On Day 2 of Comic-Con, artists, writers and fans contemplate their digital futures

Comics, on a tablet. ()
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It's an old pulp trope, dating back at least to Sherlock Holmes: The death in mysterious circumstances of a beloved character followed by his or her triumphant, and nearly logic-defying, return.

And on Friday, the second day of New York Comic-Con, it was one that many found themselves referring to when talking about the comic book business. Comics have somehow managed to keep vexing the prognosticators who have been foretelling their doom over the last three to four decades, in which the industry has been through two or three boom-bust cycles, each of them transforming the business in different, sometimes subtle and sometimes less subtle ways.

There is little disagreement that the comics industry, like newspapers, music, print, and just about every other portable medium, is hemorrhaging money. The top selling comics are moving a fraction of the number of books they were moving 20 years ago. All kinds of explanations for the change are being propounded, and all of them seem more or less true depending on whom you ask. 

Nevertheless, this year there is an air of optimism on the convention floor, even if many who came see the business and its future in entirely different terms from each other. The last decade, marked by synergies with Hollywood, video game makers and toy companies as well as a "digital revolution" that feels a little more like fits and starts than a linear narrative of development, has culminated in a comics universe in which many different people relate to the universes created by comics writers and artists in different ways.

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More and more, comics are being read on screens like this one, and for many fans, the idea of sitting down with even a sleek collected trade paperback collecting several months of single-issue comics together, has come to seem as quaint as folding a newspaper over for the box scores. Digital comics have been growing steadily in prominence over the past few years and as tablets drop in price the appeal of reading comics digitally has grown. 

Photos by Scott Beale/LaughingSquid.

In a certain sense, comics have been tablet ready for 70 years. The color schemes and panel layouts of comics are visually intuitive in ways that lend themselves to the leisurely finger swiping of iPad reading. You can thumb through digital comics as easily as print ones. For most readers, the adjustment to digital reading is less cumbersome than an e-reader is for people who are used to reading conventional books. 

Comixology, the main distributor of digital comics, is one of New York Comic Con’s biggest exhibitors, and for good reason. The digital comic store is one of the best selling apps on every tablet and just recently marked its 100-millionth download.

There are holdouts of course. 

“I’m old fashioned I guess,” said Ryan Keely, a 29-year-old painter from Minnesota. “I read comics a certain way and it just feels weird to swipe panel by panel. I can’t get into it. I’d rather have the book.” 

But the numbers show Keely is an exception to the rule.

“I made the switch to trade paperbacks years ago," said Jimmy Reyes, 22, of Bayonne, NJ. "I started reading comics on my iPad here and there, and now I read way more on my iPad than I used to. I’m actually reading comics as they come out again—which I basically wasn’t doing any more. I was always waiting for the trade [paperback collection]. Now when a new issue is out I buy it instead of waiting for them to collect it.”  

Part of the retail slowdown has been attributed to the consumer tendency to wait for collections to come out instead of buying individual monthly issues as soon as they came out. The two major publishers—Marvel and DC—recently made the decision to stop "protecting" sales of the monthly print comics and instead releasing the comics on digital platforms the same day, usually for as little as 99 cents. 

Comixology’s ability to make the monthly interesting again through digital distribution has been a big part of the shift.

But as the recording industry and film industry have already learned, widespread digital distribution has its downsides.

Many, many guests at the convention told me (in confidence) that they have made the switch to digital comics, but they don’t pay for them. The rise of the torrent format means that many fans can get digital comics formatted for a tablet the day they’re released—and sometimes even a day or two earlier. One fan told me that he has stopped paying for comics altogether, just as he has with music and cable television. 

The industry has been largely quiet about piracy, in contrast to the record companies and book-publishing companies over the last two decades.

A section of the convention is devoted to the writers, artists and producers of comics, where their tables are set up for fans to get books signed and talk directly with producers about their comics. At Artist’s Alley, as it's called, most producers seemed a bit blasé about the threat of piracy. 

