Sunday, January 04, 2009

Catching Up With Comics, Digital Style

I've confessed to my secret of being a comic book geek before. What I have not confessed previously is that I am a lapsed comic book geek: the last time I bought a comic was more than 5 years ago, and that was for a set of Green Arrow's, autographed by one of my idols, Kevin Smith (yes, THAT Kevin Smith: he's not just a director; he also occasionally dabbles in comic book writing...brilliantly). But other than that, the last time I seriously stepped foot in a comics store and snapped up a dozen titles was well over a decade ago.

Why? It was a combination of factors: the costs of the books were skyrocketing, the storylines were getting stale, the spinoffs on top of spinoffs were diluting the character base...the list goes on. There was a time that my month was not complete without happily dropping $20-$30 on a stack of issues, and greedily consuming them. But the biggest reason I stopped was the physical nature: I already had boxes and boxes of comics, lovingly bagged and preserved, and I was tired of the volume of space they took up. I still have the boxes of them all, and I'm sure they are quite the collection; I actually inventoried them years ago, and was impressed. But that was it.

Then came the renaissance of comic book movies. I was hooked again. I started to get that old feeling, but couldn't overcome my paper problem. I looked for a digital solution, and Marvel Comics gave me one: Marvel Digital Comics. Not just scanned, these were the original pages, put up by Marvel, and each panel encoded in such a way that the screen would not just put up a whole page, but allow you to move, panel by panel, through the whole issue, in just the manner you would read the actual book. This holiday, Lani and Pete thoughtfully gave me an annual subscription, and I dove in to the collection of over 5000 Marvel titles.

After a week of delightful immersion, here are my impressions:

The Good:
  • Great selection of titles, with both limited and regular series available, from the last 30 years.
  • The viewer is smooth, and powerful, with almost no glitches.
  • Thoughtfully, you can move to the next issue in a series as you read them, rather than having to go back to the site and select the next.
  • The ability to browse the catalog and create a "must-read" list is incredibly helpful. Though it would be nice if it took it off you list once you read a title from your list.
  • Good search capability, and nice options for reading and zooming.
  • Incredibly good quality. Forget crappy paper and over saturated colors; this is pristine.
The Bad:

Comics are, by definition, epics. There are seminal events in comics that have ramifications throughout multiple series. Frequently, you will find references to these events, and you are lost if you haven't been keeping up. In the physical world, the comic publishers bind these key event in a trade paperback for about $20 and release them, so you can have a one stop locale to catch up, but this is non-existent in these digital comics.

Most of these events are natural contractions. It's a familiar problem in comic books to introduce dozens, if not hundreds, of characters for short runs to serve a specific storyline. To do this, they need a standard mechanism: after all, it's kinda hard to keep recycling the "alien comes to earth" or "bitten by a radioactive ," or "scientific accident gone wrong." In the DC Universe, this was always done with the old "alternate Earth" explanation; in Marvel, it's Mutants, which started with the X-Men. Over time, these characters grow so numerous, and both the audience and the readers tire of the same explanations, it becomes obvious there needs to be a major pruning done. DC did this in the early 1990's with the Crisis on Infinite Earths storyline, which wiped out dozens of superfluous and unneeded characters. In Marvel, they did the same in the last decade with a storyline called House of M, nicely encapsulated in an 8 part minseries.

Yet how did I find this out? Well, it started with my friend Charles trying to catch me up on the doings in the comic world with a short 10 minute synopsis. My head spinning, I turned to Marvel Digital Comics. Now, this being one of the premier events in the last decade, don't you think they might make an effort to guide readers to it? Or the Civil War storyline, which influenced the last scene of the recent Iron Man movie? Or the death of Captain America, which even the venerable New York Times covered? Or World War Hulk? Or the "Illuminati," which forces all comic readers to re-evaluate 30 years of comic book storylines? The list goes on, but none of that is offered by Marvel. Instead, I was forced to scour Wikipedia for the clues to what books to read, and what issues, in hopes of piecing these major storylines together. Bottom line: this is a great service, well worth the price of the subscription, but it is unnecessarily daunting for the casual comic reader or, in my case, the lapsed one. Give me a guide, folks; point me in the right direction.

As advertising revenue declines, and economic pressures rise, this medium faces an upcoming crisis. Digital comics are a great counter to that: they cost far less to produce, offer a rich experience that's akin to the traditional one, and can be counted on for subscription revenue that does not have to be shared with specialty retailers. By adding guides for the "newbies," they can easily go beyond the hardcore comics nerds, and appeal to those same people gladly shelling out hard cash for movie tickets to The Incredible Hulk, or picking up the special edition DVD of Iron Man.

I'd love to see three innovations to make this really take off:

1. DC Comics, get with the program. You already offer PDF previews; move into the digitized world and start capitalizing on Batman, Watchmen and Superman movie popularity with this new medium.

2. With the explosion of smartphones, let's see this medium expand to the handheld. The big screens and powerful graphics capabilities of today's iPhones, Blackberries, and Windows Mobile devices are ideally suited to display panel-based stories. Plus, reading them on the go is where people love to consume smaller, quicker printed media. Japan already does this regularly with manga; let's see it hit the small screen.

3. Digitize your compendia of graphic novels that are really collections of major storylines, and offer them. Want to charge an extra buck or two for them? Ok, you've got it. But the key is to realize that you put these on the shelf of Barnes & Noble to attract the casual reader; tap into that same vein online. And yes, point people to them.

The experience of digital comics is definitely a breath of fresh air for me, and has rekindled my fascination for these modern day myths. I would just like to see it flourish, and, with a few small, but important steps, it can go from an experiment to a whole new online revolution. Imagine being able to post the latest digital cover to your Facebook account, with a comment reviewing it, and letting your friends be able to discover it. Much like MP3's made the whole iPod/iPhone revolution, just think what this media could do for both online and handhelds.

Ok, back to hunting through old issues. The Avengers were disbanded? There are only 198 mutants left? Iron Fist is now Daredevil? Whew, I have a lot more to catch up on!

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