Welcome to SBC’s The Panel, a chance for you to put your burning questions – comics-related or otherwise – to a group of comics professionals.

The Panel lives or dies by your contributions; please email them to panel@silverbulletcomicbooks.com and we’ll add them to the list…

This week’s question comes from Andrew Yang and is as follows:-

“There are now some websites where you can download comic books for free. Not just the “authorised” freebies at CrossGen, Marvel, etc, but the illegal ones on file-sharing napster-style networks. What impact do you think this could have on the industry?”

Mike Collins:

I still don’t get this whole downloading comics bit – a CD of music or even a movie (if you’ve got a week to waste) that you burn onto a disc to listen to/watch in the traditional way, OK, that I get… but do you have the services of Quebecor or Sparta to printout your comics? It’s still a distancing medium, reading on the web… I can get the idea of e-books you read on a Palm Pilot or whatever, that’s text. (And I should declare an interest here, as I do the covers to the Star Trek: SCE e-books each month.)

But comics is a visual medium. I know some of the comics websites have introduced limited movement and sound effects to their web comics… but that’s NOT comics… that’s animation!

I don’t think it’s a threat to the industry, just a curiosity. Like slabbed comics. Hey kids! Comics you can’t even read! Now there was an idea…

Mike Collins has worked on many properties, including Batman, the Transformers, Captain Britain, Dourdevil and Judge Dredd.

Terry Moore:

Oh, what a wonderful idea! Sure, it almost destroyed the music industry, but we’re much bigger and stronger and than they are, right?

I mean, Congress will save us, too, right? Won’t they?

Terry Moore is Mr Strangers In Paradise…my wife got into comics through this book, ’nuff said

Roger Langridge:

Probably none whatsoever in the short-term. The thing about comic collectors is, you know, they like to have something to collect. The online freebies tend to fall into a couple of categories; old print comics that have been scanned, and new comics that have been prepared specifically for the web. The old comics are being downloaded by old farts like me (I’ve got a nice thick folder full of old newspaper strips like pre-Popeye Thimble Theatre) who couldn’t possibly afford the real things in any case, even if they could find them; and the made-for-web stuff isn’t available in comic stores (at least not right away), and when they eventually come out they’re still being bought because people like to have something to hold, read on the toilet or on the train, put in a bag and stuff into a box.

If comics on the web are going to represent any sort of long-term change, I think it will be to build a new audience that don’t go to comic stores – bored office workers with internet access at work, regular folks who wouldn’t be seen dead going somewhere as geeky as Forbidden Planet, people like that. Which can only be good for the industry in the long run.

Roger Langridge is the creator of Fred The Clown, a new issue of which is out in a few short weeks…your orders are to look out for it.

Alonzo Washington:

Anything that gets comic books in people’s hands is good for the industry. Why do you think comic-cons give away so many free samples of comic books, buttons, posters, etc? These freebies create interest. The next time a person who received the free merchandise wants a comic book they will have to pay for it. I post free samples of Omega7 comic books on my website for free all the time and it only makes people want to buy more of my comic books. I think the fact that comic books are on the web is excellent.

Comic Book Creators need to be everywhere they can be so that our form of entertainment won’t be left behind. Free Comic Day is another example of doing comic book outreach. These comic books go beyond the traditional comic book geek making the comic book available to everyone. In the process our industry may gain a fan.

Alonzo Washington is the creator of Omega Man and a noted black rights campaigner.

Gary Spencer Millidge:

This paranoia is very reminiscent of the “Home Taping is Killing Music” anti-piracy campaign that the recording companies began in the 1980s. I always thought that taping friends’ records was an enormously successful way of promoting new music and stimulating actual record sales of bands you not have otherwise heard. You would buy the LPs that you could afford and tape whatever you couldn’t. The big four comic book publishers obviously think that downloading whole comics for free is also a good way of promoting their product and I think they’re right.

But as for the napster-style pirated comics, even with hi-speed broadband Internet and the latest colour laser printers, it is still time-consuming and expensive to produce hardcopies, and rather pointless. The majority of the comic book industry is mostly based on tangible collectable paraphernalia and in the digital age, if music and video media are threatened by piracy, I don’t see comics being threatened in the same way.

