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digital comics

Digital Justice

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As the long-running British comics institution The Dandy breathed its last this week – at least, its last print-based breath, before its reinvention as an apparent multimedia extravaganza for the digital age – a number of columnists (most of whom probably hadn’t even thought about The Dandy or indeed any other British comic for twenty or thirty years, but that’s not the point here, so let’s not get sniffy) stepped forward with an assortment of different laments.

One of these was Telegraph tech-blogger Mic Wright, who in a piece titled – presumably by an editor – Desperate news for Dan: The Dandy goes digital-only, sucking the life out of its characters admits that he feels “downhearted” that its stable of characters will now only be available digitally. Mic goes on to say:

One of the joys of receiving a comic when I was a child was having something I owned and being able to build a collection. Though that is obviously still possible with the digital files, it feels less tangible… Behind the glass of a tablet, comics feel less alive. There’s a kind of alchemy at work in a traditional printed comic – the coming together of story with the paper and the ink – that’s missing in the digital recreations. It’s as if the life has been sucked out of the characters.

Instinctively, there’s nothing inherently wrong with what Mic is saying. There’s certainly nothing unreasonable about it. Indeed, I’m picking out his article not because I disagree with it violently – and I like Mic as a person and a writer, we’re mutual Twitter followers although we’ve never actually met, and I certainly don’t want you to think I’m going “hur hur look at this idiot in the press”, because that’s not it at all – but because it expresses a view that up until very recently, I probably would have espoused myself.

But as I read Mic’s piece, took in his opinion – a gut feeling that he’s perfectly entitled to – an odd thing happened. I felt obligated to shout from the rooftops about how bloody great digital comics are.

Now, here’s the thing. I’m a collector. I love comics, as objects. I always have done and probably always will. As I write this, I’m sitting directly in front of an Ikea Billy bookcase that contains two shelves packed full of TPBs (with bigger hardbacks like my Absolute Sandman editions having to live elsewhere in the room due to lack of space), with the remaining four shelves holding, at last count… ooh, approximately 1800 or so single issues? While there are lots of regretted one-off purchases among those, there are great swathes of singles that I’m terribly proud to have accumulated complete or near-complete runs of – either as they’ve been released (Ultimate Spider-Man) or bit by bit throughout adult life (the Giffen/deMatteis Justice League). While myself and my futurewife have tried to cut down on the amount of extraneous crap in our house over the last year or so, it’s a hard and fact truth that we both just bloody love stuff. And I, in particular, if I’m OCD about anything, am anal about having collections of things. If I have issues #1-18 and #20 of something, then you can guarantee I’ll be trying my hardest to get hold of #19 from somewhere, even if I’m not bothered about reading it (or even if I already have). All in all, I’m a quintessential physical comics buyer.

Meanwhile, although I’ve had a collection of .CBR and .CBZ files sitting on my PC for many years – I’m not going to pretend I’ve never pirated a comic, but let’s not go into that whole debate right now, suffice to say I’m a lot more honest than I used to be – I’d never really gone wholesale for the whole digital comics thing. But when I started to see how good comics could look on an iPad – and how easy it all was – my head started to turn.

And then, recently, I got a Nexus 7. It didn’t present me with my first opportunity to legally buy digital comics – I’d bought the odd thing on my iPhone when I needed to read it but couldn’t get to a comic shop quickly enough, although was often frustrated by Comixology’s insistence on employing the “guided view” reading scheme when actually, I could read the whole page fine on the phone’s little Retina display – but it certainly opened a massive door. Aside from the fact that I simply wanted more of an excuse to hold the gorgeous little thing (in much the same way as my first Kindle led to a fresh explosion in reading “proper” books again), introducing tablet computing into my life coincided nicely with the Marvel Now! relaunch, giving me the chance to try out a load of new series while at the same time starting to trim away the increasingly disappointing DC arm of my pull list. It naturally made sense to start picking them up digitally, being as how a new era was beginning in which they were all available on the day of release.

After a few weeks of reading more digital comics than physical, a few things have struck me. First of all, and most obviously, is just how smooth and straightforward the whole experience is. Okay, so the Comixology app isn’t without its flaws – some of which I’ve even directly discussed with the support team on Twitter – but the fact remains that there is suddenly a huge library of comics, classic and new, available in an easy-to-reach and (mostly) cheap manner. In order to cover Days of Future Past in the latest episode of our podcast, I didn’t have to fork out for a TPB that included far more issues than the actual titular two-part storyline – I spent less than £2 getting them both digitally. They were delivered instantly, rather than my having to (a) find somewhere that still sells back issues and (b) find the money to buy two highly sought-after issues from 1980.

