Digital comics have been big news for a while, but the iPad is be the current big dog getting the attention, with even DC Comics—traditionally the least tech-friendly major publisher—jumping into the fray with their app. Retailers fret about losing customers. Publishers dream of getting new readers, or at least getting some lapsed ones back.
Robert Jacobi is a techie. He owns and operates Arc Technology Group, a consulting firm specializing in website development and content management. He’s in his mid-30s. He reads his comics almost exclusively on his iPad. Jacobi is as good an example as you’re likely to find of the lapsed comics reader that the iPad apps were supposed to connect with.
Curious what goes through the mind of such a creature? I asked Jacobi a few questions so that we might all have a little better insight of the paying digital comics consumer.
Publisher’s Weekly Comics Week: When did you fall out of reading comics?
Robert Jacobi: I was a casual reader of comics throughout high school. Reading a few favorite series and catching up with trades. In college and slightly after I was reading less and less.PWCW: What brought your attention back to them?
RJ: I was going to Borders with my girlfriend every Sunday to read papers and have coffee. I picked up a copy of Earth X and was re-enchanted. Near my home and office there is a comic shop. I would pass by it all the time without giving it much thought. A friend and I started talking about the Watchmen (a few years before the movie came out) and I decided to drop in and pick up a copy (having permanently loaned a copy to who knows whom, years ago). I'd go back and pick up cool nick-nacks and just wound up buying more and more comics again.
PWCW: What are your feelings towards buying at direct market comic book stores?
RJ: It's okay and I like the environment of my local store a lot, but if I don't keep up every Wednesday I soon get behind. And it's very easy for me to do that and miss a month or two. I'm still very casual, never collected, so just like to read the story, keep up with the arcs, see the art and watch the "animation."
PWCW: When you say "animation," you mean?
RJ: The movement between the panels—the flow of art from scene to scene.
PWCW: Have you ever watched any "motion comics?"
RJ: Yes, once or twice. Hated them. Maybe it was the production value but I don't really feel the need to hear the voices and be automatically guided through the story. I like to take my own pace use my imagination for the other content.
PWCW: How has the iPad changed your comics reading habits?
RJ: Love the iPad for comics! There are some small changes I might make to the reading apps but overall the convenience of being able to grab a comic is just great. The viewing experience is very pleasurable as well. I'd definitely recommend the stores getting much more of their content online for sure and higher resolution panels since I like to view panel to panel in "zoomed" mode. I've certainly spent more money on digital versions than print in the last year. I don't need to worry about storage or maintenance (I never throw out the paper, but am not a serious collector). And back to convenience, I love just being able to sit at home on a rainy day, pick a comic and if I like it go through the next half dozen or dozen instead of hitting the movies (which these days costs the same after popcorn and drink).
PWCW: Which apps are you using?
RJ: My favorite by far is Marvel Reader (DC Reader is also good for similar reasons to Marvel). Not only because that's where I lean in terms of content but the panel to panel zoomed mode is great. It'd be great if they had an option to automatically see the whole page after you've gone through all the panels on a specific page. Most of the apps are similar, but I am not interested in keeping multiple accounts over multiple services. I don't think the Marvel store is going away anytime soon. As for the others, who knows, and then what happens to the comics?
PWCW: How many comics are you reading in a month?
RJ: I would say my average is 20 and at this point exclusively digital, so if I can't get it digitally I just wait or look for something else. Definitely more now than when I was buying paper earlier this year.
PWCW: What titles have you been liking and what's fallen flat for you?
RJ: You can blame the movies, but I've never been a big Iron Man reader and now am bouncing around all sorts of story lines since there is a bit of a catalog in digital. Also caught up on Astonishing X-Men, Civil War and will probably hit House of M soon. If I see anything that looks like a crossover I'm going to blow my brains out. Paper or digital, these things are really aggravating and just look like money grabs. There might be a good story somewhere in there but it gets watered down and if I want to follow the whole thing I need to up my budget by 10 times. No thanks.
PWCW: Marvel experimented with releasing this year's Iron Man Annual on the same date it hit store shelves. DC is doing the same thing with Justice League: Generation Lost. Right now, you seem to be catching up on back issues. Are more current comics something on your want list?
RJ: Definitely a lot of catch up. I haven't gotten into stride with the new releases yet,mostly because there are almost none. I know Green Lantern is on my list and maybe see where Batman and Wonder Woman are these days. I haven't looked for independents yet but was reading Project Superpowers (and related) on paper when they first hit.
PWCW: Could you see the comic app causing you to go into a store for a print copy of a monthly or collected edition book?
RJ: Absolutely. I can't imagine not having a physical copy of Watchmen and am sure there will be others that are as compelling. It's like going to a bunch of movies and then picking favorites that you want to own.
PWCW: As an Internet content professional who's reading comics online, do you see any glaring changes that need to be made with the current delivery system?
RJ: I think I alluded to this earlier with the multiple apps. I would really just want a simplified and open format (e.g. mp3) so that once I purchase an issue, I could bounce it around my devices. And maybe in a perfect world, share with my friends like the physical editions somehow. I'll let the NASA scientists figure that issue out, but I definitely don't want to have a store go down and lose all my purchases with it—and I want one app to rule them all. It's annoying and silly to have to bounce around DC, Marvel and Comics+ to get at what I want. The allure is the content not the app —though some apps are better than others (e.g. Marvel's and DC's zoom).
Just one thing that I don't think I really covered—it makes no sense to me why there is a lag with the new comics. Old ones I can see having to be (re)digitized, or whatever voodoo they do, but the new stuff should be digital ready same day. Technology and tools are advancing and while there is an experience to be had with printed works, I don't see the consumer being satisfied by having to arbitrarily wait if what they want is digital. I am not a publisher or vendor and understand there are mechanics and business considerations, but at the end of the day it's me and others like me who put down our hard earned cash for this kind of entertainment. This is the kind of thinking that drove millions of people to Napster 10 years ago when the labels resisted the digital revolution. We now have the iPad (and certainly other similar devices) that can take advantage of not having to wait and not having to store physical media. Listen up world, take advantage of these things! Don't be locked into old models. Think, advance, and move forward.
[Todd Allen is a technology consultant and adjunct professor with Columbia College Chicago's Arts, Entertainment & Media Management department. Allen's book, The Economics of Web Comics, is taught at the college level. He also writes the Division & Rush webcomic for the Chicago Tribune Media Group. The opinions expressed here are not necessarily those of PW Comics Week.]