Erik Larsen on the iPad

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The Image founder lays down somecommon sense:

The thing is–the comic book industry has seen this wave coming toward us for years and has known it was coming for years and has been absolutely baffled as to how to deal with it. Creators and publishers want to make a living, after all–and thus far most of the sites promising to deliver the goods have either folded or have been met a lukewarm reception. There hasn’t been that perfect platform that everybody’s embraced or the perfect reader. The iPhone sure isn’t it–unless you’re an eye stain enthusiast. It’s too small and too hard to read. But this may be it. The combination of iBooks and the iPad may be just what the doctor ordered.

For some time, everybody’s been running around like chickens with their heads cut off screaming that the sky is falling as fans have busily scanned and uploaded comics. Illegal comics are thriving. Guys scan in and upload new comics all the time and you can get new comics on your computer the day they hit the stands in many cases. The big difference for those who care is that these are scans out of comics–and they simply don’t look as good as real comics do.

Clearly, most people do not give a shit.

Comments

  1. I still think an colour e-ink device like the Kindle will be the big game changer for comics. Fujitsu already have a colour e-ink device called FLEPia that’s available in Japan, but it’s over $1000. I imagine in 2 years or so the price will come done and we will see similar devices like that in North America.

  2. Al™ says:

    I think it would be interesting if the Comic Companies worked with Diamond, and offered the option of purchasing a hard copy printed comic and/or the same comic as a DRM file.

    TwoMorrows (Alter Ego, Rough Stuff, etc) offers this now.

    The question, I suppose, is how to keep the bricks and mortar direct market comic stores in the chain. Otherwise if comics distribution becomes a purely digital medium, they will go belly up.

  3. Torsten Adair says:

    I’ve heard that the Japanese market for cellphone manga is larger than the entire U.S. comics market.

    Sure… they have standard displays for their cellphones, but if Japanese comics can be formatted for cells AND make money, why not U.S. publishers? (And I include Viz and Tokyopop in that group.)

    Just to nip it in the bud…LED eyestrain? Nobody wants to read lots of text? Reduce the brightness. (And ask why Amazon and B&N offer ereader software for other platforms like the iPhone.)

    I read lots of preview PDFs at work, usually two pages on a landscape monitor, about 14″. If I can read a 22-page comic, if my 24-year-old nephew can read the entire Captain America DVD-ROM on his Apple laptop, then I don’t see a problem from the consumer’s point of view.

    As for artwork resolution not being as good… one word: XKCD. Fans have always tolerated shabby art, muddled art (see: Sandman Preludes and Nocturnes), art that’s off register, IF the story is good. Comics are a disposable method of production, four colors printed four times at high speeds. If it’s beautiful artwork, wait for the trade. Even a 1080p screen will lose some resolution when reproducing the original image.

    While the publishers figure it out, I’ll be over at uclick, reading today’s comics. The syndicates figured it out years ago. (And don’t give me any yap about format… go look at a Sunday page… that’s half a comicbook page. Asterix and Bark’s Uncle Scrooge use the same format.

  4. “The big difference for those who care is that these are scans out of comics–and they simply don’t look as good as real comics do.

    Clearly, most people do not give a shit.”

    This is either uninformed or a lie.

    How do they simply not look as good as comics? Is it the larger image? The brighter colours?

    Argue the ethics or the loss of tactile and sensory experience of illegal comics but there’s no need to lie by saying they “simply do not look as good as real comics do.”

    I’ve heard the argument that iPad will revolutionize comics reading. They’re still a bitch to lug around. Maybe a collapsible iPad would be great but until then…

  5. So longbox says:

    Actually, from what I’ve seen of scanned comics, they do look better than the printed ones, i.e. Uninterrupted story (no ads), colour looks brighter (unlike the murky colours you can get with print). And as for storage space and portability! If there was a good enough switch, I’d ditch my longbox no sweat.

  6. Agreed about the quality of scanned comics. They’re usually of very good quality. It won’t be hard to shift that level of quality over to legal downloads.

