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for Tuesday, August 8, 2006

Air Pirates

Our wondrous web-wizard Justin is at Wizard World Chicago. To better accommodate his schedule and my own, we're presenting a guest column on an important issue for comics creators, publishers, and readers...sans comment from me. As always, we invite the loyal legions of TOT readers to weigh in on this subject via e-mail or on our official message board.


by Rob Salkowitz

I'm a comic collector with a little problem. I live in a small apartment. My shelves groan with the weight of graphic novels, bound comics and books about comics. My closet is stacked with short boxes. It's at the point where I have to weigh every new purchase against basic space considerations.

About a year ago, I found an elegant solution to this problem: digital comics. By this, I mean printed comics that have been scanned into digital format (usually zipped .jpeg, .cbr or .cbz files), not comics created specifically for the Web.

Moving from physical to virtual - from atoms to photons - has solved many problems. Unlike the short box I recently filled with the basically worthless ink-and-paper artifacts of DC's Infinite Crisis storyline, digital comics take up no space. I can store 20,000 or more issues on a hard drive the size of a Pop Tart, sort them any way I want, read them without having to worry about ruining their condition or fussing with bags and tape, and I can polish off sprawling storylines in a single bound. Scanned issues often include ads, letter pages, and the signs of wear-and-tear that make paper comics so endearing. There's an astonishing amount of material available, all at the click of a mouse. And cost, at the moment, is not a factor - but more on that later.

For reading, I don't squint into a monitor and I'm not stuck sitting at a desk. I use a Tablet PC: a lightweight, wireless notebook computer with no keyboard and a screen that flips and pivots sideways. It's about the size and weight of a Marvel Masterworks edition, and the 11-inch LCD screen presents a comic book page at just about actual size with great color and contrast.

There are a couple of problems with digital comics. While a huge number of books have been scanned into digital format, availability of any given issue at any given time can be spotty. The quality of the scans can vary. Files can contain viruses and spyware, although I thankfully haven't encountered this problem yet. And, oh yeah, almost every digital comic floating around the Web today violates someone's copyright.

That's because publishers, in their wisdom and foresight, don't appear to believe the digital comics are worth the trouble to package and sell. So, rather than taking the lead on making digital comics legally available at a reasonable price, they are ceding the field to bootleggers and amateurs. And boy, are they asking for trouble.

When I discussed this with one of the industry's leading publishers last year, he told me he believed collectors would never give up their paper, and reading comics on a desktop PC or even a standard laptop remains a poor substitute for the ink-and-paper experience. This is true. It's also true the collector mentality is a liability, not an asset, to the growth of comic readership, and the digital reading experience is poised for dramatic improvement.

Tablet PCs are getting lighter and cheaper; google "Origami" if you're interested in a glimpse of the future. In 12 months, more powerful models will likely run $500 or less and combine the advantages of a mobile game platform, a universal remote control, a communication device, a portable media player (including video), and a full-function personal computer.

They will also, incidentally, be to digital comics as iPods are to digital music.

Now if someone told you that and you were in a position to be the iTunes store, don't you think you might find that to be a little bit interesting? Especially if you happen to be owned by the largest media company on the planet, the first letters of whose name are "A," "O" and "L"?

Alas, no. Outside of using "sample" downloads as a marketing gimmick and Marvel issuing some of its archive in digital format on DVD (not downloads), most publishers do not appear to be taking the emergence of digital comics seriously. Maybe they honestly don't believe the opportunity - or the threat - is real; maybe their lawyers aren't convinced they can make it work; maybe the up-front costs are too high. Whatever the cause, their hesitation threatens to lose them their entire industry. Here's why.

For the past several years, to be a reader of comics in digital rather than paper form, for whatever legitimate reasons, practically necessitates violating a copyright. It also usually means getting comics free instead of paying for them, since no site that I know of actually charges for downloading bootlegged scans.

The "free" question is the elephant in the room, because what's "free" to consumers is actual or potential revenue lost to publishers and creators, neither of whom can afford to do what they do without payment. The music business has been screaming about sales lost to illegal downloads for years, but they have a bigger market and bigger margins to cushion the blow. Comics, already in precarious straits, are even more vulnerable.

The danger to all commercial media is that once people become accustomed to getting downloads for free, it's often very difficult to migrate them to a paying model, especially if the industry has unrealistically optimistic ideas about what they can charge for digital content. Music and movies are already facing this problem, and it's coming soon to the comics industry.

In 24-36 months as mobile devices improve and get cheaper, the 30-40,000 downloaders today could potentially grow to half a million or more. How many titles could survive losing that many readers who use pirated downloads as substitutes for printed copies or collected editions? That's what makes the current situation a dire threat to the whole business, not just some annoyance at the fringe, and it's why publishers need to move fast to create a revenue stream from digital comics before they get swamped.

Some people view the "free" factor as the central problem: that downloads are about getting something for nothing, which is nearly impossible for commercial content to compete with. But that's only part of it. Once there's a good, low-cost device that people can use to read digital comics, it will expose the many shortcomings of the current economic model of print comics to more and more readers.

Consider the exorbitant premium built in to the $3-$6 cover price of a new comic book: for the printing process, the paper, transportation and fuel, dealer markup, the presumed future appreciation ("collectibility") of the pamphlet, plus the ongoing costs of storage - all of which add exactly zero value to the comic reading experience of the story and art. It seems obvious that with the efficiencies of the digital format and online delivery, the artists, writers, advertisers and publishers could all get the same money they get today from print at a much lower price-point for consumers, while still providing a (much more scarce, and therefore collectible) paper copy for fans who want one.

