Digital Comics

By | Tuesday, March 06, 2007 Leave a Comment
Over at Newsarama, they have an article discussing the digital delivery of comics with current retailers, which I've touched on before. I think this is great because the comic retailers are generally under-served in my opinion, and I feel that their voice needs to be heard. Retailers have a unique perspective on the industry, and I'm frequently disappointed that they're not consulted more often and their input taken on board more readily.

In any event, the upshot of the article is that the reatilers involved weren't terribly worried. They seemed to think that, by and large, having digital comics would allow readers to sample more material, but would still fall back to the printed page for the stories they're most interested in.

What's not really discussed is WHY readers prefer actual comics to digital ones. Brian Hibbs, who I've discussed here before, touches on the point obliquely when he notes that "the disadvantages of the experience, portability, and presentation don't prove much of a 'threat' to the physically printed object." He's absolutely right, of course, but the article doesn't go into any further details on that point.

The biggest problem with digital comics currently is the delivery vehicle. There are plenty of delivery methods, but the vehicle itself is the hold-up. That vehicle, of course, is your computer. Computer monitors have a fairly low resolution -- generally between 72 and 96 dots per inch. That means that an image that appears on the screen is going to look to be at low-resolution, no matter what the image's resolution actually is. And that monitor resolution is low enough that your eye has to work much harder to "read" the individual dots that make up the whole screen.

Most professional printers (and, indeed, many personal printers) run their jobs at around 600 dots per inch. Most humans can't discern, under casual observation, any differences above around 300 dots per inch. That means that printed comic books are at least four times the resolution of what a digital image of one appears to be on a screen. That's why it's so much harder, and less comfortable, to read comics digitally than it is to read their printed counterparts.

The next issue, of course, is portability. If you download a comic book, it's tied to whatever computer you downloaded it to. If, while taking advantage of a high-speed internet connection, you download a high-quality scan of a comic (legal or not) to your computer at work, you have to find a way to transport that to another computer if you want to view it at home. You have several options, of course (burn it to CD or DVD, copy it to a thumb drive, etc.) but those are generally cumbersome and tedious processes. Downloading it to a cell phone or PDA proves somewhat more portable, but you're limited now to not only lower resolution screens, but smaller ones as well.

Permanence is a third factor. Since many people are unfamiliar with what goes on inside a computer, they're largely unwilling to commit their collection something as ephemeral as a hard drive. Computers are subject to errors which many people find strange and almost mystical, so it translates roughly to buying a real comic book, sight unseen, and letting someone else hold it for you indefinitely. You could go over and visit, but ultimately you don't feel true ownership.

So those factors, I think, are key to why comic book shops are in no real danger from the proliferation of digital comics... for now. We're already seeing higher resolution screens (how long do you suppose it will take computer manufacturers to pick up on HDTV technology) and more "natural" or "intuitive" computers that act in a way more in line with how people want to use things (the iPhone coming out in a few months is a great example of this). The biggest hindrance, it seems to me, will be penetrating the mindset of comics' physicality -- and no amount of technology is going to change that. That is a factor that's going to have to work it's way through the collective social consciousness naturally, and I'm guessing that will take at least another generation to really climb on board that notion.

Then again, I would've thought iTunes wouldn't have gone over nearly as well as it has, too. Maybe it would only take Apple to create a hi-res tablet PC type of device specifically designed for reading books and comics. Include wireless and blue-tooth technology to download books on the fly. A good size hard drive to hold an entire collection. CD/DVD writer to switch out and copy files onto a "hard" collection. Built-in software to read various electronic book/comic book formats. Make it look really cool. It might work.

But ultimately, I think it's a question that still needs to be addressed. Comic retailers have plenty of things to concern themselves with already, but I think it's an issue that will rear its head a lot sooner than they'd like. Brian Hibbs may not have to deal with it himself, but his younger peers might.
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