27 January 2010

The Future of the Comic Book

by guest columnist Anthony Schiavino.  Follow him on Twitter.

You can take two things to the bank. One is that President Obama is not going to snap his fingers and instantly fix the economy. The other is Steve Jobs isn’t going to snap his and instantly save the publishing industry. The only way for publishing to succeed is very simple. It’s going to take hard work and initiative by the content providers, which has nothing to do with hardware.

This column is mostly about comic books but I talk about newspapers and books as well. I touch base on certain aspects that interchange throughout the industries and can be columns themselves. I hope that you’ll post your comments below and expand on some of these topics. We are the readers, the fans, and the content creators of our various likes.

Tablet computers are anything but new. If you look into the technology news feeds you’ll see quite a few of them by different companies you’ve never heard of. Good, solid products that go unnoticed or just too expensive. Tablet computers have existed for years with touch screens and without.

It seems like forever that we’ve been hearing about Apple’s iPad. What it would look like, what it would do, this that and the other thing. Is it an actual computer or is it a glorified iPod? And from the looks of things that does “look” to be generally true. A part of me loved the speculation leading to this event but another part of me wanted to scream about some of the concepts we witnessed.

So many magazines gave their take on their digital publications. All on different hardware, all with an immense amount of bells and whistles for an “experience.” When I buy a magazine or book or comic I buy it to read the stories and look at the pictures. Not be immersed in a crappy three-dimensional Avatar-like world. I want my content. As a content creator in whatever form you know the environment you work in. It’s very easy for somebody to come in and say that they want you to do something or expect something else. But sometimes that isn’t feasible. Ideas are scrapped all the time because of this, and in some cases become better. But it looks like now these companies will probably have to start somewhere around the beginning so that their publications can produced in an actual usable environment. Far beyond a genetically altered laptop with the occasional touch screen.

Content must be first and foremost on this this technologically historic day. Far beyond anything else. On this day that the State of the Union is being simulcast on the iPhone/iPod, I bought more printed publications at the comic shop than I have in a long time. 

Content must be paramount regardless of the hardware.

Companies are creating digital comics on different platforms - be it the computer or portable devices - with lackluster results. Depending on the company, and/or platform, the content is different in every case. The best we can get is viewing them one panel at a time. I’ve even been asked to have my own comic completely redrawn to fit their format. They wouldn’t work with me. As an independent creator how is that even feasible? Hey guys, listen, you may have just spent the past six months drawing but you’ll have to draw it again...

Maybe it’s just me in my old age of thirty (joke), but I want to read my digital comics just as I would printed comics. In a full page format on a screen turned one way or another. Which is essentially what is being done on the iPad with the New York Times. NOW apply it to comics. Take the initiative of other industries, also in the printed form, and apply it to your own.

I want to zoom in on the images myself. I don’t want an experience. I don’t want to zoom in on one panel at a time. I don’t want to read comics on my iPhone/iPod and only see one panel at a time. I don’t want to “experience” my comic with audio or motion because it’s not a movie or a cartoon. It’s a COMIC BOOK. It’s print media. The only difference we should ever have or see is that we’re viewing it on a screen instead of paper. Promote similar to a movie marketing campaign, that I highly support, but leave the content alone please. My style, be it design or writing, is a fusion of the old and new and it’s somewhere in that where I think the answer can be found. It has been found on the Apple iPad. That’s not a public service announcement. It just makes sense to me.

What is out there in terms of digital comics may not be what I personally prefer but the people forging new ground must be applauded. They are taking some kind of initiative in trying to figure out just what’s next and for this creator that does mean something even if I don’t agree with the end results. Not everyone is just converting print to digital content. Some are actually creating high end quality productions specifically for the format, such as David Gallaher’s and Steve Ellis’s Box 13 through the Comixology iPhone/iPod and now iPad app.

Print publications will not succeed without an online arm to them be it the actual product, marketing, etc. It doesn’t matter what form it’s in. It just has to be there. Why wouldn’t a content creator/provider want it to? Gone are the days of having to attend conventions to meet creators, show your portfolios, and whatever else. It’s a tool that’s available and should be used. It will never replace a good conversation face to face or over the phone but like a car to get you to the convention or a phone to make the call it’s just another tool to work with.