For people like me, in the battle of atoms versus photons, it is ink-and-paper comics that are fast becoming a poor substitute for the convenience of the digital format, even if the digital versions were not "free." While I sympathize with well-meaning people try to make this a moral issue about respect for copyrights and creators, that is by no means the most important part of the conversation, and dwelling on it is a distraction that takes away from the more urgent business issues.

For the record, I consider downloading a digital comic from a pirate site instead of purchasing a legitimate copy of a digital comic from the publisher to be a clear case of theft, as is downloading a pirated scan of a current issue instead of buying a paper copy off the rack. It's very easy to see and judge the economic consequences of that activity, and only a very selfish, short-sighted person would try to rationalize it.

On the other hand, downloading an amateur scan of an older book because there is no legitimate digital copy available from the publisher at any price is closer to trading with a friend for an out-of-print back issue you need - an activity that no one has ever had any problem with. Until there's actually a commercial digital product available from the people with the legal rights to sell one (and therefore compensate the creators), it's hard to see how creators suffer any more from downloads of archival material than they do from the back issue market.

So please, oh righteous creators, don't blame your readers for the download dilemma. Comic fans are doing what they're supposed to do - finding and reading great comics, in ways that suit their lifestyle and budget. Moreover, comic fans are both ethical and intelligent enough to realize that pirated downloads of new books can and will be lethal to the economic model of comic publishing. We want creators to be fairly compensated, and we recognize, for the most part, the legitimate intellectual property ownership claims of publishers. No one wants the industry to collapse, and if reasonably-priced pay downloads were available, I think publishers would be shocked at the high levels of uptake and compliance.

Bottom line: The main reason people are downloading pirated digital comics today is because no one is selling an alternative. That has to change, and fast.

There are a million ways to make a commercial digital system work for current comics, back issues, limited series and collections. Publishers: ask me how; creating new business models is my profession. But it's the job of publishers to take the lead in using this new technology to expand our choices, lower our costs, increase our convenience, and improve the opportunities for creators.

If atoms and photons continue on an uncontrolled collision course, the explosion could wipe out the comic universe - not the mythic landscape of heroes, but the one right here in the real world.

People can point fingers at evil bootleggers, downloaders and digital comics fans if it makes them feel better, but at least downloaders are smart enough to know a good deal when they see one. Publishers, on the other hand, seem content to stare blankly into the air while their industry dissolves into a cloud of ones and zeroes.

Creators, readers and sympathetic observers need to get them moving on this before the opportunity of a generation turns into the most serious crisis the business has ever faced.

Rob Salkowitz is a futurist and business consultant in Seattle, WA, working on a book on the social and economic implications of emerging technologies. He maintains a blog, Emphasis Added [], and writes reviews of graphic novels for Comic Base [].



Today's TOT was originally scheduled to run on Friday, but was delayed as our best-laid plans went awry. Our wondrous web-wizard Justin and I are committed to bringing you as many new columns as we can, but, from time to time, our convention appearances, family responsibilities, and paying gigs will necessitate the occasional day without a TOT.

Next week's reviews will focus on Marvel's CIVIL WAR, but I'll likely throw in some other reviews as well. Having watched several comics-related movies and TV shows last month, I'm also hoping to discuss those here. Not to mention the various aftermaths of DC's INFINITE CRISIS, and their ONE YEAR LATER comic books, and Marvel's ANNIHILATION event, and so much other cool stuff. Even five TOTs a week is never enough to get to it all.

Readers looking for even more Tony should check out the weekly TONY'S OTHER ONLINE TIPS, which are exclusive to the Comics Buyer's Guide online forums. Recent reviews there have included WOLVERINE: ENEMY OF THE STATE, Pete Von Sholly's COMIC BOOK NERD, WEEKLY WORLD NEWS, and a trio of new manga releases. Those reviews can be found at:

With some luck, this and next week's TOTs will get us current on TONY POLLS results. This week's questions - at this writing, I'm still deciding what they'll be - will be posted sometime today and remain active until sometime after midnight next Monday night. You can vote on them by going to:

If you want to show your appreciation for what we do here, you can use the TIP THE TIPSTER link elsewhere on this page to make a PayPal donation to the cause. Such donations do help us keep these columns coming your way and are always greatly appreciated. Thanks for your support.

And thanks for spending a part of your day with me. I'll be back tomorrow with more stuff.

Tony Isabella

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Zero Tonys
ZERO: Burn your money before buying any comic receiving this rating. It doesn't *necessarily* mean there's absolutely nothing of value here - though it *could* - but whatever value it might possess shrinks into insignificance before its overall awfulness.

ONE: Buy something else. Maybe I found something which wasn't completely dreadful in the item, but not enough for me to recommend it when there are better comics available. I only want what's best for you, my children.

TWO: Basic judgment call. I found some value, but not enough to recommend it. My review should give you enough info to decide if you want to take a chance on it. Are you feeling lucky today, punk? Well, are you?

THREE: This denotes something I find perfectly respectable. There are better books out there, but I wouldn't regret buying this item. Based on my review, you should be able to determine if it's of interest to you. Let the Force guide you.

FOUR: I recommend anything earning this rating. Unless you don't like the genre, subject matter, or past work of the creators, I believe you'll enjoy this item. Isn't it uncanny how I can look right into your soul that way?

FIVE: Anything getting this rating is among the best comicdom has to offer. You should buy/read this, even if the genre/subject matter doesn't appeal to you. It's for your own good. Me, I live for comics and books this good...but not in a pathetic "Comic-Book Guy" sort of way.

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