“Lovers of print are simply confusing the plate for the food.”
― Douglas Adams
(Ed Fornieles, Adventureland, 2011)
Comics have had a very different path to digital transition with their distribution staying mainly as downloaded PDFs. Evolution has been slow, Kindle’s Panel View was a poorly executed attempt to create a vehicle for epub comics and Barnes & Noble stayed with the PDF based format. ComiXology currently owns the distribution market with a PDF based app with it’s strength coming more from being one of the first in market. Their success keeps the medium locked in a static PDF format. This is unfortunate because even more than books, comics can take advantage of HTML and break away from the frozen printed page layout of a print or PDF comic book.
Lets look at the two ways to deal with electronic comic books, first Digital Comics and then Web Comics. Here is a free Digital Comic distributed on the web based on a Stephen King short story using the traditional page layout and PDF format.
Next we have a true Web Comic designed from the beginning to be read on the web and take full advantage of the screen it is read on, pushing outside the boundaries of the panel and page, incorporating the readers actions and adding movement to the reveal of the story. This creates a heightened mood and tension to the narrative in a way static sequential panels cannot.
Aside from the obvious layout and reading experience there is another major difference as outlined by Warren Ellis:
There is no experience of broadcast in digital comics. Digital comics are, in fact, the closest digital emulation of the store experience: they’re flung up on a virtual shelf.
Webcomics are broadcast. From the moment they’re uploaded, they’re surrounded by an expanding sphere of URLs and shortcodes, of RTs and Likes and +1s, and are being opened on desktops and laptops and tablets and phones.
Ellis makes a lot of good points in his blog post from last October, The Boradcast of Comics. With book publishing starting to look more seriously at HTML readers and the advantages of a convergent web experience it is time for the Web Comic to get more attention.
The focus is off webcomics right now. People are looking at how to get into the digital comics services. And quite rightly: they offer the possibility of bypassing the zero-sum game of serialising new and original material into the direct sales comics store market, a market that’s frequently been quite adamant about how it doesn’t want to sell new and original material. If I had the ability to go into digital comics right now and attempt to access a paying audience for new work, I absolutely would…
But webcomics are where the reach is. Webcomics are not the inferior option just because there’s not a payment system in place. Webcomics, for some little time to come, are where you’re going to hear about new things first.
In the 12 months since Ellis’s post alternate payment options have become more accepted. Kickstarter, ‘pay what you can’, and subscription models are becoming increasingly viable options to direct download purchase. With the move to the cloud even the idea of the “product” not actually living on your device is becoming more common. Amazon’s recent purging of a users Kindle content just served to highlight that everything we read on a screen is licensed rather than owned making pay to access web comics more palatable to the consumer.
The possibility for Web Comics to be so much more than PDF based Digital Comics is very compelling. Linked-data, tagged and searchable text, SEO, and total integration with social media and community and audience building. But the most important advantage of Web Comics is unlike the insular, compartmentalized, single unit product of a Digital Comic - Web Comics are broadcast. They are an episodic streaming connection to an audience that can be experienced communally in ways not seen before. It is now even possible to watch the artist as he creates each panel live. Because the real difference is the distribution. Content on the Web is different. The Web is direct - creator/publisher to reader. The Web hates a middle man and closed, walled retailer environments are middle men. Those who think of their content in terms of broadcasting will have a leg up building an audience and creating traffic that can sustain incredibly successful direct to consumer transactions. You don’t need big numbers like you do with ad based models, you just need enough of a dedicated audience to fund the production. We’ve seen this on Kickstarter over and over. Gearbox is a multimedia Web Comic being built from a Kickstarter project funded by just 33 backers.