Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Digital or Paper? What’s the best way to read comics?

When comic-books first started being published, they were produced on cheap, pulpy paper -- the same type of material used by newspaper companies.  In those days, it never occurred to anyone that comic-books would become a collector's item.  They were, like newspapers, something most people read once and tossed aside, usually making it into the trash or the stack of newspapers destined to be recycled. Therefore, companies continued, for many years, to print comics using the cheapest methods available.  Comic-books were mass produced, delivered in large volumes to news-stands, just the way newspapers were, and unsold books were returned to the distributor for destruction (a fact that has made many modern comic-book collectors weep whenever they think about it).  As time went by, and the cost of printing and distributing comic-books slowly increased, the price of comics went up. What started out costing 5 cents rose to 10 cents, then 20 cents, and beyond.  By the mid-70s, comics cost 35 cents.  By the early 80s they were 60 cents, then 75 cents, and by the early 1990s they were $1.00.

As the price increased past 60 cents, however, other things changed about comic-books.  The more expensive books were printed on higher-quality paper, which held colors better and lasted longer.  By now, comic-book companies and readers alike realized that these products were collectibles, and comics were no longer treated as throw-away items.  At the same time as better materials were being introduced, the comic-book companies shifted distribution methods to direct sales, eliminating the middle-man and selling their product directly through specialized "comic shops."  Gradually, comic-books became a high-quality specialty item.

Over the years, the quality of paper and the color fidelity of the printing process have increased, and along with those things, so has the price.  Today, a new comic-book costs $3.99 generally (though some are still offered at the lower $2.99 rate), four times what they cost in 1990, and 80 times what they cost originally. But along the way, something different and interesting began to happen:  comics started going digital.

For the last several years, major publishers have been offering most of their titles in two formats - the standard print format, and the digital format.  Digital comics are offered for sale directly from the company's website, and read using their app, or they can be purchased from a third-party vendor who offers products from many companies.  Probably the highest-volume third-party vendor is +comiXology , which offers comic-books for sale the same day as print availability for all the major companies, including +DC Comics , +Marvel Entertainment , Image, Valiant, Dynamite, IDW, and others.  Comic-books can be read through a web browser, or can be viewed using ComiXology's app on both Android and iOS systems.

There are many differences between print and digital comic-books, and like many people, I have vacillated back and forth between which one I prefer.  Each format offers both advantages and disadvantages.  So which one is right for you?  Below, I will discuss the different aspects of comic-book collecting and which format I think has the advantage in each category..

