Eye on Comics

Comics criticism and commentary from Don MacPherson

Print’s Charming

Posted by Don MacPherson on August 11th, 2008

There’s been some talk in the comics blogosphere recently about the viability of printed products in the 21st century, with suggestions arising that print is dead or is dying. It’s hardly a new notion or argument. Funerals and wakes have been held for print media time and time again, and they started in the 1990s. A decade later, we’ve yet to see the paperless society that many touted as the wave of the future. That wave is never going to make it to shore.

It seems as though concerns have arisen again in the wake of this year’s Comic-Con International San Diego. Among the major comics-related announcements were new initiatives for digital comics. DC has arranged the production of a semi-animated incarnation of Watchmen, capitalizing on the buzz surrounding the forthcoming movie (slated for release in March). Marvel touted a new deal with horror writer Stephen King, as they work together to produce N. Nintendo will release comics specifically on the Wii video-game system.

Other previously announced and launched programs include DC’s Zuda online comics, Marvel’s Digital Comics Unlimited and Platinum’s relaunched WoWio downloading service. People download pirated comics to save themselves the trouble of paying for the product. People are reading novels on their iPhones. People are reading online editions of their local newspapers rather get ink smeared on their fingers. E-mail dominates the realm of written communication.

Are these harbingers of the end for those of us who enjoy our comics, books and papers in more traditional, concrete formats?

Christ, no. Don’t be ridiculous.

Those recent and not-so recent developments in the world of comics have understandably led to some discussion about the viability of print comics. Newly appointed Cloak & Dagger writer Valerie D’Orazio suggests that if comics are to keep up with technological advances, someone needs to develop a new kind of digital-comics reader. Warren Ellis dismisses the argument of print’s demise altogether, rightly pointing out that he, along with many others, are earning a fine living producing material produced in print form. Matt Fraction rightly pointed out (though I can’t find the source now) in the middle of the furor of digital-comics announcements last month that they really just supplement the traditional print medium of comics, that they’ll never replace it.

These new forays into the world of digital comics aren’t the first such attempts to boost interest in the medium by reaching out through other media. A few years ago, both Marvel and the now-defunct CrossGen Comics tried to reach new audiences with DVD programs. You could find a select number of titles from both publishers on DVD at Wal Mart, and those willing to check discount bins might still be able to track those failed products even today.

Do I think the Marvel/Stephen King, Watchmen, Wii and other projects are doomed to failure? Not at all. In fact, I hope they’re successful. While I think comics will always be remain a print product, at least in the public consciousness, digital incarnations of comics, both classic ones and new products, bolster the print medium. Marvel’s had some success with massive CD archival projects, of course, and a number of webcomics have proven to be creative successes as well as financial ones (to a certain extent).

I love comics, and I work in the newspaper industry. One could argue that I have a personal, vested and emotional interest in the survival of print, and that’s true. But my eyes are open. There’s no denying the impact of the digital age on print products, but predictions of digital media replacing print ones haven’t proven to be true.

Print isn’t going anywhere. It’s a permanent part of culture all over the planet, and in many ways, it can serve as a more permanent record of that culture and history. There’s one overwhelming factor that ensures the survival of printed product, and that’s human nature. We human beings are tactile by nature. People like the smell of a new comic or an old one. Crossword enthusiasts like getting newsprint on their fingers as they fill in their answers in ink. And there’s nothing like a well-stocked personal library of favorite books, the spines pointing out from bookshelves in one’s den.

That so many of us are collectors at heart as well makes me believe that it’s another predisposition of our species. We like to keep, we like to hoard. Collectibles can serve as trophies for some, a symbol of a successful and fulfilling hunt. An Adobe Acrobat .PDF file on one’s PC desktop just doesn’t fill that same need.

I suppose one could argue that print as we once knew it is dead. Several sectors of print publishing have had to adapt to survive. Circulations have changed, and the business of advertising is understandably different, given that more and more options are available to those seeking some form of paid promotion.

The nature of the content is different as well. Tastes have changed. Audiences have changed. Entire cultures have changed. As such, the world of print has been irrevocably changed as well. It doesn’t face extinction. Instead, it stands out as something of a Darwinian success story.

14 Responses to “Print’s Charming”

  1. Jeff Hebert Says:

    I work entirely in the digital realm, and I couldn’t agree with you more. Printed comic books are dead, just like books died with the advent of TV and movies. Wait, what’s that? The printed book industry not only weathered those technological innovations readily but actually thrived? Don’t confuse me with your fancy facts, you elitist scum!

