The recent announcement of Comixology and Amazon merging has some people all in a flutter once again about the rise of digital comics. Other than the obvious advice (calm down), I think some historical and regional perspective might help us understand what this latest part of the trend means for our favourite medium.
Short preamble: I completely understand why small independent sellers would be threatened by technological change. My heart is with them to a large extent and as I say below: I shop at a small comic shop, myself. Heck, I even buy loose issues rather than TPB’s! That’s how old-school I am. But guess what. I’m old. I’m well aware that my consumer behaviour doesn’t reflect the average young person developing a passion for comics. And I don’t feel threatened by that one bit. It’s simply a fact. But let’s put things in perspective.
First, the historical perspective. In the early days, comics were sold everywhere, or at least places where people frequented: corner stores, etc. Everyone read them, in some part because they were presented along with every other kind of literature in the same store. Then the comics code came, comics got their collective lobotomy and became re-branded as “children’s” literature. The phenomenon of the “comic shop” and direct subscription concentrated the fan base but ultimately alienated the common reader culturally. Recently this trend has been reversing and now even HMV sells a few comics, and certainly a big chain store like Chapters sells them as well.
Lots of people I know today get their books through Amazon. I state this as a fact, not as a war cry or a statement of values, but simply a fact. It’s Friday and lots of people get their books through Amazon. If they had more access to comics in the place where they’re already shopping for their books, that’s a lot closer to the original model and will help bring comics back into the literature mainstream where they belong.
Then there’s the rural perspective, particularly a young rural person’s perspective. I spent a lot of the last decade in a small rural community and in terms of comics, things feel a lot different there than in a big city. In rural areas there are not only no comic shops but probably very few bookstores. Sure, a 17-year-old who wants the latest issue of Daredevil could do a special order through their Ma and Pa bookstore, complete with posters advertising the newest indie folk duo and the smell of incense, chat with them about the latest anti-development protest and wait three weeks and get their comic. Or they can do what ANY young person today is going to be inclined to do: seek digital distribution. They get the product right away, in a format that’s familiar to them and most importantly of all, they’re reading comics. They might not be buying them the way their parents or older siblings did, but they’re reading comics.
Besides, when did we decide that a comic shop or a small retailer was the only way to purchase comics? It’s certainly one way. But it’s not a way that’s going to reach the largest number of readers, or the young readers. Ask anyone today under 20: they’ll download things for the iPad Mini long before they’ll walk into a comic shop, packed to the gills with single issues and three guys who roll their eyes when they come in and endure a lecture about how “young kids today don’t understand Walking Dead like we do”.
The parallel with music is a very good one. I remember the small record stores as well as the big record stores and these days both are essentially gone. In fact, the people that have survived the digital transition in that industry best seem to be the very small, niche record shops that cater to the DJ or hard-core collector market. So I don’t think the true comic shop is in any danger. Those who want to have the comic shop experience will still be able to have the comic shop experience. But be warned: your audience and your market is ageing out. I go down to my comic shop at lunchtime every Wednesday and wait in line with all the other guys over 35 with our comics. Very few young people to be seen. Because they’re downloading their comics. They only question is from where.
Let’s think of music again. At first, as we all remember, digital distribution of music was messed up badly by just about everyone, and people just used Bit Torrent or other file sharing networks like Napster to get the music they wanted. When Apple finally made that process easy and cheap enough to do legally, everyone just slowly switched over and the almost religious outcry from the record shop enthusiasts and the anti-pirate moralists faded. Did fewer people listen to music? Hardly. In fact, now it’s very easy and quick to immediately get just about any album you’d care to hear, legally, in great quality and at a reasonable price.
The situation with comics now is something akin to the situation with music in about 2000. Someone has to make it easy, convenient and relatively cheap to get comics digitally, provide a complete catalog of titles, including back titles and present a welcoming face, free from nerdy arrogance. Otherwise, young readers (and aren’t those the ones everyone’s trying to get?) will just switch on Vuze and get those comics through a torrent site. If Comixology partners with Amazon, I think that makes it that much more likely that someone will buy a comic legally rather than using a torrent site.
So, given that many people, primarily young but plenty of older folks as well, buy and read their comics through digital means, it simply becomes a matter of where they get them. It’s a bit like the “war on drugs”. You could close down Amazon tomorrow and digital comics wouldn’t go away. You could make digital comics illegal and that would just increase the number of people doing it. Or, you could make it safe, legal, convenient and cheap for consumers to what they’re going to do anyway. The choice is not between the small shops and digital: that choice has already been made. The choice is whether we support our comics creators and distributors and provide cheap, legal ways for the consumer to get the product they want, or whether we support piracy, which really doesn’t benefit comics in the long run.
Finally, the fact that Amazon is spending the time and resources to acquire Comixology sends one more very important message: there’s money to be made in comics. When’s that last time that was true? Let’s just savour that for a moment. There’s enough money being made in people reading comics (digitally, yes, but who cares?) that a big, successful company is trying to get a piece of the action. I embrace any move to increase comics readership in a way that supports the industry, and this seems to me to be good news for our favourite medium, in the long run.