Similarly, if I want to catch up with Hawkeye - not having realised in advance that it would be great or that it would be impossible to find a copy of either the first couple of issues anywhere in London after the fact – or if a particular issue of something else inexplicably proves far more popular than usual and disappears before Wednesday is out, then I can hop on and get those as well. It’s such a great way of keeping up with periodical comics that I’m actually now changing my plans to buy certain later new series releases in hard-copy form from the beginning, as Marvel Now feels like such a distinctively “digital” concern to me.

All of this would be moot, however, if – as Mic asserts – comics were stripped of their life and power by the transition into the digital form. But here’s the thing: they aren’t. It’s fair to say that if you’re reading a particular comic in the best possible hard copy form – and we are talking overblown, amazingly-printed on gorgeous-paper, Absolute edition quality here – then no digital version will ever compete. But otherwise? Hey, they look pretty darned great. Colours are deep and rich and lively. Image quality is often ridiculously sharp. Even on a 7-inch screen, you can take in a whole page and not be missing out on closer-in detail – I can only imagine how good things look on a 10-inch screen (well, I don’t have to imagine, because I’ve looked at other people’s, but you know what I mean). And hey, it’s not exactly difficult to pinch-and-zoom on a particular image, a much preferable option to the Kryten-style moving your head closer to the page.

I recently read two of my favourite comics runs on my tablet over a few days’ commuting, two series that are noted for having especially outstanding art: Whedon and Cassaday’s Astonishing X-Men and Morrison and Quitely’s All-Star Superman (yes, alright, they were CBRs, but I do own both runs in physical form as well already; in fact, in the latter case, twice). In both cases I was actively amazed by how good they looked digitally – in some ways, even better than on the page (I was particularly struck by how sharp some of the famously smaller and picked-out details of Quitely’s art looked).

(A third point about digital, albeit one that is probably more specific to me and only a few more sad cases like me, is that it takes away the “Well, I’m onboard now” guilt of buying certain series. If I’d been reading Morning Glories digitally I’d probably have given up months ago due to the increasingly frustrating Lost-like wilful impenetrability of the story; but because I’ve already bought twenty-odd issues that sit there on my shelf looking at me accusingly, I feel like I’m in it for the long haul, and dropping out partway through an arc would just be silly. And that isn’t the first time that’s happened to me with a particular book. Digital comics eradicate almost entirely the risks in trying out a single issue of something new. I didn’t really like either of the first issues of Uncanny Avengers or A+X – but only one felt like a waste of money, because only one was bought physically.)

Physical comics will never go away, of course. Even now, there are series that I’ll continue to buy in that form – partly out of that collector’s instinct (I’d have gone digital on DC’s superhero books as well as Marvel’s already, but the New 52 titles I’m still buying are ones I’ve been onboard with since day one), and partly because certain series (I’m largely thinking of things like Saga, Powers and Casanova here) do make an effort to make the floppy single issue a desirable object in its own right. And besides, I could never quite give up the enjoyable experience of flicking through the racks, and taking a monthly stack of books to the till. Nor would I want every 1980s back-issue I ever read to be in digital form – not when I could enjoy the faded yellow pages, distinct “paper stored badly for decades” smell and all of those magnificently tantalising Captain “O” adverts.

And no, I’m not saying that the end of the Dandy as a print concern is entirely a great thing. I would imagine, for example, that its publishers may well use the fact that it’s now digital-only as an excuse to make everything cheaper – and that could well be a bad thing for the writers and artists who work on it. But on the whole, I think the disappointment that The Dandy will no longer be on the shelves is one borne out of nostalgia – and it’s nostalgia for something that simply isn’t as relevant to the kids of today. Something like The Phoenix shows that print comics for kids can and should still exist – but if the Dandy characters are worth surviving well into the 21st Century, then they’re more likely to do so if they can be introduced via a medium with which their target audience are now so much more familiar. And it is a medium in its own right – you don’t need to be Scott McCloud to see how looser the restrictions are.

So, yes. Print comics are, of course, great. But so too – and to my eternal surprise – are their digital cousins. And they deserve to be celebrated rather than simply seen by default as a poorer, backup alternative.

Hell, I might even buy the first Digital Dandy. Even though I did always prefer the Beano.

Seb Patrick | 5th December, 2012

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