So. Is the future of comics digital?
If you were reading last week, you already know that so long as there’s breath in my body there’ll be at least one person with a massive pile of printed pages on good old fashioned paper. But will it be just me?
See, my trouble is that while I might appear to be a cool young man about town* I am in fact pushing forty** and while I might still be eighteen in my head, the eighteen year old in my head is still in 1989 where I left him. Things have changed since then – in 1989 computers were huge things the size of a couple of box files with a huge cathode ray tube based monitor. Oh, and a four gig hard drive was considered cutting edge.
This was a time before the World Wide Web, before e-mail, before anyone that wasn’t rich had a mobile ‘phone, and the mobiles that did exist were the size of a house brick and only made ‘phone calls. I mean you couldn’t even send a text message, let alone access online content – which of course, as I’ve already said, didn’t exist in any case. Basically it was the dark ages, and so of course paper was the medium of choice for comics. There was no other choice to make.
Now there is, and whether I like it or not, if the eighteen year old me was eighteen now, I’d want a comic I could read with my thumbs.
Back in the year 2000 when I started writing this column, laptops were still rare, and while text messaging had taken off, mobile ‘phones and handheld devices were still pretty primitive by today’s standards. We talked about Scott McCloud’s online Zot! Comic last time. I thought it was cool back then – if you’re interested I even wrote about it a bit back then. My closing comment in that column all those years ago was along the lines of my hoping that McCloud would reconsider his commitment to web only comics, because if he didn’t I’d have to buy a laptop or stick to reading comics at my desk.***
Back then, screen based comics published on the internet just didn’t seem to make sense. Those early episodes of ZOT! took ages to download (because I was still using dial up, if you can believe it!) and it just didn’t seem like a viable prospect. These days you can download content onto your ‘phone, your i-pod, your PSP, your i-pad and doubtless any number of other hi-tech devices that I’ve never even heard of. There is content on the web that can be downloaded via wireless broadband in a fraction of a second and carried around on your pocket sized device.
They won’t crease, they won’t get ink on your fingers, they won’t rip and you can carry more comics on one good sized memory card than I can fit on my whole house. Of course, it’s no bloody use whatsoever if the battery runs down or you drop it in a puddle**** but then nobody ever claimed that the future would be perfect, now did they?
But however glitzy the gizmos, comics have evolved over the last hundred years or so to fit the traditional paper based “floppy” format. Pages of a certain size and shape, some viewed next to each other, some viewed next to adverts. The pace and structure of the story has been governed by this format – does the way we’ve gotten used to reading our comics translate to these screens of different shapes and sizes?
I dunno – I really don’t. I mean, in “portrait” orientation, an i-pad screen is about the right size and shape for the traditional comics page. If you’re prepared to forgo the double paged spread, you can even “turn” the “pages”. That’s almost rocking it old school – which begs the question “why bother”? I mean, if the experience is exactly the same as a paper comic, why spend four hundred quid on an i-pad? I mean, I spend a lot on comics, but it would take even me a while to spend four hundred quid!
Besides, is the future really the i-pad and the tablet PC? Sure they’re the gadget of the moment, but in five years time will we still be using them, or will we be finding them covered in dust at the back of a cupboard and wondering how the hell we managed with something as primitive as a solid screen? Will the multi-panelled page – be it made of ink and paper or a screen and pixels – seem big and cumbersome? Will we be using small ‘phone sized screens that fit in our pocket and are more suited to displaying a single panel at a time?
What can I say? Why not?
The thing is though, reading a comic that has been designed specifically for a ‘phone screen, or an i-pad, or a laptop screen, is always going to be a different experience to reading a comic that has been designed for a standard “floppy”. This should be no surprise – reading a story designed for a standard twenty two page floppy is a different experience from reading a story designed to be read as a hundred page graphic novel. I’m not suggesting that a screen based comics would be a worse reading experience, just a different one.
So while I have no doubt that the future will most definitely include comics that are not just presented on screen, but are deliberately designed and written to be read on that format. But that doesn’t mean “traditional” comics won’t be a part – even a major part of that future. The twenty two page paper based publications that I continue to think of as “proper” comics will be a part of the scene for the foreseeable future for the same reason that the Kindle will never fully replace the book. It might someday come to pass that paper is a minority interest, but I just don’t see it dying.
I’ve been banging on for a decade now about how comics are the most democratic mass medium of communication because anyone can fold up some paper and draw a sequential story on it. You don’t need words*****, which means there doesn’t have to be a language barrier. You don’t need any equipment, so there don’t need to be any start up costs. That simply isn’t going to change.
What the “new media”****** does is allow comics creators with access to various bits of tech to reach an immeasurably wider audience without the need for a publisher or a distributor. If you can digitise your comic then you can show it to anyone who has the right kind of reader. You can be a global publisher in your own right from the PC in your bedroom. If paper comics democratised the production of comics, then new media democratises the distribution. That can only be a good thing, so long as the content is good.
And there’s the rub. Will it be?
Well, be here next time, when we’ll go back and have a slightly belated look at the winners of the Stan Lee Excelsior awards, the DC re-launch****** and some other bits and pieces. See you then!
**I know. How the hell did that happen? It seems like only yesterday I was fifteen years old and searching the newsagents in Doncaster bus station for the latest imported American reprints of old Judge Dredd comics.
***Like I said – it was the dark ages.
****Of course, to be fair, old fashioned paper doesn’t fair too well if you drop it in water either…
*****Not on the page itself at least. All comics contain words somewhere, even if they’re only in the head of the reader and the imagination of the creator.
******Why do we still call it that, incidentally? I mean, all of this stuff has been around in some form or other for a couple of decades now. It’s all newish at best, I’d say…
*******Unless I’ve become so irritated by the whole thing that I can’t talk about it rationally. I’ve been doing deep breathing exercises so I should be alright…