Concentric Circles by Jonathan Hickman #1 – Digital Comics

February 13, 2008

Over the ledge we go…

I’m Jonathan Hickman, comic creator and now a brand new columnist for iFanboy… once again; I’ve snuck in the back door.

Okay, what to expect so as to avoid disappointment:

  • I’ll be skipping around quite a bit, but I’ll try to stay within the topics of comics, the surrounding community and craft – but no promises.
  • I’ve agreed to do a new column every two weeks, so expect it then.
  • I may from time-to-time diverge into talk of the beautiful game. Now, I would never pick soccer because it’s the richest, most diverse, or unassailably, the most popular game on the planet – that would be elitist. Instead, I choose footy because it is the most egalitarian and democratic – I try to be nothing if not all things to all people.

And now, we move on to a topic because as my coach once said to me: “Son, possession without penetration is masturbation… and once again, you’re playing with yourself out there.�?

So forward: Digital Comics.

First of all, I won’t try to address end-user devices, non-traditional revenue streams, DRM/copy protection or even comics as intellectual property. This is about content, actual end product… the comic itself.

So… how are comics in the digital sphere? Pretty lame. I don’t want to linger on this because it’s not only been well documented, but frankly, anyone can sit back and find faults with emerging technology; hopefully, we’re all more interested in solutions. So very quickly some of the big hang-ups:

  • If there’s one lesson that iTunes should have quickly taught the marketplace, pay-to-rent (streamed content) will almost always lose in direct competition with pay-to-own (downloads).
  • Late release of a product hurts demand for said product. People go to the comic store every Wednesday like clockwork for a reason.
  • Most of us learned in pre-school about the dysfunctional square peg/round hole relationship. Vertical comics (the standard 10.5 x 6.875) simply don’t fit on a horizontal screen. At all. It’s the same thing as trying to project a movie onto a circular-shaped screen. It’s either reduced or cropped. If the original monitor design for the first GUI PC at Xerox PARC had been widely adopted, maybe we wouldn’t have this problem – but it wasn’t, so we do.

So is anyone getting things right? Of course. I like the hint of database work that Marvel is doing. Searching by character, series, title, writer or artist – this is a good start. Zuda is built for the screen – which is nice. Pullbox gets multi-format downloading right. Tim Daniel gets the ‘free comic as marketing tool’ right at Hidden Robot. I’m sure there are others that also occasionally hit the target, but the goal should be precision as well as accuracy.

How do we get better?

First and foremost, we have to build for the medium. At some point everyone is going to have to accept the fact that as society progressively becomes more digital, it certainly looks like widescreen will win. Your TV, your desktop, your laptop and even your phone all seem to be coalescing towards a standardized horizontal aspect ratio. And the biggest problem emerging from that: To be successful, do we now have to continually create product for two different markets?

Depends. Are physical comics fading away?

I certainly hope not. I love print. I love the weight and texture of a good paper, I love the way you can tell where something was printed by how the book smells, I love the word Heidelberg – but I gotta’ tell you, I was watching Danny Boyle’s latest, Sunshine, the other night, and it pretty much cemented the visual reason why I’m dead set on digital as a primary format.

Creating images by pressing ink onto paper is inferior to painting with light.

You simply could not recreate some of the beautiful visuals from that movie in a book – Paper lacks luminance. You would also be able to eliminate the massive inconsistencies in between the screen and the press, the lag time between completion, publication and delivery and last, but not least, printing costs.

Which is essentially the democratization of comics – everyone is now a publisher and all that’s lacking is a delivery model, a shift in comic book layout and an acceptable reader (and we’re now officially creeping into areas I said I wouldn’t discuss). But let me add one final problem before I actually get to my real point: If those three things are the end-all-be-all of digital comic publishing, inevitably, Jeff Bezos will own us all. And hey, that might not be a bad thing, but I think there’s more opportunity here than what’s been presented…

Which brings me to my actual point and the primary reason why I’m excited about digital content: Immersion or Super-Continuity.

In mainstream comics, people have been complaining about the burden of continuity for years, and for most of that time it’s been a valid beef. However, in a digital environment, this is not only going to change, it’s going to be completely inverted – and many industry creators don’t get this. As we move towards having a completely digital inventory of a particular comic, most of the arguments against a sprawling 20-year storyline become invalid.