On any given day you’d find articles online about the death of comics or how the iPad will kill off comic shops. While I was never a journalist, I have worked at a newspaper and I can tell you it’s nothing more than speculation on a slow news day. To say they’re grasping at straws is putting it mildly.

Where am I getting at with this? Well, to say that any one thing is going to be the death blow to the comic industry, or even its savior, is just flat out absurd and bad reporting. If anything did kill comic shops THAT would be the death of the comic book. Diamond Distributors, the only distributor with any real power in the game, has strict rules and guidelines of where comics can and can’t be sold. The “can” being comic shops and the “can’t” being most everywhere else. This is why you don’t see Iron Man or Batman comics in movie theater lobbies when the new flicks are out. A no-brainer right? Why grab that kid or adult that doesn’t read comics coming out of Iron Man making swooshing noises like they're flying and make an instant sale.

Comic shops are needed. The same can be said of book stores. It doesn’t matter if we’re talking about brick and mortar stores in local towns or bigger businesses with mail order which you can find anywhere over the internet. If that money is gone then publishers wouldn’t be able to publish most of what they have, prices will have to rise beyond the mainstream monthly $4.00 cost, and then guess what’s next...artists don’t get paid, who in turn can’t pay their bills. Any comic can be put online very easily in this era of everyone wants online content for free, but if those creators can’t pay their heating bill the content will not be there.

Apply this to other industries and repeat. It’s happened in newspapers. I’ve seen it first hand. You may think comic books are just comic books but it’s a job just like anyone else has. Whether people are creating them or selling them. If these shops close it’s just that many more unemployed.

I know it sounds doom and gloom, as if there isn’t any hope, but this is why I don’t like speculation in some cases. It’s very easy to say we don’t need comic shops anymore. But when you stop a moment to think of the ramifications of those words, and apply them to other media, it becomes all too clear that it’s not a good thing. There’s a snowball effect. It’s not about commissioned art, or a creator attending a convention or anything like that. I’m talking about a person being able to live comfortably doing what they love to do. This is why I always pull my hair out when people talk about wanting free media. If you’re willing to go to your day job and work for free then I think it’s perfectly fine for you to feel that way.

My excitement from the speculation, and now seeing the device, comes from the pure potential of what will be done. From the people that I know in newspapers, in books, in comics, and what they can now do with their content. There is hope on the horizon!

The ten thousand pound gorilla in the room, however, that I don’t think anyone has touched on yet is that print media has been ready for this next step for years. The technology has been there. I use a glimpse of it on my own site for the Sergeant Zero previews. What has held us back is the outdated thinking brought to the table. If a content provider has the mindset they had from 10, five, or even two years ago, then all the new bells and whistles of technology don't mean a thing. 

As a content producer you need to go beyond what you already know and change your daily routine. Generally you’ll find that the freefall of newspapers, as well as various printed media, comes from the fact that people are not familiar with the technology. For various reasons, most of which are not personal. Many are not familiar with their own industry, their target audiences, or just flat out refuse to learn anything new on the basis that their a senior reporter. The occurrences are few and far between but they add up.

A vast number of newspapers, in the past six months have only just discovered Twitter and Facebook. One corporation - not individual papers - thought the internet was a fad well after the turn of THIS century. Another said through an official memo that reporters and employees shouldn’t be on any social media in general, because it’s a waste of time and company resources. A news provider whose target audience is first and foremost...people. Now they’re playing catch up after thousands upon thousands are unemployed. On the flip side some newspapers, such as The New York Times, are taking initiative with apps, feeds, and whatever they can get their hands on. I use the iPhone/iPod app for the New York Times daily. Now an actual digital paper can be read on the iPad when it hits the public’s hands.

I don’t think a reporter, comic creator, author, whoever as a content producer has to know every little facet of every little thing in what they do but they should however be familiar with some. If you don’t have email in 2010 working in a creative commercial industry or go online to see what’s current in what you do every single day then you might as well give up now. Sure people have made it without but not many and fewer have been successful. You might laugh to yourself and say that can’t be true, that these people don’t exist. I thought so too until I had that conversation. It’s not that they have bad ideas or produce poor content. They’re just unwilling to adapt to new technology, for some reason fighting it, for no apparent reason at all. At least they couldn’t give me one.

