Thousands of fans and collectors rushed into a comic book store to witness the death of an icon. They had seen it on the news, heard it on the radio, had been told by their friends; Superman was dead. The cover of Superman 75 showed Superman’s torn cape blowing in the wind like a flag at half mast, while his family and friends wept in the background.
On this day in 1992, a single store in Detroit sold nearly 200 000 copies of the monumental issue. The store began to see that they were running out of issues, so they marked the prices up higher and higher. By the end of the day, the issue that had started off at a $1.50 was going for twenty times its original price. This was a common sight in comic book stores across North America.
DC Comics, publisher of Superman, and comic book retailers made around $30 million in one day. This is the third time an American comic book publisher has hit the jackpot. It was also the only upswing for the comic market that year.
It was clear by the end of that same year that the comic market was shrinking. Sales dropped, the collectors cashed out and sent the whole system into what Grant Morrison, a writer at DC Comics, called “a death spiral.”
However, comic book creators see a way out of this tail spin through a new distribution system: the internet.
“I love digital comics. I will always have a heart for paper and a book I can hold, but I have an iPad that is stocked with comics,” says Kelly Sue Deconnick, a new writer for Marvel Comics. “Digital comics” are mainstream print comics that have been scanned and edited to be read on a computer, smartphone or tablet. Deconnick carries at least fifty comics with her at any given time, since those issues weigh no more than her tablet does.
“I have a favourite reader, and I love the ease of downloading. I read most of my comics this way,” she says.
E-comic readers like ComiXology, Graphic.ly, and iVerse are popular on Apple Inc.’s iOS market and Google’s Andriod market, which sell apps for smartphones and tablet computers. According to analysts from PCWorld, the iPad has become the de facto device for reading comics outside of print thanks to its ability to show vibrant colours, as well as a simple lack of competition.
While other publishers like Viz and Dark Horse have a regular release schedule for digital comics, DC and Marvel have been reluctant to approach the new system. For many years, they refused to offer their comics digitally for weeks if not months after they had been released in print. That is until DC Comics decided to take the initiative. Beginning in September all of their comics are available the same day in print and online.
Yet for some people, this isn’t enough. There are complaints of the price of digital comics being too high and that the way comics are edited to fit on a phone or tablet fundamentally change the way comics are read.
“If [comics publishers] want to reach a wide audience, their price has to be two digits, 99 cents. That’s the magic number where it doesn’t feel you’re spending money,” says Cameron Stewart. Stewart is an artist whose work includes a run on Batman and Robin, and his own award-winning webcomic, Sin Titulo. Comics are currently priced at $2.99 and $3.99, depending on size, in print and digital. Stewart believes that the closer you get to five dollars, the more the consumer has to think about what they’re purchasing.
“There is so much on the app store that I bought without any idea if it was good. I bought games, movies, apps, completely on impulse, because it was a dollar or less.”
Ty Templeton, a comic book creator who’s worked for the Marvel and DC Comics for popular series like Justice League International and The Batman Adventures, doesn’t mind either format. He likes web comics and has all of his comics for sale online. Templeton, however, sees a bigger issue with the digital format than the price. He believes that it fundamentally changes the way comics are read.
“A lot of apps show the comic panel by panel, and for a comic that’s like watching a movie in the 80s. You would lose a bit of the left and the right and soon, the movie Seven Brides for Seven Brothers becomes five brides for four brothers. It doesn’t work,” Templeton says.
Apps like ComiXology tend to show comics through individual panels, due to smartphones’ smaller screens. Without this feature, the dialogue and narration become difficult to read.
“I object to the idea that you have to change the shape of the screen to enjoy the content.”
Deconnick, though more positive, says that “digital doesn’t work with the double-page spread.” A double page spread is when an image is spread over two pages. It’s often used for dramatic impact and surprise.
“Because you have to pull out and shrink down to see the full image, and then zoom in to see the detail, it doesn’t have the same power as it does [in print].”
While discussion behind digital comics isn’t exactly unanimous, almost everyone agrees that it’s the way of the future, whether the publishers take initiative or not. Ask any creator if their work is available online and the answer is a resounding yes; though they’ll add that they didn’t have choice in the matter.
