Both Marvel and DC have taken big steps toward digital content distribution recently, and have, like other media companies, taken steps to eliminate unregulated competition in the process. I’ve been spending a little time with DC’s initiative Zuda, and am just now starting to mess with Marvel’s digital initiative, but I’ll start with some general thoughts about where I think digital comics services fit into an overall ecology of comics production and reception.
Coincidentally (and usefully) we’ve also seen the recent release of Kindle, which allows us to apply some new observations about digital books to the digital comics discussion. The digital book is quite a bit behind digital music as far as a popular medium goes, which at first seems counter-intuitive, since text is so easy to generate, transmit and distribute on the Web. But, of course, the raw logistics of digitizing text have less to do with “the digital book” than do the aesthetic and social requirements of that act of translation.
Conversations about the digital book, and about Kindle in particular, have productively focused on the secondary but crucial decisions that surround the decision to transmit textual intellectual property for profit: aesthetics, convenience and personal usability; how a digital book echoes or extends the social or phatic uses of the paper book. The digital book benefits now from the cultural lessons we have learned about music, lessons about how “digital music” as a concept is only partially about the content itself and largely about ownership, social communication and various patterns of use. I’m going to spend some time doing the same thing here, asking questions like:
- What are the primary or secondary uses or pleasures of the physical comic, or of the social system around the physical comic? In other words,
- What do we do with comics?
- Why do we buy comics?
- What does a digital comic service (regulated or unregulated) extend or mimic from the sphere of physical comics production and reception? In other words,
- In what ways can online comics meaningfully replace physical comics?
- In what ways are physical comics difficult or impossible to replace?
- How can online comics meet the needs of comics consumers better than physical comics, making them therefore valuable?
So, part one: what are comics good for? These are the big pleasures I’d identify in the buying, reading, and use of comics (both mainstream and independent, in different degrees):
Comics as serial entertainment. Both DC and Marvel have over the past few years beefed up the universe (multiverse) concept to emphasize their releases as ongoing chapters of an evolving meganarrative, and as a result the importance of the present fictional “moment” has increased. Comics events like the death of Captain America have value as news as much as fiction. The quintessential example is Countdown, a weekly series whose social value is tied to the current moment, whose “zero-day” value is perhaps greater relative to its ongoing value than any comic before it.
Comics as social media. Closely related to comics as serial entertainment. Comics are phenomena around which interest communities coalesce, exchange information, co-create, and build relationships. Quintessential examples: again, Countdown as a medium, but it might be more productive to think about how this manifests in your local comic book shop, or in the message boards or news sites you frequent.
Comics as imagined history. The accretion of serial entertainment is serial history, and both DC and Marvel leverage what has come before to generate new stories. Spider-Woman and the Legion of Super-Heroes have a lot of backstory, and no one’s giving the reader much exposition: it’s important to be able to find and reconstruct the backstory. Quintessential current examples here: Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe, the Essential and Showcase phonebooks.
Comics as aesthetic form. Occasionally, comics not only create a serial meganarrative but do so well. The current mainstream comics culture is one of event and story ascendancy, so the separation of writerly or artistic style from narrative is less explicit, but it’s dangerous to elide the power of Bryan Hitch’s layouts, or Morrison’s prose, or Bendis’ ear for dialogue. Quintessential current examples here: Morrison/Quitely on All-Star Superman, both Bendis/Maleev and Brubaker/Lark on Daredevil.
Comics as fetish object. Beyond formal aesthetics, there’s the pleasure of the comic as object. The value argument for the material pleasures of the comic is in many ways identical to the value argument for the material pleasures of books in general, and the rise in the mainstream book market of McSweeney’s has been mirrored by the rise in the comics market of Ultimate editions, Chip Kidd trade dress, Chris Ware, and… well, McSweeney’s. Quintessential current examples here include Jack Kirby’s Fourth World Omnibus.
Next I’ll spend a little time describing how these pleasures could ideally be met by a digital comics service, and begin looking at how and whether Marvel and DC are currently meeting these needs.