People crave immersive digital entertainment. They want an experience that they can be completely consumed with – fans want community. But in order to achieve that, you can’t bait-and-switch your customers every three years. All of the deaths and resurrections, the ret-cons, the complete disregard for what the previous creators did on the series – all of this – devalues your product because the end-user can now easily access glaring inconsistencies especially when, as Marvel has done, a backend database has been attached with a host of search and sort functionality. It’s the difference between telling a story and building a world, and true escapism doesn’t last for only ten minutes.

The big companies are going to have to make some changes to enjoy their traditional ‘comic-book’ success in the emerging digital arena: variable formatting, instituting super-editorial philosophies, placing moratoriums on killing characters, moving as far towards character-based stories as possible, and having longer-term commitments from writers on projects. Even then, I’m guessing they are going to be forced to have major reboots when the lights come on.

But what about the little guys, the individual creators, and the smaller publishers – how will they fare?

They’ll thrive – but that’s for next time.

If you’ve got comments or questions, post ‘em here or send me an email at  (but no attachments, people!)

Jonathan Hickman is the creator behind The Nightly News and Pax Romana as well as the forthcoming books Transhuman, A Red Mass for Mars, and PLUS! You can find him online at either or


  1. a-mazing. i couldn’t agree more, with every point. i’m a big supporter of digital comics. do you think marvel and dc do anything to squash the development of the digital comic delivery device? i mean, the democratization of comics is essentially bad for their business isn’t it? democracy doesn’t make them more money, so why would they support it?

  2. Oh, sweet. I love your art so much man. That logo is intense! (also, the column is great) but that logo!

  3. Great column.  Look forward to reading this every couple of weeks.

  4. Questions:

    1) You state that going digital will democratize comics. I’m not so sure that’s the best solution – or, at least, the outcome we can realistically expect if the industry adopts a plausible, profitable digital model. In its most basic form, comic books are an affordable luxury. For just a few bucks, I can go down to my LCS and find out what Spidey is up to this week. But if I didn’t have a computer, how are digital comics supposed to work democratically? The steps and costs between someone without a computer and a comic book are few and slim. The steps between someone without a computer and digital comics, however, are many and extensive. I know more and more people own and can effectively navigate a computer and the Internet, but I might be extra sensitive because I live in a city surrounded by largely rural areas where (even in the city) the average household income is astonishingly low. I see that, in your argument, going digital deomcratizes comics from a creator/publisher standpoint, but obviously, if you do not have readers/consumers, you’re going out of business either way. (Wait, was there a question? Oh, okay…) How do you see comics working digitally for the growth/future of the medium considering the consumer side?

    2) So, who do you support? I support Newcastle, but for mostly arbitrary reasons, Mark Knopfler being chief among those.

  5. Great column, but I for one don’t think I’ll ever switch to digital. Probably small-minded on my part, but I just can’t abide reading a comic book on a screen – same way I can’t see downloading a pdf of a novel and reading it on a screen. I need weight, I need volume.

    And ‘super-continuity’? Jesus f’ me!!!!

  6. i wanted to respond to aaronjscott’s post. there’s one thing you should understand when you start saying things like "you’re going out of business either way". if marvel or dc, etc, went entirely digital, they could make the same dough with a small fraction of the readers, because the printing costs are the biggest expense on the part of the publisher.

    on a side note, i sort of expect the monthlies going digital and the book store market becoming even more successful and important.

    thats my two cents, for what its worth.

  7. great colum, looking foward to more.

     As for the world of digital comics I’m not against it. Heck if anything it’ll make more space in my house. I suppose the only thing REALLY stopping me from going into it full hall is two things.

     A) I can never stare at a computer screen for more then an hour or two before my eyes start to hurt (I know many people that have this problem) which is something I hae a problem with only because I enjoy reading chunks of comics in one sitting (sometimes over hours and hours) but as screens get better my hope is this will be null in void in time.

    B) My other worry is having a computer crash and losing everything, my hope is that you would be able to (like iTunes) transfer it to a CD or something once I buy them (Note: Not sure if I can do this with the Marvel line, I’m not using it, so if it is possible them I’m a doof and never mind).