A great example of how to market your wares is what DC Comics, namely Alex Segura and staff, are doing every single day, but not counting weekends (we all need time off to recharge). DC has a blog on the main site where new art and previews are posted then blasted out across the interwebs. It’s not all about comics either. Linking icons on a site these days are a given. While they do work the content reader still won’t know your content exists unless they either visit the site or it’s put in front of them. With that the hook is very simple. Once DC blasts out the news the other members of the team retweets, links, etc. on their own feeds as well. We do it for Pulp Tone and we do it here on Multi-Hyphenate. We’ve proven that it works.

A true web so to speak. If a company has interns, especially ones in their teens and or early twenties, and they’re not utilizing them on their social media campaigns then that’s just poor thinking. Heck, there are even fans, user, etc. out there that would do it for free. They want to help promote what they love. Especially considering this constant talk of getting new blood into the industry (a topic for one of my future columns). DC spends their time trying to get the word out, not bickering with other companies. All that does is give people who don’t read comics a reason not to read them. There are competitors in every industry but as the boat sinks in some cases the last thing people should do is start throwing people overboard. What they should do is work together inside to fix the leak. Am I saying that all others do a bad job? Not at all. I just see them the most on Twitter and Facebook. Creators are a given when promoting their projects. I could rattle off more names than I can count from DC to Marvel to my good friends working on independent projects. But it all has to come back to the companies they work for keeping the industry afloat.

This iPad will be a game changer in some form but it’s only hardware and first generation at that. Which means there are functions we all want that won’t be available to us. There were rumors of some iTunes-like programs for comics upon launch but they didn’t show up for the event. No need to talk about them then. It’s obvious we need a store in some form.

The only thing that will change comics, newspapers, and printed media in general are the people behind the technology. It’s there ideas and initiative that will change the face of the soon to be non-printed, but never extinct, word. Knowing what I know, and the people I know, I have no doubt that print media will move forward in good hands.

Still, there’s nothing like holding a good book or reading a printed comic in your hands. Call me old fashioned, but I’d like to hope I’ve brought up a few good thinking points to forge ahead into the future.

From the halls of Marvel Comics as a mutant editorial intern to the heights of the Flatiron designing book covers and straight on through newsrooms as an art director, Anthony Schiavino has seen action and then some. Pounding away at the keyboard, working well into the night, he mixes his love of old hard-boiled stories, hopeless romance and black and white movie dialogue like a good stiff drink. A writer and designer from New Jersey, Anthony’s work can be seen on a wide range of pulp and comic book publications such as “Ghost Zero,” “The Phantom: Generations,” and the “Black Forest.”

He can be found talking comics, movies, television, and all things pulp on Facebook and Twitter

iPad photos courtesy of engadget

Sergeant Zero © 2010 Anthony Schiavino


Pulp Tone said...

I very much want to be excited about iBooks. It even looks like the way the program is set up you can see the pages past the current page you're reading on a slight angle. Like the bend of a book. My main problem with all my readers on the iPod is that I have no idea where I am at all.

But I can't be excited because it's ONLY ON the iPad. I know we have to start somewhere. But this sort of thing works only when it's through all of the platforms. Make a book store as part of iTunes. Does it have to only be audio? There's a brand. Now help to push other media. It just seems so limiting when so many more people would use this.

What happens when you buy books on an iPad and want to transfer it to the iPod? You can't. It just has to be automatically assumed people will want to do that. Again, great potential, but we'll have to see how it progresses. Apply this to comics as well.

Tyler Weaver said...

The physical holding of a comic book or book is a large part of the appeal for me. I've yet to be swayed towards digital for printed word.

Film's another story - the final product in print media (comics, books) IS the physical comic/book. Film is a different sort of animal.

Great post. Thanks for sharing your insight!

pimpernel said...

I fully admit i'm old and stuck in my ways, but i don't see myself ever being a fan of digital comics or books. I just think this direction we are going in where everything is increasingly intangible and abstract is a mistake. We are becoming more removed from our physical reality. What's wrong with having something you can hold and sit on a shelf? Bah-humbug...

Erik Bruhwiler said...

There is an aspect to the digitization of comics distribution that is not often discussed in comics circles, but is discussed in television and film circles. The proper perspective is that paper-in-your-hands distribution will not be replaced by these other distribution methods. They will be augmented/enhanced/transmedia-fied. There is an audience out there for comics that doesn't want to go to a comic book store, or doesn't care about the paper aspect. They just want to spend some time looking at cool pictures and taking in a fun story while waiting for a friend at the airport (as an example).

