The Graveyard

The Lair Of Gary James

Some Thoughts, Part Four – Comics

Posted by BigWords on April 4, 2010

Comics, which wasn’t necessarily going to be my next port of call in this narrative of possibilities, have a long and varied online history. I’m not going to debate the differences between markets here, mainly because manga, BD, US comics, and the British “funnies” are similar enough in structure (if not in content) to make anything I have to say on the matter universal. With falling sales figures in various areas continuing unabated (indeed, sales are dropping faster than ever for some formats), there is a need for new ways of thinking. Bold and game-changing thinking. The recent revelations that skipped weeks has damaged the number of returning customers is, in part, a touchstone for this post, though I have already covered some of the thoughts which I will be expanding on at the ComiXtreme forum. Whenever I attempt to show inherent possibility in an existing medium I normally hit one of two walls – there are people who believe that things are just fine the way they are, and there are those who would point to the difficulties in implementing things which are radically different to what we have available now. I will address both of these issues here, and also setting to rights a couple of things which I was already planning on covering during the course of my series outlining the ways in which multimedia can step out of the shadows of old media.

First I want to cover the point raised about skipped weeks hurting the reader base. This is not a problem when you are dealing with digital comics, and it is here I will look at distribution. When you think of distribution models, and there are a few very effective ways of shifting content online, you’ll probably ignore the most influential methods of transmitting information. Reports vary, but even accepting lower-end figures, the trend of P2P and torrents as first-call destinations for content seems to have the edge on everything considered “reputable.” This, you might automatically assume, is all illegal, right? Not so. There are many, many legal torrents out there. I listed some on this very blog a while back. Citing all torrents as damaging, as some ignorant politicians and music industry spokesmen have done in the past, is akin to calling television, or books, or magazines – as a medium – evil. The method of distribution is beautifully simple, efficient and sustainable, and more should be done to nurture legal alternatives to the illegal filesharing activities which have come to dominate news reports. It’s going to be hard for some to accept, but this is as legitimate a method of dissemination as any old media.

Looking on at the file-sharing sites with growing impotence and frustration, some publishers have locked themselves behind pay-walls. This only serves to make the publisher invisible, their content hidden from casual surfers who might – upon discovering the information contained within their site – decide to support and follow future ventures. The primary frustration which many face when dealing with paywalls is the quality of content. How, if I must pay for the privilege of viewing before being granted access, can I judge the relative merit of the service? It makes no sense as a business model. To retain position in a rapidly changing digital landscape, visibility is paramount to success, and by shuttering down the barricades on intellectual property, all that is being achieved is media autism. The content is there, but it is shut inside its’ own little world, unable to communicate ideas with the wider community.

Torrents are something we should look at with new eyes. They are very effective at spreading material across a consumer base and contain vital information which can be used to make marketing decisions – two things which shouldn’t be ignored in the rush to condemn the pirates. With the ability to tell how many times a torrent has been downloaded, we can effectively tell which seeds are more popular than others, which seeds are being ignored, and the re-seeding rate (i.e. how many people left the content on their computers rather than deleting the data). This is the kind of feedback which will be familiar to readers of British comics in the seventies and eighties, where readers were urged to say which parts of the comic they preferred, and which they would rather not see return. Can any other method of distribution gather such vital information without any direct contact with consumers?

Ah, but that is what we need to look at. Consumers are those “who consume,” not “who pay.” There’s no way to make money from torrents, and torrents should only ever be part of the solution to survival in the digital age. When there are so many ways to exploit the immediacy of the internet, this shouldn’t be a problem. If a single method of getting material to people is employed there will always be holdouts (which is an area certain companies still fail to take heed of), so we’re forced to look at multiple releases. We’re coming slowly, but surely, back to the ideas which I started thinking about concerning the effectiveness of DVDs in approaching material. Most major releases these days have two (if not more) DVDs. There is a stripped-down, bare-bones release for people who want the film alone, and there is the double-disc full of extras. I propose that the same could be applied to comic-books without too much difficulty due to the existence of the online media presence of most comics publishers. A two-tiered system will also legitimize increased subscription charges for those who wish to get all that can be gained from the digital comics which will replace .pdf’s and .cbr’s – the two most common forms of current digital comics.

A new type of e-reader, able to perform more complex functions would be required for digital comics to grasp their full potential, but once a common standard is agreed (and not merely limited to the US publishers) we will see readers return in greater numbers as the extras provide seemingly fresh content. But what content? For charges to be levied for the increased benefits of multimedia capable digital comics, there needs to be that multimedia in already in place. Ah, but we do have some things which we can use without incurring costs, and the material isn’t troubled by annoying rights problems.

  • Alternate Angle. The concept of looking at a scene from a different vantage point is now a well-cemented aspect of DVDs (and I’m drawing heavily on that format for these ideas), so using something similar in regard to comics is a no-brainer. In the case of comics, this would be the ability to view alternate covers (if such things exist for a particular issue) / the pencils / the plain inks / the colored, text-free cover.
  • Zoom. Using magnifying tools to zoom into a specific panel on a .jpg or .pdf is fine, but the results can sometimes be blurry. HiDef should be used for all subscription downloads.
  • Commentaries. Audio and video featurettes about the character(s), the title, the publisher and / or the creative team would give reason for returning to canceled and much older titles to be brought back from obscurity. The use of interviews would also give space to unused storylines and developments which were never expanded on, especially when the title was culled for sales reasons.
  • Extra Scenes. If the script is included in the package, it would be a benefit for the readers to see which storylines never made it to print. It’s fine hearing about unpublished stories, but to see them would add considerable value, while at the same time not costing anything if they had already been started.

For those of you who would state that you do not require enhanced functionality from something as simple as a comic, I reassure you that none of the enhancements presupposes the extinction of the most basic forms of online comics. The plain styling of existing formats will remain active for as long as people only wish to read digital comics as they would the hard copies. The main benefit of .cbr folders are the ease of use – they do not require special software to be used, and they have many users already familiarized with them. It’s not a zero-sum game, as proved by the many .pdf comics also available. There is enough room in the market for both the simple and the complex. For those of you who would claim that the implementation of such a complex reader would not be cost-efficient… Well, you have a very minor point. The advancement of any media costs money, but the benefits far outweigh the costs – look at how DVDs have so completely replaced video, and the Blu-Ray format is quickly overtaking DVD as the format of choice for new releases.

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