Why I Finally Started to Embrace Digital Comics

Way back when I first started writing about comics, digital comics were a fairly new thing in the world.  The only time I really read them was when I was reading webcomics, which stood out not because the comics were on the internet, but because they were funnier and more clever than the stuff that had been running in the newspapers for decades.  I think I also read some "Naruto" on scanlations sites (don't worry Viz: I ultimately bought ALL the books in paper form), but I was never into the scanlation scene like some of my friends were.  Because despite these exceptions, I honestly liked the feel of reading paper books better.  Sitting in front of my computer was cumbersome and boring.  I much prefered to be on my bed, lying down on my back, reading whatever I felt like reading in a comfortable position.  Back when I was still updating my Comic Book Guy website with a regular schedule, I could not imagine digital comics becoming a huge part of my life.

Of course, to understand why, you have to bring yourself back to 2010.  We were still playing the XBox 360 and Wii!  3D would make a brief comeback later that year with "Avatar."  The iPhone was just a few years old.  Most importantly, the iPad was launching just as I was winding down with updates.  When I was writing about comics, I didn't realize there would be this portable electronic device that would make reading digital comics feel like reading the real thing (you know, minus the feeling of having paper in your hands).  Not that it would have mattered much at the time anyway.  I remember seeing Steve Jobs introduce the iPad on stage and talk about how revolutionary it was, and all I could think in my head was "Yes, that may be true...but what do I do with it?!"  In some ways, I know now, however in other ways, I'm still asking that question.  I didn't get a tablet until years later when Microsoft announced the Surface.  Some may laugh at me, but from what I could see with the iPad, you basically watched movies on it and browsed the internet.

How we used to read comics digitally!

I had a computer for browsing and a flat screen TV for watching movies.  If I wanted to read, I had a Kindle.  So I never felt I needed an iPad.  However, when I saw the Surface I felt I had to get it.  A portable computer that had a kick stand and keyboard?  It was the dream device for a writer who was constantly traveling.  Heck, I would even be able to start writing reviews and blog posts between movies while I grabbed a bite to eat at the local sandwich shop!  While the device was certainly expensive, it would prove to be far more useful and revolutionary than the iPad ever was as far as I was concerned.  All of a sudden I was more productive than ever before!  I was writing more, checking my e-mail more, and I even got some use out of the camera which resulted in my YouTube career getting started!  The Surface was a game changer for me in many ways!  One of those ways it that it would also change the way I read comics digitally.  See, a few years before I got the Surface, I had a bad breakup with Amazon.  Without getting into too much detail, the company shuttered a very profitable seller account of mine over an arbitrary complaint from a customer, and I vowed never to buy from them again.

For the most part this has remained true.  During that breakup I ended up putting my Kindle in a closet and buying a Nook from Barnes & Noble.  You know...just to spite them!  The thing is, the Nook had an LCD screen and was pretty much a tablet already.  As a result, it featured neat features like "turning the page" and "pictures" which were rare to see on Kindle.  Since then Amazon has released their Fire Tablet series that were more comparable to the Nook, but I have to say for all the hate the Nook devices get, they are much better than most of the competition (Kobo is probably THE eReader you want if you are planning to stock up on digital books though)!  The reason this is important to the story is because Microsoft actually invested heavily into Nook to ensure that they had an eReader app with an installed user base on their device, which more or less strengthened my relationship with Nook.  The Surface wasn't a portable digital type writer for me anymore but a device that I could read books on when I was on-the-go.  Sorry, it dawns on me that this has started to become a post about how great the Surface is and not how I started to embrace digital comics...let's move on.

This was going to be a MUCH better way to read digital comics!

Despite the fact that I was reading a few books on my Nook and doing lots of work on the Surface, I was still reading the vast majority of my comics on paper.  However, as you get older, you find your spending habits start to change.  Sure, dropping a couple hundred bucks a month on comics is easy when you're living with your parents and not paying rent or anything like that, but even though I had a pretty comfortable job I was NOT making enough money where tons of it could be dropped on frivolous hobbies!  Now I had bills, insurance, and pesky taxes to pay.  The sad reality is there is a reason most of us put "childhood things" away in a box when we reach a certain age.  Though many great reasons there are - loss of interest, more time needs to be spent on family, etc... - one of the biggest ones is cost.  It's one of the reasons why there were a few years where I didn't really play video games despite loving to play them: Price became an issue.  I was at a point where I was reading far less comics than I used to and price was one of the main factors.

