluded, "I look forward to that time when a print versus digital panel is something you don't even have to consider, because comics are everywhere and everyone's into them."
Roberts continued that thought, saying, "Digital comics did something that was rather unique in that it allowed people all around the world, especially some people who never had access to comics before because they lived in other countries--"
"Like Mississippi!" Waid broke in. "How many stores are there in Mississippi again? Like, two?"
"Anyone in the world can read a comic anytime, and not just new stuff but being able to discover old stuff as well," Roberts said. "That's kind of what Joe was saying, it's not that print is up or digital is up, comics are up. People are rediscovering comics; a lot of lapsed readers are coming back to comics because of the comiXology platform and digital comics. We made it easy, we made it accessible, and people wanted that so they are coming."
Webber sees digital as a gateway to print, especially for readers who may be fans of a particular franchise more than the comics medium itself. "[Digital] is opening it back up to the casual reader that just says, 'I want to read a comic,' and for us it was 'I didn't know there were Star Trek comics, or Transformers.' There are probably more Transformers fans in the world than comic readers. When you look at these huge brands that sell millions of dollars of movie tickets, we are able to tap into audience that didn't even realize that there were comics based on these things, and they don't necessarily care if they read every issue -- they just want to select and choose and try it out. I think we have opened it back up to that casual audience."
Waid agreed, saying, "There has been an untapped audience out there for a long, long time that hasn't had access, who barely knows comics even exist."
"You can argue some of those people are going into comics shops after they got reintroduced, and they are buying books," Webber said.
"Absolutely," agreed Roberts. "There is a store locator in every single app we have."
Indeed, many readers seem to be buying their comics in both print and digital formats. "That's the history of the entertainment business, to sell the same thing to the same person several different ways," said Field, "whether it's the movie ticket first, then the video, then the box set, and then the super-extended box set, and then download it, whatever, now in Blu-Ray..." He has customers who buy print only but others who buy through his comiXology storefront every month. "It's not a chunk, it's not anything to put a loaf of bread on the table even, but it's something. It's a way to keep them engaged."
While Waid pointed out that each succeeding generation is more comfortable with having its comics, music and other entertainment out there in the cloud, with no physical object to hold on to, the panelists generally agreed that print would always have its place. "I buy 'The Black Beetle' by Francesco Francavilla," Roberts said. "That's a gorgeous book, and that's something that I really appreciate in print, but for some of these things I just want to read it and never have to think about it again."
"[IDW editor] Scott Dunbier just made us swear that we will never ever do the Artists Editions in digital," said Webber, as the oversized deluxe editions would not work well on the iPad.
"I never said that digital could do everything that print could do," Waid said. "I always use Jack Kirby as the example. He was a brilliant artist, he was the greatest comics artist of all time, but he would not be best served on a digital device as we know them now. Bryan Hitch is not best served on a digital device. Bryan Hitch is best served with as much space as you can give him on a page."
"I thin it would be kind of neat to see Jack Kirby on Thrillbent, and see what he could do with it," said Ross.
"He would reinvent it for us," Waid responded. "All the time we ask that question: If you gave this technology to Jack right now, what would he turn it into?"
The panelists also discussed ways to set print comics apart from digital; IDW doesn't include all its variant covers in its digital editions, Webber said, and Ross pointed to Top Shelf's graphic novel "Wizzywig," which was nominated for an Eisner Award for best design, as an example of a deluxe product that looks better in print than digital.
Parkin turned the conversation to Image Comics' recent announcement that they would sell their comics as direct downloads, free of digital rights management (DRM), meaning that readers could store them permanently on their own devices and move them from one device to another without restriction.
Ross spoke of Top Shelf's decision to begin releasing the digital magazine "Double Barrel" without DRM last March. "We thought the whole industry would come crashing down, and we would get hate mail from comiXology, and Amazon would never talk to us again," he said. "It turns out no one said anything. Or noticed. Which was really peculiar -- but nice because I got to keep my job. What we learned from that experience is, having a DRM-free product isn't a value add. What comiXology adds to the table with Guided View is, for the most part, more attractive to consumers than the ability to have a DRM-free file."
Not surprisingly, Roberts agreed. "The comiXology platform is a cloud based system," he said, "and our technology is all moving toward cloud based. I think we are starting to see people shy away from the need to have stacks and stacks of hard drives in their house to store all of these physical files. I have always thought that people may not like DRM, but if you gave them a really convenient product, that kind of outweighed what DRM was. In our cloud-based system, you can download a comic right here, but if you have a PDF file sitting on your computer, you then have to get into iTunes, you have to copy it to your device -- it's not exactly the most user friendly experience.... Guided View is an enhancement, having your library on demand is an enhancement, being able to build these Guided View native style books like 'Thrillbent' and 'Batman '66' and 'Atomic Robo,' being able to experiment with these things, we are able to give our consumer these value added things you are not able to get with just a PDF file."
