I’ve been trying to avoid writing these large “here’s what Andrew thinks the future is going to be” pieces lately. But the truth is that they’re also what I’m actually writing for the site, so they’re what’s getting posted.
There’s been an argument going on lately about the future of comics, discussing whether the industry is going to stay in print, or move towards digital. But here’s the ultimate truth: After you’ve read a few comics on the iPad it’s pretty clear that the delicate eco-system has kept the US comic industry afloat for the last few decades has been irrevocably shattered, and print is on its way out.
The problem has been that over the last thirty years comics have gone from being cheap pieces of folded newsprint in corner store spinner racks, to expensive pieces of disposable entertainment placed into handcrafted pigeon-holes that line the walls of nerd media game preserves where the delicate pamphlets can remain pristine.
The end of result of this process has been the creation of an ever-shrinking (and aging) audience that demands a blend of nostalgia and psychedelic science-fiction that makes it almost impossible for a mass market audience to connect with until it’s been re-interpreted by a more mainstream media (usually film).
So the dwindling hardcore gets exactly what it wants, but it comes at the cost of the industry being able to grow outside of the markets it’s already in because the keepers of the preserves are terrified of losing their meager audience.
It’s a classic death spiral, and it means that a once thriving industry is becoming more and more dependant on licenses, name talent, and movie deals, with the irony being that the quirky comics characters and stories are generating huge amounts of money in every medium except comics.
To survive in the long-term, the market has to grow beyond the 100,000 or so people who are willing to walk into a comic shop on a weekly basis, and it’s clear that the rise of consumer computing devices like the iPad, the iPhone, and the Netbook are going to provide that opportunity.
Some people complain that digital comics don’t look as “good” as they are in print. But they’re wrong, it’s better. Not only are they cheaper (usually by 30-50%), but the next generation of readers (like Comixology) include directed panel to panel transitions that make the entire experience richer and more dramatic (if occasionally blurry). Where motion comics failed, these enhanced comics really do make me feel like I’m getting more for my money.
But even if it digital comics were worse , it doesn’t really matter. Most fans didn’t care that mp3s sound worse than CDs either. In consumer technology it’s a combination of price and convenience that trumps quality every time.
And the dirty little secret underlying all of this is there’s an invisible majority of comics readers who are already reading comics by downloading scanned content with no legal option for them to make a digital purchase.
So what does a digital future for comics look like? Everybody seems to think the big transition comes when Marvel and DC jump seriously into releasing their comics in digital format at, or close to, print publication dates. It’s already started: IDW (a major second-tier publisher) has already said they will put out every book two weeks after it comes out in the stores. Marvel is also dipping their toe into the water, saying they will release this year’s Iron Man annual simultaneously in both formats.
While getting the big publishers’ content online is important, the new audience that shows up to read comics on their gadgets may not be interested in the same material that’s been sold at the local nerd-mart.
They may want something slightly different than the endless superhero remixes that have been the staple the business for forty years. There’s already a generation out there that grew up reading manga instead of Batman, and it wouldn’t be surprising to me if we discover that their tastes are more Twilight than Avengers.
I love comics. I’ve written comics, and I’m planning to write more. But it’s clear to me that the future is already here, and that over the next half decade this new medium is going to change what comics are in ways that are going to challenge the status quo, and upset the current audience, creators, and publishers.