Format Wars


Though we rarely acknowledge it, or even consciously think about it, for many of us ninety percent of our behavior as comic buyers stems from one implicit premise:

I will want to go back and reread all of this when I am 87 years old.

If you bought the hardcover of a story you already owned just to have it on the bookshelf; if you are regularly putting magazines in mylar bags like they are evidence from a crime scene; if all the reading material that enters your house is neatly catalogued in an ever-growing collection of boxes like you’re restarting the Library of Alexandria for shut-ins, then somewhere in the back of your head you have a vision of a rainy Saturday in 2034 when the house is quiet and you finally get to curl up with that run of Force Works you remember so fondly from high school. Amid all the boarding, bagging, and boxing, you may have even thought, “Really, this is for my kids. When I’m gone, all of this will be theirs. When they have to haul all these 300-pound longboxes up the stairs to the estate sale, they will find all this immensely charming.”

This is what a lot of us are doing, even if that’s insane. Even if the older ones among us have friends who’ve literally put their moms in homes for stacking things up around the house this way. (Yes, they were newspapers, but how different is that? Really?) Even if we have more comics at this point than we could ever hope to even skim again. (If you have 5,000 comics, and right now you start at the front of Box 1 rereading an issue a day, you’ll finish the last box in roughly fourteen years. This assumes that you stop going to the shop until you’re done with this little project.)

These things add up, of course, and this is one of many reasons some of us are pounding the table with our shoes and bellowing the demand for digital comics. Every Wednesday as I’m pushing the latest wheelbarrow full of finished reads over to the Boxing & Storage Department assembly line, I gaze out the window at the sky and dream of how nice it would be if I were just burning them all to a disc, or drip-drop-dripping them into the bucket that is my immense external hard drive. Sure, they would still be an unwieldy mound I could never hope to revisit again, but they would be a virtual mound. The closet so full of boxes would contain only a handful of shiny cylinders. And I would still be able to keep all the comics. Just in case!

Unfortunately, we’re talking about posterity, and in the digital age things aren’t built to last.

Right next to my immaculately preserved back issues of Marvel Age, in a basement so filthy and disorganized it would get my kids taken away from me if a non-relative ever saw it, I have a copious box full of VHS tapes. These tapes have been entrusted with some of my most precious memories, pivotal life-moments, and favorite Newhart episodes of all time. (I have no memory of ever watching Newhart, but the labels clearly indicate that I felt at least the final episode needed to be chronicled for eternity.) Until a week ago, I had nothing in my house that allowed me to view those tapes. The last time I had a VCR, the HDTV couldn’t even figure out what to do with it; I’d hook in the necessary cables, set up the inputs, and press Play, and it would act the way I’d act if you tried to serve me dog food. “What in the hell am I supposed to do with this?”

Finally, I broke down and paid too much for a gizmo that would convert my tapes to DVD. I couldn’t bear to just abandon them; it was like I was saving my childhood from decay, which is probably not terribly far from the impulse making you save your comics right now. Yet even as I was reliving that high school trip and watching the discs burn, I couldn’t help thinking, “I am finally converting these tapes… to DVD. Which is going obsolete even as I’m doing it. I’m not even finished turning half the tapes into discs, and I’m already researching the best way to turn the discs into something else.”

In the battle for the soul of comics, this is paper’s secret weapon. I will never pull a book off my shelf and open it to discover all of the pages are blank now because the binding’s firmware is no longer compatible with the typeface. I recently opened up an old Word document from college only to be greeted by Wingding gibberish; I was later told that Microsoft Word was only designed to keep documents from the previous two versions of itself readable. Beyond that, you’d better have an old copy installed somewhere. Or a printout on paper.

In this volatile, dynamic era of digital comics, this is one of the last things giving me pause. I love reading comics on my iPhone, but what happens when the hard drive runs out and it’s time to store them somewhere else? Will my next device be able to hold them, or share them, or even open them? Are we even three inches closer to an industry standard format after (by my estimate) 49 years of talking about it?

This is why comic shops have nothing to worry about. With this industry continuing to chase its own tail like the dumbest dog at the park, if you like it you’ll eventually be back to get it on paper.

Or maybe abandon the medium altogether. Maybe the secretly great thing about these expiring formats is that they absolve us of the feeling that we ever need to read all this again. I kept my disc of the original Doom; how often do you think I bust it out and play it? “I have a collection of 11,000 comics to read… but they’re all .cbr.doc.broken. Oh well; what’s on TV?”

Jim Mroczkowski is not all that far from obsolescence himself. See also: Twitter.


  1. The way I’ll probably address this concern (which I share to some extent) is by buying trades of the stuff I really, really enjoy and would want to read again.  I already do that to some extent.  Having to store all these damn issues has helped me realized that I’m very unlikely to reread the vast majority of these books.  I’ve started giving boxes full of issues (Trinity and Countdown are enough to fill a box) to my local library simply because I know they are needlessly taking up space.