Not wanting to completely give up the hobby completely though, I instead turned to the library, which had realized several years ago that they could attract a younger generation of kids to enter their buildings if they had a hip young adult section.  That young adult section included another section dedicated completely to graphic novels, and the titles were growing by the day.  It's here that I was finally able to finish series I had started reading years ago but dropped because of cost considerations: "InuYasha," "Yu Yu Hakusho," and "Negima" were ALL series that I had gotten pretty far into back when I didn't have those pesky adult expenses to worry about!  But, as time went on, they had to eventually be cut from my life, and so it was a revelation that I could read the books for free in a way that wasn't considered stealing.  I also discovered other series at the library.  I got to finally read "American Chinese Born" by Gene Luen Yang!  I got to read Craig Thomson's new (at the time) graphic novel "Habibi" (and I did so without having to pay the $40 sticker price)!  I also got into a coming of age sports drama called "Cross Game" by Mitsuru Adachi.

An influential title for me in more ways than one!

Now..."Cross Game" was a great read all around!  I won't get into too many details about why here (in case I ever want to get back into proper comic book reviews on this blog someday) but it truly was something that touched me on a personal level because of events that transpired in my life a year or two prior.  I got through the first seven books at the library, but for some reason they never bought the final book.  I waited a few weeks after the release before inquiring about the status of the book coming in, and they informed me that the book wasn't currently in the system.  I decided that even though I didn't have any other volumes in the series, I could buy just one book.  The retail price for the paperback was $19.99 (it contained two volumes) or $17.45 at the Barnes & Noble price.  However the ebook was a mere $12.99 if I bought it on the Nook!  Still at a point in time where every dollar counted, I figured I might as well throw away the collectors mentality for a purchase that would otherwise have been a rental anyway, and I made my first digital comic purchase.  It was an odd experience: Easier than pulling out a credit card but without the sense that something was actually 'purchased.'

It took a few seconds to download and I was ready to read it.  I tapped on the Nook app, selected the title, and began reading the final volume.  It took about an hour to read and I finished it with a big smile on my face.  Like watching a great movie or reading a great novel, consuming a great comic book series makes me feel like I'm walking on sunshine!  It was a wonderful end to a wonderful series.  What's more: I didn't have to drive back to the library to drop the book off!  Also, I "owned" it (topic for another day), yet it wasn't taking up space on my shelf, or in a drawer, or in one of those storage pouches you put under your bed!  It was in the cloud, ready to be downloaded whenever I wanted to download it.  I have to admit...the feeling was addicting, and it made me want to drop paper comics altogether and move into an all digital future.  However...I hesitated.  I hesitated because while I DID enjoy how easy the experience was, there was also a part of me that felt it was ultimately unsatisfactory!  I still enjoyed the feel of paper more.  There were questions about what happens to that file if the cloud servers were ever taken down.

There was also that whole "owned" in quotations problem.  Everyone who "buys" digital media knows they don't own anything (or, at least, they should know).  It's a glorified rental agreement, and the scary thing about that when it comes to manga is that American publishers lose rights to titles all time time.  So much so that it became a logistical nightmare for those who wanted to legally buy Sailor Moon for years.  While I didn't have the entire series, the idea that this title I spent money on may one day not be available to read was crazy.  I didn't feel like paying ownership prices without the benefit of ownership.  At the same was an issue.  It was nice to obtain a copy of something and not have to worry about it taking up too much space on the shelf.  Despite my love of comics (and I know I'm getting a bit off topic with this point) is that they do take up an awful lot of room.  I was just running out of shelf space, and what ultimately motivated me to start selling my collection was the pure fact that I wasn't reading any of it.