In recent years, comics have become victim to rampant piracy. Within an hour of a comic hitting store shelves, it will be on every major peer-to-peer downloading network for free. It’s worse with the international market, as comics from Japan and Europe end up online before they’re even released in North America.
And it works both ways. Dan DiDio, co-publisher for DC Comics, has blamed piracy for weak international sales, since the time difference between countries allows comics to be scanned in the US before the stores open in the rest of the world.
“Here’s what’s going to happen. You’re going to find that the books that don’t sell as much are going to suffer even more. All the variety of content is going to disappear,” says Francis Manapul. Manapul is a critically lauded Canadian artist. His new Flash comic will be one of DC Comics’ first to be immediately converted into digital. “Superman and Batman will always sell, but lesser known characters like Martian Manhunter or Aquaman are going to suffer.”
“Pay for the damn thing,” he quickly adds. “If you can buy a five dollar coffee, you can pay for a two-ninety-nine comic.”
Stewart, however, doesn’t think that piracy is a big deal. He knows that most of his work can be pirated easily, but feels that all media are subject to this, not just comics.
“We’re adopting a new paradigm in which everything is free first and then anyone who wants to support will buy it afterwards,” He takes this belief to heart. Stewart offers his own web comic, Sin Titulo, for free on his website, and then sells a graphic novel version once he finishes enough pages.
“Besides, the only people who are pirating comics are into comics to begin with, they’re more likely to buy a copy than anyone else.”
Despite many of the challenges ahead for comics distribution and sales, there is an overwhelming belief that digital comics and web comics are expanding the medium and the readership.
“I love that young creators who don’t have connections to Joe Quesada [Marvel Comics’ chief creative officer], or don’t have the money to self-publish can still publish online,” says Templeton.
“These days you don’t have to go through the system and talk to a publisher, by gum, an artist could just put it online every week and see if they can build an audience.”
Web comics are a popular phenomenon that has been around for almost as long as the internet itself. Well-known comics like Penny Arcade, XKCD, Questionable Content and Achewood all came from independent artists and writers.
Graham Moogk-Soulis began his comic, PostScript, in his freshman year of university. It ran the student newspaper Imprint and by his second year, he had a website and was posting them online.
“My ultimate goal was always to be in newspaper comics … I would look at my website and say, ‘there’s no career in that,” Moogk-Soulis says with a sheepish grin. “But as I started researching newspaper syndication I realized I was born ten years too late.”
The funnies and other newspaper syndicated comics have had a worse time in the last decade than the rest of the comic book industry. The Village Voice reported in April that most cartoonists need multiple jobs to sustain themselves, as many of them are forced to work for free. As newspapers continue to decline in sales, demand for syndicated comics has as well.
“[Web comics] are still incredibly difficult, you still need a day job or if you’re like me, be a student, to support you,” says Moogk-Soulis. He’s optimistic that someday he’ll be able to make a living out of his comic, and sells prints on his website and at conventions to generate revenue.
Stewart is confident that web comics are the next stage in comic production. He’s willing to bet that Marvel and DC would generate a lot more interest if they had exclusively online series. Not to mention that he thinks focusing on the web will fix many of the glitches found in digital comics.
“Print comics are limited by the amount of ink you can fit on paper, but online you can do whatever you want. If you think about the aesthetic of digital, one panel at a time, you’ll be able to take advantage of it,” he says. There’s a concept in comic design called the “infinite canvas” which implies that on the web, you have literally infinite space to make a story. No need for turning a page at all.
“No matter where this industry goes, I’m sticking with the web. I’m at a stage in my life where I don’t like accumulating stuff,” says Stewart.
Many love saying good bye to dusty basements and garages filled with thirty-year-old periodicals. The iPad can store just as many issues of X-Men and Wonder Woman without all the clutter. Yet, Templeton is quick to remind people that there will always be a place for print comics.
“If you want a first edition copy of the Old Man in the Sea by Ernest Hemingway you’re going to pay a thousand dollars for it while the paperback is out this week for eight-ninety-five and there’s a reason for that,” he says. “Print is a moment in history that you can hold in your hand.”