The Fifth Color | My life in digital, and at the comic store

I work in a comic shop (Metro Entertainment in Santa Barbara, California -- cheap plug!), so to say that I'm wary of digital comics is an understatement. My livelihood depends on people wanting a physical copy of a comic book; if everything went digital, no more retail job. My store happens to work very hard at providing those physical copies of comics in every form we can put under one roof, including the rare opportunity for a deep back-issue selection. I can't say it's very cost effective, but having back issues from decades gone by available to customers has made many people happy and seek out our shop when traveling through California.

Buying comics from an actual person behind the register is a little like talking to a bartender: They know your name and what you like, and they can chit-chat about your woes with the business and give a few words of advice. I know the customer base, so I can provide off-the-cuff information about who's on what book, when a title might be ending or, say, offer to save a Warren Ellis fan a copy of Moon Knight #1. I'm not saying that all this information isn't online, but it's nice to get that personal touch that we secretly crave. From a pile of 50-cent issues for a school art project to a rare copy of Amazing Fantasy #15, physical comics are still needed and wanted.

But for how long?

You see, I also own a tablet, despite my teeth-grinding reluctance. Mark Waid sold me on one a couple of years ago at a WonderCon as he pitched his Infinity Comics ideas to a curious and intrigued public. There are some things you can do in digital that can't be done in print, and the possibilities for an evolved artform are still being tried and tested. Having digital copies does help fill in holes in a collection, as Diamond Comic Distributors shipping isn't all it's cracked up to be. It can also be a form of instant reference (and much better embedded images!) for this very column.

As 2014 is here and we look to the year (or years) ahead, is the comic world changing with this new medium? Are we looking at a more digital world and will long times fans adapt to the format?

At this point, it's still a personal preference full of pros and cons. Digital comics provide an instant access to your books on Wednesday morning or whenever the whim strikes you. You want The Superior Spider-Man #5 at 2 a.m.? You got it! No comic shop in your location, or are you stuck at home under winter's brutal thumb? Break out the eggnog and head online.

On the other hand, comic shops -- I speak of good ones here; we all have horror stories about bad retail service, so just assume I'm talking about the best possible scenario -- can help you figure out what Thor issues to get. Do you want the God of Thunder trade or some Walt Simonson stories? What was that one issue you got as a kid, and do they make a reprint of that? There are some comic questions that need to be solved in person, and instead of fighting through online forums or asking unanswered questions to reviewers, you could go into a shop and speak to someone in person. Comic shops are like technical support, and sometimes that personal connection can make all the difference.

On the other hand, sometimes that physical copy just doesn't arrive at the store. Shipping delays, human error, being out of print -- there are plenty of reasons why it happens, but the result is the same: You want an issue, and it's not there in your hot little hand. Digital solves this for the most part; not everything has been digitized just yet, so there's older stuff that will still be a find but more and more comics are going online (and legally, I want to make clear).

Marvel Unlimited is a big library of comics that gets better every day as far as content and accessibility, and the faster publishers got on board with making new titles available through platforms like comiXology, the faster we acquired an online history. Now, the easiest counterpoint to this would be monetary appreciation and the fact that digital comics will never be sold at a higher cost than they were bought at. No one's going to come to comiXology with a tablet and demand their Superman #75 be worth more than what they got it for. But collector's aside, let's talk about another kind of appreciation: lending a comic to a friend or loved one. Ever want to recommend a comic to someone, so you just hand them the issue or trade out of your collection? My house is a mine field of books placed strategically near chairs, just to provide me with the opportunity to say, "Oh, hey, have you read that yet? Check it out!" Then again, I'm a proselytizer for good comics, and I know not everyone is as generous with their collections, but there is something to be said for being able to try out a book on a friend's recommendation or to flip through an issue at your leisure to see if it's worth adding to your library (but don't read the whole issue in the store, we're not a library).

Then again, there's something about the digital market that doesn't seem like real money, does it? It's why micro-transactions in games are so quick, easy and profitable. Sales and discounts are more regular and generally more deep; I picked up Empowered Vols. 1-7 plus extras for $30 bucks from Dark Horse Online knowing full well that my store couldn't offer that kind of deep discount. If you get a hankering to see what all the fuss is about Hawkeye, you're just a couple of clicks away from having every issue right at hand. Online purchases can lead someone to impulse buy or just try something new they wouldn't pick up in person. However, when you do have a physical object in your hand, you'll spend more time with it. Whether that's bagging, boarding, filing or flipping through idly on a cold winter day, physical comics stay with you in a way digital comics can't. You can easily read from one comic to the next and back again with little more than a few pages flips. You can spread them all out on the floor and really take in the storyline. Those old issues of Deathmate Black can become an ironic sort of decoupage for a present or diorama about '90s comic excess. There's just a lot more to do with a physical comic than the couple button click interaction of digital comics.

Whether the art is better between either is based on personal preference. Some like the clearer and crisper feel of digital art, some still have a harder time following the flow of the story onscreen. Artwork, for the most part, is designed to fit the physical medium, and everyone from editors to letterers work with the finished printed page in mind. Therefore, where your eye falls on a page is just going to be different than where your eye falls on screen. There's a disconnect there that we as fans and they as publishers are figuring out.

There's still a long way to go until comics are as comfortable digitally as they are physically. The middle ground, in the meantime, isn't a bad place to be. Marvel's digital codes not only offer a way to lend comics to people over long distances, but ease you into your own digital collection without feeling like you spent a bunch of money. Heck, even stores get a little kickback from using up those codes, so it's all good and getting better as publishers and fans fine-tune for their needs. Could the rise of digital comics solve our numbering woes once and for all? Looking into the new year, it's clear the medium of comic books are evolving from what they were 10, even five, years ago, and digital might just be the mutation the genre needs. Just don't stop loving your local comic shops, please?

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