Not my actual bookshelf, but it didn't look too different. 
Photo © Stefan Homberger

I remember years ago reading an interview with a comic book shop owner (and his thoughts on the digital future of comics ironically) and one of the things he said was "At one point you have to stop hoarding things.  Keep personal favorites, but sell the rest."  I remember scoffing at this and thinking the man wasn't a true comic book collector.  Collectors NEVER sell their collection!  It is part of who they are!  I will not cave; my collection will be the BIGGEST in the world!  Funny how right our elders can be sometimes.  I suppose that comes with the whole "experience" thing.  As I poured over titles I realized that there was a whole lot of stuff I own that I didn't want to keep.  I had six books of "Knights of the Zodiac" which I didn't even like!  Was it worth keeping my one volume of "Pita-Ten" when I gave the series a D- when I reviewed it?  I owned a dozen volumes of "Hunter x Hunter" and absolutely hated that title (for the record, I DID try to give it a second chance)!  I also knew that the only reason I had half of the CLAMP titles I did was because they were authors I was familiar with when I was a kid.

So I started boxing up titles I didn't like.  Lots of volume ones that I never got around to volume two.  After I dumped the titles I disliked, I started cutting titles I did. I may have enjoyed "Bleach" when it started out, but after getting through 38 volumes I had decided I'd had enough and stopped reading it.  Well, getting rid of THOSE would save some space!  I got rid of all but the first two volume of "Yu Yu Hakusho," because the first two books were the only one's I bothered to re-read.  I ended up keeping "Shaman King" and "Naruto" though.  I doubt I will re-read them, but they look so good on the shelf (and it felt like an accomplishment to have them all).  Personal favorites like "Rurouni Kenshin" and "Planetes" I wasn't going to part with though.  Ditto on "Yu-Gi-Oh," which I still believe is a better comic than most people give credit for.  I got rid of a TON of issues of Incredible Hulk, Wonder Woman, and Batman, but I decided to keep my near complete collection of Sonic The Hedgehog (a wise choice considering a legal battle with writer Ken Penders means most of these stories will never be reprinted again).  I didn't get rid of any of my Shonen Jump, Shojo Beat, or Rajin Comics though.  Good for me, because I want to make a YouTube video on those!

The chances of seeing this republished are pretty slim.

Some of the comics were sold on eBay while most were donated to Dimple Records for store credit.  While I do regret getting rid of "Love Hina" (which turned out to be a non-issue in the long run thanks to some excellent re-releases from Kodansha), I can honestly say I don't miss most of my comics.  I see them used in the occasional Book Off I visit, but aside from remembering the period in my life when I read them, I have no nostalgic feelings for them.  There are so many new series to read; why worry about the old ones?  Still, as I think about this scenario I also shudder to think of what the situation would have resulted in if all those books had been digital.  Sure, I didn't make bank off of most of them, but I did get close to $1,000 when all was said and done (it was a MASSIVE collection...and there were several rare titles that fetched a higher price)!  If those had all been digital, there would be no re-selling them on the black market.  Which means I would have invested thousands of dollars into a hobby that I couldn't recoup any of if I decided I no longer wanted the title.  Sure, I would have saved on space with "Bleach" had I owned them in digital format, but I would not have been able to net me $200 for my used books!

All of this I knew...and yet, the convenience was sooo tempting!  Thankfully, it wasn't long after that I discovered Comixology!  Now, I should mention that I discovered Comixology after evil bought them, so I have no idea what they were like before, but the selling pitch was a great one: For $6 a month I can read a TON of comics and graphic novels for free!  If I really liked the title, I could pay to keep it (and there would be thousands of titles that weren't part of the subscription just in case)!  The offer was too good to pass up and so I signed up for it!  I've never gotten rid of it and have since read many, many, MANY titles!  Titles I might never have given a chance if I couldn't read it for free (like the reboot of "Archie")!  I read multiple superhero comics that looked interesting that were just sitting there to read. It was like having a comic library on an app!  Around this time I also decided to sign up for Shonen Jump Alpha.  I stayed loyally subscribed to that magazine until the final issue, but I hadn't made the plunge to their digital venture.

