Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Week 47: The Celestial Longbox

One of the keys to this week's issue is, as Filby noticed last week, that Dr. Magnus has built a new version of his Plutonium Man. The Plutonium Man? You might have seen him here, or when that story was reprinted 19 years ago here. But otherwise, unless you have an impressive back-issue collection, a really good local comics shop or a serious eBay habit, there's very little chance you might have stumbled across him before. His appearances in the '70s run of Metal Men aren't quite on the "rocketed as a child..." level of canon that everybody who's read a couple of stories about the Metal Men knows; in order to catch what's going on, you need to have access to something that can refer you to the right story--something like this site, or one of the DCU discussion boards elsewhere--and then you need to have access to a long-out-of-print issue.

Which, of course, you do, if you're reading this on your computer. Oh, you can't get a physical copy of Metal Men #45 without some legwork and some cash, but it's not terribly hard to track the story itself down without paying, thanks to the magic of .cbr files. That would be fine for reading purposes (and actually I bought a physical copy a few months ago), but it makes me scratch my head a little about what the future of comics-as-a-business looks like. There's a solid argument that comics downloading is competing directly with the physical retail sales business; see, for instance, the kajillions of discussions going on this past week about the Dan Slott vs. torrented She-Hulk business. But there's also a good case to be made that, especially for out-of-print material, comics downloads are taking care of a niche that the comics industry simply isn't addressing--and one reliable guideline of the Internet is that whatever or whoever gets to a niche first is very hard to dislodge from it.

If you're expecting a slightly rickety analogy between the comics business and the music business, you're right, and here it comes. Digital music theorists have been using the phrase "celestial jukebox" since at least the early '90s to describe the ideal of making anything ever recorded instantly available with no more effort than it takes to punch in a song on a jukebox; iTunes and eMusic aren't quite that, but they're trying to move toward it, and by the time you get to Soulseek and BitTorrent and such, you have to have pretty damn arcane tastes to look for something you can't find. Still, one enormous mistake that the music business made (among many) was failing to jump on the digital-music-for-sale idea instantly, and not realizing that the long tail was where the money was, before users had already grown accustomed to digital music being something that was always available in exchange for a little bit of effort and no money.

The analogous situation in this medium is where the big comics copyright holders are in something of a bind. I get the sense that they're looking into potential initiatives, but the clock is ticking for people to get in the habit of buying old comics stories via something along the lines of iTunes. I also suspect that what the online market's profit-drivers might be aren't the Dark Knight-type perennials, but the long-tail oddities that can't support print republication and distribution, old stories that get referred to in new ones (like the hail of references that 52 has provided), the "historical documents" of the fictional universe. And customers are going to want to be able to get everything they want in one place, as with iTunes. Call it the celestial longbox.

That's going to require a conceptual shift, or rather a conceptual broadening. The comics economy as we know it is built on physical artifacts. All comic books are collectible--not in the sense that they necessarily appreciate in market value, but in the sense that people like to accumulate and own them. Trade paperbacks and hardcovers look nice and are convenient to have on one's bookshelf. What you're paying for when you're buying digital music, though, isn't an artifact: you can't hold it in your hand, you can't furnish your dwelling with it, you can't sell it if you decide you don't want it any more. You're paying for part of what you get when you pay for a CD--total access to its contents, any time you want--and you're also paying for something else, the convenience of not having to put in time and effort looking for it in the first place.

The same thing applies for digital comics. You can't hold them in your hand; you can't ask the clerk how much they're going to be worth; you can't get whatever "aura" there is to a mass-produced physical artifact that is easily available for a few weeks or months and then increasingly inconvenient to find after that. Those are important things to a lot of people who read comics; they're important to me (well, not the asking-the-clerk one, especially since I used to be that clerk). Without them, part of what I love about the comics-reading experience is missing. But part of it is still there.

At the same time, the standard ethical (rather than legal) argument against unauthorized downloads of copyrighted material--that it deprives copyright owners of reaping the financial rewards of their work--is somewhat less durable when you're talking about material that's not commercially available in any form that benefits its creators or rights-holders, and not likely to be any time soon. (The counter-argument is that unauthorized downloads of out-of-print material affect back-issue sales at retail stores, and that that trickles down to affect what they order of new comics, and therefore to affect the state of the comics publishing business--but I've stacked the deck, since the example at hand is 30 years old.)

