Comics: then and now, and the tech in between

From the writer's desk to your anxiously waiting hands, technology is changing the world of comic books. Join us as we talk to a writer, an artist, a publisher and a retailer about the difference that gadgetry has made to the industry.

Michelle Starr Science editor
Michelle Starr is CNET's science editor, and she hopes to get you as enthralled with the wonders of the universe as she is. When she's not daydreaming about flying through space, she's daydreaming about bats.
Michelle Starr
10 min read

From the writer's desk to your anxiously waiting hands, technology is changing the world of comic books. Join us as we talk to a writer, an artist, a publisher and a retailer about the difference that gadgetry has made to the industry.

(Credit: Apple; Nicola Scott)

Gone are the days of rushing to the newsagent for a 10-cent Milko and the latest copy of 2000 AD. In the last 10 or 15 years, we've seen more change in the way we create and consume content than in the previous 50 — and you can now boot up your tablet and have the latest issue of Spider-Man ready for when you come back from making a cup of tea.

While comics have been slower to catch up than other media in the digital realm, that doesn't mean there haven't been significant inroads.

Getting it together

Christian Read has been a professional writer for 12 years; his credits include The Witch King, Star Wars Tales and the recently released The Eldritch Kid: Whisky & Hate and Unmasked. During that time, he's seen the landscape change immensely for the better.

"In the late '90s, them there internets were still quite new," he told CNET Australia. "This was the primitive, nightmarish world of 28K modems and dinosaurs and constant Viking attack. So, while I could easily send a pitch or a script to an artist, I certainly could never get a look at the resulting art with any ease or utility. Even when we made the Black Monolith leap to 56K modems, getting art sent to your inbox was a day-long process.

Christian Read(Credit: Christian Read)

"If I was working with an artist and had to see work in progress, it was easier to go and see them or simply drop some black-and-white photocopies into what archaeologists now scornfully call the 'post box'."

The process was often a laboured one, and even though international collaboration was possible, it took both effort and time.

"I could always work with an artist overseas or in a different state," Read said. "Drop 'em a script and hope for the best. But if I wanted to work closely with them, or they with me, it was, practically speaking, impossible. Expensive phone calls could assist the process, but, even then, when you're working in a visual medium, an artist describing the work is a bit of a pointless exercise. But even that first year or two, emailing art was teeth-pull slow and fiddly and prone to error. Nothing like watching some jpeg just sort of suicide itself in an act of electronic apathy to cheer the working week."

The Eldritch Kid: Whisky & Hate was drawn by Michael Maier, an artist based in Savannah, Georgia.
(Credit: Gestalt Publishing)

Sydney-based Read now works closely with collaborators all over the globe — artists in the US, rural Western Australia and Melbourne; an art director in Japan; and an editor in Perth — often sending files while talking via Skype.

"What could honestly take two or three days to send back in those early days now takes seconds. The internet tubes getting wider? Information on the internet getting squeezed smaller? I cannot say," he said.

Nicola Scott, also based in Sydney, has been a comic-book artist for 10 years, working on US-based DC superhero titles for six. Her oeuvre includes Birds of Prey, Secret Six, Superman and currently Earth 2, and she has also found that collaboration has been a strong area of improvement.

"This would have been really hard 10 years ago," she said. "It wasn't too long before then that companies in the US started feeling comfortable sending work out to artists not living locally. With almost every job I've had, I've been the first Australian that the company or editor has worked with. Every time it was a case of 'let's see how this goes'. FedEx made it possible to start, but now we have better (but not yet great) internet service, I can send large files reasonable quickly."

Nicola Scott(Credit: ComicVine)

Collaboration goes beyond the actual process, though — there's the matter of connecting in the first place, and, according to Read, having an online portfolio can make a massive difference.

"We found the artist on Eldritch Kid through his DeviantArt page on recommendation from another artist," he said. "When you're looking for gritty, supernatural cowboy art and you find a gallery of gritty, supernatural cowboy art, it sort of streamlines the search. It isn't so much that I now have a shopping mall of artists that's useful in enticing them to a project like a clown in a van; it's more that robust digital portfolios are the basic currency of evaluating an artist. Colourists, letterers, all the less-visible but essential staff in creating a comic also benefit from this."