    Good article, Don, thanks!

  2. Ryan H Says:

    Print, in all its forms, isn’t dead and won’t be in any of our life times.
    But the potentials of the medium and format are changing. The move of many aspiring cartoonist and writers from newspaper aspirations to webcomics has not harmed the art form or the creators, but has opened up many new opportunities. A similar thing will happen to print comics and books as display technologies advance.

    The only way that new technology could threaten the traditional publishers is if they force the up and coming creators to chose between the old and the new. If they exclude the more adventurous and experimental creators it will come back to bite them. Much like these days very few aspiring cartoonists dream of showing up in their local paper and instead have visions of being the next PvP or Penny Arcade.

    However, if the publishers stop treating the digital world as a threat that must be addressed and more as an opportunity to expand their market it will pay off.

  3. egan Says:

    Not that there aren’t many, many small press and indy titles that go unnoticed on the shelves every month (not to mention Marvel and DC books, too), but I think that a comic being printed also adds a certain “legitimacy” to it in the reader’s eyes. How many long-form online comics have widespread acknowledgment in the comics community? I can think of one. It seems as though for now, at least, online comics have worked best at delivering a quick, daily dose of sequential storytelling (ie. Achewood, Perry Bible Fellowship), whereas the floppy and trade have remained the forms of choice for multi-issue arcs.

  4. Adam Says:

    Sorry, but this is deluded. Sure, Print will always “survive” in that we’ll want to keep them around as historical objects, specialty objects, old-fashioned home decoration, etc., but for the public-at-large’s reading habits, it’s only a matter of time until something better comes along.

    The reason why something cheaper fails to replace something pricier is because it does not successfully accomplish at least all of the same functions to consumers’ satisfaction. Once it does, you have nothing left but nostalgia – which is what Don MacPherson’s wistful talk of ink on puzzlers’ fingers and the like comes down to – and showing off by using them as decorations (think of “Western Classics” volumes in some households). At that point it’ll enter the domain of a minority of like-minded people: basically, the literary-minded equivalent of those folks who still buy 45s of their favorite bands instead of CDs.

    Book sales have grown and will grow for some time, yes – because (A) the population keeps on increasing, and a greater percentage of those people than ever before are literate, so sales are bound to grow, and (B) because the book is still a fundamentally unique product. A better comparison to the future of book sales is music sales. There, the product is fundamentally the same, and sales for the former mode of accessing music are plunging.

    I received a Kindle recently for my birthday, read through a new thriller on it in about two nights. It was as easy and pleasurable as reading in the traditional manner; I’ve already downloaded a few more books. I see some problems with it already, but it’s a darn good stab at the future that’s definitely out there.

  5. Don MacPherson Says:

    Egan, it also merits noting that many of the more successful webcomics spawn print incarnations. Penny Arcade, Mom’s Cancer and Get Your War On come to mind.

    Adam, I don’t see how you can separate books as a more viable print medium than comics or newspapers. It’s not just a matter of nostalgia. I believe it’s a matter of human nature, as I note in the essay. Furthermore, people also like to pass things on to friends, to the next generation, etc. Print makes that more feasible; print seems more permanent and concrete.

  6. Scott Says:

    Don – I’ve been reading your blog and reviews through several iterations – don’t always agree, but thanks for writing it.

    One of Asimov’s F&SF science essays back in the 80s (might have been 70s, actually) dealt with ebooks; his argument defined the requirements for the most portable, most durable, most energy efficient form for written communication; his logical argument ended with this being a normal book. So this progression has been going on for a while, and has a ways to run yet.

    I think the “nostalgia” argument is minor, although nothing is more glorious than a wall of floor-to-ceiling, built-in, fully stocked bookshelves. My chief problem with any ebook format is durability; it has to deal with the fact that objects tend to fling themselves from my hands at a high rate of speed into the hardest surface within range. My paperback copy of “The Dain Curse” will survive that, with a slight dent on the corner of the spine, and no effect to its functionality; in contrast my ipod nano lasted about a week and a half before acquiring a mysterious annoying scratch on the LCD. I’m loathe to invest in any larger handheld screen.

    Then there’s the beating that my three year old inflicts – a couple pieces of scotch tape fixes his copy of Cat in the Hat easier than I could fix a Kindle. Not to mention that turning pages, as a more tactile, physical action, is probably better for a learning reader than staring at a screen and pushing a button. Less electronics is a good rule of thumb for kids toys, and we see all sorts of discouragement of time spent staring at TV screens; I don’t see how this direction would be any different for books. ObComics – I’m itching to buy him an Owly paperback, when he’s ready (soon).