To put it a different way: Right now--this specific week--there's an enhanced market to sell some inexpensive, easy-to-find copies of Metal Men #45, and maybe by extension some of the rest of the '70s Simonson run, and possibly also some other Steve Gerber or Walt Simonson or Metal Men comics. That market will be drastically diminished after this week, and nobody's selling that particular issue right now except for a handful of stores that have yellowing print copies in yellowing plastic bags. But I bet a bunch of people are going to be reading it anyway. Which is to say: if Jane Q. Fiftytwofortyseven can have a 30-second, 99-cent transaction to get a digital copy of Metal Men #45, she might well do that. If she wants to but can't, she's much more likely to spend an hour and a half digging around for a torrent of .cbr files of the complete run of Metal Men. And once she's got that already, the likelihood that she's going to want to pay 99 cents for a digital copy of #45 in a year and a half is vanishingly slim.

Where were we? Oh, right, talking about this week's 52. Space B is a sort of celestial longbox of its own: "this, your universe" is of course the DCU, and lucky Buddy has access to Week 51 already. There's some good theorizing on the DC boards that Space B = the Bleed, which has been seen in Ion = the space between panels in comic books, the "outside the collection" negative space that works about the same way as good old Hypertime.

Beautiful cover this week (the dagger popping out of the image and over the logo is a very nice touch), but oh, that episode title--not only does it have the standard mis-citation of "Revelation" that we've talked about before, but it's a curious choice for an issue in which, really, nothing is revealed. Also, we appear to have gotten shorted two pages this week--the lead story's only 18 pages. What, did Montoya get laid again?

More notes:

Pg. 1: I can find no previous documentation of a "Thörgal ordeal," or indeed of a "Thörgal" (this doesn't count). Although if we're talking about top-selling comics involving ritual sacrifices, it's worth mentioning that this volume apparently sold 280,000 copies in France. Isn't it amazing what comics can sell, he asked rhetorically? Yes, I've been obsessing over Comichron this week. Remember: in 1969, even 52's current figures would have paled before eighth-tier hits like Texas Rangers in Action (more comics should have cover copy ending with "Oh yeah!").

Also: The koan the monk offers Tim on this page is a familiar one--familiar enough, in fact, that both that link and whoever wrote this sequence make the error of trying to explain it. (The solution suggests The Invisibles' recurring theme that language makes reality.) I also like the familiar symbolism of the monks rolling the stone to block off the cave...

Pg. 2: Vashnu is a follower of Rama Kushna who first appeared here, created by the sorely missed Arnold Drake.

Pg. 3: As commenter premiani pointed out, Crippen is Dr. Hawley Crippen. Kürten is German serial killer Peter Kürten, "The Vampire of Düsseldorf" (whose one on-panel DC-published appearance was here). Gacey is probably a misspelling of John Wayne Gacy, who... oh, never mind. "See my kingdom rise anew upon the Earth," besides its obvious overtones, may be another tease of the Kingdom Come stuff that DC seems to be hinting at lately.

Pg. 5: You would think that with their ties to the underworld/assassin culture, these cultists would've heard of David Cain and maybe even his twice-named daughter. (Not this David Cain.) Not to mention that her mom has ties to several other members of 52's cast.

Pg. 6: Where'd he get all that plutonium this time, considering he had to smuggle in supplies for e.g. tin? Also, you don't want to be cavalierly throwing around plutonium, given that a thousandth of a gram is lethal.

Pg. 7: I like mini-Tin and mini-Mercury being the angel and devil in Magnus's pockets, especially since they're both offering the same advice.

Pg. 9: Another Invisibles-like sequence--this is a lot like the "initiation" sequences, especially Yellow Alien Dude's assertion that "out here, there are no sides." Doesn't Buddy look a little like Speedball in that top panel? I hope Ellen moving on doesn't make him put on an inside-out porcupine outfit.

