Thursday, September 01, 2011


Last night, I read what will be -- already is, really -- heralded as the first comic of a new era in the history of DC Comics, a "New Universe", so to speak.

I'm going to save my opinion on the story's content for a "Part II" to this post. For now, I just want to talk about the experience of how I read it.

Because yesterday was a new era for DC not only with regard to content and continuity, but with regard to the medium itself: the new era of same-day digital release.

They say that porn is always the content that's on the cutting edge of communication technology, as far back as Gutenberg. In my case, however, it's always comics that push me to the next level of tech. For example, when I bought my first television. It was because Batman the Animated Series was about to air; before that, there just wasn't sufficient reason to own a TV. Heck, years ago I lived in an adorable, cozy English basement that I loved... which I eventually moved out of, in part, because there was not enough room for the frickin' longboxes.

In this case, DC's decision to go same-day digital pushed me over the edge of getting an iPad and "going digital" with comic purchases. So yesterday, I bought myself an iPad, set up Comixology, and bought some comics, JLA #1 included.

This is not a decision a former comic bookstore chain owner makes lightly. Stores that purvey entertainment "hard-copy" (e.g., video rental stores, bookstores, comic shops, computer game centers, record stores, video arcades, news stands) are, mildly put, not doing as well as they used to. The digitization of most forms of education/entertainment is a major coup for the accessibility of information of all types... but it's brick and mortar stores that are taking the blow. While many are making ingenious attempts at adaptation and leveraging of the new tech, the handwriting is on the wall. Or, perhaps, more accurately, on the screen of the touchpad. God has numbered the days of their reign and brought it to an end; it has been found wanting; its kingdom is divided and given to the Apps and the Netflix.

Steve Jobs -- the Uni-Friend!!

There are great downsides to this change. Naturally, there is the economic effect on multiple large industries. But there is a less calculable social effect as well, since these entertainment emporia have served as the "third places" in 20th century society that are so essential to the souls of our communities. Now we are left with the cinema -- which still offers itself as an "event" and a venue for outings -- and the cafe, where we all sit around consuming expensive stimulants while enjoying our digitized entertainment.

But the fact is that my wingman CobraMisfit and I only find ourselves near an LCS once a week...on a Tuesday night, when it's closed. The fact is that I've never been a comic book collector; I'm a comic book reader, and having stacks of longboxes is (and always has been) a HUGE pain in the patootie, and more of an impediment to reading back issues than an aid.

I suspect that most people don't want to have all those comics; they just don't want to throw them away. The same is true of books in general. One of the most common sights in an urban neighbor is the Sidewalk Box o' Books. You know, the cardboard box with the word "FREE" scrawled on the front, full of old textbooks, beach novels, and self-help guides.

Okay, just looking at those titles make me want to go shower. With a strigil.

I've been carting around several crates-worth of Classics textbooks since college simply because, well, you just don't throw away The Pre-Socratics. If you do, something bad will happen to you, like your atoms will turn into fire or you'll get shot by an Eleatic arrow (which may or may not ever reach you). Thank Jupiter one of my nieces is now at college for Classics, and I can dump this crap, er-- gift her these inestimably valuable repositories of our Greco-Roman heritage.

Oh, of course the Pre-Socratics have their own Dynastic Centerpiece Model.
They did
everything first.

So I read my first digital comic last night. And I loved the experience.

It wasn't just an enjoyable experience; it was a transformative experience. The power of the art, of the artist's efforts to use illustration to tell the story hit me like a ton of bricks. As I've mentioned before, I've always been a writing-over-art kind of comic book fan. That doesn't mean I don't care about the art, I just don't think about it much.

This experience changed all that. I used what is called the "letterboxing" option, which presents the story as a panel-by-panel experience, rather than a page at a time. This brought the art CLOSE. And it is detailed. Even though I have four pages of original comic book art framed and on my living room wall, it's easy to forget that comics themselves are "shrunken"; the original art is much larger. Suddenly I was seeing the art as the artist actually created it. And it was engrossing; it felt much more 'sucked in' to the picture, rather than just it being a schematic of action held at arm's length.

And it was beautiful. Never have the colors seemed more vibrant nor the lines more clear. Yes, the JLA artist is a good one, but it was more than that. The paper page never looked like this to me.

