Portland, Oregon being the comic book haven that it apparently is, Erik Henriksen over at The Portland Mercury‘s Blogtown page decided to gauge the morale of comic books specialty shops by asking owners and employees what they think the growing popularity of digital comics portends.  Perhaps surprisingly, general opinion seems upbeat.

Part of the reason may be that the “direct market” had already fallen into a bit of a slump, so anything that can help the market in general will tend to be viewed favorably.  Jason Leivian of Floating World Comics explains the rationale here:

If someone can read the new issue of X-Men for free or cheap online, maybe that’s better. Maybe they don’t need a physical copy if they’re never gonna read it again, so that would be a waste of $3 or $4. But eventually, they may come across something awesome that they want to own. And that may lead them to a comic shop to actually buy a book.

That may seem like an awfully generous rationale coming from someone talking about customers ostensibly buying comics from the competitor, but it could be read equally well from the perspective of capitalist self-interest.  The problem here is that $3-4 cover price, which a lot of people are blaming for the direct market slump.  In that light, some proprietors may stand to gain more customers from informed single-issue buys than they would likely lose from people migrating from print to digital.  But that may be cutting it pretty thin.

For one thing, while Marvel and DC may be cutting prices, I’m not sure how long they’ll be able to maintain those prices.  Bulk printing brings down per issue costs, so the cost of printing per issue is likely to rise as readers migrate to digital.

But more to the point, mainstream comics may simply be better suited to digital.  There’s a reason that, for most of their history, the major label comics were printed on cheap newsprint with shoddy four-color processes.  The medium has long been governed by a kind of hyper-Darwinian process.  The publishing houses tried to build strong titles, but the economic logic dictated that individual issues be treated as disposable.  Memorable and genuinely epochal stories floated to the top and were eventually reprinted in more durable legacy editions, but most issues in general were quickly consigned to the heap.

Recognizing that process of natural selection helps make sense of the market crash of the 1990s.  The durability of those few stories that managed to transcend the disposable nature of mainstream comics gave the original run of the physical copies value to enthusiasts, and that gave rise to a market in originals.  When the industry itself caught onto the potential for profit, it started catering to speculators in two ways: first, by hyping every issue as trumping the “event” of the last; and second, by increasing the quality of the print media, both in a legitimate attempt to make them more durable and professional, as well as with gimmicks like foil embossed covers.  In doing so, they undercut the logic of both the speculation market and of the mainstream industry itself.  No issue could really stand apart from the others, since a particular storyline only takes on value as a collector’s item when compared to a background of disposable mediocrity.  Even those that did manage to stand out on their narrative or artistic merits ceased to be rare, since they were built for durability and mostly snatched up by speculators anyway.  The contradiction nearly tore mainstream comics down, and paved the way for some major shifts in both the style of comics and the structure of the companies that produced them.

Relative to that period, mainstream comics have again settled into a period governed by the Darwinian logic of disposable issues and durable titles.  Indeed, I’m not sure that in an industry predicated on monthly episodic stories with no defined endpoint can even function for long on another model, and independent comics have, by and large, differed from their mainstream counterparts because the pressures change once you’ve decided to deal in fixed narratives with discrete beginnings and endings.

The problem facing the mainstream comics publishers, then, is that online digital media handles disposable content much better than print media.  So much better, in fact, that it’s worth wondering whether or not digital comics will leave much reason to mass-produce print editions of single issues.  One need not even take a cynical view of the loyalty of comic book audiences.  The notion that readers will discover an issue or series that they like online and go out and buy the direct market edition is predicated in the first place on the notion that there will be a print edition to buy.  But it seems to me a legitimate question to ask whether there will be much of a market for disposable print editions when the digital version burdens the reader little, if at all, and won’t degrade the way direct market issues tend to do.

What’s more likely, it seems to me, is that digital editions will eventually come to replace the print edition of single issues — at least with mainstream titles.  The Darwinian struggle for transcendence will take place in web browsers, on Kindles and Nooks, iPads and so on.  A print market will remain, but devoted mostly to “graphic novels” (which, as I argued before, may be graphic, but are rarely novelistic) bundling the story arcs that have withstood the disposable nature of the form.  And the business model that has hitherto determined the shape of the venerable comic book shop will no doubt change to reflect those shifts, pushing stores away from a traffic in periodicals and back issues, and towards a trade in heavier bound editions.

is the founder and editor-in-chief of Culture Ramp.
— Please submit all corrections, responses and rebuttals as letters to the editor.