Drawing the line

Unsurprisingly, Scott's process as an artist hasn't changed all that much over the years — mainly because there is yet to be a medium as good for drawing as a pencil and paper.

Earth 2, Issue 2, Page 19, drawn by Nicola Scott.
(Credit: Comic Art Shop)

"I am what is known in the comic-book industry as a penciller," she said. "That means I'm the second stage of the creative process, after the writer, interpreting their story with sequential art. I'm very old school. Pencils, rulers, erasers and French curves. The only technology I use at the drawing stage is a lightbox and mechanical pencils. Then the art is scanned in at a high res, and I FTP it directly to the company's Dropbox.

"I know the art gets cleaned up by the inker before they commence their stage, but that's not something I've had to do myself yet."

Even so, that's a pretty far cry from the olden times.

"Things like Photoshop weren't useful in the early days," said Read. "To render even a panel saw your computer grinding its esoteric gears painfully to do simple FX layers. My very first comic used acetone zip dots for certain effects, a messy process that involved scissors and careful placement and a sniper's patience."

Bringing it all together

Once the comic comes together, someone, naturally, has to publish it. Wolfgang Bylsma is the editor in chief and managing director of Gestalt Publishing, the Perth-based company he co-founded with Skye Ogden in 2005.

While getting a book to market takes less time than it used to, he said, there are still challenges involved.

"There is a much more expedient turnaround in the digital realm, but still requires the requisite levels of promotion," he told CNET Australia. "Granted, we're not dealing with a distributor who demands three months' lead time to print catalogues and solicit for orders, etc, so we can now, potentially, get a new product available within the space of one to two weeks of receiving the final pages.

Wolfgang Bylsma(Credit: Wolfgang Bylsma)

"Whilst that may seem an attractive notion, we're also dealing in a distribution channel with little to no market expectation. That is, it's a channel that is largely available to publishers and self-publishers, regardless of where they exist on the spectrum of quality, so, whilst we can certainly launch a new title, people may only find their way to it through direct, targeted promotion."

In other words, the scope opened by self-publishing has created a flooded market in which it's difficult to get a product noticed — at least, it is for an independent publisher.

"I think we need to be careful that the immediacy and affordability of digital comics (as opposed to their print counterparts) doesn't simply encourage a culture of disposable entertainment, which, in turn, has the potential to diminish the value of individual creative expression," Bylsma said.

On the other hand, it seems the digital market and the print market may not have much overlap; Bylsma said that even though Gestalt is now publishing comics digitally via Graphicly, it hasn't experienced any drop off in print sales — and, in fact, that the digital market is actually working to expand readership.

"Having had close to 20 years' experience around the collectible book trade, it seems there will always be those who wish to seek out the first editions of a book that has resonated for them on some level, just as there will always be those who see books as something to be cast aside upon completion; and I daresay that with digital editions, clicking delete is less effort than dragging heavy boxes to a second-hand bookshop for 50 cents each," he said. But just because that's the case now, that doesn't mean the tide isn't changing.

"At Gestalt, we've yet to experience any kind of downturn in print book sales, but I can certainly see it coming. With digital distribution and tablet computing almost purpose built to service the comics medium, it makes perfect sense that these technologies will become the preferred vehicle for comics content in the not-too-distant future."

On the shelf

Kara Emerton, who has worked in comics retail for 10 years and is now manager of online sales at Sydney's Eisner Award-winning Kings Comics, agrees.

Kara Emerton and Iron Man
(Credit: Kings Comics)

"Unlike general paperback novels, we (the comics industry) still have the benefit of our product being collectable, an investment, the potential of offering a return," she said. "Even though comics are produced in far greater print runs than ever before (well, maybe aside from that crazy '90s period), there will always be speculation, and the desire to make money amongst comic fans. Once a particular title generates some hype/a film/a TV series, we see related material shoot through the roof on a secondary market and demand for related material in-store reflect that. There's also the Pokémon-style collector, who's 'gotta have 'em all' — every variant, every signed edition, every version of a series, and that's something you can't really enjoy via download. When you look back, I think there was, at least for me personally, a fun element in the tracking down of elusive missing issues, and this is still something that appeals to a lot of our customers.