Pg. 11: Just, you know, to underscore that Natasha has Learned A Whole Lot since Week 1.

Pg. 12: "A band": good choice of words, especially since that's the self-description that the 52 writers used, at least at the beginning. (And I wonder if there's going to be any kind of reunions once this tour is over: it'd be neat to see a 52 special or two written by the four of them, at least, without the GOTTADOITNOW pressure of a weekly.)

Pg. 13: A deck-clearing scene. Aren't "hard work" and "elbow grease" the same thing?

Pg. 14: If she's ringing the doorbell, wouldn't that mean somebody buzzed her in?... although maybe that was Dick or Jason or whoever's wearing the Nightwing outfit. A building ritzy enough to have a zillionaire living in its penthouse, though, is a lot more likely to have a doorman than buzzers. "Z. Wie Funfzig," plus an umlaut and a bit of rearranging, is German for "52." And "T.O. Twiffy" is T.O. Morrow's anagrammatic cousin.

Pg. 15: Well, at least Kate finally got an actual Hanukkah menorah--just in time for Passover! You'd think the Watchmen-style window damage would've been noticed by more people outside the building, though.

Pg. 16: You know, the last time Diana went all normal-and-mortal, Wonder Woman read even more than ever like a bondage fetishist's dream series. Of course, all that changed with the advent of women's lib and the return of her powers and costume. Oh wait: no it didn't... at least not immediately.

Pg. 18: The solicitation for next month's issue of Batman suggests that that's where we're going to find out what happened here. Curious that it's the cliffhanger in 52, then--! So he comes out of the cave and sees his Bat-shadow and it means we wait four more weeks to find out what happens next?

The Origin of the Teen Titans: Mostly notable for the look of Kerschl's art--somewhere between the standard superhero style of the regular Titans series and the cartoonier, distorted approach of Teen Titans Go!--the blue lines of Raven's costume, in particular, have that animation-cel vibe to them.

30 Comments:

At 11:43 PM, Blogger Keith said...

"So he comes out of the cave and sees his Bat-shadow and it means we wait four more weeks to find out what happens next?"

That's a classic line right there, Mr. Wolk.

I was very impressed by the Teen Titans origin artwork. That person needs a series.

 
At 2:19 AM, Anonymous andy g said...

I'm having trouble with some of the links in this article.

Anyone else?

 
At 3:25 AM, Blogger raphaeladidas said...

Yeah, all the GCD links go to All New Secret Romance #30. Weird.

I'm not convinced Space B is the Bleed. It's not red and it's specifically mentioned as a way to travel in "this, your universe." The Bleed is the space between different universes. And there's no reason why they just couldn't call it the Bleed if that's what it was.

 
At 4:54 AM, Anonymous andy g said...

Links working now.

Hooray!

 
At 4:56 AM, Blogger Dave White said...

You know, Doc Magnus didn't have to smuggle in plutonium. Intergang's been trying to get him to build a Plutonium Man. I figure they'd at least get him the raw materials.

As the story ramps up towards the end, I have a feeling that Montoya is going to be the new Batwoman rather than the new question. Heck, the earliest promo art for Batwoman even has her hair...

 
At 6:55 AM, Blogger Jamie Ott said...

I'm with Keith on liking the artwork in the TT origin. It was pretty sharp.

And as Dave said, they want him to build a new Plutonium Man, so I don't think he had a problem getting it. Heck, one of the others probably had some just lying around.

There really isn't much to say except for the fact that most of us here are a LOT smarter than Intergang, having guessed they were after the wrong Cain when it first came up.

Anyone else think that man over Ellen's shoulder was probably Buddy himself?

Also, while this issue was good, I felt we really didn't need to see what was going on with Bruce, Tim, and Dianna. I get the feeling that they made promised to show certain beats throughout the year and now the overall story in 52 suffers because they have to cut away to show us what happened in Nanda Parbat during this time.

Jamie

 
At 6:59 AM, Blogger Daniel said...

Am I the only one who thinks that this "origin" of the Teen Titans isn't an origin at all?

(I mean, how can "Showcase Presents the Teen Titans" not be on this list of key collections?)

 
At 7:22 AM, Blogger Squashua said...

