The bug was quick and efficient. It didn’t take long to infect me in a big way.
Back in May, I took my daughters to a bookstore for Free Comic Book Day. We picked up a handful of comic books gratis, from superhero fare to “The Walking Dead,” “Ugly Doll Comics” and an “Archie” digest. We also bought some comics. My oldest daughter scored some issues of “My Little Pony” (which is also very popular among grown men, but that’s a story for another column) and I picked up “Hawkeye,” a comic friends of mine online had raved about.
These were the first comics I’d bought in perhaps 10 years or more. I used to collect comics in high school and read lots of graphic novels in college, where I took a course that included “Maus” and “Watchmen” as required reading.
Since then, I’d kept up with comics through trade paperbacks and omnibus collections of stories like Bryan K. Vaughan’s “Y: The Last Man.” I also started buying digital versions of “Walking Dead” and Vaughan’s “Saga” once it became clear that the Retina Display of the iPad could do a fine job replicating the fine lines and colors of most comics.
But something about bringing home that stack of fresh comics got me. I decided I had to have the rest of the current run of “Hawkeye.” I prowled eBay, another thing I hadn’t done in years, and was outbid many times. I finally got the hang of digital auctions and won a few first printings. I loved “Hawkeye” — a tongue-in-cheek book about what a romantically inept superhero does when he’s not being a superhero — so much that I sought other titles by writer Matt Fraction.
Pretty soon I was collecting Fraction’s “Fantastic Four” and “FF” books. My stack grew. I pulled out my old long boxes dating back to the ’80s and ’90s and started bagging and boarding comics again. I got obsessed with the condition of the spines and creased page corners.
And I became a more frequent visitor to my local bookstore in New Braunfels and to comic book stores in Austin and San Antonio. The comic book collecting bug got me.
What has surprised me most about the state of comic books and comic book stores is that they’re still here at all. Digital comics from Marvel, DC and other big publishers are being released on the same date as their print counterparts and at the same price. Shouldn’t the ease, convenience and portability (not to mention the lack of having to bag and store comics at all) of digital comics be putting print out to pasture?
It turns out that unlike the music, movie, TV and book industries, digital comics have not generated arm-waving panic in the print market. In fact — surprise! — the print comic book market is actually growing in the face of digital. According to ICv2, which follows the geek culture industry, the North American print comic book market expanded in 2012 to $680 million in sales compared to $640 million the year before.
That’s not because digital has failed to take hold. Digital comic book sales nearly tripled — from $25 million to $70 million — in the same time period. Some of that may have to do with pop culture: last year’s “Avengers” movie and the phenomenal success of “The Walking Dead” TV show have probably drawn some back to the comics that originated those projects.
Chip Mosher, vice president of communication and marketing for New York City-based ComiXology, says he believes that digital and print can happily co-exist. He thinks many comic fans like me are returning to print with the help of digital products like his, an app available for mobile devices for buying and reading comic books from top publishers including Marvel, DC Comics and Image.
“ComiXology makes it easier to read comics because it’s digital, it’s available anywhere and then it sparks a renewed interest in the print side. That happens to a certain percent of the population,” Mosher said.
ComiXology, Mosher says, is especially useful for people who don’t live near comic book stores. “If you were an expatriate in Germany and you wanted to read the newest ‘X-Men’ or ‘Batman,’ there wasn’t an economical way to do it.”
You can buy and download a high-resolution comic book or graphic novel 24 hours a day and digitally thumb through thousands of back issues. Recently, using the Marvel Comics app, I paid a sale price of 99 cents for a copy of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s “Fantastic Four Vol. 1 #1,” originally published in November 1961.
At this year’s South by Southwest Interactive, ComiXology announced a way for indie artists to upload their own work and sell it through the app. One of the nicer features of the app is Guided View, which takes you panel-by-panel through a comic book, maintaining the structure of the visuals and minimizing the zooming in and out you’d need to do without it to read a comic book on a screen.
But digital is not perfect, and something beautiful about comic books is lost in translation. You can’t sell or trade digital comics using apps like ComiXology. There’s no scarcity; a digital comic you buy is not going to go up in value and be worth $10,000 some day. While there are some limited-time sales on digital comics, there’s no limit on how many are sold. Comic book stores have a distinct scent, one that welcomes you to browse covers as time slows. No matter how great a tablet screen is, I find the colors from a “FF” page by Mike and Laura Allred pop in digital form, but they don’t pop in quite the same way as print.
If digital wins in the end, what will happen to the market for back issues?
Brandon Zuern, store manager at Austin Books & Comics, thinks collectibility is one of the chief selling points of print comics and one reason they’ll stick around longer than other kinds of physical media.
“You don’t get that with digital,” Zuern said. “For some people, that’s fine. They don’t care about collectibility, they just want to read the stories and that’s OK. But if 10 years down the road, some random issue of ‘Spider-Man’ I bought becomes worth money because it’s the first appearance of a major character, awesome. I made the right choice buying that comic even if it’s completely lucky.
“It has a level of fun to it. I feel like we get a little bit more for our money than a digital collector of comics gets.”
Zuern says that print comics are booming at Austin Books & Comics after 36 years in the market, driven by a highly literate Austin audience.
ComiXology offers a program to brick-and-mortar comic shops to set up a digital storefront on the web where customers can buy their digital comics and the comic shop gets a cut of the sale. Zuern says Austin Books hasn’t participated in the program.
Zuern sells comics because he loves comics. They’re a respite. In the digital transition that may still overtake print (but not, thankfully, this year or anytime soon), he hopes comic books are the last holdout.
“I stare at a screen too many hours in the day to want to do that with my favorite pastime,” Zuern said.