Friday, 18 December 2009

The future of comics

If you want to start the comic geek equivalent of a bar fight, just try popping up in the forums to say print is dead. That’ll do it every time.

I get why it bothers them. I’ve been collecting comic books most of my life. Shelves have collapsed in this house under the combined weight of Gaiman’s and Moore’s imaginations. Lee, Kirby and Ditko have to stay on the ground floor; no ceiling would hold them. These are my greatest treasures.

Yet, all that said, print’s on its way out.
Okay, maybe not at the prestige end of the market. The same people who buy the deluxe box set of Buffy DVDs (a snip at $166 – are they insane?) after getting hooked by the TV showings will buy the trade paperback of Hellboy having read the monthly comic books. So print will survive there - for a while at least. But that’s the five percent of comic readers for whom it’s a real passion, and their wallets can’t sustain an entire industry. It’s the 95% of casual readers we need to hang onto. As pamphlet comics die, electronic publishing offers the only answer.

There are two reasons why I’m so smitten with e-publishing of comics, especially on mobiles. The first is rooted in habit. I’m used to reading comics in monthly installments. That model still just about makes sense for Marvel, DC and Dark Horse, but it’s a shrinking polar cap even for them. On smart phones and handhelds like the PSPgo, you’ve got the perfect platform for delivering regular comic episodes.
But that’s merely the reactionary argument. The real bonus is that electronic media provide a better way of reading comics. Some of the early comic reader apps have just treated the phone screen as a little window for peering through at a comic page. I say: let’s kiss goodbye to pages! My biggest headache in writing comics is getting the reveals to come at page breaks. The way forward is going to be a step beyond current features like Sony’s autoflow system, to the point that the old historical idea of the comic page might even be jettisoned entirely. Whether it is or not, the view can track across each frame rostrum-style to reveal new parts of the image. Each story will be some blend of animation, motion comics and static comics.
Here are some frames from Mirabilis to show a very simple way that an e-comic could enhance the reading experience. Each time you press Next, you get successive word balloons or sound effects. At the transitions between panels, there could be cuts, dissolves or fades depending on what works best for the story.

Welcome to the future. My ten-year-old self would’ve eaten this stuff up!


  1. It's funny Dave. I saw your work mentioned on a blog (electronic naturally!) and came to the site. I read the first installment and thought, I really like this. I love supporting non-superhero comics that tell a great story (Him & hers smuggling vacation). I therefore am pleased to buy a hard copy. WHY? because I use a PC all day long and want to get away from it for my health! I'll keep an eye on your blog for the announcement of the book version. If after 6 months nothing appears I MIGHT read the rest online!

    Thanks for a great site and idea and your thoughts on PC Comics

  2. I kind of agree with you, Norman; I don't like reading on screen either! So I'm really hoping that we can have handheld/online versions for the story in installments, PLUS a really nice printed book version collecting the whole thing together. Unfortunately I have to tell you that there isn't going to be a print version for at least a year - which is annoying, but there's nothing we can do about it, I'm afraid. Having finished the whole of book 1, Leo and I can't stand leaving it in a drawer so I'm embracing the electronic version(s) as the next best thing. We hope to have some firm news about that by the end of January.

  3. I'm caught between Norman's take on this; i.e. the beauty, convenience and portability of the printed page and the electronic future.

    But actually the convenience and portability considerations are now disappearing from the equation and while it is still our intention to see Cloud 109 appear in print the prospect of the e-comic as another way forward seems even less off putting than it did a year ago.

    I've loved Mirabilis since I first encountered it in the pages of The DFC but I'm very partial to it's electronic incarnation as the colours, atmosphere and sharpness are heightened when viewed on screen.

    At the moment I enjoy both versions equally but future developments might propel me more towards the electronic future.

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  5. Oops, typing problem! Anyway...

    I like the idea of having the digital installments and the print copy of my favorites on my shelf at the end - I still love the experience of holding and reading books/comics and will not give that up.

    That being said, in recent years I have developed a new warmth for small devices that contain escape worlds for me. I love the intimacy of my Nintendo DS, especially when holds a game with lovely art and a good story - it feels like I have a secret doorway to another world, one I can access anywhere.

    So far my iPhone doesn't feel that way for me, it is more a tool I use for communication or to get things done. But I can definitely see the potential of its lovely glowing screen (I too have been relishing the juicy digital Mirabilis images). With the right story and presentation (I love the pageless comic idea!) I can see it becoming another secret world in my pocket.

  6. I am quite into the idea of reading on screen though I haven't read many comics on screen as yet. So in general I'm a technophile rather than a luddite; but I really really don't like the idea you propose (I appreciate it's a just suggestion) of getting "successive word balloons or sound effects" as you press a button. I read quickly and would find this very frustrating - it would definitely slow me down. Alex de Campi's recent comic Valentine had a similar technique and I didn't get on with it.

  7. Very good point, Jinty. I hadn't thought of it, but I guess the best way to get the most out of comics on smart phones (and interactive devices generally) is to offer readers the option. So you could either cycle through the word balloons or get them all at once. The main thing, though, is to move on from the current apps that mostly reduce the screen to just a cut-out window through which you're peering at a comic page.