Digital Comics & I: Why Our Love Was Never Meant To Be

It’s the smell that always gets me. The moment my nostrils flare and the musty odor of ink stained, thin pages registers with my brain, my knees go weak and nostalgia hits me like a ton of bricks. In fact, the smell is so pungent, so memorable that if I were hard pressed to pick my favourite scents, I would hope to compress it into candle form and burn it in every room of my house.

The smell of a newly minted comic book is one of the few reasons I could never go digital.

Now, I know this is an old issue, and I may be beating a dead horse, but I write this as I am sitting on a plane en route to Vegas. I’m airborne and traveling in order to attend CES – the Consumer Electronics Show, one of the biggest expos for unveiling the newest tech porn and gadget toys. Whilst I know I will mostly experience 3D EVERYTHING and Holodeck esque gaming systems, I’m sure tucked in some corner I will find comics – they always do seem to appear in the most unlikely of places. And you know what? I will delight in their easy accessibility, marvel at how nice it is to zoom into panels, grin at the reasonable prices for downloading them. But when all is said and done, I’m going to go back to my hotel room and bury my nose in a tangible comic. One with pages.



This article is definitely not an anti digital comics campaign. In fact, I think it’s a great idea. I am a great advocate of everyone reading comics, and with our quickly moving technological advances a lot of people find real honest to goodness books archaic, expensive, space consuming, what have you. It takes far less effort to download an app (like Graphicly!) and subsequently purchase comics that can be on your phone, tablet, or computer in a matter of seconds then it does to venture out of your house to the comic shop, or search for and order a graphic novel on Amazon (only to have to wait a few days for it to arrive on your door step). People who perhaps never considered reading comics will maybe see the new Batman film and download the comic onto their phone on a whim whilst in the theatre. Bam: a new comic reader is born.

No, this article is definitely not a digital comics roast. But it’s a love letter to the tangible from a bibliophile, a dreamy eyed journey of self discovery as to why I, Molly McIsaac, can never ever read a digital comic.

I think there are a lot of reasons I can’t read comics on my electronic devices – and mind you, I’ve tried. I’d love nothing more than to be cruising along above the clouds and reading the newest issue of X-Men. But it feels so cold, so impersonal, so… empty. My weekly trek to the comic shops on Wednesdays is a ritualistic escape, a sort of homecoming every time I step through the embracing arms of my shop’s doorway. I linger on back issues like old friends, fondly running my fingers down the covers as I make my way to the new releases. I sift through used book stores for graphic novels I’ve never heard of, toting back breaking bags of media with me home on the bus. I haphazardly stack comics all over my house, tripping over them in every room.

There is a feeling of hunting and gathering, the thrill of finding a new comic book I’ve never heard of, or locating a back issue I’ve been looking for for ages. Sure, I could have it sitting on my hard drive in mere seconds, but there is no longing there, no ultimate payoff. To me, reading digital comics feels like the difference between conversing with a robot or a real human being. Digital comics are the Siri or Cleverbot to my tangible human connection.

But this neurosis of mine does not only extend to comic books – oh no. Every book feels like a stranger in my hand if it’s encompassed in a thin tablet. But when I can dog ear pages, break spines, and inhale the musty scent of paper and ink… well, then it’s an old friend, someone to come home to at the end of a long day, or to have a quiet moment with on a sticky bus seat.

I feel that a lot of people my own age feel this way. Tangible comic books are a nostalgic link to our childhood, and while we are mostly willing to accept change there are certain things we cling to. Comic books were such an important part of shaping and defining me, a constant companion into my adult life, that letting go of them and transitioning to digital almost feels like a betrayal. Like if I don’t love them in their printed form, they are going to die out and become extinct and it will be all my fault.

I don’t have any great forecasts on the future of comics – I’m sure they will continue to steer towards digital and I genuinely have no problem with that. I want people to read comics in whatever way they can – be it on a gadget, on paper, what have you. But at least I’ll know that if comic BOOKS ever do fizzle out, at least I loved them right until the very end.


(iFanboy is owned by Graphicly, a digital comic book company.)


Molly McIsaac believes in unicorns, so you probably shouldn’t take anything she says too seriously. You can follow her bizarre adventures and outbursts of nonsensical ranting on twitter.


  1. My wife and I both own Kindles, but while we both love the convenience of being able to download a book without having to leave the house neither one of us likes reading comics in digital formats. I don’t like the fact that you normally have to zoom in on a panel to be able to read it, I find it quite annoying to have to zoom into 2 or 3 pannels on a page when I can simply read the print version of the comic without any of the hassel. I too also enjoy my weekly pilgrimage to Greenshift where i buy my comics.

  2. I want that Galactus hat.

  3. Isn’t there a scented candle and Snuggie(tm) combination out there that could help you make the transition?

  4. As reasonably priced as digital comics can be, I can’t picture myself not hitting my comic book store for the latest titles.
    As for everyone else who prefers digital, God bless you.

  5. “It’s the smell that always gets me.” Funny because it was the smell that got me to move to all digital, the smell of a comic shop full of condescending basement dwellers that never bathed themselves. Good article but for those of us that only have one LCS in our city (and it’s horrible) or don’t have that childhood nostalgia linked to our comic reading then digital comics are more convenient and WAY cheaper (especially if you consider the gas for a 30+ minute drive to your LCS). To each their own though.

  6. Good article Molly, and I can completely see your point – however, two things:
    1) The good news is, printed comics will still be around for a good while in tandem with digital.
    2) That dinosaur is the mirror…just might be you.

    That being said, I think it’s okay to be a bit prehistoric when it comes to some things. Not everything needs to be shiny and new throughout the 70-80 years we’re on this planet. We can marvel al some new stuff while cherishing some old stuff.

    Hell, as I type this, I’m listening to Dinah Washington on my iPhone.

  7. I agree. It’s a great way for me to catch up on a missed issue or try something new, but I think I’ll seek out the printed versions as long as they are available. The instant satisfaction seems to diminish the experience, somehow. I do hope millions of people can discover comics this way though! For the sake of the printed versions!

  8. I agree. Also it’s fun to go to different comic shops around my area, each shop is so distinct, and there are always cool, interesting, or strange people around so it’s rad.

  9. modern comics don’t remind me of childhood…the ones i used to buy off the magazine stand were that high end newsprint from the 80s and 90s, before they transitioned over, and they didn’t feel as digitally overproduced (art, colors etc) as they are now..i actually miss those old ones a lot, especially the stuff that was printed out of register. That was a happy accident.

    I do like the tactile feel of paper and the smells and all that, but for someone like me who designs books and a whole bunch of other things in print for a lving, i get to deal with all sorts of levels of fine printing….comic books are as close to the dollar menu as exists in commercial printing so its not something that i put on a pedestal too much. For me digital really works for my lifestyle and how i consume media, but i really do understand how so many still love print issues. Its a uniquely odd segment of the world that print is still valued in this niche.

    • agreed the art in print looks really cheap compared to it’s digital counterpart.

    • if they printed it on quality paper comics could look so much better. The grade 1 and 2 junk mail paper thats commonly used doesn’t lend itself to fine reproduction. Its just the cheapest stuff money can buy and works well for quick turnaround, high volume web press.

      Thats why stuff looks so much better in high end collections like omnibuses and absolutes. Better paper, more attention to the printing etc.

    • I suspect it’s the $700 device making it look ‘not as cheap’ .

    • Try reading Batwoman by JH Williams digitally and then on paper. His panel layouts and great artwork just doesnt “work” digitally (those panel viewers dont do his work justice).
      Covenience is the final deal breaker. It’s just easier to carry,read,buy, store, log in and access on any form(portable,desktop,laptop) and even CHEAPER(thanks DC!!)

    • @thompsonlive: digital looks good on a good quality monitor at full page, but print still beats tablets (iPad, etc.). Comixology’s guided view on an iPad looks blurred with small panels and the art is often unnecessarily cropped. Graphicly’s approach (full panels) is much better but their App is too basic and their selection limited. In my opinion, obviously.

  10. I, too, love the smell/scent of the printed page as it opens to the story inside. Mud Man has that going for it to say the least. The one thing about digital comics is the Big 2 don’t have much of the 70s & 80s back issue catalog and those are the stories I’m looking for. I do have a Graphicly account, btw.

  11. I don’t think I’m all that nostalgic for print comics but I do still prefer them. I like my Kindle for regular books. I do get annoyed with the clutter print comics create. But I like the comic shop. I like turning the pages and interpreting the entire page at once. I still don’t feel like investing in a tablet. Maybe when they start designing comics for the digital format I’ll consider making the jump.

  12. Coincidence no doubt but I recently wrote an article pretty much square along these lines.


  13. I attempted to accomplish two very difficult goals last year:
    1) Go completely digital for my comics
    2) Quit smoking cigarettes
    I quit smoking, but I can’t, for the life of me, give up paper comics. Trying to made me realize first hand that comics are much more than their content. My new goal in life: Buy a big ass house to store all this damn paper!

  14. I haven’t read comics on a tablet yet. I just know I don’t enjoy reading them on my iPhone.

    • Yeah, I like digital comics and when they are cheaper than print I’m buying the hell out of them. But if you’re only reading option is a smartphone, I don’t see the point.

  15. Molly, I know exactly what you mean by that smell, and it has the same effect on me.

  16. I have close to 20,000 comics in my basement but my new comics have all been digital for the last 3-4 months and I love it. I am a collector so I still spend money on older comics and so forth, but I love the quality and convenience. as for the price point, i wish they were a little cheaper but i love the lack of adds. it just works well for me.

  17. Ms. McIsaac, I have to respectfully disagree. To quote Barney Stinson, “Newer Is Always Better!!”

    I was a huge comic geek in the early nineties, but school, work, and a myriad of other competing priorities eventually overcame my love of the medium. I canceled my pull list at the LCS and never looked back. Granted there were fleeting moments where I thought maybe I would start buying books again… 1 Year Later… the new Transforming Ongoing… but it never happened. Just couldn’t commit.

    Then, many years after initially giving up on my love, shortly after recovering my sanity from the first few months of fatherhood, it occurred to me that I would likely be spending most my my nights at home with my wife. It also occurred to me that given the sad state of television these days, I would likely have a bit of free time on my hands. So I did what any red blooded American would do… digital piracy!

    I started downloading scans (keep reading before you get on the high horse!!!), starting with something called Blackest Night. I was hooked, I downloaded thousands of books, many of which I still have not read and became thoroughly enamored with the medium once again. Even bought an iPad with the intended use of comic books. Then, possibly on this site, I read about… The New 52!!! And…. Day and Date Digital!!!! And it seemed like everybody and their brothers decided to follow suit, even Marvel has quietly rebooted quite a bit of their franchises.

    Not only am I buying 10+ monthly titles, the collector in me can’t help but purchase many of the books I got scans of. The legitimate digital books, in my opinion, are superior to the scans and I have no problem paying $$ for a superior product. To date I think I have bought almost 400 digital comics.

    In closing, the only reason that I am reading comics, or this site for that matter, is because of digital books. I suspect they will be a huge source of income for this industry and I for one am thankful that most companies are jumping on board.

    Sorry for the diatribe, I just feel rather strongly about digital, especially given the fact that I do have a 2yr-old that likes to play with (re: destroy) my stuff. If you read this far, thanks!!!

    • this is almost EXACTLY my road into comics. Paper comics –> Fatherhood –> All Pirated Comics –> New 52 –> 17+ digital monthly comic purchases via comiXology.

    • When I started reading scans I read superman and GL from COIE to present. I use Comixology too, just did not know if I could say that name here, as Graphically is the parent company. Hoping they continue to expand their back issue catalogue. I can’t understand why Final Crisis isn’t digital yet!

  18. Digital and book fans do not need to try and win the other over. Each is a different category of consumer now. This isn’t a format war such as bluesy vs hd-dvd where can be only one.