And it was meaningful. By presenting the story panel by panel the letterboxing focused my attention on what was happening (preventing me from 'taking the page in all at a glance', which is what I've been unknowingly doing for decades). I have, in essence, been wolfing down my comics for years, rather than actually savoring them. It also made me see how the artist wants me to see the action unfold. Sometimes the letter boxing will start with only part of a panel, and then zoom out or move over to show the rest, resulting a more dynamic and layered viewing experience. It was much more cinematic, actually. More than anything it reminded me -- a good way -- of the 1960s Marvel cartoons. Now, those were very crudely animated, to be sure. But as it result, watching them was less like watching a cartoon and more like actually reading a comic book; and that's a good thing. Similarly, reading JLA #1 on my iPad with Comixology set to letterbox opened my eyes to how cleverly and engagingly still pictures were being used to convey on-going motion.

Have you notice how much more common it is (post-Matrix) movies nowadays to slow down or freeze the action? Cinematography has caught on to one of the intrinsic powers of the comic book medium: to highlight one moment in a continuing action. Manga cartoons do this all the time, slowing or stopping an action at its apex. The fact that Batman does a multiple somersault before crouching into a batarang throw is certainly cool; but the significant action is the batarang throw (particularly to the head of the crook it's aimed at). Comic book artists are deciding what the significant part of an on-going action is in every single panel...! Maybe I always knew that intellectually (thanks to Scott McCloud)... but now I can actually perceive it.

While the experience of reading this comic book through digital letterboxing was obviously powerful and positive for me, it's not without downsides. One of comics' most interesting and unique artist options was innovative panel shape, design, and layout (as exemplified by the work of, say, McCay, Cole, Adams, or Steranko). That kind of creativity is not rewarded or well captured by this kid of digital presentation. However, perhaps artists will start to compose their art specifically to take advantage of this new format, just as previous artists took advantage of the full page.

There's an even broader aspect to my digital experience than just reading the comic book. It was the purchasing. No matter what you do at a comic book brick-and-mortar, it's pretty clear which publishers are the big dogs; as a result the little publishers tend to get lost in the melee of capes and eye-beams. But my screen can offer each publisher to me equally. This egalitarianism makes it easier to wonder, "Hey, what does Devil's Due publish, anyway?" and give it a look-see. Digitization may be quite a boon to small publishers, I think.

And for me, as a comic book bully, I've suddenly realized: I AM NOW ARMED. I can load this thing up with scads of comics which are now with me at all times (at least when I'm carrying my iPad in my man-purse). That friend who you know would like a particular comic if you get him to read one? BOOM, there it is to hand to him. That guy who always says you exaggerate what an idiot Hal Jordan is? BOOM, there's the panel of Hal thinking he can take on Superman without Batman's help. That young fool reading "The Fountainhead" beside you on the bus? BOOM, there's the Ayn Rand issue of Action Philosophers that'll make him throw it out the window.

I really want a hat like that.
Just to have something to wear at the next
philosopher-themed costumed party at Joe Cerutti's house.

It appears I've "gone digital". And I don't think I'm going back.


B.G. Christensen said...

I've gone digital too! I'm not yet sold on the panel-by-panel view--maybe once I see evidence that artists are doing layouts with this in mind--but I do like being able to zoom in and see the art up close on my screen.

(Apologies for the self-promoting link above, but you are one of the bloggers who inspired me to start a comics blog, so it's exciting to see that you are diving into digital now too, as that's the theme of my blog.)

CobraMisfit said...

I love, love, LOVE techie gadgets and same-day digital comics is no exception. However, there's something magical about strolling through a comic book store, mingling with fellow readers, and simply enjoying the "feel" of a space filled with art, stories, and, well, paper. Brick and mortar stores for both comics and novels may be on the decline, but they offer something that no digital site, no matter how technologically advanced, can offer: face-to-face fellowship.

That said, I am soooo ready to get me an iSlab and download JLI #1!

Scipio said...

Understood, CM. But we shall see how you feel when you compare the experience of looking at my iPad with looking at Howard in a sleeveless shirt.

CobraMisfit said...

Dude, NOTHING can capture the essence of a sleeveless Howard.

Bryan L said...

I went digital over a year ago (and my iPad is in my man-purse at my feet this very moment). In fact, my 9-year-old daughter calls it my man-purse and claims that my iPad never leaves my side. She's right, of course. I also keep a selection of comics on my iPhone in case I get stuck in a line somewhere.

