Arts Desk

In D.C. and Industrywide, Will the iPad Save Comics and Kill Print?

MarvelApp

Screenshots of Marvel's Apple-device application.

For print media, the potential impact of the iPad has loomed for months—even if its implications are unclear. That's still true three days after its much-heralded landing. On Saturday, Apple reportedly sold 700,000 units of the new device.

For comics books, the iPad promises a new revenue stream and a challenge to print sellers. For strips, the impact may be more ambiguous. I checked in with some local creators and retailers to get their opinions.

Local editorial cartoonists see both sides. The Washington Post's Ann Telnaes doesn’t have an iPhone and isn’t planning to do anything special for the iPad, even though creates regular animated cartoons for the Post's Web site. The same goes for Politico’s Matt Wuerker, who says he's optimistic about taking advantage of the device. “We're not doing anything yet," he writes, "but Politico's allowed me to do a couple of Flash games, like 'Operation,' and 'Sarah Palin: Guardian of the Northern Frontier' that might work really well on it. I did a cartoon, 'Map of the Blogosphere,' three years ago that might deserve an update and an iPad application.”

He says much of the work he does—a more interactive take on political satire—is well-suited to mobile devices. "If you invested the time and energy in a more sophisticated satirical interactive game, who knows, you might even be able to sell it through iTunes," Wuerker writes. "I also think short sweet animations like the kind Ann Telnaes is doing for the Post ought to work especially well in this world.” There's only one problem: Apple devices block Flash animations, a medium in which cartoonists-cum-animators like Telnaes and Wuerker often work.

Comic books might seem to be a more natural fit for the iPad. Recently Marvel Comics issued a press release trumpeting the availability of 500 comic books—which is fewer issues than a complete run of Amazing Spider-Man. The comics available for the iPad are priced at $1.99 each, which is $1 less than most comics that can be bought in stores.

Joel Pollack, the founder of the local Big Planet Comics chain, isn’t worried about the digital competition. “The death of comics has been predicted since the birth of comics," he writes. "But one of the great strengths of the medium is its uncanny ability to co-opt other media. From radio drama to movie serials to television to big-screen to computers and the internet, comics have been able to piggyback and provide content without significantly altering the medium. I'm hopeful that digital comics will introduce new generations to our wonderful medium, and at the end of the day, create a new legion of readers/enthusiasts who want the printed items in their libraries.”

Big Planet Comics co-owner Greg Bennett isn't convinced that the digital experiment won't backfire in comic-book publishers' faces. “I figure that it won't be too long ‘til someone hacks the DRM, and it'll be free digital Marvel comics for all—just like what happened the last time Marvel tried putting stuff online...” It's a challenge that print comics already face. There are already thriving communities for comic-book piracy—in a given week, they scan and disseminate almost every book that hits shelves (they also preserve out-of-print orphaned works from defunct companies). Given that fact, Marvel’s initial price point of $2 seems wildly unrealistic for a comic you'll read once, compared to iTunes' current charge of $1 for a song you'll listen to over and over. The comics industry doesn’t seem to be learning from the same mistakes the music industry has made.

Bennett pointed out an editorial by Cory Doctorow. He is adamantly opposed to digital comic books, writing on Boing Boing:

I was a comic-book kid, and I'm a comic-book grownup, and the thing that made comics for me was sharing them. If there was ever a medium that relied on kids swapping their purchases around to build an audience, it was comics… So what does Marvel do to "enhance" its comics? They take away the right to give, sell or loan your comics. What an improvement. Way to take the joyous, marvelous sharing and bonding experience of comic reading and turn it into a passive, lonely undertaking that isolates, rather than unites.

(Boing Boing’s Xeni Jardin, meanwhile, is more positive about the Marvel application.)

Falls Church-based John Gallagher, who self-publishes his own comic books, is very optimistic about the iPad—especially since it eliminates the distribution costs that he has to pick up. The zero issue of his book Buzzboy is already available in the iTunes/iPad store; the first full issue will be there soon. "Many people say that the simple style of Buzzboy works better on screen, which I really appreciate,” he writes. He'll also release his new comic, Zoey & Ketchup, through the Web and for the iPad before it sees print. "In fact, I'm working with several all-ages creators to help convert their kid-friendly comics to the iPad, as I think this will be more conducive to reaching young comics readers than a comic shop, just by its availability,” he writes. He continues:

I think the affect will be exponential, as not just the iPad, but the format of digital sequential storytelling takes hold. Personally, I would rather hold a musty, newsprint comic in my tired old hands, but for anyone 25 and younger, there is no issue. In fact, the comics readers I know say this makes it more likely for them to read comics, as they could never find a comics shop that suited them.

My comics reach all-ages, which somehow makes them less popular for comics shops—and no fault to shop owners, many go out of their way to promote my books. But the immediacy of the iPad will hopefully open readers to the magic of comics all over again—and lead them to printed versions as well.

I honestly believe the next wave of great cartoonists will show up online, on the iPad, or iPhone—comics syndicates should look to embrace print versions of PvP, Penny Arcade, and others, as the Web presence will only help."

For Gallagher, the future has already arrived. He'll be reviewing comics for the iPad at a new W ebsite, iPadtopten.com, which launches this weekend.

Another local comics creator is less optimistic. Shannon Gallant, who draws G.I. Joe comics for IDW, is worried that the art will suffer in digital media. “A lot of comics are already available online for the iPhone, but odd-shaped panels don't work well in the rectangular format of an iPhone," he writes. "To address this, some companies have requested that artists not overlap panels or break borders to help the reformatting of images to the iPhone."

And he's worried about the pay for work-for-hire creators. "The iPad allows more freedom from a design standpoint, but the industry still faces the age-old question of how to make online products profitable," writes Gallant. "I believe the digital sale of pre-existing books should be considered a reprint (and some companies pay reprint fees), but there are still a lot of work-for-hire jobs where royalties aren't paid. With hard-copy runs you have to commit to a certain number so the math is set, but with digital copies perhaps it will have to be by the issue. Sadly, that might result in people getting a lot of checks for silly amounts, say 25 cents or so. It's all growing pains.”

My take? The iPhone probably lends itself better to the reading of a simple 3-panel daily comic strip than the iPad will. The iPad may work better for comic books and graphic novels. Assuming the iPad is a success, a significant number of comic books will probably be available on it, as will animations. But I don't see the iPad as either a savior or a destroyer of print culture—it’ll be just another medium.

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