  • Space - Probably the largest advantage of digital comic-books is space:  electronic space is easy to come by; you never run out of it; and it takes up essentially no physical space in your house, apartment, or condominium. For those of us pressed for space, or even people with space who hate the idea of having stacks of ugly comic-book boxes in their house digital comics offer the ability to store hundreds or thousands of comic-books in a space no bigger than your Nexus 7 (or your laptop, or desktop computer, etc).  Winner: Digital.  (Score: Digital 1, Print 0)
  • Print quality/fidelity - With the ultra-high-resolution graphics available on most of today's tablet PCs, smartphones, and computers, the image quality can be extremely high, and is usually equal to or in some cases even superior to print resolution.  Misprints, smudges, color-bleed-through, and other errors that can occur on the printed page do not exist in a digital comic-book.  At this point, if you want to see the image exactly as the creators intended it to look, digital is your best bet.  Winner: Digital. (Score: Digital 2, Print 0).
  • Condition - Another great thing about digital comics is that they will forever be in mint condition. There is no fading, degrading, folding, tearing, bending, loosening of staples, or other damage possible to a digital book.  You can read a digital comic 1,000 times and it will still be in the same pristine condition as the first time you read it.  The same simply cannot be said for a physical comic-book.  Winner: Digital (Score: Digital 3, Print 0).
  • Single-panel reading - At some point or other, every comic-book fan has had the suspense ruined by turning a page and seeing something a few panels ahead that simply stands out too much not to notice it.  The eye can take in panels "out of order" on a printed page.  Reading apps for digital comic-books can be set to only show you one panel at a time. This allows you to zoom into the individual panel, magnifying it even past how large the printed size would have been (for small panels), and prevents you from accidentally seeing "spoilers."  Winner: Digital. (Score: Digital 4, Print 0).
  • Gap-free runs - Most comic-book collectors try to get "runs" of comic-books -- long sequences of consecutively numbered issues (for example, I have a run of 45 straight Thor issues from #337 - #382).  When you are collecting digital comic-books, it is not possible to miss any issues. You can buy them any time, and download them immediately.  Twenty issues behind on Detective Comics? No problem, just go to the Detective Comics series page and buy the missing ones.  With digital comics, you won't have any gaps in your runs.  With print comics, having long, gap-free runs becomes more difficult the longer the run lasts.  Winner: Digital. (Score: Digital 5, Print 0).
  • Sense of accomplishment - On the other hand, although the OCD in me likes having gap-free runs, I have to admit that the sense of accomplishment one gets from having physically located and purchased every single Thor from #337-#382, or every single one of the New 52 Supergirl issues does not exist in the digital format.  There's no challenge to collecting a comic-book digitally.  There is a certain "thrill of the hunt" feel to searching through racks of back-issues to find that last, missing copy that completes your run. For example, when I started physically collecting the new Supergirl, it was on issue #15.  My comic-book shop had most of the back-issues, but they did not have #7 or #14.  I was able to order #14 online, but not #7 (at the time).  I then went to three other comic-book shops nearby, and finally, after a month of searching, I found one last remaining copy of #7 at the last shop I visited.  It was like finding buried treasure, in a way.  That sense of accomplishment simply does not exist for digital comics. Want it? Download it. And I like the sense of accomplishment. Winner: Print. (Score: Digital 5, Print 1).
  • Lack of digital oldies - Although the comic-companies are slowly uploading digital versions of older titles (and +Marvel Entertainment is doing a much better job of this than DC), the fact remains that many older titles simply do not exist in digital format yet.  If you want to read The Daring New Adventures of Supergirl, for example (from 1982), you will not find it online.  And although many X-men issues have been uploaded, at the time of this writing, #70-#100 are all missing, as are many in the 100s, 200s, and 300s.  So if you are interested in older stories, many can only be found in print format (either original issues or, in some cases, reprinted as trade paperbacks or bound collections).  The fact remains that 100% of all published comics can at least theoretically be found in print (though of course, not always easily), whereas only a tiny percentage of the older books (and by "older," I mean anything more than about eight years old) have yet been digitized. Winner: Print (Score: Digital 5, Print 2).
  • Sense of layout - Although you can (and I do) set your comic-reading app to show you the entire page before going on to the next one, one of the disadvantages of single-panel reading is that it obstructs the sense of how an artist lays out the entire page, or the two facing pages, that you are reading.  Today's artists often do some very clever and innovative things with the panel layout to help the story along, but these are hard to appreciate on a tablet or even the computer screen.  One can avoid the single-panel reading method, but that loses one of the big advantages of the digital format.  Thus, the printed page still gives the best sense of the layout.  Winner: Print (Score: Digital 5, Print 3).
  • Splash pages - Splash pages (when the whole page is one panel) and double-splash pages (when two facing pages are combined to make a single panel) are impossible to appreciate fully on a tablet or a smartphone, and even on a computer screen are hard to truly appreciate.  Similar to getting a sense of the layout, it's much easier to appreciate a full-page spread on the printed page. Winner: Print. (Score: Digital 5, Print 4).
  • Cost - Digital comics have absolutely no value.  They cannot be loaned, borrowed, traded, swapped, or sold.  You own them forever.  Therefore, there is never any chance of your comics increasing in price and being worth enough to sell.  On the other hand, digital back-issues never cost any more either. You want that first issue of Uncanny X-men from 1961? The physical copy will probably cost you $1,000 or maybe even more (depending on its condition).  The digital copy costs $1.99.  Conversely, if you had a print version of X-men #1 you could sell it in the future and make some money, whereas the digital version is effectively unalienable. Winner: Draw.  (Score: Digital 5, Print 4).
  • Sharing/Loaning/Borrowing - Once again, at this time digital comics cannot be traded, swapped, borrowed, or shared.  This is a huge disadvantage relative to print, perhaps one of the biggest (and is bad policy by the companies).  I became a Thor collector in the 1980s because my friend +Stuart Johnson loaned me his Walt Simonson Thor issues, and after reading a few, I became an enthusiast.  Over the next few years, I haunted comic-book conventions, comic shops, and mail-order catalogs until I finally bought all 45 back-issues.  If Stuart had not loaned me his comics, I never would have become a Thor fan, and both Marvel and the back-issue dealers would have lost the chance to make money on me.  My hope is that digital comics will one day go the way of the Nook app and allow people to "Lend me." But until they do, print comics win this category.  Winner: Print. (Score: Digital 5, Print 5).
  • Displaying the collection - One thing some folks do (for example, Sheldon on the TV show The Big Bang Theory) is display or "show off" the books in their collections of which they are most proud (or just the ones the like the most).  Admittedly not many people actually do this -- most of us just keep our comic-books in an out-of-the-way place, stored as compactly as possible.  But if you happen to want your comic-books out on display, only print comics can do that.  Digital comics can't be displayed in any way -- not really even online (there's no easy way to share your digital collection online for people to see it and browse it).  Winner: Print.  (Score: Digital 5, Print 6).

