Two tales of the comics shop

Christopher Butcher has a nice reminiscence of how he discovered comics that shows up both the advantage the newsstand had and its fatal shortcoming. Little Christopher spotted The Transformers #3 in his local convenience store:

I loved Transformers, and didn’t realize that there were comics. I knew that there WERE such things as comics, I’d see them in the Beckers’ convenience store across the street from my house, but I wasn’t really interested ... I asked (probably demanded) that my mom get it for me, that there are TRANSFORMERS ADVENTURES NOT ON TV AND LOOK IT ALSO HAS SPIDER-MAN IN IT THAT’S CRAZY. She relented.

But when he went back to the store, he learned that, unlike TV, the comics industry doesn't churn out a new episode every day, and he would have to wait a month for the next comic -- which, when it came in, was Issue 5. Which was equally awesome, but ... what about Issue 4? I remember this problem — specifically, I remember when comics went from being mostly self-contained in a single issue to four-issue arcs, and suddenly it mattered what the number on the cover was. Here's the thing about newsstands: They were everywhere, and you had the serendipity of just running across a comic you never knew existed, but because distribution wasn't consistent (and neither were trips to the drugstore), you never knew if you would be able to get the next issue. Chris' story has a happy ending (spoiler): His parents discovered a local comics shop and got the missing issues, and now grown-up Chris runs one.

On the other side of the coin, David Brothers writes about how he has gradually given up his Wednesday visits to the comics shop for reasons of both quality and space.

Now he buys most of his comics digitally, a month after they come out so he won't have to pay full cover price, and he finds that has changed the way he consumes comics: "I just get to read what I like, write about it if the spirit moves me, and enjoy things at my own speed."

The one comic he buys in print is 2000 AD, and despite the fact that he gets it in a comics shop, he has the same problem Chris had with The Transformers all those years ago:

So, the funny thing about buying 2000 AD in print is that Diamond, the biggest comics distributor in the country, is borderline worthless when it comes to 2000 AD. I started with prog 1765 (they call them progs, roll with me here, it’s not that weird) and picked up prog 2012, an anniversary issue, and progs 1766 and 1767 around the same time or a week later. Cool, right? It’s a solid start. But I’m looking at my stack now and I’ve got 1765-1767, 1768-1772, 1774, 1775, 1777, and 1778. See the gaps? I picked up 1775 before I got 1774, too, and a few other issues came out of order. According to an email I got this week, progs 1779-1781 all came out this week.

2000 AD is a weekly serial, so it's very weird that Diamond can't deliver it as such, even if it does come from the U.K. A delay would be fine, but dropping issues? That's not cool. Ironically, if David were to buy it digitally, he could get each issue the week it comes out, in DRM-free format, too.

Both of these articles are interesting in a looking-over-the-shoulder sort of way, and retailers should be very concerned about the shift in David's buying habits, but they point up something else as well: Comics are a serial medium, like television soap operas, but unlike the soaps, they don't have a convenient and consistent distribution system. When they were on newsstands, they weren't consistent; now they are in comics shops, they aren't convenient (for most people), and they sometimes aren't consistent either. And for a serial medium, that can be a serious problem.

Viewed in this context, digital comics are the logical way to distribute monthly issues. Each consecutive issue is served up on time, no one can buy the last copy before you get to it, and you don't have to drive across town to get it. Plus digital offers an efficient way to store and arrange your comics. There are plenty of reasons why people still go to a brick-and-mortar comics shop and buy a paper comic, but for those who aren't attached to the physical aspects, or don't have a store nearby, digital is a more efficient solution that sidesteps the flaws of both channels of physical distribution.

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