Gary Spencer Millidge is the creator of the wonderful Strangehaven comic, which – although on an annual release schedule at the moment – is so damn good he is ALWAYS my first port of call at the yearly UK Comics Festival in Bristol.

Alan Grant:

Free comics can only have a beneficial impact on the comics business.

Many commercial organisations have realised that giving things away via the Web is a great way of getting both new and repeat business. People generally like to receive free gifts…the only comics my grandkids allow me to buy for them are the ones with acceptable free gifts on the cover. That doesn’t mean they have no interest in the contents, just that the desirability of the free gift determines what it is they’re going to read.

Alan Grant is maybe most famous for his Batman and Judge Dredd work, and is currently appearing with Judge Anderson and “Half-Life” in the JD Megazine.

Clifford Meth:

Online comics? As in you publish something online and I read it? Lovely. Peachy keen.

Online comics as in I publish something and you scan it, then make it available for all to see? Don’t let me catch you, bunky–I’ll touch your cornea. File-sharing systems have made theft of intellectual property that much easier, but not a scintilla more ethical.

Rather than address this at length, I refer you to Harlan Ellison’s comments regarding his landmark lawsuit against AOL (visit http://www.harlanellison.com for details). Bottom line: Stealing is stealing. And if you do it from me, I’ll slap you so hard your momma will cry.

Clifford Meth is loved by Harlan Ellison, hated by Gary Groth, and doesn’t know which is a greater distinction. His current book is god’s 15 minutes.

Fiona Avery:

Where it’s a copyright violation, I’m pretty sure it won’t last long. Where it’s new and emerging talent showcasing what they can do without going through the usual print channels, I say … why not? The web’s quite democratic in this respect and contrary to popular belief, this is a big playground with room for everyone. I like growth, no matter how it branches out, it always finds a way. Growth is healthy. Stagnation is the enemy. Although I think if you go through the trouble to scan and upload a web-based comic, you might as well go one step further and create web-based animation and make them into moving pictures. But now I stray from the topic at hand. I really can’t predict if people will make any money at internet comics, because I just don’t have the data available to assess the past, present and future trends. But I will be curious to see where it all leads.

Fiona Avery plays in the Marvel Universe, with Wildstorm at DC, and is the creator of No Honor.

Stephen Holland:

I can’t see this as anything other than favourable.

The new-found ability to hear original music, through bypassing the barrier rather than conduit that major radio stations represent, has allowed new or minor bands to reach an audience they could never have reached before, in much the same way that you can now access comic book material that might never have made it to a distributor’s catalogue or – rarer still – onto the average retailer’s shelves. It is then up to the audience to decide whether to support those musicians in their creativity by coughing up and so finance future endeavours… or to just download the tracks themselves in what I hope is the knowledge that they may never hear another note out of them, because they failed to support the musicians financially.

(Have I made this clear? If you like what you hear, and you want to hear more, buy their physical vinyl or CDs, otherwise they ain’t going to be round long enough to give you more of what you’ll enjoy.)

In this medium we have an added advantage.

Because although you can download music into a different delivery system (i.e you download it from the net, burn it onto a CD, and the sound remains the same – it’s the sound that counts), in comics there is absolutely no comparison between the aesthetic benefits of perusing a physical comic book and the brief thrill of seeing it porridged on a website.

There is nothing to equal the line on a page. You want the real deal to gawp at forever? You buy a physical copy. The equivalent receptacle to downloading music to your i-pod would be to print out your webcomic on A4 paper and staple it yourself: amateur at best.

If this weren’t true, Page 45 wouldn’t be selling so many copies of Megatokyo, published now by Dark Horse. Every single one of the buyers so far already has access to the material via the internet. Not one to my knowledge has picked up the trade paperback sight unseen. They liked what they saw on the web and they wanted to possess the material physically.

And that has proved to be an awful lot of people, for a bloody awful comic.

Great advertising, I say.

Stephen Holland runs Page 45 in Nottingham with Mark Simpson and Tom Rosin. He can also be found, monthly, in Comics International, and in Stairway To The Stars at the Hilton in Nottingham on 27th February. Tickets cost £35. It isn’t a musical, you’ll be relieved to hear.

