3 things digital comics need to be successful

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New York Comic-Con is taking place this week. Alas, I won’t be attending. A family wedding in early November forced me to cancel my plans. Which is really a letdown because I had been looking forward to the Con for months.

“Why the conflict, if NYCC is in October and the wedding is in November” you ask?

Because if I shave my head this week, my hair won’t grow back in time. I don’t want to spend the whole reception explaining my stubbly head to people whom I only see once every two years. And, honestly, if I can’t walk around the Javits Convention Center dressed as Lex Luthor on Thursday, THX-1138 on Friday, the Episode 6 Anakin Skywalker on Saturday, and Disco Brian Michael Bendis on Sunday, what’s the point of even going to the Con?

But I will console myself by writing a column about my remaining hopes for digital comics.

The mainstreaming of digital publishing is nearly complete. I can only think of three major things that the industry still needs to accomplish:

1) Comixology signs a deal to distribute Dark Horse Comics.

Dark Horse is the only major publisher whose content isn’t available through the de facto iTunes of digital comics publishing. It’s a sore spot for any fan, because Dark Horse is an important publisher. As the longtime holders of the “Star Wars” comics license, they’ve done more to extend the scope and depth of that universe than Lucasfilm. They’ve also got Hellboy and Stan Sakai’s “Usagi Yojimbo” (both highly-prestigious) and a bunch of popular licensed properties.

I’ve no idea what the holdup is but I’m certain that Comixology continues to pursue Dark Horse as intently as the iTunes Store pursued the Beatles catalogue. It’s the only thing preventing Comixology from being as close to a “one-stop shopping” experience as we’ll ever get.

2) The industry adopts ePUB as the standard container for digital comics.

Popular digital comic book formats are either proprietary (like the comics you buy through Comixology or Amazon) or (like CBZ/CBR and PDF format) they’re accessible but they can’t do very much. ePUB was designed by the publishing industry to be an appropriate container for any kind of content. The simple text of a novel? Easy-peasy; anyone can turn a file into an ePUB. But it’s flexible enough to handle nearly any kind of media or interactive content.

We’re going to need a more muscular format soon. Current formats mostly limit digital comics to the static, turn-the-pages type of tales that have been published since back when Captain America was still punching Hitler in the face. But there are some innovative ideas happening on the Web, as independent creators are coming up with new ways of moving a reader through a story.

Only ePUB is primed to translate those ideas to a file that can be built by, and then read by, almost anybody on almost anything. And ePUB is just as adept at delivering the classic “punching Hitler in the face”-style comics, too.

Comics took a grand leap forward when the economics and technologies of printing and production finally let comics pages break free of muddy printing and flat, limited coloring. ePUB can help comics make another big leap.

3) Comixology and the rest of the industry drops DRM.

We should be grateful to DRM. “What about piracy?” wasn’t Marvel or DC’s only qualm about digital publishing, but it was a question that needed to be addressed before the major publishers could go all-in.

But now that Comixology is up and running, and people have been “trained” to use the new infrastructure, DRM is becoming less and less valuable with each passing quarter.

Comixology, like the iTunes Music Store did during the pre-Obama era, has made purchasing digital content more attractive than stealing it. Click once to enter a single store that has (almost) everything, find and purchase what you want in minutes, then start reading it seconds later.

It’s not enough to say that a comic bought from Comixology is of far higher quality than what you’d typically find on a pirate site, either: these comics are mastered from their original digital prepress files and prepared for reading on 300+ dpi screens. In most ways, the experience is actually superior to what you’d get from a treeware comic.

So at this point, the digital comics audience has been clearly defined. The average reader prefers the advantages of buying digital comics legally. The rest are entitled nits who will download comics illegally no matter what Comixology does. They’re the “Johnny No-Wanna-Pay”s who are willing to undergo a pretty crummy experience to download pirated comics of unreliable quality.

So why not do as iTunes did, and start selling unlocked comics? Image Comics made a big splash this summer by dropping DRM on new titles purchased through their direct store. “You bought it, you own it” is the official policy.

Of course, the gesture is of little value without the availability of an open comics format (like ePUB). But we seem to have passed a tipping point. DRM is now more of a burden to consumers, and the medium, than a boon.

DRM is the chestplate to Tony Stark’s original Iron Man armor. It gives the wearer life, but only so long as the technology keeps working. So you kind of wish you could do away with it.

Liberate a book from DRM and then the user can freely make backups of it (good) and convert it into other formats (great).

This is why I sometimes “screenshot” my way through a DRM’ed comic or graphic novel that I particularly enjoy. It might take me an hour to turn this Kindle or Comixology graphic novel into a .CBZ file, but now I have the security of knowing that I’ll be able to read “Relish: My Life In The Kitchen” (the utterly amazingly great memoir by Lucy Knisley) on any device I want, forever. I can move the file to the new reader I acquire in 2030. And if this device doesn’t like .CBZ files, I can convert “Relish” to a friendlier format. It won’t matter if Knisley’s publisher has withdrawn the book from all digital stores and the artist herself has withdrawn to an ashram on Io, far beyond the cares of the work she made in her twenties.

We humans need to preserve as much of our cultural legacy as we can because we’re terrible at figuring out what we’re going to be grateful we kept, ten or a hundred years down the line. Is “Dead City” by Murray Leinster a particularly geniusful novelette? No, but here’s the opening line:

“From beginning to end, it was Pete Marshall’s show. His show, and the knife’s.”

Don’t you want to read more? You can, if you have access to the Summer 1946 issue of “Thrilling Wonder Stories.” I suppose that technically, this story is DRM’ed via device lock, but all you need is the magazine and eyes. If this were a DRM’ed comic, the story would have been lost forever. Who would decode and revive a 70-year-old DRM format just to read a forgotten story?

These are the only three advances in digital comics publishing that I’m still awaiting. Otherwise, the transition is damned-near complete, and a roaring success. I sincerely prefer digital comics to treeware because with the nearest great comic book store more than an hour’s drive away from my house, digital offers a superior experience from end to end. Comixology isn’t better than a great comic book store (like the one I still drive an hour to, once a month). But it’s certainly better than a mediocre one.

When I get nostalgic for my old treeware comics, I’ll get out some of my favorites and curl up on the sofa with them. It’s likely the very issues of “West Coast Avengers” that I bought in 1986, so there’s a lovely emotional connection to these objects.

It doesn’t take long before I get past the nostalgia. I realize how muddy the printing is, and how hard it is for me to make out the minute details that “sell” the visuals. And the colors are off. These problems were there even when this comic was new. A quarter-century later, the edges of the pages are chipped and there are some wrinkles.

Then I go back to that same comic on my iPad. It’s so clear that it’s like I’m looking at the original artwork, which was drawn at nearly twice the size of the printed page. Each panel is loaded with details that I had never seen until this book finally became available from the publisher in digital form. The comic still uses flat, 1980’s-style coloring, but at least the tiger-fur is a buttery orange, not a greenish yellow, and the skintones are close to something I might have seen being worn by fashionable human beings.

I also recall that I was able to go from “I’d like to read that comic” to “reading that comic” inside of about sixty seconds and eleven taps. Whereas the treeware edition only revealed itself after a good fifteen minute session of Longbox Jenga. This is the exciting action game in which I try to work out which of these sixteen stacked-up white boxes contains my 80s Avengers books, without sending the whole thing crashing down on top of me.

If I’m going to be smothered to death by comics, at least it be by my complete John Byrne run of “Fantastic Four,” or my first-edition “Sandman” and “Hellblazer” books. With my luck, it’d be all of the polybagged X-Men comics I bought during the speculator boom.

Which brings us to yet another advantage of digital comics: they probably won’t kill you. No insurance investigator ever wrote “It’s likely that the fire’s point of origin was the 71 issues of ‘Fables’ on the deceased’s iPad.”

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