"Until the digital-comic providers can offer their entire back catalogue of material online — and I'm under no delusion that's far off — we will still have a market. I think it's unwise for brick-and-mortar stores to sit back and disregard the digital as a fad, but, at the same time, I don't think there's a need, at least not an immediate one, to panic the way we've seen bookstores panic."

According to Emerton, downloadable comics have been around for a long time in the form of illegal scans — but comic-book piracy isn't really a concern for Kings.

"The people I know that use this option do so for two main reasons: reading material that is no longer in print and not available via a legitimate means; and supplementing their reading materials with titles they just can't afford but feel they need to read (eg, every crossover title in a major DC/Marvel event). Often, in this case, it's a reaction to feeling forced into buying titles they don't necessarily read, but feel they can't get the whole turn of events in a current story arc without reading. They'll torrent these issues, rather than paying to download from the publisher. This type of activity really doesn't affect us at all, as they wouldn't be buying these issues from us anyway."

She goes on to add that the experience of buying and reading comics just cannot, in spite of the iPad, be replicated on-screen.

Kings Comics, free comic-book day, 5 May 2012(Credit: Kings Comics)

"Digital readers often colour the way you experience a story, dependant on their display, the way they shift panels, the layout of a page. All of this takes a little certain something away. Believe me, I've tried. Reading a copy of Grimms' Fairy Tales on a phone or tablet is not going to make it any less a copy of Grimms' Fairy Tales. Reading an issue of the Acme Novelty Library on a tablet, on the other hand, is simply not reading or experiencing the same issue you physically hold in your hands."

Emerton's colleague, Kings Comics store manager Jim Papagrigoriou, agrees.

"Digital downloads, for the time being, seem to be tailor made for the casual readers, or at least readers who have liked watching a comic-book movie enough that they want to read a few trade paperbacks on their e-reader," he said. "Single-issue downloads aren't doing very well, from our side of things. Many monthly comics these days have the option to purchase a combo pack, which will include a digital-download code, but sales on this option are less than 10 per cent of the physical comic. While having the option of a digital-download issue is cool, it's not the actual physical copy in your hand that collectors demand. Digital-download copies will always only be worth what you paid for them."

That said, there's one area in which digital downloads have seen a massive uptake, and that's trade paperbacks (collected runs of comics). These, according to Papagrigoriou, aren't really seen as collectible by comic-book readers, and have been taken up by fans who want to read an entire run right now. Obviously, a digital download is going to serve that instant-gratification urge.

Emerton adds that while the demographic of Kings is broad, there are two kinds of customers that form the next generation of buyers: the 15-30 tech-savvy age bracket that has more of a budget, less space in their homes for storing books and less disposable time; and the kids who have grown up in a world where the kind of tech we have now is completely normal.

"These are the ones that will force our brick-and-mortar stores to adapt to survive," she said. "Unlike Jimmy [Papagrigoriou], I think we are going to see a much faster shift to digital comics. There will always be room for the collector, but the general reader, particularly the younger generation, wants everything in one simple, convenient format — the phone, tablet or laptop."

Interesting times

All in all, it's interesting times for comics — from the first word on the page to the product in your hands, whether that's a printed single issue or a digital collection on your iPad.

"I have seen digital comics bringing more readers into the store. I personally have had a large number of people coming in, telling me they’ve read XYZ online and want to know where to go next. I think it's this knowledge that we really have to focus on to stay one step ahead of the digital game. As a business, we don't see the advent of digital comics as a death knell for us as a retailer, simply a new and exciting challenge to our existing methods of retail. Bring it on!" said Emerton.

Christian Read, Nicola Scott, Gestalt Publishing and Kings Comics will be at Melbourne Oz Comic Con on 30 June-1 July. Pop by and say hello!

Disclaimer: the author of this piece knows the interviewees personally.