Rave : 2009 : Online Comics... The Death of Print?

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Like it or not, Marvel is moving their comic books on-line. It's a high-tech, modern, cheap way to read classic and brand new Marvel stories at your computer, via Marvel Digital Comics.

I don't like it at all.

But before the cries of "Luddite" can be hurled, let me explain my point of view as a keen comic collector and a habitual comic reader. In both cases, I prefer paper. I much prefer to read paper, and the idea of collecting is meaningless if paper is removed from the equation.

First up, I love reading my comics in print. I adore my old comics, the creamy paper and the musty smell. I love filing them, storing them. I love flicking through the covers and grabbing what I want. I love sitting on the sofa and reading my books. I occasionally lend them too.

Electronic comics are a very poor substitute. I don't actually enjoy sitting at my computer. I sit here when I need to do something that can only be done on the computer. But having to sit at my PC monitor to read a book? No thanks! I'd much rather slouch on the sofa, or snuggle up in bed.

As for "collecting" electronic comics? Well, that's a joke. With Marvel's system as I currently understand it, you don't "own" the comics. You rent them. As long as you keep paying Marvel, and as long as they're online, the comics are yours. But you can't download or print them. And even if you did, they would never be the same quality as a real comic.

I'm not expecting too much disagreement on either front. But you might ask "So what?" You might say "electronic comics and paper comics can co-exist". You might say "surely Marvel won't want to see paper comics disappear", or "If you prefer paper, read paper, just ignore the electronic comics ... pretend they don't exist."

But I'm not sure that it's as easy as all that. Let's take the case of Spider-Girl... a quirky borderline comic which has become perhaps the first test for a comic book moving from predominantly paper to predominantly online. Read the letters page in Amazing Spider-Girl #30, or this recent Q & A session with Tom DeFalco.

There's plenty to discuss here. But let's start with the financial side of things. Lets have a look at how much money Marvel might make out of a hypothetical $3 comic book that prints 30,000 comics in a month.

These are purely speculative numbers, but for argument let's imagine that printing, shipping, distribution and the comic store combine with free, damaged and unsold comics to take $2.20 of that money, leaving Marvel with 80c. That's not all profit, because they have to pay the creators and editors out of that.

Say the average comic fan buys 10 comics a month. So that's $8/month of revenue. A full-price digital subscriber is $10/month. So, where's the money in paper comics if Marvel can convert their entire fan base to reading online?

Let's then mention my pet peeve with online comics, which is the irritating concept of "Exclusive Digital Content in Mainstream Continuity". That's the idea that Marvel would offer a critical part of a (e.g. Spider-Man) story in Online-Only format. They would force me to subscribe just in order to read the whole story. Worse, I would never be able to own the complete story in my collection. Currently, the new Spider-Girl stories are planned to be "Online First" then print later. But... it's only a small step...

So perhaps it's not so guaranteed that "Online comics can just be ignored", or even that "Online and Paper versions of your favorite stories will always co-exist."

You might assume that Marvel will never shutdown their digital comics service. Maybe at least we can assume that if you swap to digital, Marvel will never leave you high and dry... as long as you keep paying your subscription! Though at least that might be easy to do. Marvel's page proudly proclaims " All subscribers get the hassle-free advantage of the Marvel Digital Comics Unlimited Automatic Renewal Program."

That's a nice piece of double-speak. Some clever marketing guy will have sat there and thought "Right, we're going to force everybody to sign onto automatic payment and make them jump through hoops to cancel their open-ended subscription. Technically, that's removing people's choice. But how can I make that sound like it's a good thing?"

Well. Feel free to give Marvel your credit card number and help contribute to the death of paper comics. You'll probably save money and storage space. You'll also sound the death knell of your local comic store, lose the ability read when and where you want, and say "adios" to the fun of collecting. And last but not least, you'll deprive your kids the unmitigated pleasure of opening up an aging but well-cared-for comic book and breathing the scent of decades of printed history.

I hope you're happy now. BAH!