Thursday, July 5, 2012

On Digital Comics...

While I’ve only been writing comics professionally for a little over a decade, due to some of the books I’ve written, I’ve been handed the title of Comic Book Historian. Like any diehard comic fan seeking validation for how he’s spent the majority of his life’s free time, it’s a title I welcome with open arms and hope to exploit the fullest extent of my ability.

In that spirit, I’ve decided to write the occasional editorial here on my blog about comic history, the state of the industry, and some of the uphill battles being fought along the way.

So let’s start with digital comics.

First, it should be known that I’m not opposed to digital comics in any way, shape or form. I agree with the thinking that comic books need a “new newsstand,” a way for the mainstream populace to casually encounter a comic book and decide to plop down a few dollars for something they haven’t tried in a while. While collections of comics have made their presence felt in bookstores, bookstores themselves are becoming a thing of the past, and comics need nothing as badly as they need new readers.

But here’s the problem, a digital comic is not the same thing as a comic in print.

As much as we try to prove otherwise, constantly converting comics to be read on monitors, iPads, iPhones and the like, it’s not the same thing, and we need to stop acting like it is.

A comic book is delivered to the reader via pages. As storytellers, comic book writers and artists manipulate our audience through the use of panel size and layout. We build suspense by saving big surprises for when our reader turns the page, heighten the drama with quick panels meant to be read rapidly, or instill awe and power with the use of a large full-page splash image, or in some cases, a double-page spread.

A digital comic attacks the reader quite differently. The audience is given the choice between viewing the comic page by page, or to experience it panel by panel, depending on the size of their digital device or their personal preference.

When viewed panel by panel, the smallest frame on a page now carries the same significance as the biggest, as digital comic viewers enlarge or reduce each frame to fit the reader’s particular device. How can a two-page splash pack a huge visual punch if it’s reduced to the smallest panel on your screen?

Luckily, there are some smart folks already working on this particular problem. Not the least of which is the talented Mark Waid, who has already made several public declarations about the importance of digital comics.

Already earning his chops as one of our industry’s finest writers, Waid has put his money and skill where his mouth is, delivering teases of what’s actually possible in this new medium of digital comics with brilliant examples like his recent straight-to-digital Nova story.

In it, Waid takes advantage of the slight nuances available when readers are forced to turn the page of a digital comic without actually turning the page. Speech bubbles and caption boxes can be added to the same illustration. Focus can be altered from one part of the panel to another. The writer can force the reader to read at the pace he wishes, by pairing the words in the comic with the exact part of the panel he wants them to look at.

In short, a comic story is broken down panel by panel by someone who is hoping to not just adapt the comic format to digital form, but to enhance the experience for the reader. Digital comics are new and exciting, and they should read that way, rather than as a sometimes clunky transfer from paper to pixels.

These kind of strictly digital comics are innovative and extremely new reader friendly, but the majority of comics published digitally are still originally intended for print.

So how do DC and Marvel fix this problem, and hook old and new readers on the digital format?

They invent a new job.

Well, that's not exactly true. The job already exists. Comics aren't magically leaping onto iPads. There are many capable folks working to adapt print to digital. But they’re not being paid to deliver something other than a straight digital rerelease. In most cases, these employees are not writers or artists in the conventional sense. And they are certainly not the original creators who wrote or drew the comic in the first place. And maybe they should be.

Only those involved with the creation of a comic book understand precisely the story they set out to tell. The writer and artist know the themes and pacing they were attempting to create. They had a specific plan for what the reader feels, and when.

These are the people who need to be adapting their own comics to digital. Or at the very least, a writer needs to be brought on board the project to creatively rework a print story so that it functions as a series of same-size panels being read individually. And these writers need to be given the freedom to make changes if and when they need to, as well as the power to have the artwork be tweaked or added onto by the original series artist.

It's sort of like adapting a film from a novel. Each writer is trying to tell the same story, but each writes to the particular strengths of his medium. Novels have the ability to get inside a character’s head with little effort, and films can set a scene in a few seconds that might take a novel several paragraphs to describe.

Print comics and digital comics might not be as radically different as the written word and the visual medium of film, but they’re certainly not as alike as we currently assume them to be.

Let's call this job position the digital adapter. It may be the original writer or artist in this role, or it may be some other creative person altogether. But make no mistake about it, this needs to be a creative position. This person is in charge of taking each comic apart and putting it back together again. And not just in a way that makes the comic read the same in both formats. But in a way that makes the digital experience as unique and exciting as it has the potential of being.

Sure it’ll cost money. Creators aren’t going to provide this service for free, nor should they. But the only other alternative I can see is writing just for digital, and avoiding the print medium altogether. And there will always be readers, myself included, that like to hold a printed item in their hands and place it on a shelf for any curious houseguest to see. And while the digital medium has many factors in its favor, a physical presence isn't among them. The majority of readers still purchase printed comics, so companies need to be able to cater to both crowds.

While I'm throwing fictional money around, I might as well state that I'm of the opinion that digital comics should be no more expensive than a song on iTunes. If we want the mainstream audience to get on board, comics need to return to their impulse purchase status that sold millions of copies back in the Golden Age of the industry. To hook new readers, comics need to be as accessible and affordable as every other type of digital entertainment. That means that even new issues need to cost around a buck.

Will it be hard at first? I'd assume so. But if we want comics to be around for the long run, we need to be thinking about long run solutions and long run profits. We need to think about building an audience and introducing new readers to this inside world that we've been enjoying for decades.

Of course, that also means we need to vary the content in the stories we tell, but that’s an uphill battle for a different day.

No comments: