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 firstname.lastname@example.org (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 www.pronea.com or www.myspace.com/pronea.