Digital Comics vs. Print

The quick acceptance of tablet computers and color electronic readers has spurred the popularity of digital comics.  While I think this is a good thing and a potential savior of the sometimes struggling comic book industry, others have seen it as a threat to what is seen as the heart and soul of the business -- independent shops that sell physical comic books.  Writer Mark Millar, who created Kick-Ass, Wanted, The Authority, The Ultimates, and other bestselling titles, is one of the big names in the biz who doesn't mince words when he says he's "increasingly concerned for friends in retail that they're going to get shafted here."

I have already written about the fall of brick-and-mortar stores in the face of digital competition.  If customers prefer the benefits of electronic consumption, why should progress be halted merely to delay the inevitable?  If businesses refuse to adapt to the times, why should we hand-hold them and inconvenience those in the public who want the convenience of e-distribution? 

While some might use the analogy of blacksmiths who no longer are asked to make horseshoes once the public abandons horses and embraces more modern modes of transportation, I think there are more accurate comparisons that offer more valuable lessons.  The fall of Blockbuster video, the collapse of Tower Records, and on and on, should not be seen as fear-inducing examples of what might befall mom-and-pop comic book retailers, but rather as cautionary evidence to spark entrepreneurial action. 

I have my favorite comic book shops, but I think if they continue in the mindset that they can delay the digital revolution, they will be heading down the path of self-destruction.  Businesses that embrace technology are the ones that succeed rather than those that view it as an enemy.  Many successful comics shops are recognizing the need to broaden their inventory beyond print comic books and offering other physical collectibles.  Many businesses have achieved success by stretching their brand online to new audiences.

As much as I love digital content, I understand those who do not want to see the ink-and-paper format disappear.  I think for now there is room for both.  Millar and others think that comic book publishers are shooting themselves in the foot by releasing digital versions of their stories on the same date as the physical editions, but I think they are shooting themselves in the foot if they start prematurely putting the brakes on the electronic side.

If people like Millar are genuinely concerned for the loss of business that digital comics might cause to comics shops, then I recommend that they use their energy not to squash the will of many consumers, but to convince their big employers (Marvel, DC, etc.) to put their money where their mouth is and help subsidize Web sites for those shops that will become ancillary portals where fans can purchase digital comics if they wish.  The publishers will sell their products and the shops will earn a cut of the profits.  The physical stores could remain as outlets for the niche customers who still prefer the print comics, but also offer a wide variety of other products that can't be digitized (action figures, autographed prints, posters, and so on).

The solution is to think creatively, not to panic and squelch a popular new medium just as it's gaining widespread acceptance.

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