Digital Comics: Ownership vs. Access
Column Editor: Jerry Spiller (Art Institute of Charleston) <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Welcome to the first installment of Decoder Ring, focusing on the intersection of libraries and newer digital narrative forms. Here we’ll explore such digital disruptions as interactive fiction, nonlinear narratives, webcomics, and Kickstarter as a publishing platform. We’ll consider how libraries can approach these areas and offer their patrons background, access and discovery of forms that don’t necessarily have a physical document in the library space, or have fragmented distributions with more limited print runs as part of a variety of formats.
We’ll begin by looking at digital comics, and how they compare to their eBook cousins. Any librarian who has had to make sense of digital content formats, distributors, and reader technologies in recent years has done more than a little head scratching. Considering the complexity of both the markets and platforms involved, electronic lending models and the exact functionality they confer have been slow to arrive. They do, however, eventually arrive. Amazon came to offer lending on the Kindle platform and smoothed out issues with Overdrive. Academic database lending is beginning to coalesce as EBSCO and ProQuest buy up libraries and technologies (van Arnhem & Callicott, 2013).
The world of comics has been as affected by the disruption of digital as much as any area of publishing. Both digital versions of comics from larger and smaller publishers (Marvel and DC are forever termed “the Big Two”) as well as a groundswell of webcomics from independent creators have left readers and creators with the delightful problem of dealing with abundance. Looking at the relative ease of self-publishing comics in print or digital forms today compared with many years ago, ignoring areas like marketing and distribution of hard copies, it is natural that there has been a rising Creator-Owned movement gaining momentum.
In libraries, we know that lending, like reading, isn’t one monolithic activity. Both refer to a variety of behaviors. Often, to find the best way to serve patrons, we must pick a spot in a continuum, weighing one constraint against another and trying to meet needs as best we can. As readers and as librarians, one continuum we navigate is that of outright ownership of a small number of titles versus access to a larger catalog.
Ownership of content in the digital realm means ownership of the files themselves, without DRM or proprietary readers. For digital comics, the most common and most accessible format for collection would be a simple DRM-free PDF, although some readers prefer the CBR (Comic Book Reader) format and its variants, for which there are numerous free readers including CBR Reader and Simple Comics.
On the “wider access but less control” side of the continuum, Comixology is the first distributor of digital comics content that many will think of, with their popular reader available in apps on iOS and Android, as well as through the Web interface. Contender iVerse may have beaten Comixology to the punch with regard to library lending by reaching out to libraries with a lending-enabled version of its Comics Plus app. iVerse is a distributor of digital content, largely through Comics Plus. Founded in 2008, the company was an early entrant into the iOS market and now boasts of powering over five million product downloads from Apple’s App Store (“Comics plus: About,”). Comics Plus is available as an app for iOS, Android, and via the Comics Plus Website in HTML5.
Comics Plus: Library Edition launched this summer at ALA after more than a year of anticipation. Account Director Josh Elder (also the director of the comics-based advocacy group Reading with Pictures) explained that there will be no upfront cost to libraries, only per-checkout fees of generally ten cents per individual title or 50 cents per collected graphic novel or trade (Alverson, 2012; Hadro & Enis, 2013). Comics Plus does not stop multiple patrons at an institution from accessing the same title. Since a large part of the target audience will be K-12 patrons, Comics Plus: Library Edition will allow libraries to block content for the whole institution or on an individual patron basis. iVerse intends to offer suggested age ratings for content as well. Academic libraries looking to bolster their collections for research in both pop culture and new media may simply appreciate the number of titles.
On the other side of the spectrum, Mark Waid is one comics creator who thinks a significant number of readers want to own the files for the comics they publish. He is ready to cater to those readers. Embracing the Creator-Owned movement, writer Waid moved from DC and Marvel to the more creator-friendly small publisher Boom! Studios in 2007, though he continued to do freelance work for the Big Two. It’s hard to be more credentialed than Waid, who created the industry-shaking Kingdom Come with superstar artist Alex Ross and has numerous Superman and Flash stories under his belt (a note for academic libraries: many Waid titles are available from YBP). He won an Eisner in 2012 for his work that year on Marvel’s Daredevil as well as his own titles with Boom!, Incorruptible and Irredeemable.
Waid served as Editor-in-Chief and then Chief Creative Officer at Boom! Studios until December 2010. Eventually, though Boom! gave Waid the rights as creator that he wanted and was quick to distribute digitally through apps like Comics Plus and Comixology, he wanted more room to experiment and control his own distribution.
Waid left Boom! Studios in 2010, though he continues to work with them and the Big Two on projects. On his departure, he told Laura Hudson at Comics Alliance that he wanted to experiment with free comics and Creative Commons licensing. “I can’t do something for Boom! and then announce to the world that they’re free to download it all they want. As a corporate entity, they understandably cannot sanction that” (Hudson, 2010). Waid has long been of the idea that unauthorized downloads are a potential source of new readers that should be courted rather than prosecuted. Waid has started a new publishing venture called Thrillbent, where he releases comics for free download weekly.
“Digital comics distributors like Comixology and iVerse continue to be great and valuable partners to us, and our comics will remain for sale through those platforms, as well. I get that there are plenty of comics readers who value the convenience of cloud-based services,” Waid posted on the Thrillbent site (Waid, 2013). “But we hear constantly from readers who prefer to own and collect the comics and files they buy so they’re accessible with or without an internet connection, and we’re happy to oblige.”
Luckily, libraries don’t have to choose just one approach. Comics Plus: Library Edition provides an easy way to set up digital comics lending with no upfront costs. Likewise, creating guides and reading lists that link to free digital content like Waid’s Thrillbent comics requires some expertise and time in, but what a way to target content to your patrons, from readers of all ages to rising faculty with research interests in the corpus.
Alverson, B. (2012, April 23). iVerse to launch digital comics library service. Publisher’s Weekly. Retrieved from http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/digital/devices/article/51628-iverse-to-launch-digital-comics-library-service.html.
Comics plus: About us. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://comicspl.us/about-u/.
Hadro, J., and Enis, M. (2013, Jan 30). [Web log message]. Retrieved from http://www.thedigitalshift.com/2013/01/ebooks/comics-in-libraries-iverse-brodart-set-date-for-comics-plus-library-edition-overdrive-in-talks-with-manga-publishers/.
Hudson, L. (2010, Dec 20). Digital december: Mark Waid goes deep on digital and the future of comics. Comics Alliance, Retrieved from http://comicsalliance.com/mark-waid-digital-comics-interview-digital-december/.
van Arnhem, J., and Callicott, B. (2013). Navigating the e-book maze. The Charleston Advisor, 14(4), 61-62. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.5260/chara.14.4.61.
Waid, M. (2013, July 30). At long last, storefront. Retrieved from http://thrillbent.com/blog/at-long-last-storefront/.
Jerry Spiller is an instructor of Web Design and Interactive Media at the Art Institute of Charleston. His courses include Nonlinear Narrative, Developing Rich Media Applications, and Interactive Message Design. His interests include digital storytelling and narrative and linguistic structures in information design. Jerry spent his formative creative years in Chapel Hill, where he earned both a B.A. in Asian Studies and Geography and a Masters in Information Science at the University of North Carolina.
Leah was appointed Executive Director of the Charleston Conference in 2017, and has served in various roles with the Charleston Information Group, LLC, since 2004. Prior to working for the conference, she was Assistant Director of Graduate Admissions for the College of Charleston for four years. She lives in a small town near Columbia, SC, with her husband and two kids where they raise a menagerie of farm animals.