Fred Van Lente, co-founder of Evil Twin Comics and co-author of The Comic Book History of Comics—seemed to regard piracy as a price the industry has to pay for the various benefits digital comics have for the comics medium as a whole. 

“Digital media, tablet media, stuff like that that we’re seeing, it lends itself more to a better diversity of material," he said. 

In addition to making more kinds of comics more available, Van Lente views digital comics as potentially restorative. 

"Part of what made comics popular in the first place around World War II,  what made them what they are, was that they were some of the first consumer goods priced to be available to kids—10 cents, 12 cents—a kid could buy them. Anything that can get comics into the hands of kids, that can get comics to where kids live, is going to be very, very important—and digital comics are a huge part of that.”

Van Lente thinks that piracy may be simply a cost of doing business for the larger producers.

"Well, I wrote a whole comic about piracy!" he said. "Piracy is a very popular way to distribute comics and there’s no stigma to it. A guy walked up here today and bought 40, 50 bucks worth of stuff and said, 'I’ve already read all this stuff on torrents.' It’s like agreeing to pay for a ticket as you’re walking out of the movies."

But he admitted that the burgeoning independent comics scene could be suffering more losses.

"It probably is a problem," he said. "It’s going to squeeze that middle class of artists out. It’s going to put the squeeze on them—but that’s part and parcel of the larger digital economy. It’s just something we have to adjust to."

Piracy is bad for the business. It’s bad for artists. It’s bad. That was what I heard over and over when I spoke to with professionals at the show. But none of them had any illusions about its inevitability or the fact that combating it would be utterly futile. 

But the artists, writers and producers are only one part of the current comics ecosystem. One corner of the comics industry that can ill afford a digital revolution is the retail comic-book store. This section of the comics universe actually experienced a boom when the comics industry realized that specialty shops and hobby shops were going to be their main source of distribution, with their capacity to distill and bring together comics audiences across large geographical regions. Selling in regular newsstands was no longer viable.

I asked Van Lente about Comixology’s impact on the comic book shop, and he said: "Well, there aren’t any record stores anymore—and there’s a reason for that.” 

One indie artist I spoke with said that he thought the endgame for the major comic book companies was to eventually go completely digital and abandon print books and the brick and mortar vendors that sell them altogether. If that’s true—and there’s absolutely no way to know something like that—then there’s a real imperative for your friendly neighborhood comic shop to find some way off the edge of the digital economic cliff.

David Petersen, the creator of the indie hit Mouse Guard, proposed an interesting solution that I’d actually heard from a few other people before Comic-Con. Peterson thinks that the future for retailers is in selling comics that are more "art objects"—high end, lavish coffee table type books that include lots of extra features and DVD-style bonus features. It’s a solution to the quandary that’s begun to play itself out on the convention floor. The polished merchandise and deluxe oversized editions that have edged out the longboxes of yesteryear reflect the change. 

Still, the prospect of the comic shop’s disappearance was a source of disappointment for the convention-goers I spoke with, even if it wasn’t something they found surprising. 

One interesting thing that the diversification of the comic-book industry has done is to create more of a community, groups of people eager to participate in the comics universes the writers and artists are spinning out. 

There was a great deal of enthusiasm for all kinds of things that had nothing to do with comics at all: the TV shows, video games and action figure lines were the draw for a great many people. One person I spoke with at an event for the Mini-Mates toy line said he thought that only about 50 percent of the people at the convention even read comics.

In a conversation with the artist of the Eisner-winning true crime comic Green River Killer, Jonathan Case, I mentioned that the dissolution of the Wednesday afternoon ritual of fans gathering at the comic-book shop when new books are released would be tough on fandom. Where would fans meet and talk about comics? Online forums seemed like a sad replacement to me.

“Well,” Case said. “There’s conventions like this.”

And perhaps that's the soul of this annual event: A concentrated dose of community for fans with multiple ways of participating in the worlds that comics have created.