You may recall that after the beginning of this year, I bought an iPad and posted some words about digital comics, particularly what they should cost (especially if they are coming from a major publisher) and how they could be produced by independent artists. It’s hard to believe that it was less than a year ago that people were fretting about how Marvel and DC would get their books to market, what it would cost, how it would impact comic shops, and so on.
My opinions on all of that stuff have not changed much, but I do have more data to work with now in terms of my own experience and buying habits, so I thought I would check in. So, here is a bit of an update:
1) Paid legal downloads. I don’t do a lot of this, and when I do it tends to be either a title on sale in Comixology or one that is “on special” for a limited time. I usually hear about these deals on Twitter, where I follow dozens of cartoonists and publishers who work in all genres. I have not yet gotten into the habit of checking Comixology every Wednesday to see what’s new; but then I haven’t been in that habit with comic shops for a long time either. Generally, I don’t care for paying a same-as-print price for a digital file which I can’t freely copy but which I have to store; this applies to video games and other software as well as comics. That said, I have found some nice gems when I bother to look, like Paul Tobin and Colleen Coover’s Bandette or Penny Arcade’s Lookouts comic.
2) Unpaid legal downloads. Some artists, especially webcomics artists, have experimented with providing samplers or archives of their work for free, like Rich Stevens’ Diesel Sweeties or Mark Waid’s Insufferable. J. Torres invited reviewers to do the same with the first volume of his series Bigfoot Boy, drawn by Faith Erin Hicks; a book which I recently picked up in print. I expect I will do something similar in the future once I have enough instalments of my own webcomic, Time Wounds All Heels, built up.
3) Unpaid borrowed downloads. This is probably more common with regular novels being lent as ebooks through public libraries, but I have been able to read a fair number of graphic novels lately through a galley service, which provides DRM-protected books that expire after a few months. They are intended to be read in Adobe Digital Editions, which is a terrible thing to try to read with on a standard computer screen; and thanks to Adobe’s butthurt over Apple not wanting to deal with the piece of shit known as Flash, there is no version of ADE for the iPad. Fortunately, an independent app called the Bluefire Reader will handle ADE content, so I am able to read those books in a comfortable format. The tradeoff is that if I finish a book, I write a review about it on my blog and send the resulting link to the publisher. Seems fair enough. It tends to be smaller publishers like First Second, who can harness the power of online reviews for their sort of books perhaps a little better than a more-scrutinized publisher like Marvel. My only complaint about this route is that some publishers do not provide a very readable copy of the book; presumably concerned about DRM being broken and PDFs of their books being released into the wild, they submit a very low resolution file that makes the artwork look like shit and the text difficult to read. In which case, why bother?
4) Free online comics. Apart from the above mentioned galleys of graphic novels, these are far and away my most common source for reading comics now, from old favourites like John Allison and Tatsuya Ishida to relatively new ones like Kate Leth or Eric Dyck. Webcomics artists support themselves all kinds of ways, from website ads and physical merchandise to day jobs and commissions. I try to support the ones I like however I can.
5) Ethically questionable downloads. Let me get this out of the way: I download torrents of stuff, especially TV shows, movies recently released on DVD, and the occasional album by some band I want to check out. Downloading torrents is legal in Canada (though uploading is not, resulting in some confusion, but I suspect the main goal is to discourage wholesale widespread piracy rather than downloading something for personal use). I have no qualms about downloading TV shows; to me it is no different from having digital cable, and it is not my problem that Media Corporation A has not yet figured out how to measure and bill Media Corporation B for it. The big reason I don’t have reservations about downloading TV or new DVD releases is that the quality of the resulting file is not a replacement for what you would buy; it’s watchable (usually) but it’s not HD, it’s just a compressed AVI or Quicktime rip of a better quality product. I think it’s fair in the sense of sampling, and there have been numerous occasions where downloading that way has led me to buy the DVD later for myself or as a gift.
However, I am not so comfortable with downloading rips of digital comics as torrents, or ebooks, or other situations where the file you get is basically the file you would get if you paid for it. As a result, I have done very little torrenting of comics, with the exception of a few situations where I have already paid for the series in print and would like to have a digital copy to carry around or refer to. The most notable instance of this is Lone Wolf and Cub, which I originally bought in the form of Dark Horse’s tiny trade paperbacks; 27 volumes at about $12 a pop, totalling over $300 in comics which due to my advancing age and sudden need for bifocals, I could no longer read. So, I downloaded them and am not losing any sleep over it. Your mileage (and local laws) may vary, of course.
So, the main lesson I have taken away from owning an iPad so far is that I am reading more digital comics than I expected I would even a few months ago, and sometimes even paying for them despite my initial skepticism of services like Comixology. If there is ever a service like Netflix for comics that allows access to a content library for a flat fee, I would probably be all over it. Publishers with deep backlists, like Marvel and DC, might want to consider it as a way to generate interest in the current adventures of their characters.