"Anyone else think that man over Ellen's shoulder was probably Buddy himself?"

I don't think it's him, but I also don't think it's a suitor. Plus, well, he is looking a month into the future or whatever according to the aliens. Get your ass home already, Buddy!

 
At 8:09 AM, Anonymous Matt said...

You have perfectly condensed what I think on digital comics. Brilliant. This link should be sent to every editor and executive at the major comics companies, or printed out and shoved beneath their living noses, whichever works best.

One of the big reasons there's no iComics out there yet is because I would wager both Marvel and DC are pursuing their own, independent, unconnected solutions, whether they be a web portal or software. That's one big difference between the music industry and the comics industry--there are so many major labels and artists that the potential to create one elegant, central sales solution for digital music existed. With basically the Big Two in charge of how this party will play out, either one of them could really create their own interface, or they both could, thus diffusing the marketplace and delaying the release of the actual damn comics.

if someone of enough stature decided to wade into this breach and solve this issue, it could happen. it's way too small for Apple to care much, but maybe one of the major comics news sites could step in? does newsarama have enough cash on hand to hire a really innovative programmer and have them build a web portal with a built-in audience that might actually bring marvel and dc to the table?

Then there's the royalty issue, although it's probably inconsequential with older stuff for the most part. plus, you'd be selling to such a targeted audience--the people who want Metal Men #45 now, and will pay a buck for a digital copy, which I'm guessing would be in the thousand-sales range at best--that the royalties issue would probably not really build to anything significant for months and months, which allows plenty of time to actually figure out how it will work.

finally, there's the heart of the issue, for me--fear of change. it's just like the music and TV and film industries--i think there will eventually be some kind of attempt on the part of the current guard to cling to their outdated business model, which I guess here ultimately is the sale of physical back issues through specialty shops and online stores.

hell, what would stop any of the big online retailers from just scanning that old Metal Men comic, selling the PDF, and sending a cut of the profits to DC, comparable to their percentage on a new issue? what legal ramifications are there to reselling an old comic book in a new format?

 
At 11:28 AM, Blogger jc said...

As much as a 52 Special would be cool, I have a feeling the only way to get those four together is to give them a GOTTADOITNOW deadline and get out of the way. If they have all the time in the world to futz around, it'd never get done. In part, that's the beauty of this series, it recreates the freneticism of the best long arc television series (Buffy, Battlestar, Veronica Mars) where there's a spine but all the details are added on the fly.

 
At 11:30 AM, Anonymous Al Ewing said...

The first thing I thought when I saw the last page was that the artist was trying to give Bruce a kind of Dick Sprang grin, but hadn't quite pulled it off. So this could be a positive thing - return to the mindset of confident smiling Batman, which would fit in quite nicely with the big-budget Bondian Batman that Morrison's currently writing.

 
At 4:59 PM, Anonymous premiani said...

Thanks for the mention in this week's installment. Very gracious of you.

Regarding Buddy and the aliens -- I love the concept that Space B is the space between panels. That hadn't occurred to me while I was reading the comic but it certainly fits with the rest of Buddy's adventures in reality. Does this mean the yellow aliens represent the writer and the artist of any given comic book? In essence then they showed Buddy his own private Newsarama preview page...

 
At 5:06 PM, Anonymous Don said...

I'm just guessing, but I don't think the yellow aliens represent the writer and artists.

Seems like, in this metaphysical kind of thinking, the yellow aliens would more properly represent the thought processes, the ideas, rather than the creators themselves.

But that's just me, and my wife tells me I don't live in the same reality as everyone else....

 
At 5:09 PM, Anonymous Don said...

To continue, I'm blowing my own mind, with the thought that the ideas have a life/existence of their own, in between the boundaries of the creator and creation....

 
At 6:19 PM, Blogger creativename said...

Yeah, I'd say the mystery man is one Adam Strange, after a little cleaning up.

 
At 10:46 PM, Blogger acespot said...