I am unrepentently digital and I'm never going back. I'm still buying some paper issues, but DC's new one-month-late $1.99 pricing will probably sharply curtail that. My longboxes are all gone, and once I accumulate a box of comics, I either sell them to a shop I know or donate them to a library.

That's a long-winded way of saying I'm with you, Scipio. Now I want to see what you have to say about JL#1. I was not impressed.

Scipio said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Imitorar said...

Personally, I prefer hard copies, just because they feel more "real" and you can get closer to them, though there's probably an element of nostalgia and reluctance to accept change to it as well. I don't suffer from the "stacks of longboxes" issue, because I've only been buying comics for a year, and so all of mine (still) fit in a drawer. That said, I don't like single issues much, because if you want to read a complete story (or multiple stories at once), you have to have a pile of magazines next to you and read them one by one.

The solution is the trade paperback, which presents a collection of stories or one big story as a nice book that can be kept on a shelf with other books, and gives you the whole story in one unit. Which is why I've switched to trade-waiting for the New DCU, except for titles that I think will need support in single issue format if they're to last (Mr. Terrific and Hawk & Dove, for instance).

But the experience of serialization is key to a lot of the enjoyment of superhero comics, and waiting until six months after a story comes out to read it means you can't talk about it with anyone while it's fresh. Which is why I pirate copies of comic books that I buy. This way, I can read the issues as they come out, even though I can't get to a shop more than once a month, and keep up with the monthly releases despite trade-waiting. I also get all of the benefits of digital storage and easy accessibility.

But I still buy trades and single issues, so I honestly don't feel guilty about it. In my mind, as long as I actually do buy it later, there's nothing wrong with taking a free digital copy too. Why should I pay twice for it? This way, I can have both formats and only buy a comic once. Everyone wins.

Swellsman said...

Welcome to the iPad revolution. Got mine about a year ago and it's just the niftiest little device. Never go anywhere without it.

I disagree with you, though, about keeping books around. In all the years (and there's been a lot of 'em) I've been reading I think I've only purposefully disposed of -- as opposed to losing them, or loaning them to friends never to be seen again -- maybe two dozen books total.

For me, one's books provide a much greater history of one's life than do pictures or scrapbooks. Books reflect what you were thinking years ago, when you were a child, or as a moody teen, or a young adult. I've got cases and cases filled with books, many of which I haven't cracked in decades, but I love running my eyes over them for the sheer nostalgia they bring out.

Similarly, whenever I go to someone's home for the first time, the very first chance I get I scan their bookshelves. I think it is the easiest and one of the more intimate ways to learn about someone else.

Beware those who have a home without books in it.

Roel Torres said...

Awww... I gotta admit -- this makes me a little sad inside. It's like a piece of my youth fading away.

When I'm older, I'm going to miss going to bookstores, record stores, video stores and comic book stores. Yes, I'll be able to get everything online. But there was a social, communal aspect to visiting a brick and mortar location.

It's weird when revolutions of change take place and the world transforms right before your very eyes.,,

Chris said...

It's amazing how day and date changes so much. My story paralells your own pretty closely. I got my own ipad a couple weeks ago and I can't stop reading comics on it.

Not because of the convenience, although that certainly helps, but because of the way Comixology lets you read from panel to panel, instead of taking in the page as a whole.

Storage space has long been an issue for me and digital comics just seem like a great way to make it about the content and not the content delivery.

I'm still nostalgic for the paper and staples, but I think this is for the best.

SallyP said...

Ummm...I have not gone digital. Heck, I can barely figure out how to sign onto my computer! I LIKE books. I like the feel of them, and the smell of them, and being able to take them with me, and read them anywhere, and not have to plug them in. I have a library, with shelves and shelves and shelves of books in my house. And yes, I probably have too many long boxes.

I'm an old fuddy duddy.

Citizen Scribbler said...

I thought that the iPad would be too small for me to enjoy the artwork on, but this report of yours has given me good reason to doubt that. The ability to view panels by themselves really intrigues me. I possess a nearly complete collection of the Absolute Editions because making the art bigger has always increased my enjoyment and appreciation for the work. Thank you, Scipio- I will not be so close minded about the notion of digital comics as I have been.

However, as pointed out, important artistic elements of some already created works would be hurt by this format- such as Watchmen, which employs the panel layout for specific purposes.