I was late to the party, but it was worth it.

Call me crazy, but (as mentioned earlier) I remember sitting at my computer to read "Naruto" scanlations, and honestly, while it was nice to read the series for "free" (because it really wasn't), I found the experience to be uncomfortable and awkward, so I decided to part with them.  Well, now I had a Surface and a Nook, and I got four Yu-Gi-Oh! cards a year with each subscription for $20!  I mean, the cards themselves would almost certainly sell for more than $20, so it was worth doing even if I didn't read it!  Having it again though reminded me why I loved the whole 'manga anthology' concept: As a way to introduce people to new content that they might otherwise not have read (particularly "Cross Manage," which was a delightful surprise on every level)!  This was about the time I was really getting back into reading comics because so many were available for practically free!  It got better when I paid for a yearly subscription to Crunchyroll and realized that one of the perks of being a subscriber was that you got to read a select number of manga for free on their Crunchyroll Manga app!  I won't lie and say the selection was great (it honestly had more mediocre titles than not), but there were some gems in there like "Sweetness & Lightening" and "Orange" that I enjoyed reading.

The DC Comics library became available to me when I decided to sign up for DC Universe.  While it's a streaming platform for Warner Bros. vast collection of DC inspired media, I'm one of the rare ones who signed up to read the digital comics (the shows were a bonus in my opinion)!  I'm not sure what's going to happen to that digital library when the app inevitably gets folded into HBO Max (ditto on Crunchyroll).  Hopefully it will remain a bonus for subscribers to the platform.  Anyway, the point to all of this is that I still love my physical media.  I'll never give it up.  Digital is mighty convenient though!  Reading devices have gotten a LOT nicer over the years!  What finally pushed me towards embracing digital comics though is the fact that at rental prices, it's a great way to read a bunch of stuff you otherwise wouldn't be able to read.  Buying everything becomes too expensive, but the amount of options out there to get a wide library of comics to read with the tap of a button are vast and they are cheap!  In the last few years Shonen Jump Alpha became Weekly Shonen Jump, to just being Shonen Jump again.

One of the more underappreciated apps on Android.

Heck, they don't even have the magazine format anymore, choosing instead to let readers download the manga by indivual chapters (with the option to buy full volumes of favorites).  The cost: $1.99 a month!  Granted, they DO limit you to a 'mere' 100 chapters a day to read, but even during a pandemic where I'm stuck indoors all day I've never reached that limit.  At that price it's allowed me to read the second half of "One Piece" without having to buy six dozen books!  When you factor in Comixology ($6), Shonen Jump ($2), DC Universe ($7), and Crunchyroll ($4), I'm paying a mere $19 a month to read comics!  Far less than what I used to spend on books (and a couple of these services come with anime and movies to watch as well)!  Sure, I don't "own" any of these, but the price of admission is more than fair.  And if I really like the title that much I simply buy the physical book as a keepsake!  I do still worry about the future of physical comics though.  While I still do my part to buy what I can, there's no doubt I'm contributing to dwindling sales by not buying as much as I used to, and one of these days it will be too tempting for some struggling publisher to cut the expense of paper, ink, and shipping out of the budget altogether.

I feel as long as there are subscription models to be found with comics, I will continue to read them digitally.  I'm not sure where I will be if the day comes where there's no Netflix-style service for them anymore and I have to go back to buying individual issues and books that I have no option to resell if I no longer want them.  I'm not sure where digital comics will be if one of these companies go under and people lose all their files in the cloud.  Digital comics still have many drawbacks from the point-of-view of the consumer (and we're nowhere near being able to satisfyingly answer most of them), yet the convenience and storage elimination are certainly two major selling points!  For now, I'm perfectly content to be renting comics digitally and buying comics in physical format when I want to keep them forever.  I don't know how long that will last, but when I look at the bigger picture there's never been a better time to be a comic book reader (nor has there ever been a bigger variety of stories to read)!

Still my favorite way to read

Your Comic Book Guy - Kevin

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