|Pocket God will not save us, kids|
I hear a lot of talk about the inevitable rise of the Digital Messiah. "It's taking over! You can't stop it, you fossilized Luddite, the digital beast is the future!" I really didn't mind this stuff when it first started heavy rotation....what...three years ago? I didn't mind it then, because I was looking for a comics messiah (still am, incidentally) and the ideas weren't spread with a such a smug air.
But after listening to this noise for several years and noticing that the digital revolution has absolutely no traction in the real world, and no interest from real people, I'm ready to call digital comics what they are - ethanol.
Like ethanol, digital comics are an inferior product that nobody really wants. Publicly, all the right people are touting the "advantages". At this point, saying anything against digital comics is likely to earn you the wrath of the punditsphere. If you don't recognize the inalienable right of digital to own the future, you're an anti-technology dinosaur nerd who just isn't evolved enough to grow past the printed page. You're a flat earth troll in a post-Copernicus world, desperately clawing at the past and selfishly denying a digital future filled with four-color gum drops and sparkly unicorns.
The demonstrable truth is that digital comics are not the future, and will not save the medium. The demonstrable truth is that nobody wants the damn things, or at least there's no evidence that significant numbers are willing to pay for them. I don't know how to break this to y'all, but if the industry is to survive, we need somebody to actually pay for the comics they enjoy.
I remember ethanol. I remember the smug satisfaction of its advocates demanding that our future be driven by corn gas. To be fair, it wasn't a bad idea. The principle - that we need a domestic and sustainable fuel to replace oil, was delicious. The problem was that the product sucked, and nobody actually wanted the stuff. In the end it turned out to be harmful to grocery prices, as way too much of that potentially useful corn got shifted away from food and into gas tanks.
None of that stopped the endless public clamoring for ethanol. Mindlessly yammering about a hip concept is a good way to get elected, and an excellent method for showing folks within earshot what a progressive person you are. And that's all digital comics are - narrative corn gas with some social cache, but no real traction in reality, and no discernible future traction, either. Nobody wants them.
I know, I know, this all sounds like the mad ravings of a contrarian looking to stir the pot. And I am a mad contrarian looking to stir the pot. But if you examine some of the digital rhetoric, it isn't hard to see the cracks. Let's start with a really vague and simple one.
Myth: Digital comics are the future!
Truth: Do you know anybody, even one person, and by person I mean person that currently spends money on comics, eager to switch to digital? Let me answer that one for you - you don't. Maybe if you live in Casper, Wyoming, and the nearest comic shop is several parsecs away, you're anticipating more mainstream comics going day and date. It's far more likely that you've simply discovered DCB Service and are getting your books delivered to you dirt cheap.
It's easy to find a talking head in an interview, column, or blog to decree that five years from now, we won't remember what all that paper fuss was about. It's exceptionally difficult to find a flesh human being actually thinking about making the switch from print to digital.
Myth: Oh, Ryan, you old dinosaur, you just don't understand. The kids today don't share your fascination with paper, and grew up on computers. Kids love digital comics!
Truth: Oh, invisible devil's advocate, you just don't understand. The kids today don't give a shit about comics in any format. Most of them lack the attention span and discipline to read or write full words. Reading comics is more work then reading full text, because you have interpret the images in conjunction with the available text, and you have to do a great deal of high order thinking between the gutters to connect panels in a meaningful way.
I wish it weren't the case, but kids are simply not interested in comics. They like games. They like movies. They like music, somewhat. A handful of them may even enjoy some web comics...if they're available for free. There is no data to suggest that significant numbers of people are interested in paying for digital comics.
Listen, digital comics are not new. They've been around for years. All kinds of cool and influential people have been telling us for years that they are the future. So where's the model? Where's the success story? Where is the million selling digital comic book?
There isn't one. It's possible, (highly unlikely, but possible) to get massive hits on a digital comic, if it's available for nothing. But in all this time, in all the world, has there never been a talented creator telling a good story on the web? Has everybody sucked?
If there was an audience for digital comics, we would have already seen multiple hit books by now. If the world was really bursting at the seems for the product, it's out there. It's available in great reams, and surely in a world populated with endless forums and global word-of-mouth via social networking, we would have seen not one but many "lightning in a bottle" digital sensations. Nobody wants them. Don't take my word for it, just look at the best seller list. There isn't one. Nobody wants to buy digital comics.
Myth: That's not true! I just read that Pocket God sold more than 3 million copies!
Truth: Don't talk to me about Pocket God. That's a game. There's a great deal of evidence to support the fact that kids are interested in spending money on games for their computers, phones, IPads. There is zero evidence that kids are willing to part with cash to read digital comics. Next!
Myth: OK, what about that ICV2 research that says that the digital market increased ten fold in the past year while print comics took a dip?
Truth: That's a point that deserves attention. Digital comics did increase year over year. It went from an estimated $500,000 in 2009 to $6M-$8M estimated in 2010. Whatever. Print comics did $310M in a down year, and that's 40 times the messiah.
But that's not all. What we're not factoring in yet is the $370M in trade sales directly generated by collecting the print comics. A couple of those were OGNs, but that is almost entirely generated by monthly pamphlet print comics. So now we're at $8M for the messiah vs. $680M for print comics. And that puts print comics as crushing the holy digital by 85 times the dollars. Does that sound like the future?
But that's not all. How much of that digital pie is also generated by material made possible by previously printed material? I'm sure some of that figure is purely digital books, but most of that money is comics available digitally that wouldn't be unless there was a profitable printed comic before it to subsidize it. I don't have the data to look at, but surely that's most of it.
Myth: Yeah, but Marvel went on record as saying that they were able to announce a price reduction on some books for 2011 because of their digital sales!
Truth: Don't even get me started on that price reduction that Marvel lied about. To bring it back on point, Marvel's digital sales are just gravy from their already profitable and printed comics. They aren't really selling digital comics, they're selling reprints of popular print comics.
If Marvel thought for one second they could make a nickel selling new digital material, they would do it in a heartbeat. You'll notice they don't do that. They have offered some new digital exclusive material available if you own a subscription. But nobody is buying Marvel's DCU for that stuff. They're going there for the archives.
Marvel doesn't produce new digital exclusive comics because again, nobody wants them, and they know that it won't be profitable. The only market for digital comics are pundits trying to prove that they're cutting edge. That's your market. Real people don't buy them, and there's no evidence to suggest that they're changing their mind about that. Digital comics are ethanol.
What I'm Not Saying
I'm not saying that I hate digital comics and that they have no place. I'm not a Luddite or a purist, and I don't take offense at the fact that some comics are not printed on some form of wood pulp.
Digital comics are an inferior product, not a useless one. If you have no access to print books, digital will do in a pinch. If I were an aspiring comic book creator, I can think of no better pitch than a web comic that demonstrates good storytelling ability. I think that digital comics can be a profitable supplement to an already profitable print book.
There's nothing wrong with digital comic books, but their only advantage over print books is their remarkable ability to not take up physical space. As a reading experience, which would seem sort of key in a reading material, they are inherently inferior. There's nothing wrong with digital comic books, other than the fact that nobody is interested in buying them. If offered at a dollar or less, I think that the digital segment could function as an excellent taste-testing feeder system to print. Fine.
But on this planet, digital comics are not a future messiah. Sorry! You can spout your ethanol chanting all you want, but I'm done listening or caring until someone can show me data that supports the concept. Good luck with that. If we want to save comics, we need to continue fostering ideas about how to drive civilian traffic toward the print books, books that actually have a paying audience.