October 11th, 2011 | comics talk
All of which is Bleeding Obvious, of course. “Digital Comics” – paygated digital files in a wrapper for delivery to a device or walled up in a browser – were the business model that everyone interested in “comics on the internet” was looking for.
And the problem with webcomics, as people said over and over again, was that there was no way to monetise them.
Way back in the day, in fact, people talked about how what the medium needed was an iPod for comics. I, and probably others, countered that what was in fact needed was an iTunes for comics. The delivery system, not the device. Comixology, Graphic.ly, iVerse and all the others are in the business of trying to provide the iTunes for comics. But, of course, with the iPad, we got the iPod for comics, too, the perfect device for reading them.
(I am, for the purposes of this thought, ignoring the Kindle, and also Android tablets.)
But no-one seemed to have cracked the Season Pass yet. I’ve talked to a few digital-comics services about this: if your service doesn’t allow you to buy a subscription that has your favourite comics automagically download to your device or your in-service locker, then I think you’re missing a huge piece of potential.
Of course, that function doesn’t strictly exist in webcomics. For two and a half years I was doing this nearly every week:
And I think it was Tom Spurgeon who commented that the closure of my long-running email blast BAD SIGNAL meant that he wasn’t getting a notification in email every Friday that the new episode of FREAKANGELS was up, which made it the easiest webcomic for him to keep up with.
It occurred to me today – and my mind’s mostly been elsewhere – that digital comics and webcomics are not the same thing at all, and are not the same thing in ways other than the obvious.
There is no experience of broadcast in digital comics. Digital comics are, in fact, the closest digital emulation of the store experience: they’re flung up on a virtual shelf.
Webcomics are broadcast. From the moment they’re uploaded, they’re surrounded by an expanding sphere of URLs and shortcodes, of RTs and Likes and +1s, and are being opened on desktops and laptops and tablets and phones.
Yes, they’re hard to monetise. Yes, you’ll probably have to sell something other than the comic, and hope that someone notices you and offers you a book deal of some kind, and that’s a high bar because chances are that you’re not as good as Hope Larson or Kate Beaton, and placing advertising is always dodgy (even Avatar Press, who funded FREAKANGELS, put Google Ads on the site in the last few weeks of the run. And FREAKANGELS made a profit in print).
The focus is off webcomics right now. People are looking at how to get into the digital comics services. And quite rightly: they offer the possibility of bypassing the zero-sum game of serialising new and original material into the direct sales comics store market, a market that’s frequently been quite adamant about how it doesn’t want to sell new and original material. If I had the ability to go into digital comics right now and attempt to access a paying audience for new work, I absolutely would.
(I’ve run out of both available collaborators and tolerance for the toxic shit of the business.)
But webcomics are where the reach is. Webcomics are not the inferior option just because there’s not a payment system in place. Webcomics, for some little time to come, are where you’re going to hear about new things first. Not least because it’s tough to bit.ly or t.co into an in-app purchase.
(I can get you to Comixology’s webpage for CASANOVA: AVARITIA 2, but that doesn’t give me a buy link for the digital comic. For that, I had to go into the digital-store website and do a search to find the comic’s digital-store page. I’m not singling out Comixology: I use their service more than any other, in fact. I’m just saying, this ain’t solved yet, even by the designers I like the most.)
Also, it’s a hell of a lot easier to take your time telling a story when you’re not charging people.
And, while there’s a smile in that comment, there’s also a degree of truth. Compressing comics down to twenty pages, nineteen pages, probably eight or ten or twelve pages when people get to producing original material through digital comics services… while it’ll certainly make a nice change for a lot of people, after a decade of spacious and airy commercial comics, I’m compelled to point out that the crushed-in nature of commercial comics in the 1970s was one of the driving forces behind the big changes to the commercial medium that came in the 80s. People were desperate for longer episodes and arcs that allowed them to tell stories more novelistically – and, in large part, they did that by using the then-new process of selling to the direct sales comics store market.