Doug,
One aspect of digital comics downloading that you neglect to consider is the fact that it may actually lead to the reader grabbing a physical copy of said book, if ever they come across it in the back issue boxes (for a reasonable price). The same can be said for trade paperbacks or hardcover collections of previously published material. For instance, I just recently picked up a copy of DC Comics Presents #85 featuring Superman (duh) and Swamp Thing as written by Alan Moore. It was in a 50 cent box, and slightly cover damaged, but after reading that story in one of the Swamp Thing trades, I sure as hell wasn't going to let it slip through my fingers.

Often, it even goes the other way...since, as you mentioned, comics are collectible artifacts, with extremely old issues becoming more and more rare, and thus more and more costly after-market, some people will go to great lengths in order to not further damage the old copies of books that they own.
Recently, I came into posession of a well-preserved copy of Flash vol.1 #151 from March 1965, which features the third DCU appearance of The Shade, as well as a crossover between the Jay Garrick and Barry Allen Flashes. I cherish this book. I always will. But there's no way in hell that I'll ever touch it with my grubby little hands. And that's where digital comics preservation comes in. It enables me to read and enjoy this issue (even the ads!) without damaging the value, collectibility, or durability of the book in my posession. If I ever find a copy in a bargain bin, you can be sure that I'll grab it as a reading copy, but for now, DCP will have to suffice.

As an interesting aside, this issue hasn't yet been collected in DC Archives format. However, it's very difficult to determine exactly which issues have been collected in the DC Archives, as even the solicitations on the DC homepage don't tell you what issues are contained within (with a few exceptions).

If the comics giants are actually concerned as to the proliferation of internet comics sharing (something which they aren't - at least not to any great extent - as far as I'm aware), getting the Archive editions into print as quickly as possible would be a very good way to combat it. Also, it wouldn't be too hard for them to actually let us know exactly which issues have already been collected.

 
At 5:33 AM, Anonymous premiani said...

don --

the aliens as actual ideas... it's an interesting thought. I guess I felt they were active manipulators in the scene -- "And so we return you to your story, Buddy Baker." -- and didn't consider that possibility.

and Creative Name, I think you called the mystery man.

 
At 8:12 AM, Blogger Filby said...

When I read the "goose-in-a-bottle" koan, my first thought was, "Well, why don't you enlarge the bottle, or shrink the goose?"

I read too many comic books.

 
At 9:59 AM, Blogger Emmet Matheson said...

Yeah, considering we've already been to Kandor in 52, "goose in a bottle" can't be random.

Another aspect of digital comics downloading that may play into why publishers have been so slow to offer their own alternatives is that they long ago ceded the market on back issues to retailers and collectors. Like when Captain America #25 was selling on eBay for whatever inflated price, Marvel was still only getting whatever percentage of the cover price for the issue. Which explains why DC and Marvel have been so eager to do second, third and even fourth runs of "important" issues, even though the demand for a second-or-third-printing of an important comic is quite different from the demand for a "first edition" copy. But it allows them the get in on the windfall, and with variant covers, they've created a secondary niche as well.
But in terms of much older comics, when Detective Comics #27 sells at an auction for $100,000 or whatever, DC gets none of that (though they get some very nice exposure + prestige) and as far as I know, they've never showed any aspiration toward getting a piece of the collectors' market pie. Their business model has always been focused on the sale of new issues. It took DC over 50 years to realize the revenue potential in its back catalogue in the form of the Archive edition, and another 20 to capitalize on some of the "long tail" demand with the Showcase Presents.

Douglas's Celestial Longbox concept seems so plainly obvious, especially in the context of 52. DC's 52 site could easily feature links to (cheaply) purchase back issues relevant to each week's episode and origin back-up. Remember when Martian Manhunter's origin listed some fairly obscure JLA issue as an "Essential Storyline"?

 
At 10:24 AM, Blogger Rob S. said...

It's a reference to Grey Goose vodka. Easy enough to get out of a bottle...

 
At 12:07 PM, Blogger Vallen said...

It's zweiundfunfzig with the umlaut.

 
At 2:31 PM, Anonymous premiani said...

Ah well... Siglain says the fellow with Ellen Baker is Buddy's agent, Roger. (latest 5.2 article)

 
At 3:48 PM, Blogger Emmet Matheson said...

Roger Strange, perhaps?