"We are actually going to put it to the test," Waid said. "My reaction to Image's announcement was, 'Dammit, you beat us by a week.' We already have the machinery in place to start putting a storefront in place for Thrillbent, because comiXology and Comics Plus have been great partners, and there is still room for the cloud based stuff, but there are a number of readers that we have who want a physical copy of stuff, so we are going to put up a DRM-free download, but it won't be seamless because you won't be able to read them through our web page or read them through our app. If you want to get the PDF, you'll to have to download it."
Webber asked the audience (which numbered about 200) how many were concerned about DRM; maybe a dozen raised their hands. "My gut feeling is, it tends to be an inside baseball discussion a lot of times that sometimes gets furthered by media discussions more than individual care, because I think at the same time you have to weigh, well, who are you going to give your credit card information to to buy X product."
"I think also part of DRM-free are these standards like techie sort of things like ePub or enhanced PDFs, because not every device reader can read an enhanced PDF, so you also have issues of localization, etc.," added Ross.
Waid demurred. "Personally, I actually like owning the files," he said. "I'm comfortable enough with cloud-based stuff, but given a preference, I'd rather own the files just because I don't want to be in a situation where I don't have internet connectivity and I suddenly remember that album I wanted to listen to or the comic book I wanted to read and I don't have access to the cloud at that moment. But that's just me. Part of doing this through the [Thrillbent] storefront, it's, let's give it a whirl and see, and we'll feed that data back to everybody."
"It's an interesting experiment, but it's not so much the fact that folks want to own their files," Ross said." It's the format thing. That is really weird to me because there isn't a standardized format for comic books as there is for trade publications."
Later, an audience member asked if there was a software tool that would convert her comics from one format to another, so she could have them on her Kindle, her iPad and her computer. "Yes," answered Roberts. "It's called comiXology." comiXology has made an effort to be on every possible platform, he said, including iOS, Android, Windows 8 tablets and computers. "Hopefully, in the near future, we will go to a ten-foot experience so you can watch it on your TV. I like to say, if you can read and buy comics on a microwave oven, we want to be there. We think the comiXology platform has solved basically what it is you are trying to do, because we give you the ability to take your collection wherever you want to go. And when the next big thing comes out, we're going to go there, too."
Another question that came up during the Q&A period was whether piracy had caused the demise of Tokyopop and whether it threatens the industry as a whole.
"I think it is not only unaffected by piracy, it benefits from pirating," Waid answered. "You cannot stop pirating of comics. It's like trying to push the tide back with a broom. You can either be angry about it, and resistant, and fight and clamp down harder, or you can find ways to make that tool work for you. With Thrillbent, we offered all our files free to download on a weekly basis, so you can read them free on the site and you can also download them for free, and that way, sure enough, we got to control the quality of the image, we got to make sure it was not out of focus or crappy or corrupted files or whatever, we got to make sure there was a placard at the end that says, hey, if you like this come to Thrillbent for more stuff, and that worked wonders for us. And I know that pumped up our traffic. That is not the answer for every publisher, but I will go to my grave not buying the baloney that every pirated comic was a lost sale." When Waid had to leave a few minutes later for another panel; he exited the room saying "Viva piracy!"
The other panelists weren't so sanguine. "You can't stop people from texting and driving, but you should still try," said Webber.
"You can have built-in things that help mitigate it," said Ross, "Like Mark mentioned, the thing at the end where it says, 'Hey, come to Thrillbent.'"
"A large publishers like you or I can't build a business model on that," Webber retorted.
"I appreciate you think Top Shelf is a big publisher on a par with IDW," said Webber. "Do you ever find if you do a pirate search and it's not available, do you think, what, do people not like this book?"
"It does seem like some pirate sites are gone now," said Webber, speculating that, like music, people may respond well if they are given a quality product and a convenient, safe way to buy it.
At the moment, the iPad seems to be that way. " We have people who tell us they bought an iPad specifically to read digital comics," Roberts said. "And then they buy the largest iPad they can get so they can have their entire collection on their device at all times."
"People don't necessarily say, 'I want to play Angry Birds, so I'm going to buy an iPad,'" said Webber. "They buy an iPad and then they discover it. That's what we talked to Apple about; you realize people are going to a store and buying [an iPad] because they want to read comics."
Roberts expects to see a proliferation of Android tablets in the near future: "Every manufacturer except Apple is going to make an entry level device," he said. "As the prices on tablets drop, and everyone has one, you're going to see people migrating away from smartphones to doing everything on a tablet."
Nonetheless, Field expressed his confidence in the print market recently by signing a new lease for his store. "I don't think we are anywhere close to the time where there is going to be any sort of fossilization of print," he said. "What we have is we have so many different pieces of the market -- there's a collector's market, and the collector's market wants to have comics and graphic novels are art objects. 'Wizzywig' is a super cool book. Try to do 'Meanwhile,' by Jason Shiga, on digital. You can't do it. Try 'Building Stories,' by Chris Ware. You can't do it. I think one of the things happening with the print versus digital thing is that print comics artists and publishers are now having to look for ways things that digital can't do in ways that are creative and engaging for readers, and I think that is going to keep the print market alive and healthy."