Associated Press photo
Like most technologically-obsessed folk, for me Apple’s unveiling of their newest gadget last week was a day filled with wonder. After seeing the iPad in action for the first time, all I could think was “Man, that right there is the beginning of the end for comic books as we know them.”
Digital comics are an idea that has kicked around for a while. (Tom Hanks’ character in Big was pitching one to his bosses at the toy company. And that was in 1988!) Marvel and a few other publishers have recently been putting some serious effort into the concept, with mixed results.
There have been a few substantial obstacles that have prevented digital comics from ever really taking off. These have included portability, cost, display size among others. The iPad has solved, or will solve, all of these problems.
Portability: They need to be something you can just shove in your pocket or a bag and take with you on the go, much like paper comics are presently. Many digital comics have focused on using desktop computers as medium, but no one wants to be stuck at a desk to read their comics. They want to read them in bed, on the bus or while waiting in line. (Efforts using cell phones have made progress, but they fall victim to the second hurdle.) While larger than pocket-sized, an iPad is convenient enough to stick in a backpack or even carried by hand.
Display size: The art is such a major part of the presentation, unless the book can be projected at close to the original size, things are going to seriously suffer. Even though they’re quite portable, cell phone versions of comics fail miserably in this category. Even with the recent increase in size and quality of displays on phones, it’s still a losing proposition. The iPad’s almost 10-inch screen should eliminate almost all concerns about diminished art quality.
Cost: Comics have traditionally been a rather cheap means of entertainment. This is no longer the case. With most books hitting the shelves at $2.99 or even $3.99, a trip to the comic book store is no longer a bargain. There is still a huge gap between paying $3.99 for a comic book and $500 for an entry level iPad, but this gap narrows quickly when the long-term costs are calculated. The “magic” price-point comic companies float for a digital comic is 99 cents. This is quite attainable given that production costs are dramatically lower and consumers are able to purchase directly from the source instead of going through a middleman. So if fans are able to save at least $2 per issue, a $500 entry fee begins to look better and better.
Perhaps most importantly of all, comic book companies want digital comics to happen. They see the dying throes of the record industry and realize they could be next. While Marvel and DC Comics aren’t quite as threatened by it as the music field is, piracy is still rampant in the comic book world. High-quality scans of books are frequently available online the same day they hit stores. Apple’s success with the iTunes music store has shown that people are willing to pay for a product they could get for free, provided the process is easy and consumers can get anything they want in one place. I would bet that iTunes has done more to stop music online piracy than any lawsuit filed by the recording industry. If comic companies can set up a similar online distribution site for their own wares, a significant portion of their losses to piracy could be recouped.
Digital comics are going to become a reality. The concept will benefit everyone from the comic companies, to creators, to the fans. (Well, everyone except traditional comic book stores. Already a niche market, they’re going to have to act fast to avoid the fate of most record stores.) Now that there’s a truly viable platform for them to exist upon, it won’t take long at all for the industry to capitalize and move forward in the electronic world. It won’t happen overnight, but (5? 10?) years from now, when the monthly, single-issue, dead-tree version of comic books no longer exists, this will be the moment in time we point to when everything began to change.