Wednesday, September 28, 2011

The Future of Comics

I've spent the last few posts talking all about the history of American Comics and I hope all twelve of you reading enjoyed that, because now we're going to move from the world of facts to a place that I've slowly been moving things towards since the last update all about art in the 90s.

Time for some wild speculation that will all be proven wrong in just a few years!

Now, the comics industry is in a very odd place right now, a great deal of which is due to the world of digital comics. Webcomics exploded years ago and the market is so over saturated that, while there is a great deal of good out there, it's hard to sift through it all to find that. And really, there is a ton of gold out there to be found, but I'll talk more about that another time. Right now, though, digital comics on the iPad and other similar devices is what the industry is grappling with.

In many ways, it's a fight similar to the battle that books are having with e-readers, just on a smaller scale. The two major players in the industry, Marvel and DC, both have their own apps within which one can download comics at a price that is usually comparable to the same price of print comics, but until very recently, one could only get older comics, nothing brand new, digitally. Though this has changed, the problem of pricing remains and highlights the major problem that both Marvel and DC run into with digital: the fear to be the first to dive in head first.

Some would say that, with DC's recent relaunch of their entire line of comics, they've taken this dive already. And yes, DC has made some good steps, with Marvel doing much the same. Both now make all, in the case of DC, and nearly all, Marvel, of their comics available digitally every Wednesday, the day new comics are released in old fashioned, brick and mortar stores. But the prices, as mentioned, are horrid. $2-$4 for a digital copy of a roughly twenty page comic? That just won't work. Not for long, at least.

Digital is going to grow, one way or another, and it's vital for their survival that both Marvel and DC figure out how to do things reasonably. Partial stories delivered monthly like serials of old, the current model of the industry, is a dangerous gamble when combined with the instant gratification that digital creates. Is the cost worth the time to read and then the time to wait for the next issue? At the moment, no, so two obvious things definitely need to happen, though when and if they actually do is questionable.

First, page counts for digital comics need to go up. Someway, somehow, the publishers have got to find a way to release larger books digitally. The idea of digital trades, collections of finished stories that put all the single issues together, is already out there and being done, and the pricing is a bit better, but it still isn't enough. If one is expected to pay $4 for a digital comic, at least double the size of the book. 40 pages for that price begins to feel more reasonable, and even more so at $2. Yes, it's low, but that's how digital works. The music world has gone through this with iTunes and you'd be hard pressed to find many people that are willing to pay more than $0.99 for a single song. A comic needs to be as near that price point as possible.

But this is more an issue for the Now than the Future, so I'll stop going in circles and try to look ahead here.

So yes, I have no doubts that digital is the future, at least in some form. And I also believe that, like books, the physical comics will never truly disappear, though they may become a smaller and smaller piece of the market on the whole. There will always be a group that want the physical things, the music world is, again, a good example of this.

Stories will likely find a middle ground between the current trend of heavily serialized, overarching story lines and the classic so-called "one and done" story, which is more self contained, obviously. In some ways, this is a fight of style that will never truly go away, but the last few decades stories seem to have shifted dramatically from one side to the other, with the industry more strongly on the side of heavy serialization right now. But these things tend to balance out over time, and both types have merit. I'm fairly sure the industry needs to do both, instead of one or the other, if only to bring in more readers who prefer different types of storytelling. You'd be amazed, or perhaps not at all, but how many fans have left comics in the last decade because they feel they can no longer pick up any single issue and enjoy it on its own.

Beyond this, I do think webcomics will mature on the whole. I'd like to believe that we can move away from all webcomics needing to be joke-a-day style comics and push into more serious topics and genres. The content delivery of the internet shouldn't restrict the genre and the main reason for the current over saturation is that 90% of webcomics really are just the same joke style comics as everything else...and not funny. There have always been a small number of more serious, traditional-styled comics and stories in the webcomic world, and I'm glad to see more and more appearing in the last couple of years. If these kinds of webcomics are allowed to grow, it will only do good and, at the very least, allow more people the chance to tell stories and possibly even get noticed by the industry at large.

There is one major danger in looking forward, though, and that is nostalgia. In many ways, American comics are built on nostalgia, and to a point that's okay. But if the industry gets caught up in only catering to the group that wants to relive their childhood through comics, things will not continue for long. New is vital. And new can be done with old things. Some of the best stories with classic characters have been told in recent years, and I have no doubt that even better stories lie ahead, but none of that can happen if the industry allows itself to grow smaller and smaller without reaching out beyond its current audience.

In many ways, that's why I made this blog and write all of these long winded ramblings about why I love comics and feel they're a legitimate art form. There is something here for everyone, but that still requires the publishers to put it out there FOR everyone.

Okay, well, it looks like I had less to speculate about than I'd thought. Still, there are a couple of similar topics to this I want to talk about all on their own. So as the days go by, I'll have another artist-specific post finally go up, tackle webcomics in a much more focused way, and probably finally get around to talking about this DC relaunch and what it means...since this Wednesday marks the last of their new books and it'll be a perfect time to look at how this can be a good or bad thing for the industry, both artistically and overall viability.

Oh, and one last thing. My last post I horribly disparaged the long-running, never ending Spider-Man story, The Clone Saga. I want to remedy that cruelness. Yes, it continued to almost end and then go on, and when it finally did end, no one was happy and it was a convoluted mess, but I will say one very good things came out of it that probably shows, more than anything, my age. Spider-Man's clone, Ben Reilly, is a great character and one that deserves a return. So there, the Clone Saga wasn't all bad. Just...mostly bad.