Friday, July 15, 2011

No future

When it comes to changing formats, it’s the same for comics as any other medium - digital versus physical is an interminable argument that keeps going around in circles while things slowly and inevitably change anyway. But both sides are right, so that fight is never going to end.

I say: bring it on. I say you cannot fuck the future, sir, the future fucks you. I say I’m not interested, but that doesn’t mean I should try and stop other people.

Make comics available for all readers, in any damn format they want. Get some new blood into the medium. I don’t like digital comics, and won’t ever pay for one, but the industry shouldn’t do it because I don’t like it. They’ve got me hooked on comics for life. They can do whatever they want.


I heard somebody say the other day (I think it was Graeme in a Wait, What? podcast at the Savage Critics, which is my favourite thing to listen to while I’m playing 10-year-old computer games) that for every one digital comic DC sold, there are something like 650 physical sales, which is just an extraordinary fact.

Because that means for all the talk – including this blog post – digital sales are an infinitesimal part of the marketplace. These things are selling in the dozens, when they need to be selling in the thousands to be economically viable, and there is no sign of that happening in the immediate future.

The other side of that argument is the opportunity – a massive void of potential sales, just need to tap into it. There is a hope that digital will become the new newsstand, (ignoring the fact that libraries are the new newsstand, now that they’re filled with comics), and that there is this vast consumer base out there who don’t know they want comics until they see them.

I work in the online section of a major daily newspaper, and I think print and web are both important. This isn’t a war. But I keep telling people we are about 10 years into a 20-year cycle of incredible change when it comes to digital delivery of news. We’ve come a long way, but there is still a lot to sort out, and it’s going to take time.

Digital comics are undoubtedly going to increase in sales, and not just because they’re starting from that startlingly low base, but it’s going to take time. A long time. In the meanwhile, there is ample room for speculation and prediction.



There is a weird blindness amongst people who adopt quickly to new technology; they find it hard to understand that everybody isn’t in the same boat as them. Somebody who has owned an iPad for years and relies on it for their entire media fix can find it hard to believe that everybody isn’t in the same boat.

But there are valid reasons for not wanting to read comics on a computer device. There is always the idea that some people just can’t fucking stand reading comics on screens, but that’s just personal taste and that’s almost always completely indefensible.

But there are other reasons why I don’t dig the digital.


Reason #1: Physical object as an extension of individual personality

I’m a total bookcase snob. I can’t help it.

If I come around to your house and the only books in your bookcase are a Dan Brown novel, a Lonely Planet guide to Thailand and a Garfield book, I’m going to think less of you. Sorry.

I don’t even have to agree with your tastes to give you an unconscious pass – a couple of my friends have excellent collections full of books about motor-racing and dog breeding. It’s not my thing, but it’s better than the alternative – people who only read because they have to, or because somebody with a microphone told them to.

I put too much thought into considering bookshelf display options. What books, comics and DVDs go into boxes, which go into secondary bookshelves in the spare room, and what gets displayed in the lounge, for all the world to see.

Fortunately, nobody is as freaky about this stupid shit like I am and people rarely notice these efforts, which makes theme blatantly narcissistic and totally pointless, which is a big part of the thrill.

And now I can’t tell, because a lot of people are ditching the physical object entirely and keeping an entire music, movie and book collection on one little electronic box.

It’s perfectly fine to subtly browse a bookcase but grabbing on to somebody’s laptop or tablet and scrolling through it when you meet them for the first time is a real social mistake. Now I don’t know what to think.

The other thing that attracts me to a bookshelf is the inherent beauty of any sizable collection. I adore the look of a mad variety of books, both as a group and as individual items. I can fall in love with binding, or an embossed font, or an imaginative use of colour.

Two comics books I am hungering for are the next editions of Darwyn Cooke’s Parker stories and Bryan Talbot’s Grandville series, and not just because they’re smart works by terrific artists, but because they are beautiful objects, with a heft and character that remains incredibly charming.

Like any passion, this love of the physical isn’t always a logical one - I’ve had well-intentioned and misguided affairs with things like New Warriors #1 before – but it’s an undeniable one.

Digital comics may deliver the same story, but that don’t deliver that tactile experience of print. One is a series of electronic yes/no signals, the other is ink on paper. They’re all just delivery systems, but some of them are prettier than others.


Reason #2: Fuckin’ computers

I’ve written and lost two full-length movie scripts and a novel in the last ten years. They weren’t any good, but I enjoyed writing them and I really wanted to re-read them recently, but I couldn’t find them anywhere. I’ve shifted between three home computers over these years and somewhere down the line, some things got lost.

I’ve lost entire albums and movies and writings that were stored on faulty hard rive, forgotten in some lost file and then lost in a catastrophic reboot.

Digital preservation is a great thing, because art and stories can be stored in multiple places without any degradation over timer, but it’s also fucking easy to lose stuff. Ironically, digital preservation means the entire history of comics is available for all time, long after these pamphlets have crumbled into dust. But in the short term, their very immateriality makes them disposable.

I still got comics I’ve had since I was five years old. They’re beaten up, often coverless and are starting to seriously fall to pieces, but I’ve still got them. I can’t hold on to digital copies, both literally and figuratively.

Maybe I just don’t like technology because it doesn’t like me. I worked in IT for a few years in the 90s, and the one thing I discovered there is that while I am a generally easy-going soul, computers that don’t do what they’re supposed to drive me into a FUCKING RAGE. So I went and delivered furniture instead.

I have seen my own death. Some day in the far future, I’ll be trying to download Interimnable X-Men #6q9 by Grant Morrison III and the captured essence of Jack Kirby’s ghost, and my antique slabware will tell me it can’t find a source gene to run the exo-file, and I’ll get so angry my heart-o-tronic 6000 will explode like a piñata stuffed with three tones of C-4.

These things will kill me one day. It’s only right that I should fear and loath them.


Reason #3: Books are sharks, man.

Despite the technology boom of the past few centuries, there is still no cheaper and easier way to get ideas across than in a book.


Reason #4: Travelling blues

There is one more reason, but I’ll get into that in the next post, because this is where things start to really ramble, and because I have to go work out what books are coming with me to Fiji…

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