Those who like the paper version will buy the paper version. Thos who like the digital will buy the digital. Those who want the animated version (i.e. Motion Comics) will buy the animated version. The different versions will all share the same world but in different spaces.

I like comic art and stories, but I am an animator, and I always got frustrated that I couldn't hear the sound effects, or see those cool images move. Now I get to make them! And I am aiming at the people who want that version of the comic book, not those who don't. I have no desire to replace comic books, just to make cool as shit animated versions for those who want that.

And I fully believe that some who see the Motion Comic version will be driven to buy the paper version, because they will fall in love with the art and will want a more tangible experience of it.

There is a lot of hate from avid comics readers regarding Motion Comics, and some also of digital comics, but by no means does it have to be (or will it be) an either-or situation. One version will not steal from the other. Together they will broaden the audience, and keep the industry alive. And the same artists and writers are involved in all of it.

Check out some tests I've done (ain't seen nothin' yet!) and get a sense of what Motion Comics can be.


Kelly said...

There is something to be said for holding a paper back copy of you favorite book in your hands. The smell of the printed pages, the crackle sound when you turn a page, and my favorite the cracks running down the side of the spine when you are finished. Im not sure I would ever want to give that up.

Technology is wonderful, and presents us with an exciting view of things our parents, watching the original star wars, could only dream of. But what it fails to take into account is nostalgia, and romance. As a kid, underneath my bed was piled with books and magazines. My apartment now contains more books then there is carpet, and I think of it as a badge of honor. I love walking into the home of my friends, seeing their bookshelves and what they love to read. Getting into deep discusions of favorite authors and stories is how great relationships truly begin. I'm sorry buts it's not going to be the same when we get rid of those book shelves, for a single table that holds our kindle, or ipad.. ect.

Erik Bruhwiler said...

Nostalgia is great, but in this era with almost 7 billion people on the planet (1 billion more since only a decade ago), less everything is a great thing. The world would fall apart if the same percentage of the Chinese population lived as Americans do.

Fairy tale time is over. Now we have to figure out what works best, not what tickles our fancy!

Pulp Tone said...

Erik I don't disagree with what you're saying but it's not a fairy tale. You're just completely looking at it from your perspective. You're saying companies and media should adapt and I agree that they should. But that doesn't mean completely doing away with what we have now. That's just absurd.

You're coming at it from an animator's point of view. Right there you're closer to digital media then others would be. There is nothing wrong with that. But words are words. Comic books are still images with words. Animation is animation. I don't think motion comics are a bad thing but they are in no way shape or form comic books. They're something else entirely. But going by what you're saying we should just do that and scrap the paper/panels/everything else.

Like I said. I don't want an experience. I want to read a comic book. If that's on a screen then that's fine, although I prefer print and that will never go away nor will the product itself. I use my iPod Kindle app to sample books. If I like them then I will go and buy the paper product. I have even purchased a few on the app itself. But it helps me to see if I like something before I go and yeah spend that money on another paper thing I don't need or have room for. I have a better option now in how I pick and choose.

That's how we have to adapt. Not just do away with everything. Let's be honest. If your hard drive crashed then what do you have? NOTHING. Even less than what you had digitally. And until sites and programs like iTunes do what Amazon is doing and let you download your files, that you've purchased, again...well we're all shit out of luck.

You've got some good points. I just don't think that we need to say goodbye to everything. Most people still want to read a magazine or printed media in general. The experience just isn't the same. I want words. Not flashy type.

Erik Bruhwiler said...

Pulp Tone,

I said that there was a market for all of it. I never said scrap anything. I may have insinuated that from my second comment, but that was more about not sticking to nostalgia because it feels good, but instead considering the state of the world and doing what is right and best. Hoarding mounds of paper and books doesn't seem best to me, and having on instrument instead seems very cool, but I am not saying we should scrap books and comics. Just arguing against nostalgia as a reason to keep using paper products.

Pulp Tone said...

No worries Erik. You're also very much entitled to your opinions. If you disagree with anything I said, and I'm not saying you do or don't, it's not a bad thing.

I've always said the only way to figure things out is when people talk it out and share their viewpoints.

Pulp Tone said...

No worries at all Erik!

Erik Bruhwiler said...

I completely agree, Pulp Tone! Glad to take part in the discussion.

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