     NO questions there but great article.

  8. I think 2000AD in the UK are blazing the trail for digital comics. Already you can download the comic 1 week after the physical release for a reasonable price. They’ve listened to fans and upped the resoloution and are considering a .cbr version as well as .pdf.

    As far as i can tell, weekly floppies and comic book shops are on the way out. In a couple of years it will be weekly downloads only and then physical trade collections bought online or via the big bookstores.

    With computer screens becoming bigger & tablets on the way at some point, I don’t see the physical orientation of comics being such an issue down the line.





  9. @nickmaynard – DC and especially Marvel are now in the intellectual property business. They already compete on a playing field much larger than the direct market. They’ll be fine with it.


    @sixgun and @azcbguy – Thanks, guys!

  10. @aaronjscott – 1. I live in a fairly rural area as well. I still have cable and if I didn’t have cable I could get satellite. Digital is digital, so getting comics won’t be a problem… as a matter of fact, it would be easier. 2. AC Milan if I had to choose, but generally I just want to watch good games.


    @Dan – I Loooooove print. I hope it never goes away, but at some point this becomes an economic question.

  11. Nice column Mr. Hickman.  I think you’ve raised some excellent points. 

    I’m really excited that you’ll be writing a bi-weekly column here.  I love your work.

  12. @Jurassicalien – A.) That’s because they’re low resolution (72 dpi) – at some point someone is going to make a high-resolution reader and then you (and I) will be fine. B.) Digital archiving is going to become a huge thing soon… I wouldn’t worry about it.


    @Marbles – Saw the 2000AD stuff yesterday. We’ll se how it works out.

  13. Mr. Hickman,

     First I’d like to say that I’m a great admirer of the way you’re experimenting with the medium.  Pax Romana is utterly fascinating.  I read the first issue of Nightly News but didn’t continue because I wasn’t down with the message I believed the story was trying to send.  I’ve re-evaluated, partially due to a comment by Josh telling me I got the wrong impression, and I’ll be picking up the trade.

     As for digital comics, I’m all for it, and some of the points you’ve made are things I’ve never even thought about before, but what are some good ones?  Where do I find them?  Is there a database or some central source that can give me information about them?  It’s like going to Best Buy and scouring the anime selection; how do I know what’s good and what’s not?  How do I even know where to begin?

  14. @nickmaynard – DC and especially Marvel are now in the intellectual property business. They already compete on a playing field much larger than the direct market. They’ll be fine with it.

    that is definitely true but also a little worrisome. do you think marvel is going to shift its focus and become more about the movies and less about the comics? will they still have the freedom to do major shake-ups like civil war or will the company squash stories like that, in order to preserve the value of the property?

    or is that a whole different conversation?

  15. The idea of "Super-Continuity" is intriguing. But I feel sometimes continuity can be a bit of an albatross. Utility aside, not sure if Marvel’s database is any better than Wikipedia.

    I am on board for everything concerning digital comics. Except for actually reading them in their current format. Comics do not translate well to a monitor screen. It’s actually a bit painful. Many of the digital readers, while good for text, are ill suited for comics in their current format. We will be waiting quite a long time for technology to become affordable and good, I think.

  16. nickmaynard:

     I think Marvel at least realizes that very little that they do to the characters in the comics will affect the intellectual property, as long as the characters aren’t doing anything too controversial.  I’m thinking this movie cash cow is something that will not always be there.

  17. I love the idea of digital comics. I doubt I will ever stop buying phisical comics though. There is just something about having the phisical books.

     I download comics though to get back issues that I would probably never be able to find at a price I can afford. I also like to have them as an archive. I don’t mind going back and reading a book I have already read in digital form so that I don’t have to dig through my collection and find what I’m looking for. It’s much easier to search through my computer than my closet.

  18. Please don’t talk about soccer. 

  19. Excellent column. I’ve often thought about the screen size and aspect ratio, but I really do like your comments about painting with light. I hadn’t really considered that in my thinking about digital comics.