    Molly said it best. Digital comics are perfectly fine. Just not for her. We all have our own views and preferences. And there are a number of different types of comic readers. Each type approaches and takes away a different enjoyment from the books. There are readers who mostly focus on narrative, others who’s main attraction is the art, and some who love the total package. Each of us gets something a little different from these stories. I think it’s great that we all have a choice.

    • yes thats very true. I’m glad there are starting to be real consumer options out there.

    • ‘Bluesy’ meant to obviously read ‘bluray’. Damn autocorrect. (Are we ever going to get an edit function?)

      Once again, nice article, Molly. It’s nice to have both sides represented. There is such excitement and fervor behind the digital train, and understandably so. That it sometimes feels like the old way of comics is looked down upon as antiquated and the way of the past. It would truly be a shame if that became the only viewpoint/voice on sites such as this. Thanks for mixing it up.

    • Confirm

  19. For me it’s the smell of old books, not new comics that gets me. The apartment is a little overcrowded with bookshelves, and every now and then I’ll pull one down just to flip through the pages and take in the scent. But if I want to read, I pull out my tablet. It’s just easier that way.

    Once Scratch and Sniff technology goes digital, we can have it all.

  20. I’ve never understood this argument; it’d be like if every car review ended “But, all in all, its still not as fun as riding a horse”.

    • Not even close to the same thing.

      Like I said above, different types of readers take different avenues of enjoyment from their books.

      All you need to understand opinions you don’t get. Realize that everyone is different and likes different things. Pretty easy.

    • We’re talking about people specifically missing elements that are knowing lost in the shift from one medium to another. If you go see a play you can’t complain that movies have better editing. Similarly it doesn’t make sense to complain about lacking the other sensory experiences in about a purely digital format. When I download an album off iTunes I don’t lament not being able to flip through a CD booklet while it plays.

  21. Well said and well written Molly. You captured and mirrored my thoughts on the issue exactly! Nicely done!

  22. I am about 95% digital, just waiting on a few marvel books then i would be 100%. i love the print but hate the long boxes, for me its digital all the way on my kindle fire.

    • Ditto and ditto for me. I love reading Comics on my Kindle Fire. I just wish one of these digital Comics companies would create an app that produces a comic book scent.

  23. Great article. I also feel the same way about analog photography as i love all the effort: putting film in, winding knobs for the next shot and waiting for your photos to be developed. The effort makes it extra special. Same way i feel about comics. Going to the shop, bagging it and arranging it in my stack.

  24. I tried digital comics and did not care for them. Nothing against those who like them but they’re not for me. Besides how could I ever forsake my beloved comic book shop with all the great friends I’ve made there over the years.

  25. Having worked in a used bookstore and multiple libraries, I love all the wonderful, musty smells of books. Strangely, so does Chanel designer Karl Langerfeld who is creating a fragrance called “Paper Passion” that captures this scent!

  26. A+ article. Yes, of course there’s a new generation of readers who prefer digital comics. No harm done, but those readers ARE missing a heck of a lot. You can read them, but you can’t “look” at them. If anyone thinks digital is superior, take them to any art gallery, stand in front of a 20×30 size, original painting. See which is the better experience– you looking at the entire picture, the texture, the angles, the shadows, and even the wall behind it, vs. viewing a microscopic version of the painting – or just a portion of it full-size, on an 8×10 electronic screen.

  27. I’m alway in front of a computer screen, the whole day long, I’m a functional analist and do my programming also. I’m glad when I come home and I grab a paper comic, that for an hour I don’t have to stare again at a computer screen or tv screen. Call me old-fashioned, but we stare always @ screens, computer, tv, phone etc…
    Don’t get me wrong, I love watching TV, I love doing things on my computer, I like my phone, I’m a gadget freak, but I also love it to leave it all just behind and read a paper comic, on plane paper, no hussle with zooming in, but plane paper comic. I tried digital, and got real frustrated when I had to zoom in. Because I want to read my comics in a couch and not behind my desk, so a kindle or ipad is necessary and these screens are to little to capture it al in full effect.
    That’s my opinion.