Lee Dawson:
Actually I don’t think this will have much of an impact at all. Unlike music, in which for most people the song is the product, comics are much more about the physical item. Comics fans want to physically own the comic, hold it, save it, pass it along, etc…

Now if there were a way to print out your own trade paper back or something along those lines, that might be a problem! I think we’re a long way from someone boasting about how they have the latest Hellboy files on their computer as opposed to showing off the issue.

Lee Dawson is the publicity guru for Dark Horse comics.

Rob Williams:

I’ve always thoroughly enjoyed taking comics into the toilet with him – it’s my little daily chance to catch up on the stack of issues I’ve bought but not got around to reading – my comics quiet time. So, personally, I’m not really a fan of online comics, as it’d just be a tad too awkward to have to carry a 17-inch monitor into the Karzey with me every time I want an ablute.

I’m not overly concerned about online ‘pirate’ copies. Comics, to me at least, are all about paper. Picking them up in the shop, leafing through them to see if it looks good enough to buy. So many comics people are nostalgics, to be honest. One of the reasons we love comics is because of the connection we have with them from childhood and their physical touch and feel is a large part of that.

Downloading them would be an inferior experience, and I’d have to buy an extension cable just to get my monitor into the toilet. So I’m against it.

Rob Williams is the writer of Cla$$war for Com.X, Family for the Judge Dredd Megazine, a bunch of stuff for 2000AD, including the upcoming Low Life, and Star Wars Tales for Dark Horse.

Michael David Thomas:

I think many parallels can be drawn between the comic book industry and the recording industry for this discussion. Part of what happened to the recording industry is that they never addressed the progress of technology and file sharing in relation to their business model. Anyone growing up before the proliferation of CD-burning and the internet remembers recording a tape of CDs or tape or LPs for their friends. There is no difference in what was being done. But now instead of just giving a tape of Boston’s first album to your friend at high school, you can share those files with anyone in the world and much faster & easier. The recording industry — having grown fat for decades on screwing artists in relation to what they’re paying them and what they end up owning — suddenly realized too late that the money they counted on for coke binges and $200 hookers wasn’t a given anymore.

I see some of the same mentality with comic book companies. For decades, the basic form of the comic book and the way in which it’s sold has not changed all that much, while the world around it has morphed a 1000 times over. And while some of the processes have changed and we’ve become smarter as an industry in some ways, we’re still held to a monthly 32-page color pamphlet. And no one has thought up a better way to make that form different or more marketable in any significant way in light of the technology available. So considering the ubiquitousness of scanners, DSL and the inevitability of piracy in our world, is it really a surprise that someone would think, “Maybe I should simply scan it and send it to my friend?” I don’t think so and neither should any company that expects to conduct business out there.

It was inevitable. I will give some credit to CrossGen and Marvel for trying their hand at electronic media with e-comics. But it wasn’t going to prevent any of this piracy.

So after that exhaustive background, what’s the impact? In the short term, minimal to none. But the long term is dependent on what happens with the next generation of readers.

In the short term, those who buy comics now aren’t going to switch overnight. Comic books are a tactile medium. Those drawn to it when they were introduced to comics will continue to buy them off the racks. I know that I read the free ecomics for Ultimate X-Men for 2 issues before I started plunking my money down for the hard copy. You can’t curl with a computer on a couch and veg out like you can with a comic book.

The problem is what happens to the next generation of reader (or non-readers). If this is the only form by which they read them, then, yes, the comic book companies will have lost future consumers and started that slide into antiquity. But was this was not the only reason they lost them. Isn’t it the companies’ responsibilities to get them reading in the first place? It’s been an inevitable slide since the advent of the Internet, games (PC and game consoles), movies and more to take new readers attention away from comic books. Piracy is the symptom of a bigger problem and until the comic industry addresses the disease instead of the symptoms (say by lawsuits and cease and desist letters), it will continue to pose a real threat for future consumers of comic books.

End of rant.

Michael David Thomas works at Dark Horse Comics, trading hats between front desk reception, lettering and proofreading.


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