    Also: love the points about super-continuity. That’s something that’s been on my mind for some time. The way you can link to other content instantly. I believe that’s not only a huge key to digital comics, but it’s also going to greatly affect HOW we write stories. And I don’t mean things as simple as a hyperlink instead of an editor’s note, but that deeply immersive experience where we can actually choose which stories to follow or what we’d like to know more about. The bastard child of "Choose Your Own Adventure books and Pop-up Videos.

    I think we’re going to see some interesting experiments in storytelling structure in the next 10 years. And it’s likely going to come from digital comics.

  20. Great article, Mr. Hickman. For those of us who live in rural areas, without an LCS, the iTunes model seems like an ideal one. Being able to download content when and where I’d like seems like a stellar idea. How about an RSS feed that delivers my comics when they’re published? How badass would that be? It’s unfortunate that the comic industry, like the music industry, is too busy worrying about people jacking thier traditional content to realize that people will consume digital content… if there are a minimum of hoops to jump through. Super-Continuity? You just blew my mind.

  21. Just a quick note here as it’s a busy day at work, but great article Mr. Hickman, welcome to ifanboy.  The Nightly News was fantastic, and I’m already enjoying Pax Romana, Heck I even like the Living Mummy story you did in the Legion of Monsters stuff. 

     So, again welcome to ifanboy, the ifanbase is certainly happy to have you.

     Oh and go TFC! (that’s the Toronto football club folks.  Best stadium in the MLS)

  22. The article makes an excellent arguments for the possiblities of digital comics, but the comic book store is the only damn retailer I enjoy visiting in the physical form.  I love browsing the shelves and bumping into other regulars who go get their weekly fix at the exact same time as me every week.  I love the colors, sounds, and yes, even smells that go along with comic stores.  I just can’t imagine reading comics digitally will be anywhere near as satisfying as holding a book, reading and flipping the pages, and then bagging them for future mister sizzle spawn.  Keep mine inky.  


  23. Love the column.  I’m honestly ready to bid adieu to the singles, but I hope that print for OGNs and Trades never go away. 


    I haven’t gotten into digital content at all, but I think it would be really cool to be able to link different issues and stuff to content within a comic.  Like if there was an editor note saying to check out the U-Foes appearance in Avengers 156, have that linked.  Or even linking to characters profiles and stuff.  Some really interesting content ideas that could help out continuity, I think. I could even read X-men!

  24. Though I can agree that initially reading a comic online might be terribly awkward, after some adjustment (like reading Manga from right to left) it works just fine.

    I’ve read 100’s of CBR formatted comics, and they work fine for me.

    I think the comic industry has to learn to adopt the ‘try before you buy’ concept, which Marvel is doing with their online comics, as you can read part of a comic BEFORE you decide if it is worth it.

    Of the 100’s of CBR comics I’ve read, I’ve bought lots of single issues and trades (of the ones I’ve already read) because they were worth the investment for future re-reads or just to ensure that the medium / story continues.

  25. I think the comic industry has adopted all sorts of "try before you buy" options.  There’s free stuff all over Image and Vertigo, as well as lots of other indies.

  26. @Ultimatehoratio – Yeah, Nightly News is mostly dark, dark satire – don’t take it a face value. Also, I don’t really think that anyone is ‘doing it right’… which was my main point – I don’t think we’re there yet, but it’s worth getting excited about.


    @Nickmaynard – It’s not just movies, it’s toys, games, marketing rights… Think of the comic companies as a completely separate R&D division. And yes, it’s a totally different conversation : )


    @Labor – Again, screen problems are because of low resolution and I don’t think you’re going to have to wait as long as you think.

  27. @daccampo – Exactly! Exciting time to be a comic creator.


    @JimFromLima – Yes! Good stuff.


    @Ulitimatehoratio – Asking me to not talk soccer is like saying, “Don’t breathe.” And speaking of…


    @CAM – Thanks and I loved the first game where Dichio scored and everyone threw their seatcushions – that was amazing looking on TV! You guys are doing it right… Rumor is you might be getting Craig Bellamy.

  28. @Mistersizzle – great comic shops aren’t going anywhere and neither are really nice collected editions, trades and OGNs. The economic model is different.


