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The Future of Comics in the Digital Age

"The Invincible Iron Man" and other digital comics are available online for free viewing.
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Above: "The Invincible Iron Man" and other digital comics are available online for free viewing.

As 130,000 fans swarmed Comic-Con 2010 last weekend, several questions were on their minds:

“Will Comic-Con stay in San Diego?”

“Where is [enter name of favorite celebrity here]?”

“Is my cape on straight?”

But a more important question is facing the industry as a whole: “What is the future of comic books?”

Comic-Con hosted multiple panels to discuss the impact technology will have on how people enjoy comics and on the $680 million a year (in the United States alone) industry. Revenue from digital comics is estimated at $1 million a year, and the sector is growing rapidly.

A Changing Landscape

The familiar comic book format hasn’t changed much since the 1930s. Comics started as collections of daily newspaper comic strips assembled in a magazine format on pulp newsprint. Today, comics vary in size and are, of course, often printed in color on high quality paper. Digital comics have been around since the 1980s, but were largely the domain of small press and independent artists. Only in recent years have top publishers such as DC Comics (Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman) and Marvel Comics (Iron Man, Spider-Man, X-Men) released several of their titles online. San Diego based IDW Publishing (30 Days of Night) has been one of the leaders in promoting digital comics and making their library of titles available for download.

Most of these digital comics are static: the same as the printed edition available at newsstands and retailers, but, increasingly, “motion comics” use technology to simulate movement and add real voices for character dialogue.

The iPad Effect

Eisner Award-winning "Chew" by John Layman and Rob Guillory on the iPad using ComiXology.
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Above: Eisner Award-winning "Chew" by John Layman and Rob Guillory on the iPad using ComiXology.

Unsurprisingly, digital comics have renewed buzz thanks to Apple’s iPad tablet computer: it's one thing to view your comics on your computer, it's quite another to carry them with you in digital form. The iPad seems an ideal format for reading digital comics: it has a larger screen than a cell phone and weighs less than a laptop computer. And of course, the iPad displays in full color. The iTunes Store has made it easy to find digital comics and is loaded with apps such as the popular ComiXology for use on the iPhone and iPad.

As is often the case, other companies are following Apple's lead. Sony has made digital comics available for download from the PlayStation Store and viewable on their PSP portable gaming system. Similarly, Nokia, the world’s largest cell phone manufacturer, has made digital comics available on their smart phones. The scuttlebutt is that similar features are being developed for Android.

There are certainly lots of options: but will comic distributors and fans take the bait? Some worry comic retailers could be devastated in the same way online movie rentals like Netflix have torpedoed Blockbuster. Other fans feel the digital format isn’t a good fit, citing the small screen or the need to have an expensive device to enjoy comics. “I don’t need my comic book crashing when I read it or a low battery limiting my time,” one fan told me.

And the demise of print threatens the collectibles market. Rare comics are highly sought after and trading comics is big business. With digital comics, there is no collecting option, since everything can be easily reproduced and downloaded.

Another challenge: there is presently no standardized format for digital comics with manufacturers each designing their own – incompatible – reader apps.

But digital comics have their fans. One soldier shared how when he was serving in the Middle East, he took great joy in being able to read his favorite comics on demand on his mobile device. Others noted the ease and accessibility of digital comics has allowed them to read more and carry their entire library of comics on one device. “I don’t have to fill up boxes of comics anymore!” said one.

As technology advances and more of our lives are spent online, the comic industry will need to find its place on the digital frontier.

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