Digital Comics. Is there such a thing, or is it just "Comics?"
The comics news sites seem to be abuzz that 2012 will be a make-or-break year for digital delivery. Some going so far as to suggest the make or break will be for the industry as a whole (well we've been hearing that one for a while now).
There are two interesting reads lately that spell things out. The first is found at Savage Critic, a lengthy and thoughtful dissemination by Brian Hibbs. This primarily takes a retailers' point of view, though I have to say that personally I rarely find retailers espousing anything remotely resembling logic on the subject of their industry. I don't hold that against Hibbs, tho, as he raises several strong concerns about the increasing move to digital distribution. I don't even agree with some of his conclusions, but I respect anyone in his position that is actually thinking and communicating about it in a helpful way. He's not entirely alone, and these steadfast (and smart) businessmen are the ones who can survive.
The second comes from a creator, an Op-Ed over at The Beat by Dave Castelnuovo. In my opinion he's right on the ball here, much more so that I've heard from many a retailer or publisher who are intent to keep the blinders on. There is a new generation of content generators who are embracing digital distribution for one sole purpose: get content to readers that is not only sustainable, but profitable.
Form factor is a terribly hard argument to win on either side. I love printed comics, but comics on an iPad look pretty damn sweet. Comics on Kindle, not so much. There are wonderful advantages and nitpicky drawbacks on both sides. It's hard to look past the technology of the now, but surely if we're in the midst of a Star Trek era of portable devices, the future can only get better. Lighter, thinner, sturdier, tactile. Cheaper. When that price point finds the sweet spot, content providers better be fucking ready or they'll be left in the dust. You think that's happening now? Just wait.
What it comes down to for me has less to do with the creators and the retailers than it does with the publishers whose bloated ways seem to barely grasp the potential on all fronts. This is doubly hampered by publishers' desires to not only reach their audience and hopefully expand it, but contradictorily bow to pressures imposed by physical distribution and retailer angst. By publishers I'm only really inferring the big two, DC and Marvel, as for all intents their stock is the stock and trade of comics retailers. Should one of them choose to grab the future's brass ring and jump into the digital deep end entirely, it effectively puts at least 85% of comics retailers out of business over night. I wish they would do that and get it over with, cruel as it sounds. But for now neither of them have the insight, means, nor the balls to do so.
Publishers seem to be missing the win-win. They have an immense catalog that can be cheaply ported to digital and sold again. There's even some double dipping potential with not only a new audience but an old one who has quit previously and of course the existing one that wants to move to a new format. On the physical distribution side, there's no need to stop. Floppies, yes, there are dozens of reasons to stop the equally dozens of mediocre titles that come out week after week. But prestige titles, original graphic novels, omnibi, Absolute editions, etc., they can all still be the draw in the shops and Amazon. Think about it. Would you really miss a Batman comic every week, if you got the equivalent via digital? Maybe... but what if throughout the year an original Batman graphic novel by some kick-ass team came out that was just dying to be read in that groovy page-flipping format? It can be offered digital, too, but there will be a stronger market for it on both sides. The largest obstacle here is one that Hibbs nails, in that again it's the publishers who can't seem to market themselves in a way to make them accessible.
One last note on something that alot of people seem to refuse to consider. Perhaps 2012 does mark the end of comics distribution in a retail environment, and that's okay. At least, on a national, readily available scale (which is pushing it as it is). There are never ending tales of comics stores struggling, there have been for years and years. If it's done, it's done. A physical retail location will suddenly become much more rare, but it will be for those who's passion remains. This for both customers and owners. That's the way it has to be for any niche market. And here we are on the cusp of printed comics becoming just that-- niche.
As an extreme example, ask yourself where you can go buy a horse-drawn carriage. Sure everyone loves cars, anyone can get a car. But you want a carriage, with all it's history, tangibility, and craftsmanship. And you know what? You can get one. Sure it may cost more and be harder to find, but when you do find one it will have been made by people who are just like you. And there will be fellow customers who are like you as well, and that's a community you will be glad to belong to. Most people cannot be bothered with this. Most people could care less about the demise of the mass-market carriage building industry that came along with the onslaught of the automobile. And that's why most people have a car, likely including yourself.