    @Ratenef – Digital as marketing tool has a good chance of being the ‘bridge’

  29. RE: Dichio’s goal

    One of those seat cushions was my buddys, and I was forced to give him mine cause…well…I threw his on the pitch in the first place. 🙂

    Still why would you need a seat cushion anyways? should be standing and singing (to the tune of jesus christ superstar) T-O-R-O-N-T-OoooOOOOooo TFC. (clap clap clap.)

  30. @CAM – did you go to any of the youth WC games?

  31. Mr. Hickman, first off thank you so much for contributing to iFanboy. I picked up Nightly News as soon as I read the solicit and I’ve got to say you’ve more than exceeded my expectations (the same goes for Pax Romana). As a lover of media criticism AND Roman History, you can now do no wrong in my eyes. I agree with your points about digital comics, especially with the illuminated panels. I think it would add an entirely different level to the medium, in fact i think your particular art could look amazing digitally. But you forgot to touch on the portability of a comic book. I don’t think digital comics have a chance to succeed until a light weight and inexpensive portable reader can be created. I also like the idea of storing my comics digitally rather than keep bulking long boxes that i never break open gathering dust in my basement. Anyway, i look forward to future columns and keep up the extraordinary work!


  32. I did see one friendly game with Canada v Argentina before the tourney started, and while it was a good competitive game, when it came down to it we were clearly outclassed.  I didn’t make it to any of the actual youth WC games but the city sure was abuzz. 

    Toronto’s multiculturalism really pays off when it comes to soccer, no matter who wins there’s almost always an awesome party to be had.

  33. by the way, the under 20 world cup games were AMAZING here in Ottawa. I couldn’t believe the atmosphere! I went to the Germany world cup and while it wasn’t anywhere near that level of insanity, i was impressed by the soccer fans north of the border

  34. @CAM – That’s how the World Cup was in the US – honestly, North America is amazing for events like those because of our melt-y-pot-ness

    @mikegraham6 – Ditto to above.

  35. Continuity? Sing it, brothah… That was awesome and great. Loved reading it, and while I don’t think comics will ever go entirely digital (just like prose will never go entirely digital) I do agree that there is a lot to gain from digital comics.

    Great stuff. Can’t wait for more from you!

  36. Awesome article man. I’m with you, I love having physical comics. The feel of the paper, being able to take them anywhere, etc, etc are all among the things that make comics great. I’m all for digital content however, as long as it adds to the overall experiance of reading your comics, instead of flat out replacing them.

  37. My future dream is a digital comics world where issues are cheap individually and you just buy works you love in nicer collected volumes.

    But yeah, I’d love the ability to amass a digital sort of archive of comics. If the companies would make some sort of playlist system and give digital comics meta-tagging that could link me to previous stories that are related directly I think I would collapse in joy. Or something slightly less hyperbolic.

    One step at a time I suppose.

  38. Marry me?

     Very intriguing stuff. It’s a big issue in comics, and you appear to have shined light on all aspects of it. Very well done. Can’t wait to read everything else you bring to the table.

  39. Sony’s reader is so sexy, it really is like reading print, very easy on the eyes. Good stuff all around.

  40. Sixgun: What model are you speaking about?

  41. Great column, looking forward to many more! How would "luminance" on a digital comic translate to the printed page? Would a remastering or refinishing be required before going to print in a collected edition?

  42. great column. i have to agree that the printed page cannot replicate the ‘luminance’ aspect of the computer but they are two completly different mediums. i work for a printing company and we are always telling the client that the color you get on the computer will not match the one on the printed page. it just can’t, that’s why we print proofs. so i think the comics have to be made for the medium in mind and judged on there own merrit. the only equalizer i see in this is the new digital ink that amazon is useing for there reader. i heard its quite a close aproximation to the printed page. but then you have the issue of size… which maters… so i’m told.

  43. Jonathan:  soccer talk is fine as long as you don’t go all elitist on us and tell those of us who aren’t interested in it that we are boors. 

     The introduction of the Kindle brings up a lot of interesting possibilities.  I don’t think the sales numbers for American comics could ever merit the production of a digital reader made especially for comics, but perhaps they’ll be made compatible with a portable hi-def media reader at some point in the future.  I’m not so much for reading comics on a computer screen, but if you can fix it where I can read them on the toilet, then, well, I’m in.

