This weekend, I discovered that I could read comic books on my computer.
That's not to say I was suddenly converted to the joys of web-comix, those stories that are written, drawn, and exclusively published on the internet.
No, what I learned was that thousands upon thousands of mainstream comic books, those published by Marvel, DC, and the other little fish in a dwindling market, are freely available via file-sharing services facilitated by the web. And with each passing day, those thousands of comic books that are freely available are growing into millions. This isn't doom and gloom hysteria, this is the truth: the industry is going to be hit by its very own version of Napster, and it needs to wake up to that fact before it's too late.
I was first tipped off to the phenomenon on a message board. I was moaning about the fact that Alan Moore's MIRACLEMAN was out of print, and that copies were changing hands on auction sites for ridiculous amounts. It was an affront to humanity, I ranted, that such a landmark run of stories were trapped in a legal tussle between McFarlane and Gaiman, and that we might never get the chance to read them properly. Soon after, I received an anonymous email that told me I could get them off the internet for nothing.
'Thousands of comics are freely available via file-sharing services on the web.' Could it be true? Is it really possible to source these hard to find comics without paying for the privilege? The answer is yes. In order to spare Ninth Art any possible legal action, I'm not going to tell you how, but what I will tell you is that it is entirely possible for me to download the entire 24 issue run of MIRACLEMAN onto my hard-drive, and that I could then be laughing at the fools paying silly money for the physical copies on Ebay.
And that's just for starters. If I wanted, I could also hoover up the first 150 issues of Dave Sim's CEREBUS, together with full runs of both Grant Morrison's THE INVISIBLES and Warren Ellis' TRANSMETROPOLITAN. Straight after that, I could filch the first eight issues of SUPRME POWER, or the first thirty-six issues of Bendis and Oeming's POWERS. And then anything else that took my fancy.
Reading comics on your computer screen might seem odd, but it's a habit that's been firmly embraced by some members of the fanboy fraternity. Essentially, the pages are high quality scans, which are stored as JPEG files, and tailor-made applications like CDisplay are used to read them. Pages can be magnified, shrunk, or rotated at will, and it's just a press of the button to flip from page to page, or from book to book.
The practice of scanning comics first developed when collectors didn't wish to sully the near mint condition of their precious comics by, god forbid, reading them, so they'd scan 'em and bag 'em for archive purposes. Thanks to the wonders of modern technology, they could have the best of both worlds; a pristine copy of INCREDIBLE HULK #181 stored in a hermetically sealed chamber, and a digital copy of the actual story and art that could be read at leisure.
Soon after that, a bright spark realised that these same digital scans could be shared over the internet, and not just single issues either, but a complete run of any given title. Try asking your local comic shop for that kind of service...
'If I wanted, I could hoover up runs of THE INVISIBLES and TRANSMET.' But how should you feel about this rampant orgy of electronic larceny? Probably the same conflicting emotions that come with downloading music. In the eyes of the law, you'll have wilfully ignored the intellectual property rights of another person or company. Thanks to the internet, the opportunity is there, and, short of having a policeman standing over your shoulder while you use your computer, there's no way you can get caught.
On top of that, you'd be stealing the work of people who you must presumably respect and admire. Certainly, Marvel and DC are not historically renowned for fair treatment of their writers and artists, but they still pay their wages. By denting the profits of a given comic book, we fans would be taking away the chief incentive for our favourite creators to produce their best work.
Looking through the forums of the comics file-sharers, other people are asking themselves the same questions. Some justify it to themselves as 'digital archiving', putting together collections of titles because they were long out of print or, like MIRACLEMAN, were locked in a petty legal dispute. Others go for the 'try as you buy' argument, stating they want to look at the current developments in a title before buying the latest issue. It's akin to standing in a comic-store and reading or flicking through a comic, but without the owner glowering at you and muttering that "this ain't a library". Still more people advocate that it's a great way of spreading the word; they burn copies of a comic archive onto a CD and give them out to non-comic reading friends. If those friends like what they see, they might then be convinced to go out to buy the real thing for themselves.
There might be some weight to these arguments, but more and more people are jumping on the downloading bandwagon, to the point that any beneficial effects will be completely overshadowed. The crucial next step is how the comic book companies decide to deal with the problem. They need to learn lessons from the reaction of the music industry, and most importantly, they need to pay attention to what is commonly known as 'The Turd Principle'.
'You'd be stealing the work of people who you respect and admire.' Simply put, when you see a turd, you don't step on it, otherwise it gets everywhere. The music industry treated the problem of Napster and filesharing like a turd, and they chose to step on it with lawsuits. But once Napster was shut down, the attendant outcry and public curiosity meant that hundreds of other file-sharers sprang up to take its place.
No, what the comics industry has to do is think of another solution to the problem. Marvel comics has taken some tentative steps by offering CD-Roms containing the first ten issues of classic Lee and Kirby series like FANTASTIC FOUR and THE AVENGERS, but that's not enough. For one thing, a CD-Rom can store a lot more than ten measly issues. Offer something like one hundred issues per disc, and then they might generate some interest. But an even smarter solution might be something like the one offered by Apple's iTunes online music store. Why not offer comic books for digital download, with built in digital rights management software?
The savings that companies will make on national and international distribution would be huge, and some of those savings could be passed on the readers who pay for them. And this isn't to suggest that the market for old-fashioned paper products would simply die out - remember the comics collectors who like to scan 'em and bag 'em? With this business model, they wouldn't even have to go through the process of scanning the comics. They could just buy both a physical copy and a digital copy from the company. But perhaps the most significant benefit of digital downloads is that the talented folk working on the comics could get a cut from every comic book sold online. Wouldn't that be wonderful?
Yep, it's a brave new world out there, and the thing now is for the comics industry to rise to the challenge rather than shy away from it. Tempting as it seems, on no account should they start throwing lawsuits around; this would only acerbate the problem. They need to realise that there's a new market out there in cyberspace, and perhaps even a new opportunity to reinvigorate the industry. And they'd better do it soon, or I really will start downloading those comics.
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