 
At 6:13 PM, Blogger Julio said...

I think that the problem that I have with the koan is that is the DC Universe, not ours. All you need to put the goose on the bootle or remove him from it without damaging both is a JLA-Teleporter, something that we don't have here on earth-prime. I mean with you want to ask something impossible to now like how many angels can dance on a pin, or something like that, you really need to fire up you imagination since this universe is a lot more fantastical.

 
At 1:10 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ookla here-
This issue was kinda boring, kind of a side-rail from the big final roller-coaster ride I've been told to expect. Didn't they already think it was the Batwoman? What, they didn't think of trying to catch her again after last time? "Wait, we could try to catch her a second time! Maybe we could catch her then..!" Also, this is supposed to be the year withOUT Supes, Bats and Diana, so I don't care to see them here unless they have something good to do with the events of these final few issues. Does Bats have the Question's ghost in a tube on his utility belt now? That could come in handy. (maybe that's a goose in a bottle!) Next issue we get to see five pages of Clark brushing his teeth, shaving and watching TV.

 
At 1:22 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ookla the Mok again-
Okay, something else that's been bugging me here in light of recent events, and it may be out of date but nobody addressed it back then or more recently, so here goes. Somebody chime in here, please. Dig out your Week 12, and look at the top of page 7, "Black Adam, we have been waiting..." and what the heck are those three figures flying around up there with the birds? At least three of them look like humanoids with wings, perhaps angels or Thanagarians, but the one at upper right looks like it has a birds' foot. This was before the Oolong Island storyline started, so it couldn't be the 4 horsemen, but what are they? Has this been covered elsewhere? Are they spies?

 
At 3:54 AM, Blogger Mark "Puff" Anderson said...

Concerning Doc Magnus...

...have you considered, since he's off his meds, that the mini-Tin and mini-Mercury might both be in his head? Meaning that they are his conscience trying to communicate with him via his hallucinations...playing out the aforementioned angel and devil roles.

Just a thought that keeps coming to me everytime they show them.

puff

 
At 6:54 AM, Blogger Filby said...

Ookla -- Those are the Feitherans. They're bird-men from the Arctic who joined Adam in taking over Kahndaq back in JSA. The only thing really conspicuous about them is their absence from the storyline since then.

 
At 1:51 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ookla sez-
Thanks Filby! My friends and I were wondering about that. Not knowing much about the JSA (seems to me like the obsolete heroes nostalgia squad, should probably be written and drawn by Byrne), I had never heard of the Feitherans. But seeing Adam just in 52, I don't really see him as needing much help in taking over Kandaq (or Bialya), especially by *snicker* bird-people! Still, maybe it was a nice quiet tribute to a previous storyline's efforts and maybe fans who recognized them dug it. I hope they don't show up as important in issue 51 or so! Thanks for the info though, we appreciate it here at the Hidden Lair.

 
At 12:13 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Please note: I left this response after reading someone else's blog, and I thought it was just as relevant here. If it helps even one person understand the ethos and the importance of the digital scanning/downloading movement, I think it has served its purpose. -- Erik Smith

Just wanted to offer a few thoughts here, and please forgive me for going on at some length. It’s just that I think digital scanning of comic books really is the future — and it’s the only way the medium is going to hook the new readers that it needs in order to survive. Of course, I’m looking at things from the perspective of someone who grew up in the “middle years” of comicdom, the seventies. Let me explain.

In my teen-age years we didn’t have comic-book shops, but comics were still pretty easy to find. There were price guides, but few people knew about them — hardly anyone over the age of thirty understood that comic books were “collectible” — and so the prices were within reason. You could haunt used bookstores, thrift shops and yard sales and amass a pretty decent collection. A young comics fan might have been able to assemble an extensive run of, say, the Fantastic Four or Superman after two or three years of dedicated searching. Mow lawns for a few summers, wash a few dishes, and if you didn’t blow your money on booze or drugs, fast cars or women, you might have been able to assemble an outstanding Silver Age comic-book collection. Not so today. To assemble the kind of collection I amassed with my paper-route money in the seventies, a kid today would probably have to spend as much as he would on a new Mustang.