  44. Wow, cool article.  This is something that has been rumbling through the industry for sometime, and obviously, there’s no clear cut answer.  I know many support the digital format and I can understand that paper may not be able to convey a certain luminance, but for me, comics are such a multi-sensory experience.  The pictures leap into your eyes, the paper slips between your fingers and tickles your nose hairs.  There’s just something so great about printed materials.  And yes, I can understand that from a business perspective, it may be cheaper to go all digital.

    But what happens when these digital comics try to get collected in hard bound form?  Aren’t creators limiting their market more by making comics expressly for digital collection?  There will be a part of their fan base that will not move into the digital front (which could be inaccurate depending on how digital comics are conveyed…).  I would assume that as a business they would want to hit the widest array of people to buy their product.  From my viewpoint, doing an all digital format for any sort of comic would narrow who buys it, not open the market. 

    And "Super Continuity"…I think I just heard Ron’s heart die from the thought of it. 🙂

  45. @ultimatehoratio  Try  Every week on the Around Comics podcast Jeremy W. Mullins details his favorite webcomics.  While personally I’m not into the ‘funny pages’ comic strip format, there are tons of more traditional comics out there.  I’m reading "Templar, Arizona" and "Sin Titulo".

  46. I agree, we’re going to see comics going digital.  Here’s my thoughts… 

    a) What we will need is a third party to come in and sort it out possibly an outsider.  See Marvel and DC are both going to offer their own take on it, and like the record industry it’s going to be crippled and DRM’d.  A Marvel comics digital reader will use different software than a DC one, and neither will succeed.  The industry needs an Apple to enter the field with a solution that both major companies and the indies sign on for.

    b) A really good comics / books reader needs to be in the market.  I buy a lot of the Marvel DVDs with entire runs of a title.  They’re great, but reading them on my Macbook is cumbersome.  I want something thin and handheld that can be taken places where a laptop won’t.  Remember the iPod drives iTunes sales as much as iTunes drives iPod sales. 

    c) I completely agree with the Super-Continuity idea.  Imagine reading Secret Invasion and seeing a reference to the first appearance of the Skrulls in the Fantastic Four.  Click a link and blam your eComic device / computer downloads that issue of FF for you charging you for the purchase.  Then the long continuity becomes a revenue driver and nobody is hindered by the continuity because it’s all backstory.  We don’t refuse to make new friends because they’ve got thirty years of backstory, "Well if I don’t know what happened to him in grade three I’ll never understand him", and thus if we have an easy (and cost effective) way of finding out about past events in a comic’s run then we shouldn’t be afraid of reading new titles.  (Wikipedia is actually doing a great job with this now).

    d) Arsenal’s going to trash AC Milan in the Champions League.  Sorry.

  47. hey, it’s great to see you writing here, and I’m looking forward to reading your upcoming works as well as columns. My only wish is that they somehow could’ve conceived a plausible story for Sunshine that matched the stunning beauty of the visual components. In any case, thanks!

  48. @Jazzlawyer You’re right about needed a third party to create the technology, I think.  The problem then becomes — are comics worth enough money for that third party to come up with a device?  Probably not, but maybe something that isn’t meant for comics but ends up working for comics is the answer.  And it’s definitely not coming from Marvel or DC.

  49. This was a good read made me think. I would definitely like to hear what you (Jonathan) and/or the ifanboys think about the piracy aspect eventually. As we move to a digital format piracy becomes a bigger issue (no one is re-printing comics illegally that I know of). Anyway good article, nice to see creators getting their hands dirty and taking questions from fans.

  50. Excellent article. As much as I love traditional printed comics, I’m excited for the possibilities that arise when digital comic distribution is discussed. I look forward to your future columns.

    I do have a question-

    What’s soccer? 

  51. Spoilers from the Future. — iPads get invented, allowing the screen issue not to matter (as much, to most people), and Digital Comics get released the same day as Print.
    Also, Secret Invasion is a very strong premise that turns out to be a mess, and Final Crisis is convoluted premise that turns out to be great. Also, avoid the year long series “Brightest Day” that launches after the “Blackest Night” event, its pretty bad and is almost immediately erased from continuity anyway a few months later to make room for a massive line wide re-launch.