Comic book industry in the midst of change

Books, more than any other medium, seem to be embracing the digital revolution.

But even more so than prose novels, the comic book industry is looking to move beyond its traditional format.

Whereas e-readers like the Kindle or Nook really just transcribe the pages to a screen, comic book writers are finding new ways to tell their stories and attract new readers.

Direct market comic book sales suffered a 5 percent drop in 2010, despite the releases of major films like Iron Man 2 and Scott Pilgrim vs. The World.

Though people will pay up to $20 to see Tony Stark kick butt on the big screen, they don’t seem to be going out of their way to pick up his monthly adventures at a comic book store for a fraction of that cost.

The drop in direct comic book sales could be the sign of a need to shift toward digital comics that use the Kindle or Nook.

Jonathan Hickman, writer of Marvel Comics’ S.H.I.E.L.D. and The Fantastic Four, doubts the digital market is having much of an impact comic books now, but sees a lot of potential in the future.

“We got to get our digital shit together. We haven’t yet, we’re very poor in that area, just because we’re in the beginning,” he said. “Nobody gets it right. Once we get that started, we won’t have the distribution choke that we have right now in the direct market. Things will get more interesting. I don’t see any way we don’t expand in the next 10 years.”

Becoming more digital would benefit both the comics industry and digital platforms like the burgeoning tablet market. Comics get a wider audience and the platforms get more content.

After all, there’s an amazingly large back catalogue of each ongoing comic, not to mention comic book production is cheaper and faster than that of television shows or movies.

Why wait a year for the next season of less than a dozen episodes of AMC’s television version of The Walking Dead when there are more than 80 issues ready to be read?

“I can write what is essentially a $350 million movie as a comic. I can add all of [the special effects] I want and all someone has to do is draw that,” Hickman said. “As a delivery device for narrative, comics are fantastic.”

But Nick Spencer, creator of Morning Glories and The Infinite Vacation, sees more creative opportunities beyond just putting comics on the screen. To him, the digital medium attracts new readers, but also allow for the creators themselves to try new things.

“The big things that are coming are purely digital and aren’t confined to the traditional structure of printed comics. There’s no reason why they need to look or feel that way,” he said. “The big innovations in the next decade will be meaty in that, re-exploring the medium of sequential storytelling without page boundaries. That’s the stuff I’m excited to see.”

And with that re-exploration, he sees artists taking a greater role in creating comics, and really taking advantage of what new media offer them.

“They’ll have an inherent advantage, because they think visually,” Spencer said. “I think you’ll see a big power shift as this develops. [The comic book] industry for last 10 years [has been] heavily dominated by writers.”

But it’s not just digital comics that offer opportunities. Scott Snyder, writer of Detective Comics and American Vampire, sees transmedia as the future of comics and a source of innovation.

“I think [writers are] always obsessed with the tech of [contemporary culture]. More from a readership standpoint, it’s exciting,” Snyder said. “There are all kinds of possibilities with digital comics.”

Transmedia, or telling the story across multiple platforms — how shows like Lost spread their mythology across webisodes, alternate reality games and books — allows for not only the broader artistic canvas that Spencer suggests, but also for writers to experiment with telling stories in ways they haven’t before.

“Soon you’ll be able to download elements to a story that are only able to be seen because of iPad, iPhone, Droid, etc.,” Snyder said. “It will be an experience that’s much more nuanced story-wise.”

The writers don’t fear the coming shakeup. If anything, they are excited about it.

“I hope [to be at forefront of it]. I think writers that will succeed are writers that are willing to adapt, willing to change,” Spencer said. “If you want to come in and do five panels, and add your captions and dialogue, it’s going to be a rough decade for you. If you’re willing to get with an audience and say ‘How do we break loose?’ then this will be a great time to be writing.”


Nicholas Slayton is a sophomore majoring in print and digital journalism. His column, “Age of the Geek,” runs Fridays.

3 replies
  1. Devin Parker
    Devin Parker says:

    If you want to hear the thoughts of people who are on the leading edge of this trend, listen to the Webcomics Weekly podcast, which features a number of comics artists who have been leading the way. They interviewed Skottie Young in one of their most recent episodes.

    The best part about this revolution is, as Hickman pointed out, doing away with the distribution beast. Instead of having to wrangle with Diamond in order to get your books stocked in obscure specialty stores – with trade paperbacks from the big companies in chain bookstores at best – anyone with the gumption can publish their own comic online, accessible to all, provided you can get people’s attention. It changes the landscape from plutocracy to meritocracy. Or, at least, it moves us a lot closer to that.

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