There are probably other aspects of reading and collecting comic-books that I haven't mentioned, but I think I will stop there.

Hopefully, my list makes one thing clear: the digital/paper question has no easy answer.  Each format wins about half the categories.  Print seems to have a slight edge, but I would argue that the edge is illusory, because at least one category, "displaying the collection," only applies to a handful of people. For example, I have it in the back of my head to one day make a large display of Supergirl comic-books and paraphernalia, but how many people have both the space and the desire to do so? I suspect that the "display" category applies to so few people that it is not worth a full "point" in favor of the print format.  Therefore, the two formats are essentially tied.  Neither is clearly superior to the other.

So what does that mean for me?  Well, for the moment, I am a hybrid collector.  The majority my current collecting is done digitally, with only three exceptions right now - Supergirl, Batgirl, and Justice League (and of those, JL may not stay "print-worthy" for long; I'm on the fence about it).  All the other current books I'm collecting are digital.  For back issues, I am getting digital versions of some (those that exist), but I have no choice but to obtain hard copies of the older Supergirl volumes (1, 2, and 4).  Supergirl volume 5 exists digitally, but also can be found in relatively inexpensive trade paperbacks, and since I am going to make a Supergirl display, I will probably get that series in print (though 51-67 do not exist as trades, so those may end up being electronic purchases).  Therefore, I see strengths and weaknesses of both formats, and until one is a clear winner, I will continue to collect comic-books both ways.

I hope, gentle reader, that you found this article informative and useful, if you are trying to make up your mind about digital vs. print format for your comic-books. Feel free to leave comments if you would like to add your thoughts on the matter.


  1. I have to disagree, digital comic accounts can be shared with friends so that they comics can be shared across multiple devices and read at the same time. If you wait long enough the price of a digital will drop to 99 cents which is way better than a print. Print are still easier to read and are therefore my choice.

  2. If by sharing digital comic accounts you mean giving someone else my login information... that is not going to happen. It's way too insecure, given that ComiXology has my credit card info. It's not that I think my friends would steal from me, but what if one of them gets a virus or spyware on his computer? Not going to risk that.

    I'm not sure why you "disagree" though, because my conclusion was that it's a toss-up, and your comment, while extolling the virtues of digital, indicates that you still read print, so you're basically agreeing with me that it's a toss up.

    Or am I missing something in what you're trying to say?

    Anyway, thanks for leaving this blog's first comment!