We’re all looking at compression techniques now, because we need them for commercial comics and we’re going to need them for digital comics. Look at this Howard Chaykin page from AMERICAN FLAGG! in 1983, for instance:
In going back and studying this – for the millionth time since I bought this comic in 1983 – I found that I had somehow forgotten one thing about it. This comic is 28 pages long. The first 12 issues of AMERICAN FLAGG in fact form one graphic novel of some 330+ pages. (And I’m telling you now, if you’ve never read AMERICAN FLAGG!, and you’re interested in comics and science fiction, then you need to sort that shit out, because this is the great lost commercial graphic novel of the 80s, and it should be racked with WATCHMEN and DARK KNIGHT RETURNS everywhere.)
Some things work at a smaller page count. FELL was 16 pages an episode, but those were just a string of little one-act plays. People want to be able to do more than one-act plays in the medium. People also forget that the Anglophone medium’s greatest graphic novel picaresque, some 6000 pages long, was serialised in monthly 20-page parts:
CEREBUS was a direct-market publishing phenomenon because, really, there was nowhere else Dave Sim and Gerhard could have done it. The idea of the direct market supporting something like CEREBUS now is laughable. The only place you could do something so massive and foolhardy would in fact be in webcomics: the lesson of the Foglios and the only comic sf fans seem ever to have heard of, GIRL GENIUS, now in its 11th volume, somewhere over 1000 pages in total by now.
AMERICAN FLAGG! is to digital comics – compression, jamming in as much material as possible to justify a purchase that still may not appear as valuable as an mp3 or a TV show episode while costing comparably much because people are fucking idiots – as CEREBUS is to webcomics. CEREBUS, before many of us had seen manga, introduced us to new conceptions of pause and space. It took its time, wandered and rambled (much as I am here, but I have the excuse of incipient senility). Even then, the series’ audience was split into two overlapping sets: those early adopters who bought the book every month, and those who waited for the hefty “phonebooks” that collected the series every twenty-five episodes or so. The entirety of FREAKANGELS would not quite fill two CEREBUS phonebooks.
FREAKANGELS’ audience came in three parts. People who read it every week online. People who’d come back to the site every few weeks to read a bunch of episodes all at once. And people who didn’t read it online at all, and just bought the print editions every six months. All of which allowed me to tell the story at my own pace – for the people who liked the pace and came in weekly, for the people who liked a bigger chunk, and for the people who wanted a sixth of the story all at once. The free-broadcast to paid-print model let me tell a story any way I wanted. There’s a degree of possibly unfounded trust that the nature of broadcast will allow the story to (eventually) find the people who like it, but we got away with it.
But, as I say, the focus is off webcomics. Everyone seems to be eyeing the digital comics services, and I suspect that within six months it’s going to be a lot easier to get on to a digital comics shelf. (Just as, right now, it seems to be very easy to get on to a Kindle.) Which makes sense. People like to be paid. My concerns are that if you make it harder to look at something, then you’re making it harder to access the full set of people who might be prepared to spend money on it. That, and…
…this is harder to make sense of, perhaps? It may just be a weird personal tic masquerading as a concern, that is meaningless to everyone else? But I always saw webcomics as the place where people could do huge, sprawling picaresques. I thought webcomics had a great potential to be the place where you’d get graphic novels that read like Pynchon or Neal Stephenson or add your own discursive, meandering and circumlocutious author here. And certainly some people got close to that – we could both write our lists of Really Good Graphic Novels Done On The Web here, although mine might have less of the “funny” stuff than yours. But I have a feeling we may not see many more.
I’m sure it can be made a meaningless stat, but check out Wikipedia’s list of notable webcomics. Look at the bulge, and look at how the list shrinks off by 2011.
I wished for an iTunes for comics. And that was probably my first mistake. For now I seem to have very few broadcasts to pick up for free on my iPod for comics, and it seems that there may be fewer by the day. And I can’t help but think of that as another missed opportunity.
Luckily, ideas don’t die. They just cycle around and come back again, like nineteen-page comics and doing things the way we did in the 1970s (when comics were shit).
If you made it this far, I apologise for how much closer you are to your death from old age now.