I know it’s a strange thing to admit, but I like to smell the comics I buy. I don’t go around scratching and sniffing every comic on the racks but when I my get new comics home, the first thing I do is smell them. It’s something I’ve always done since I was kid. There’s a distinct smell to the different paper used over the years, like wines, that age with time. I love to hold old comics as if each issue is a brittle, fragile artifact, falling apart in my hands, a vestige of the Bronze or Silver Age.
The rise of digital comics has made comics accessible to a larger audience with a click of a button, but you don’t need to be a comic purist to know that the tactile experience is lost when you’re forced to read off a digital screen. I can’t hold the digital comic in my hands; I can’t get the sensation of flipping through the pages; nor do I have the ability of seeing a full page layout without zooming in and out. As UTF contributor Jay Deitcher says, “there is more to the experience of comics than reading them, there’s also the hunt, the search to fill your collection. The experience of being part of a community of weirdos who come together on Wednesday. These are experiences you can’t get digitally.” Like Jay and most comic fans, I still have a nostalgic attachment to floppies. I still pursue back issues. I still make a weekly trip to my local store. None of these things are going to change anytime soon. But, I’ve come to accept the fact that whether I like it or not digital comics are the future of the industry. So, I might as well get with the times.
Digital comics have been around in some capacity for decades (remember Fantastic Four on CD ROM?), but the real revolution began with the creation of the Apple Iphone. According to David Steinberg, CEO of Comixology, the world’s largest digital provider, Comixology began as a “Pull list application” for brick and mortar retailers. Once the Iphone was created Comixology began to sell digital. To date, they’ve had over 100 million downloads in a little more than three years. They are currently a top 3 grossing Ipad app. In 2012, they tripled their sales from the previous two years. You would think the emergence of the digital comic medium would hurt the sales of comic stores the way the ebook revolution killed many bookstores, but actually, the opposite is true. Comic shop sales are up significantly from last year.
What are the benefits to digital? For starters, they don’t take up any space. As Jay says, “If I bought all the monthly’s I read I would need a separate apartment to store them all.” Also, you can buy and read them anywhere. DC and Marvel offer promotions, “Digital First,” 99 cent back issue deals, and same day releases at cover price. There are also thousands of free comics and the reader has access to independent companies like Chris Roberson’s Monkey Brain Comics, which you can’t find in your local store. Recently Brian K Vaughn and Marcos Martin, released The Private Eye, a digital only, pay what you will, sci-fi noir, which is ironically about a world where the internet doesn’t exist. I expect this to be popular among creators as a way to self-promote and get around working with the big publishers.
Are digital comics hurting the bag and board culture of collecting? I’m not sure. Is collecting back issues really that different than collecting records? There’s always going to be that niche market. Certain people, myself included, are going to want to be able to hold and smell their comics. As I’ve already mentioned, digital means you miss out on the interaction between fanboys at the comic store. In the words of UTF contributor Chris Heine, “it makes a solitary hobby even more solitary.” I don’t think we can honestly label this era “the digital age,” until the new format offers something original, a new better way to read and experience comics. DC and Marvel can try to add little bells and whistles but it doesn’t make reading digital a more engaging and interactive experience. As Max Delgado, UTF contributor and creator of The Longbox Project so eloquently put it, “We’re at the point where digital comics don’t offer anything new. Just a new way to digest the same old thing. We’ve yet to see the Moby Dick of hyper-text; something where the reader feels, wow, you can’t do this in print. Until that day, I think we have to be honest about the fact that this is just a new type of cigarette, but its all still nicotine.”
So what do you think? Are we entering a new digital age? Let me know your thoughts on the matter in the comments below.