A story from the Boston Globe captures the mood of comics retailers who are sitting on the porch sipping an iced tea while the digital tornado comes right for them. Some sip their cool drink knowing that no matter what happens, they had a good run:

But life as Howley knows it may soon change, as the industry rides a digital wave that has already transformed publishing. DC Comics — publisher of titles featuring Superman and Batman, among other characters — said last month that it will soon start selling digital versions of new comics online, on the same day printed copies are available in stores.

“Once one of my customers buys a comic online, then DC Comics has them forever,’’ Howley said. “They don’t need me. They have no interest in keeping people like us in the middle. This really is, in the long run, cutting our own throat.’’

Others enjoy their beverage optimistic that the twister will pass right by:

Matt Lehman, owner of Comicopia in Boston’s Kenmore Square, is hopeful that DC’s digital plan is good news. The easy access of the Internet could bring new readers to comics, he said, yet it can’t replace the clubhouse appeal of a store. “We’re not really that worried about it,’’ Lehman said. “This is a great way for new customers to check out the material online. That can only benefit us.’’

Lehman believes devoted customers will continue to come around, and newcomers who read a few comics online might come in to find out more about other titles.

Another retailer roundtable was conducted before DC began their retailer meetings, and includes such knowledgable folks as Chris Butcher who looks like he’s going to find a good safe place to wait it out:

The issue for me, and I mentioned this online earlier, is that our sales on day and date digital titles are measurably lower than on the non-day-and-date titles. As far as I can tell looking at the numbers, it’s a correlation situation rather than a causation one, but with the announcement that their whole line is going day and date? It’s certainly something that concerns me.

I understand the modern truism that “digital comics have been available day and date for years,” and to an extent I agree with that idea. Piracy has been a real threat for years, done untold damage, and particularly coupled with the recession is likely responsible for the last few quarters of disappointing sales in the overall industry. But there is a generation of consumer who does prefer legal digital alternatives, and that seems to be the 30-50 year old demo that DC is targeting with these moves. More importantly, by offering my customers an add-on purchase of a digital version of the book they’re buying (as they’re doing with the ‘Previews Exclusive’ Justice League of America #1) they’re directly marketing digital to my customers. We may make an extra buck off the sale, but we introduce our customers to a stream of purchasing that directly bypasses us. I can’t see how that isn’t at least a little unappealing.

Douglas Wolk’s recent piece on digital comics for Wired also paints an uncertain picture, and quotes Jim Lee:

As far as he’s concerned, the ink-and-paper comic book is king: “We have this very devout, fanatical, core group of fans, and the vast majority prefer reading comics in print.” He talks about digital sales as a “new newsstand,” a way to reach readers who would never set foot in a comics store, get them hooked, and then point them to places where they can buy more stories on paper. In other words, where some see an outmoded industry, he sees a potential for expansion—a whole new customer base that can be lured in by the convenience of tablet apps and converted to the pleasures of old media.

That scenario flies in the face of every other mass medium’s transition to digital distribution. On top of that, other media—take the recording industry, for example—have had a seven-year head start on persuading customers to pay for downloads. An entire generation of comics readers has grown up with pirated scans as their only digital option. Nobody really knows how many of the people who used to collect comics on paper have shifted to torrenting everything and how many have just shrugged off the habit and moved on to Game of Thrones or Call of Duty or graduate school.

Artwork by Ulises Farinas, from Wired.


  1. Anyone know if its possible to get that headline image as a poster? Also, does anyone know the artist?

    As for the actual topic, this is all very sad (and exciting?). Book stores, comic shops, record shops, magazine stands and other ancillary culture around physical media provide such a significantly different experience that anything you could ever get from online communities, as great as they are.

    Comic shops may have to all become boutiques selling exclusively indie stuff (no Superman, no X-Men, like Desert Island in Brooklyn) if they are going to survive, and there is just not a big enough market to support them in most cities.

    The saddest thing for me is that younger people won’t even miss these experiences as they’ll have no concept of them; like walking around in a quiet little bookstore and stumbling on a used, beat up copy of something called The Black Company, and wondering “how can this possibly not be awesome? I’m getting it!”.

    The tradeoff (magnitudes more people around the world being able to actually READ and discuss he Black Company online or on the Kindle or what-have-you) is probably worth it, but it doesn’t make what we’re giving up any less painful.

    (I’d add video game stores but they have all sucked for a long time and have provided zero cultural return)

  2. The situation is slightly confusing – I see some claims (after people attending the recent DC retailer meetings) that after the first wave of titles not everything *will* be day and date.