  28. I felt the same way a year or so ago, but when DC decided to go day and date I decided to give some titles that I wasn’t really that interested in a go digitally. Since then I’ve slowly increased my digital intake so that I’m now buying my entire DC pull list digitally and I’ve started adding other books as well. There are just too many advantages from my point of view…

    – Space! I’m drowning in comic books. They’re everywhere in my house, my parents house, my girlfriends flat. Whereas the 100-200 digital comics I’ve accumulated so far take up none of my living space whatsoever!

    – Cost. Being in the UK, we get a fairly hefty premium on comic books (a $2.99 comic book costs £2.50 in my local shop) whereas I can buy books direct from ComiXology at the exchange rate (meaning a $2.99 book costs me £1.95. On top of that is the fact that the books I’m not sure about I buy four weeks later at the discounted $1.99 price.

    – Convenience. It’s so great being able to just type a particular issue or writer or series etc. into the search box and find the books you want to read quickly and easily without the hassle of shifting fifty long boxes only to remember you never actually put the issue in question in the long box in the first place!

    – Portability. Sure reading comics on a phone isn’t the best experience but the DC Comics app reader I use on my phone makes the books perfectly readable and enjoyable. This means that if I’m on the train, in the pub or even just hiding in the bathroom at work because I don’t like my job I can pull out my phone and read a comic.

    – Free comics. There’s loads of free issues, samplers, 101s etc with the ComiXology digital service – all of which I don’t get if I go to the store.

    Honestly the only thing that worries me about the digital comics is the ethereal nature of what I’ve bought… where do all my comics go if ComiXology suddenly go bust? Hopefully the digital market is strong enough now that it’s not something I need to worry about but even with that nagging in the back of my head the other reasons where just to persuasive to not make the switch.

  29. Am I the only one to think that Comixology’s guided view looks bad on an iPad? (blurry small panels, cropped big panels). I find it irritating and a lost opportunity. I want the ability to read full panels with no cropping and in good quality with any (reasonable) amount of zooming. Graphicly’s iPad app does that but for everything else their app is too basic (especially regarding collection management). And their selection is limited.

  30. I’m just a collector, and being able to say, “I’ve got 10,000 digital comics on my hard drive” is just plain not as satisfying as saying, “I have two longboxes of comics right here.” To me, owning a comic book is like owning a piece of art, a very small piece of history. Would it be better to own the Mona Lisa, or a JPEG of the Mona Lisa?

    I get all the reasons why digital is great, and I’m definitely not against it–in fact, many times I wish I didn’t have so many qualms with it for the sake of money and space. But as a collector (comics, movies, books, action figures, ticket stubs, etc.) I just can’t get excited about a digital release.

    • Thats a bit of a logic leap isn’t it? a comic book is a mass produced reproduction of a work of art. Its not an original. In fact the printing process adds things like dots from the color separations and so on that is not present in the original and kind of affects the form in the way the creator never intended. That distinction you made i see quite often…that the printed comic is THE original art and we all know thats just not true. It always bugs me when i see that comparison.

      As someone who loves digital comics, but also loves ephemera and old stuff, there is definitely something in that for the collectors and “curators” like yourself. I will admit the digital comics…it is a temporary and disposable media format, and if you’re ok with that (i am) then its great. That physical form is a great thing that is tough to recreate….i guess it just comes down to how you view your role in things. A reader or a collector?

  31. I returned to comics recently because of digital. The cost and the required storage space pushed me out some time ago, even though I never stopped loving the medium. I now buy singles digitally at the $AU to $US exchange rate (rather than massive import prices for paper) and then order the stories I loved in collected hard cover editions from Amazon.

    Best of both worlds. And no-one loses a bedroom to more longboxes.

    I personally think a digital alternative may bring more people like me back to comics and remove the “comic shop culture stigma” for some potential mainstream customers.

  32. Read Darwyn Cooke’s new Parker hardcover and then read the same books digitally and try telling me it’s the same thing. Same for J. H. Williams recent work and copious double-page spreads in Batwoman. It’s an art form. And when the art is THAT good, there is A LOT to be lost in a digital experience.