Much like the rest of the publishing industry, comic books are facing a defining moment in their history. The broad adoption of tablet, smartphone and online delivery has the potential to revolutionize the comic book business model, or render it unrecognizable. Perhaps both. The industry is inching toward it, not with arms wide open but with fingers crossed.
What’s at stake is not just the commercial viability of a long standing industry but the longevity of an important cultural artifact and the ritual that goes along with it.
Historically, bricks and mortar comic stores have served as a site for fanboy community. Imagine you’re a disenfranchised youth who feels she doesn’t belong, but you’re armed with the knowledge that on any given day you can walk into a comic store and find your people. Powerful stuff.
But there’s more to it than that. Much of the pull of comic book fandom revolves around the comic as a physical object. Fans obsess over back issues, collect titles and store them in plastic sleeves or acid-free cardboard. Interrupting the physical ritual of congregating in a space with like-minded people, or taking away the possessable text, has the ability to disrupt the fan/comic relationship.
Writer and comic expert, Martyn Pedler, currently completing his PhD on superhero narratives at Melbourne University, says without physical objects the impulse to possess a set of comic books may not be as strong.
“Even as the market for most back issues has disappeared, I think many comic fans need to convince themselves their collections will be easily sellable for big bucks one day. With digital issues, that’s not an option. You’re reading the comics for the stories they contain, and that’s all.”
The prevailing retail model for print comic books is a fragile one. In the US, where most of the world’s comic books originate, every major print comic is released on the same day of the week and distributed through the same company. A major part of the industry reluctance to move to digital distribution is its reliance on that fragile model. Pulling the rug out from under print distribution would likely cause the industry to collapse on itself.
The iPad’s launch in 2010 was a game changer. It dragged the refractory comic industry into the digital realm. According to Pedler, the iPad is an ideal delivery system for the serial comic, “Not only does the art look great – glowing on the screen – but it makes for easy delivery or short bursts of story”, he said.
ComiXology, a digital publisher that has been called the iTunes of comic books, was one of the first to jump into smart devices. At the time of launch ComiXology was careful not to upset the fragile bricks and mortar retail model. They released comics through their app on the same day as the print version and charge the same $4 – $5 cover price.
The approach has worked. After years of losing readership, and despite expectation, print comic sales are up. Single issue and collected edition sales totaled US$680 million in 2009, in 2010, at the release of the iPad, they dropped to $635 million before climbing back to $640 million last year.
This article originally appeared in MISC Spring 2013, The Gadget Issue.