    There’s other issues that ebooks need to solve before you can eliminate traditional books, connected with the supplemental reading actions – the highlighting in textbooks, the ability to effectively/simply simulate sticking my thumb on the answer page in a puzzle book and flip back and forth, the 4000 postits and the markouts and add-ins of ingredient substitutions that my wife has in her cookbooks; and the marginalia I write in my bible during sunday school. But I think defeating the magnetic attraction between my reading material and various concrete surfaces is my big hitter.

  7. Ryan H Says:

    @Scott
    I have also read that Asimov essay and it is a wonderful piece of writing. And, roughly thirty years after it was first published, it remains entirely applicable. If you make a list of all the requirements that a media must fulfill to present a good reading experience, for comics or traditional print works, printed books still cover far more bases than electronic media. And will continue to do so… until it doesn’t.

    If in the late 90s you had made the same list for music it would have shown you that digitally stored and played music would also never catch on. Storage room? Even at 64k bitrate you can’t store many mp3s, even on a massive 1 or 2 Gb hard drive compared to tapes or CDs where you can store as many as you can stack up. Audio quality? Well, with the compression needed digital files will never be able to match CDs or records or even a good tape for quality. Portability? You can use a tape or CD with all sorts of portable players but there is no way you are going to haul a PC around with you to play your music. Besides, there is no easy way to share digital files with your friends ;)

    Of course, these days anyone that suggests that CDs or tapes are the most convenient or popular format for audio media is looked at funny.

    For books of all kinds, the same thing will happen. Resolution? There are already portable screens with higher DPI than cheap paperback books. Give another few years and they will be large, cheap and common place. Battery life/ability to read without power? OLED screens like the Kindle use 0 power except when flipping the page and batteries are getting batter all the time. Another couple years and you will be looking at a month between charges. Storage space? Electronic media already beats the pants off of physical media for storage. Jut ask any bibliophile or comic collector who has moved houses recently.

    To ignore the new opportunities is asking for nothing but trouble. The realities of the business will change. Look how well denial has worked for the record industry.

  8. Gary Says:

    Can you bring your Kindle to a book signing and have your favorite author sign it?

  9. Ryan H Says:

    Can you bring your iPod to a gig and have you favorite band sign it?

  10. Marc Hansen Says:

    Print survives because it weeds out the 12-year olds and their illiterate chicken scratchings. Any no-talent kid can post their homage to their favorite superhero on the web and call themselves an independent comic book publisher. Given a few bucks on their birthday, and they’ll even buy a banner on comicbookresources.com. For comic book readers, this is a pain in the ass to wade through. Print legitimizes a book because it’s harder to do, costs more money and printers and Diamond aren’t going to deal with rugrats. If the web had that same filter, like a strong, recognizable brand that stood firm for quality comics, then maybe we’d get somewhere. Hi-res monitors and resolution-independent graphics would go a long ways too.

  11. Randy Lander Says:

    Can you bring your iPod to a gig and have you favorite band sign it?

    Can you get anywhere near your favorite band at a gig to have them sign anything? ;)

    I think folks are drawing the music/MP3 and comics/PDF (or whatever) comparison far too closely. Obviously, it bears watching, and obviously the triumph of eMusic, iTunes and Amazon over Tower Records, Sound Warehouse and, uh, Amazon has ramifications that wise heads in the comics industry should watch. Certainly everyone’s been so skittish (both in the retail and publishing communities) that I’m reminded of the RIAA’s suicidal approach to downloading.

    *But*… music ain’t comics. Or novels. If you listen to an MP3 or a CD, unless you’re a true audiophile, the experience is exactly the same. Reading a book or comic in print and reading a book or comic on a Kindle (some imaginary future version that can handle color, hi-res image) is always going to be a different experience. The tactile component of reading is more than just nostalgia. It’s a built-in part of the reading experience. Being able to flip pages and instantly look at whatever you want, flipping back or forward to remind yourself or look ahead, these are key to the reading experience for a lot of people. Not everyone, but enough to keep the print medium very healthy.

    Do I see a day when paper newspapers, comics and books are gone entirely? Maybe. But probably not in my lifetime, and I doubt it’ll be in my kids’ lifetimes either. If you’ve got a Kindle now, congrats… you’re an early adopter. If you download PDFs of comics of the web, congrats… you’re an early adopter.