    Anyone able to clear that one up for me?

    “The saddest thing for me is that younger people won’t even miss these experiences as they’ll have no concept of them; like walking around in a quiet little bookstore and stumbling on a used, beat up copy of something called The Black Company, and wondering “how can this possibly not be awesome? I’m getting it!”.”

    I’m not young and I don’t miss it.

  3. “Nobody really knows how many of the people who used to collect comics on paper have shifted to torrenting everything and how many have just shrugged off the habit and moved on to Game of Thrones or Call of Duty or…”

    Or their tastes changed and your product hasn’t?

  4. All the comics released are already available "day and date" (ugh, what a clunky phrase) online, illegally. Existing comics readers wanting their fix digitally are already doing so via torrent.
    On the other side of the equation, since the price of digital will remain the same as the print edition for one month, if you’re going to pay $2.99 for a comic book, wouldn’t you want to actually hold that comic book? Getting it cheaper means waiting a month, and that’s no longer "day and date" then.
    I think the whole "day and date" thing is just one more way for DC to get publicity for the relaunch amongst the multitude of people who don’t currently read comics.

  5. I believe I said, “Although we’re concerned, we’re not that worried”, but I understand why the reporter wanted to portray two contrasting viewpoints.

    In fact, we have had a few lapsed readers come in who were reintroduced to comics through some digital format, who were interested in picking up something in print and wanted our input. It’s not a lot, mind you, but just some anecdotal evidence that the migration isn’t necessarily just away from comic shops.

  6. I believe that the sales of digital comics will EXPLODE once the prices on tablet readers falls to affordable levels and the price point on digital comics does likewise. This will obviously take a few years.

    Look what happened w the iPod and iTunes…

  7. This is the same wishful thinking that the record companies/stores were spewing as napster & itunes rolled out. You’d think with so many examples available, the comics industry wouldn’t make the same mistakes, yet here they go.

    Jim Lee has to say that brick N mortar & physical comics will always be around even if he doesn’t believe it b/c that’s good business. Imagine the uproar from retailers if he acknowledged reality!

    That said, I can’t say with any certainty that he has a grip on reality – I don’t think Jim Lee is good at much in this biz except drawing and bamboozling DC into thinking he knows what he’s doing or can deliver a product that sells – this is textbook “guy who has failed upwards” example.

    If DC doesn’t get it together and start delivering sales stability (or increases, as unlikely as that is) and show their non-Batman properties can be made into successful films (not easy at WB where everyone has a say), they are headed for a bad, sad end.

    If comic retailers don’t see what’s coming and start making plans to fight it, they will already be there to greet DC when they finally choke out.

    Much of what I see indicates neither side is acting fast enough or with much vision.

  8. Yeah, when the sales of digital make that huge jump from 1% to 1.2% that will spell the end of the DM all right. Give me a break. Just because someone’s selling property on Mars for future condos does that mean construction ends on earth?

    I can’t wait to laugh my ass off when the DM sees virtually no change in their sales after the debut of the earth shattering DAY AND DATE event passes.

  9. I get the clubhouse thing since I’ve seen it happen at comic stores, but I don’t think it’s great for stores since these people will come in to hang out and not buy anything. I’ve seen it happen on quite a few Saturdays, and I’ve done it myself.

    The young won’t miss it as they can’t miss what they’ve never experienced. It’s a different world for them and technology keeps driving it.

  10. @John: The analogy isn’t future condos on Mars vs. Earth. This is about someone selling new houses in the suburbs where people want to live. That damn well *does* kill off any construction in the blighted ghetto where people don’t even want to visit. It may not happen overnight. But if you expect the “neighborhood” where you spend your Wednesday afternoons to be unchanged in five years, you’ll be in for an unpleasant surprise.

  11. I doubt it. And since people like you have been telling me that that “surprise” has been coming for the last decade, let me just take your “certainty” for what it’s worth. Nothing.

  12. I for one am really looking forward to digital comics coming out the same day. I’m a 35 year old guy that has a 1 and a half year old, a 100 lbs bullmastiff and a wife that I like to hang out with. Just finding the time to go to the shop is hard and add the fact that I don’t reread any of my comics or want to collect them (I’ve got a big stack I need to get rid of as it is and don’t know what to do with them), digitals are a blessing to my life. I wish Marvel would follow suit.

    The local shop said they wouldn’t be too concerned until the digitals had additional content, kind of like how DVD’s have extra content. If you could get commentary or extra hand drawn images while you read it would be pretty powerful.