    The lack of a physical copy and doubts about long term access are certainly negatives for some readers, but do they outweigh the positives?  That’s a bit of cost/benefit analysis we are going to each have to do over the next few years.

  2. You just have to make sure to store them in an open format like CBR/CBZ (basically a zip-file of JPEG images). Will never come a day when there are no programs to read those.

    As for physical storage, an external harddrive should do just fine. To be on the safe side, just move the contents to a new one (or similar new replacement technology at some point) every few years or so.

    The troubles with VHS casettes and optical drives are long since past!

  3. There is no part of this article that didn’t scare me.

  4. I will never reread 99.9% of my single issues.

  5. Especially Newhart


  7. You can fight the Matrix, but not forever…

  8. I have three longboxes and one short box.  The short box is the stuff I’m currently reading or wouldn’t mind glancing at again.  The rest I’d sell on Ebay if anyone would buy it.  If there’s anything good in the longboxes, I already replaced it in trade, or am going to when it comes out (like Blackest Night)…

  9. The real fashionable trend is to poo on collecting-

    Yet the artist has never been more revered.  People pay hundreds of dollars to own a physical page drawn

    by the artist at a con- but the same people will dis the collecitng scene. What’s the difference – functionally

    by bagging and boarding that comic you love you own a physical piece of art work-

    Everyone should realize at this point that not a whole lot of people now are going to "put their kids through college"  with that issue of Force Works and maybe with advent ofdigital comics we don’t need to treat every comic like evidence at a crime scene, but preseving a single issue now and then to own art in it’s physical form could never be bad thing. 

  10. Digitizing everything is the trend (and I’m fully onboard, I admit), but what happens when the devices that read and play these digitized files, songs, comics, photos, etc. break, are redesigned or just plain cease to exist?  Then you’ve got a whole bunch of 1’s and 0’s and not much else.  Fight the future! 

  11. I’m forty now, and a teacher with three kids. Every big holiday I go up to the loft and pull down whole runs, and me and the kids do re-read them. I can’t afford an iPod for each if my kids, but neither can I afford monthly issues any more, so I stick with trades. Paper rocks!

  12. I am going to have to remember that phrase about paper’s secret weapon for the next time my terrified father-in-law goes off on how there will be no books or any other paper documents within 1 generation and (somehow) IT IS ALL OBAMA’S FAULT!!!!

  13. You make a good point, Jim. You may have talked me into getting rid of 90% of my ’90s Superman comics. I’m trying to imagine the day I try to introduce them to my kids.

    "Silly, Jeff Jr. You can’t just read SUPERMAN: THE MAN OF STEEL straight through! You need to open that other box, pull out all of those SUPERMAN titles, interfile them, then switch over to longboxes 1 and 2 (which are properly labeled), pull out all the ACTION COMICS and ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN you can find, and then interfile those. Oh, and you’ll need the occasional one-off and special, but those are mostly filed after SUPERMAN. Duh!"

    I suddenly made myself very sad. 

  14. You are touching on a larger problem with the state of the world right now that is affecting everything. Rummaging through the CBR folder doesn’t have the same ring as the back issue bin.  

    Its all about user experience. If you prefer to consume disposable data through a screen or if you enjoy the ephemeral experience of reading a book you are holding in your hands. Granted both experiences are a one time thing, and like others i’ll never read most of my old issues again. I want the best of both!

    This whole argument reminds me of the LIFE magazine Google archive. Sure you can see every issue online, but you’re not experiencing what made that magazine great. If you hold an actual issue in your hands you understand immediately what the big deal was. The digitized version takes that away for me. 

  15. Good article, Paul. Just kidding. Well said, Jim.

    In addition to this point about volatile computer/device formats. Which I had not previously thought of, but is a great point. The biggest thing holding me back from embracing the change over 100%, and why I likely never will, is the same thing that is keeping me of abandoning all my dvds in favor of purely digital copies. Hard drive failure/file corruption/the unstability of computers. We aren’t at a day where this is not a constantly a potential issue. And depending on the size of your digital collection, could be very concerning. I have my entire 10,000+ song music library digitally saved on an external hard drive. And I am constantly thinking about how vulnerable I am. And about how angry I would be for not backing it up if something were to happen to it. I am already paranoid and compulsive enough as it is. I don’t need any help. This is why I have the same problem going purely digital in any format. Yeah, you could accidentally break a dvd or spill your beer all over your book. But you’re never going to accidentally set them all on fire (unless you house is set on fire. which in that case, my apologies) or smash every single dvd you own. I’m sure there are people who trust digital more than I do. But for now, I just don’t.