    Torsten: You’re mixing up artwork style with readability. XKCD is drawn in a deliberately simple style; so are most newspaper strips, by necessity, because of the small size they’re usually reproduced. Modern American comic books boast a different sort of visual style and language. And most of them are not designed to be read one panel at a time; page layout is a part of the experience. Sure, you can make them readable; but you’re diluting their unique visual strengths in the process.

    Or, to put it in other-media terms: You could watch Avatar, or the latest Star Trek movie, on a Palm Centro. But why would you?

  7. From experience, studies, and lots and lots of debate about this, the issue is not who cares about quality, but just plain old, easy to use access. People just want to be able to read the stuff they want to read, where and when they want to read it. No, a pdf scan is not great for most comics, but it is a PDF. You can read that shit anywhere. That’s the point. Comics need to get on the ball of providing a digital format that people can use widely. The Marvel digital thing, the Zuda reader aren’t going to cut it. Take the IDPF’s ePub format and make it work for comics, find another pdf based xml format to use, whatever. With the number of DIY nerds in this industry it should not be too hard to figure out a portable format. The all you have to do is sell the damn things everywhere. Don’t make me buy all my marvel comics from Marvel, or all my DC shit from DC. That wouldn’t work for print, why do they think it would work for digital? I want to buy comics Longbox, and comixology, and apple, and I want my LCS to have virtual store so that when I walk in I can buy a couple print comics, and then download a couple digital issues of a new series I’d like to check out that I’ve just seen on their shelves but am not quite ready to spend $3-4 on, but if I can get the first 3 issues digitally for $3 then yay me, yay my LCS, and yay comics.

  8. Felipo & So longbox,
    I think you guys just proved Mr. Larsen’s point….

    -Chee

  9. Wayne Beamer says:

    Bill and Torsten:

    The $64,000 question: Who controls the digital sales of mainstream comics? The folks who publish them or street retailers?

    I can’t imagine publishers letting retailers sell digital downloads. And why would they?

    This is gonna be interesting…

  10. The move to digital will certainly cut LCS sales of the pamphlets and put the squeeze on comics-only shops. I think the key to their survival will be to offer social experiences — most LCSes I know already pair up table-top gaming (anything from Magic to D&D) with their comics sales.

  11. Charles Knight says:

    As Bill notes, we already know that the majority of consumers don’t care about quality, they care more about availability. I rip all of my CDs in FLAC, most people will be happy to listen to a 96kps or 128 kps mp3 on their players. Convenience wins over quality every day of the week.

    It will be the same here – having said that, the piracy groups are pretty good on quality and have agreed standards in place which is why .cbrs of comics are the format of choice for many digital consumers. Easy to download, easy to store, easy to transfer, easy to read.

  12. David Clemons says:

    From a technical POV, a monitor screen resolution is much worse than a printed copy of the same image. Where that matters most is in fine line drawings. Recently I was looking at a high res scan of Gray Morrow art and compared it to the printed copy I happened to own. Even on old yellowing newsprint, the quality was dramatically better. For an artist like Morrow it’s important enough to not want to lose the joy of seeing it just for the sake of digital convenience. On the other hand, the color gamit of print is much smaller than RGB monitors, so there’s more to be gained in the display of digital coloring. Not to mention potential animation effects, audio, and interactivity. If the art itself is not that great, however, it doesn’t help much to spice it up.

    The main reason I buy a comic is because I appreciate it enough to want to own it. There are many more that I’d want to see but not enough to own, like those I flip through at the comic store and return to the shelf. If digital versions of these comics were much cheaper, I’d likely buy more comics. If they were the same price of current printed versions, I’d probably pass on the digital and only buy a printed collection, assuming they’ll still be doing that.

  13. Wayne,

    If publishers can’t see letting retailers sell digital products, explain iTunes? How about the forthcoming iBooks store? Kindle? Sony Connect? Netflix streaming on PS3, or via my broadband connection? It’s all the same thing. None of these things stop me from buying Sans Soleil from Criterion Collection. Stopped me from buying Winter Men.

    Radiohead published, and gave away, in Rainbows for free, or for whatever you wanted to contribute, and its for sale on the store as well.

    Publishers do not have the time to hand sell to every customer. Nor should they want to. Why wouldn’t a publisher want a local retailer, who knows his customers, to be able to offer as many products that they produce when that customer is in the store, talking to that retailer. If someone feels more comfortable buying a digital product from eMusic than Audible, what does it behoove the publisher to limit their products to only a select number of channels?

    Comics used to be sold everywhere. On newsstands, at the pharmacy, in grocery stores (mine sold only X-Force and NFL Superpro strangely, but they were there).

    Limiting where a publisher sells their product only serves to protect a deranged “woe is us, the golden-years of such-and-such are over lets mourn our slow-death” attitude.

  14. Kate Fitzsimons says:

    And then, of course, there are the people who would really *love* to buy stuff in digital format, but the commercial digital formats are too annoying. I buy my comics at the comic store, but if I don’t get there that week and I forget I was looking for something, I don’t buy it.

    I’ve tried buying mainstream commercial digital comics, but so far, with all of their bells and whistles and animations they’re harder to read than a plain old pile of jpegs in a cbr*. Frankly, my best commercial digital comics experience has been those great Marvel dvd archives with the comics as simple pdfs. And who doesn’t know how annoying pdfs are! (Come on, DC, release your back archives in some digital format, *please*. I would be there so fast…)

    Or hey! Maybe someday comics will come with an automatic digital copy for portable reading, like dvds do now. I would love that.

    *Yes, some indie comics are legitimately available in that format. Yes, I do save the jpegs of my favorite webcomics in that format in case the site goes down or the creator decides she’s Leaving Comics Forever.

  15. “I think the key to their survival will be to offer social experiences …”

    Yeah….sniffing all of that B.O. and gazing down those cavernous bent-over butt cracks is certainly my idea of a social experience.

  16. Its good to see someone like Erik drop his opinion on digital comics, but he still misses the point. Its not about the platform, its about trust. The reason why legal music downloads are a success is because iTunes managed to leverage a deal with major labels. Its because independent trailblazers like Bleep.com (which my company built) showed that high quality DRM-Free digital content is a viable distribution method that adds, not detracts, from overall music sales.

    The comics industry is very traditional, and sometimes afraid to take a leap. There have been/are digital comic distributors out there — small independents — that are battling with an industry resisting evolution. Like Erik says, people have been reading digital comics for years now (albeit the majority being illegal scans) in various formats which proves a market is there, not bound by specific devices or file formats.

    But the major publishers have kept resisting digital downloads because they’re afraid a non-print business model will eat into their profits (and I admit thats a valid concern), instead of looking at whats happening in the market.

    I sincerely hope that the hype surrounding the iPad will be a wake up call for the major publishers to make their content available digitally (and DRM Free, because its been proven that mistrusting potential customers isn’t the wisest strategy).

  17. Nate Horn says:

    @Tom Muller

    Yes. Everything you said. You have summed it up better than anyone except maybe Todd Allen.

    Here’s the thing, Larsen’s opinion is one I don’t agree with. I want to buy digital copies of comics. I don’t care what happens to the direct market – sink or swim. I would just rather own high quality jpegs of comics I enjoy reading. They’re easier to store and I enjoy reading them more. All this other talk takes away from the issue that I’m not alone – there is a market for digital comic sales. The only question is how much damage will continue to aggregate while it’s ignored.

  18. As a retailer, I dread digital comics. I really do not see us having digital kiosks and being given a cut of the pie when they no longer need us.

    Retailers are focusing on diversifying. That’s the word of the moment in the retail community. We’ll see how it pans out. My crystal ball says that it won’t pan out all that well for retailers. We’re on the losing end of the stick in the digital technological advancement.

    As a reader, I hate storing comics, so digital will be nice when there is a good reader out there.

    And I cannot understand publisher’s hesitation. They should be all over this. And I assume they are; they just aren’t letting us know their plans until they unveil them.

  19. Nate Horn says:

    So, I just did a totally male thing and read Larsen’s article after forming my opinion….Larsen is basically saying the exact opposite of what we’re assuming he said. He’s being very realistic about the whole thing – consumers don’t care about the quality as much as the benefits of the format. It’s a question of when, not if.

  20. As comics move to digital platforms like the iPad, artists will likely change their production process as they see their work on-screen. That’s what artists have always done with the printing technology of the time. Plus there are always tweaks that can be done for individual styles to get the best look on-screen. This is one of the things I used to have to do all the time as a web developer. It won’t be any different now.

  21. Wayne Beamer says:

    Hey Bill,

    Valid points all! I love, love, love retailers. And, like you, I’d like to see retailers sell digital comics too, but it’s not realistic. Very few of them — most of whom are retailers whose names pop up with regularity here and on other comics news pages — actually have the acumen, tech knowledge or desire to do it. The average rat-hole like comic shop replete with BO (thanks for reminding me Mark) will die.

    A question: How can a local retailer realistically sell me on the merits of a digital-only comic? I don’t see how he or she could. There’s not enough hours in the day right now for retailers to be experts on pamphlet comics as it is…

    In fact, like Kate, I’d buy more DVD collections of older comics if they were available.

    Sidenote: I’ve read on this here blog from a few pros that digital comics will be harder to monetize, specifically paying for the labor to produce said comic. Let’s say, Detective Comics #860 in a paper format sells for $3.99. What can I expect to pay for a digital version? How cheaply can that issue be sold, so that everyone gets paid? That’s where retailers get shut out of the digital comics market.

    Can my retailer afford to sell a digital copy of Detective #860 for $1 or $2, and make pennies on a book that he or she was used to buying wholesale for $2 and selling it at a 100 percent markup? And what about digital exclusives that will never make it to paper?

    Too many questions, and not near enough answers but it’s always fun to speculate about ‘em…

    Thanks for your indulgence…

    Wayne

  22. Dennis V. says:

    “Yeah….sniffing all of that B.O. and gazing down those cavernous bent-over butt cracks is certainly my idea of a social experience.”

    “The average rat-hole like comic shop replete with BO (thanks for reminding me Mark) will die.”

    Where do you people shop for your comics to have such (tall) tales such as these?

  23. Al™ says:

    Dennis, unfortunately those comments ring true for me, too. I won’t give out the names or locations of the shops, but yep, they exist. The unshaven staff all wearing black, unwashed tshirts; dust all over the store (collecting on the tops of boxes of action figures); the whole place smelling like mildew.

  24. “Oh, I do not like these new Edison electric lights. They are too harsh and expensive. My house has gas lighting, and it works perfectly. The light is warm and the service is dependable.” (Hypothesized from “Brilliant: The Evolution of Artificial Light”)

    New media formats adapt old media formats, then innovate, filling in the empty spaces created by the new media. Single panel comics begat comic strips begat comic books begat graphic novels begat webcomics, five card Nancy, Scott McCloud’s crossword comics, Shiga’s Meanwhile, Chris Ware’s flowcharts…

    Yes, a full-page comic will look horrible on an iphone. So create a new comic formatted EXCLUSIVELY for cellphones. Something that is not available elsewhere, but which people will want to read. Maybe embed hyperlinks into each panel, such as advertising or wiki articles. Or tinker with the focus in a panel so that the reader’s eye follows what you want them to see, as the “camera” changes focus from the foreground to the background.

    As for retailers, how many comics shops operate a webpage which sells comics and graphic novels via mail order? How difficult is if for them to sell ebooks using the agency model, where they take a certain percent, and the publisher gets the rest? Instant back issue bin with reduced overhead!

    Consider this: Would a retailer prefer to order paper copies at a higher discount non-returnable, or prefer to offer digital files at a lower discount with no returnability but with less risk, no chance of selling out, always in stock? Were I running a store with digital comics available for download, I would reduce my back-issue bins and use that space for non-digital merchandise (toys, clothing, gaming, books, cafe). Then I would contact one of the publishers, and have them co-op flash drives, just as they co-op shopping bags. “Here, here’s your limited edition thumb drive. Your comics are on there, plus some free previews from Veeblefritzer Comics. Oh, you bought “Ragnarok and Roll #3″, so you get the free MP3 file of the writer discussing the comic and a special code for their website.”

    Why shouldn’t the publishers sell digital content? Why shouldn’t stores sell digital content? Publishers are doing it already with ebooks. I can buy an ebook edition of the Da Vinci Code from Random House, or from Barnes & Noble. Or are comics some bastard mutant format to be kept chained in the basement, far away from “literature”?

  25. Synsidar says:

    From a marketing standpoint, it makes more sense to think that iPhones, PDAs, and similarly-sized devices aren’t meant to be used as reading devices. They’re intended to be used as information storage and retrieval tools.

    The great advantage that paper publications will always have is that they’re manipulable. A reader can flip from page to page as he likes, focus on as much of a page as he wants to — and, if an artist wants to do a two-page spread, take in the splendor of the artwork. Making an electronic reading device as easy to carry and use as a paper publication might be an unachievable goal, but abandoning the pursuit of it will force readers of some types of material to choose a device which is the least inconvenient, not the one which is the most enjoyable.

    Here in Grand Forks, the mall’s Waldenbooks and B. Dalton bookstores both closed at the end of the year. The city now has two religious bookstores and one new books bookstore, an expanded university bookstore.

    SRS

  26. Dennis V. says:

    “Dennis, unfortunately those comments ring true for me, too. I won’t give out the names or locations of the shops, but yep, they exist. The unshaven staff all wearing black, unwashed tshirts; dust all over the store (collecting on the tops of boxes of action figures); the whole place smelling like mildew.”

    While I’m sure there are a few “rat hole” comic shops out there, I’m just tired of people portraying that this is somehow the norm (along with stereotyping that comic store patrons are all smelly, butt-crack flashing, social misfits).

  27. Torsten: Why all the noise about Luddism? I’m not opposed to digital content at all — believe me, the last thing I want in my house is more paper. I just think it’s ridiculous to think that all visual content should be created to work on a phone-sized screen.

    “Yes, a full-page comic will look horrible on an iphone. So create a new comic formatted EXCLUSIVELY for cellphones. Something that is not available elsewhere, but which people will want to read.” Fine idea for some creators, and as you’ve noted already, phone-format-friendly projects exist. But I don’t believe that’s the future of comics, either commercially or artistically — or of books, for that matter. Neither do Apple, B&N, or Amazon, or they wouldn’t be bothering with all those iPads, Nooks, and Kindles.

    I also think you’re gliding rather quickly over the problems of comics retailers selling content digitally. B&N doesn’t sell digital content in its stores; it’s made a concerted, and I’d say partly successful, effort to become an e-commerce dealer as well as a brick-and-mortar operation. Most comic shops don’t have that option out of the gate; it depends on how their two major suppliers decide to handle digital distribution. That said, I’m a bit of a Darwinist on this matter, and I tend to think digital content will winnow down direct market shops eventually, just as indy bookstores have become scarcer. But it won’t happen right away.

  28. Morph (Josh L.) says:

    I’ve been a long time comic collector for the past 20+ years. I for one an excited for something like this, and will be getting an iPad. I may not be first in line, but I am planning to purchase one this year.

    Why? Well, I do love having the paper copy in my hands. There’s just something about having it in your hands that is just part of the experience.
    But, the idea of having a large number of my comics at my disposal is great. I can be on the road, at work, or even in the living room and pull up my favorite comics. I won’t be carrying a large stack of comics, nor will I worry about damaging my comics.

    And there are still a few titles that I will continue to purchase in paper form after I get my iPad. But I hope that some sort of deal is offered for those that still purchase the paper copy, that can get a discount (or free) version of the e-comic.

    One company I’m keeping my eye on (and would recommend others to watch) is Longbox Digital. http://www.longboxdigital.com/ They look like they are shaping up to fill those needs I’m looking for.

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