    But you’re not the majority. And to act like you are, and that anyone arguing that print is dead is an old fogey, is as foolish as someone who refuses to acknowledge that yes, digital distribution will continue to make changes in the way comics, books, etc. are handled.

    Don had a short little laundry list of the bold digital initiatives that have fallen by the wayside. Some of them (such as the Crossgen experiment) are both 5-10 years old and yet *exactly* what is being touted as bold and new (such as the Watchmen motion-comic, or MTV’s half-assed Invincible motion cartoon). If this is all the progress we’ve made in 5-10 years, I think predicting that it’s going to sweep out an established, popular format in 5-10 more is foolish.

  12. D. Peace Says:

    I agree with Adam above. While anachronistic novelty items will always exist, you could never expect them to be at the forefront of any medium. The question on the table is whether or not print media will fall into that category.

    I think it’ll have to, albeit a lot more slowly than the tech-huggers would have us believe. The fact of the matter is that people have a genuine affinity for paper reading products. It’s almost an emotional thing… the tactile quality of the paper between your fingers feels more relevant and genuine than words on a screen. It’s sort of a sentimental attachment that people can’t seem to shake.

    But when you look at it from a purely logistic standpoint, it doesn’t make much sense to continue on with paper. It’s expensive, it consumes trees unnecessarily, it’s wasteful and costly and, relative to digital media, unpopular with young people. Yes, print media has continued to grow during the eras of television and radio but that’s because neither of those media were able to replicate the act of reading. The cognitive and intellectual abilities used while reading are completely different to those used to watch a TV show. Reading will never die and the printed word will never die but the way it’s delivered will slowly change.

    As I said before, this change is going to move very, very slowly because people still have a very sincere fondness for the printed page. Beyond preference and sentimentality, however, there’s not much to go on. Think about it: have you EVER heard a compelling argument for sticking to paper media other than “I just happen to like it better and I think most people just happen to like it better”? Chances are, this affection will give way to pragmatism and new ideas, leaving paper an oddity from the past, still appreciated by the loyalists but gone from the mainstream.

    This shift won’t happen in our lifetimes, but it will happen.

    “If you listen to an MP3 or a CD, unless you’re a true audiophile, the experience is exactly the same. Reading a book or comic in print and reading a book or comic on a Kindle (some imaginary future version that can handle color, hi-res image) is always going to be a different experience. The tactile component of reading is more than just nostalgia. It’s a built-in part of the reading experience.”
    - Randy

    Dude, you just happen to like comics better than music. ;)

    There ARE “true audiophiles” just like YOU’RE a true bibliophile. No, there’s nothing wrong with that at all. I’m just saying that the absolute die-hards (God bless them) don’t necessarily represent a majority of the mainstream. That’s OK of course, but you can’t gauge the future of the medium amongst a vast mainstream demographic based on the wants and passions of a small, vocal constituency of loyalists.

    I believe that, unless you’re a true bookworm, reading material on a computer screen is exactly the same experience as reading it in a hardcover. And although I see your point, I’m a bookworm like you. Most people aren’t.

  13. Don MacPherson Says:

    You wrote:
    I believe that, unless you’re a true bookworm, reading material on a computer screen is exactly the same experience as reading it in a hardcover.

    I’m guessing many optometrists would disagree. :)

  14. Randy Lander Says:

    Dude, you just happen to like comics better than music. ;)

    Ha! OK, fair enough. And you’re right, I am a bibliophile. I have an office full of graphic novels and books. Of course, I also have a living room full of DVDs. It’s a good thing I’m not an audiophile, I’d have no other rooms in which to put all those vinyl records. ;)

    I guess I’d argue that the bibliophile is a more common occurrence than the audiophile, and as you note, that’s why the change is going to be slow, if it ever comes at all.

    I believe that, unless you’re a true bookworm, reading material on a computer screen is exactly the same experience as reading it in a hardcover. And although I see your point, I’m a bookworm like you. Most people aren’t.

    See, and I do think there’s a notable difference here. The primary one, and this will eventually be solved or at least mitigated to such a great extent that it is basically solved, is that reading a hardcover (or paperback) novel requires no electricity. There’s also no chance of a bug developing that stops your read in midstream until you can get home and “re-sync” the novel. The readability is easier and clearer at this point.

    I’ll grant that probably every issue facing digital media vs. print media is solvable by the inevitable march of technology, but… I still think we’re looking at one, maybe two more generations at least before digital media overtakes print as a majority output for comics.