    I do think digital comics have a valued place. If the industry would come down on the ridiculous prices and make it actually cheaper to download a measly digital file as opposed to an actual comic book that needs publishing, I would totally support reading in issues digitally. Then purchase the stories and books I truly love in trade or hardcover. It’s the solution to what Jim was saying about having boxes of mediocre and uninspiring single issues that you’re only going to need to get rid of at some point. The stories you actually want on your shelf and do want to re-read at some point, those you buy. It would make being a comic book reader 100 times more reasonable and rational of a hobby. Think of all the bad comics you wouldn’t feel bad for spending money on and not throw out. You could also, at a more affordable price and without the long box commitment, take more chances on books. It would be great.

    That said, I’m not holding my breath. Even though it should make sense for the companies to charge less if their production costs go down (going mostly digital for single issues, backing off print copies, and focusing on printing mainly trades), that isn’t going to make them do so. No, big businesses never see production or opperational savings as a reason to pass the savings on to their customers. No, they see it as nothing more than an opportunity to increase their profit margins. Sucks, but it’s true.

    Back to Jim’s original point. I totally agree that it will hold people back from totally abanoning the printed format. Plus I’ve been doing the digital thing a bit of late. It’s awesome in terms of convenience and portability. And some of the pictures look quite nice. But just like a kindle, it’s still nothing like holding a book in your hands and turning the page. And for our generation at least, I don’t see it ever being able to overcome that enough to the point where it does away with actual books. Now the the little kids who grow up purely digital? That’s a entirely different matter.

  16. I tell you this, if I had an iPad and all the series i read went to day and date digital i would switch right now. for me it’s a space issue pure and simple

  17. @ roiVampire – I’m right there with you. I’m a comics reader more than anything else. I am not an organized person, tying to figure out what to do with these thousands of comics invading my house is a constant frustration. The digital format makes this all so easy for me. We may be in the minority here on this website, but we are definitely in the huge majority for most people who want to read comics. It is infinitely more convinient to have all your comics in one handy device, more day and date releases can’t come fast enough for me (Justice League Generation Lost twice monthly on my iPad, always look forward to that!! Hope Ult. Thor proves to be a great day and date addition too)

  18. @Jdudley  If I could wave a wand and turn all my issues into trades i would do it in a heartbeat. For me the real magic lies in the stories and the art and while digital comics are the best thing for space savers i also want a good amount of trades just to have the physical copies… y’know incase the zombies come

  19. great article.  for me it is a price issue vs a storage issue.  I don’t buy issues currently, but would if the price per issue rivaled the trade.  For those runs that I knew I wanted to last ‘forever’ I would buy the HC/Omnibus/Absolute – otherwise digital would work for me, though it would be better if the longevity of the digital copies was better defined.

  20. On a side note, the fact that the digital files alphabetize themselves makes me wish they had a mouth so I could kiss it.

  21. I keep my longboxes and bookshelves fairly lean. Though I just about filled the equivalent of two Billy book cases now and have no idea what to do about trade storage.

  22. And this is why comic companies need to suck it up and go CBR/CBZ.

  23. I don’t think paper is going away, and you make a good point that paper isn’t going anywhere because we don’t know how long our digital copies will last, but a lot of that is how digital is marketed.  When you have to buy comics through special programs that add their own DRM wrapper, where you may actually never be able to manipulate/store the original file without some hacking, it goes against the grain of the collecting-mindset of a large part of the comic community.  In many ways digital is more easily preserved then print because it can be stored multiple locations.  To do that with print, you have to buy multiple copies of everything.

    And you make a good point that that collecting mindset is a little crazy, but it’s also what comic companies thrive on with their variant covers and reissues in multiple editions.  It’s partly that mindset that will keep us in paper comics, but it’s also because of the way digital comics are marketed.  If you depend on a 3rd party for access to your files, then you don’t really own them, and it’s really just a matter of time until that 3rd party goes out of business, changes hands, changes policies and then "your" collection is gone.

    I think there will always be a place for paper, but if digital comics don’t thrive, I suspect it will be because the comic industry continues to ignore, in the digital realm, the collecting impulses that it thrives on in its paper products. 

  24. Free CBZ digital comics (legal even AFAIK)


    Maybe online archives like this is the future?


  25. I just bought my iPad two days ago JUST to start my digital collection. I love it so much, but now my bank account hates me.

  26. This is the article that I have been waiting for. I prefer the printed page, my wife is a Typographer who carries on the family line in print, her father was a Printer before her and still owns the old wooden type setting trays that he used to use. I realize that all this stuff is done on computer now and that all that paper mounts up, but for me holding that book in your hands feels just right. Like everyone else I probably won’t revisit most of these books so maybe the solution for all of us is to learn to let go, the zen approach. Thank you for that, a very heartening read.

  27. Also case in point for print – just got the library editions of Hellboy, this type of production quality cannot be matched on the iPad or any other tablet for that matter…