I suppose this is true for any item that becomes a “collectible.” Twenty years after it hits the market, the prices begin to shoot up — particularly if the item was marketed originally for children. Once the children become adults, they try to find the things that once gave them pleasure. Certainly in the seventies it would not have been possible for me to amass a Golden Age collection — those comics were already more than twenty years old, and some of the really early Superman and Captain America comics of the forties were selling for as much as fifteen and twenty dollars apiece. But the Silver Age had just ended — we didn’t even call it the Silver Age in those days — and a post-1961 collection was still affordable.

You could pick up ten and fifteen-year-old comics for a quarter, and even the really key issues weren’t horribly expensive. I remember buying Flash 105 for $10, and X-Men 1 for $11. I picked up a ten-year run of Mad Magazine for $15. I found the first appearance of the Legion of Superheroes for a buck-and-a-half, and the first appearance of Supergirl cost me something like three dollars and fifty cents. I amassed a run of the Hulk issues of Tales to Astonish for a little under twenty bucks, and I found most of the Jack Kirby issues of Journey into Mystery and Thor for about thirty. This was three decades ago, all right? I know how unthinkable this sort of thing might sound today, and that’s why I’m telling the story here. Back when comic collecting was still relatively new and disorganized, this was how it was done. It’s the way the hobby was born.

I shake my head when I read about the kind of “professionalism” involved in the comic-book hobby today — the professional appraising services, the people who measure rips and tears and worry about whether someone clipped a coupon; the practice of sealing comics in plastic, presumably never to be touched by human hands — what’s the world coming to, anyway? How on earth can the comic-book industry become a part of the lives of pimple-faced fourteen-year-old boys if the hobby has come to this, and the prime material is simply too expensive to access?

One of the things you have to remember is that we really haven’t seen a tectonic shift in comic books the way we did in the sixties. Once Marvel Comics came along, it was as though the industry had been reborn, and from a collector’s standpoint, it seemed as though nothing published before 1961 really mattered. At the point I began collecting, the oldest of the really desirable comics were only fifteen years old. In the mid-seventies, a guy who wanted the run of Spider-Man had to find maybe 150 comic books, and most of them were within the price range of a teen-ager. (I remember when a local bookstore offered the first three issues of Spider-Man for $36 — and I had to take a pass because I didn’t have the money.)

Well, there really hasn’t been a tectonic shift of that kind in the years since then. The comic books of 1961 still matter. If you want to amass a collection of everything that remains relevant today, you still have to start with the earliest Marvel comics. But these days, the collectible pricing has simply put those comics out of reach of your average fourteen-year-old. So what’s he to do?

I think the two major comics publishers have recognized this problem and have tried to address it, by reprinting their earliest books and by periodically trying to “restart” their various long-running superhero series. But neither practice is good enough. Once you get hooked on Superman, you’re not going to want to be limited to the reprints and the latest material. And the comics companies have to depend on the voracious appetites of the young collectors who support them.

The comics industry can’t survive without collectors — the people who will spend $3 for a new comic book, no matter how lame, just to make sure they’re not missing an issue in a series. But the collecting impulse has at its core the desire to acquire every issue of a given series. And a fourteen-year-old kid who decides he likes the Fantastic Four simply can’t afford a copy of FF#1. He’s bound to be frustrated — and you know, there’s plenty of other things he can do with his time and money. In my day, we didn’t have video games, we didn’t have the Internet, so on and so forth. If you make it hard for a teen-ager to get hooked, he’ll move on to something else.

The digital downloading of comic books really is the only way to give today’s teen-age collector access to these early comics. I guess it might take some of the fun out of it — where’s the thrill in finding Captain America 100 at the Goodwill for a dime, as I did, when you can gain access at a keystroke? But practically speaking, you’re not going to find Captain America 100 at the Goodwill anymore anyway.

You have to wonder why the comics companies haven’t tried to crack down on the practice of comic-book scanning and downloading. Perhaps it’s because they don’t want to alienate their devoted fan base, but I like to think it is because they recognize the same realities I have outlined here. There is really no other practical way to make the older material available to the younger readers. And without younger readers, there really is no future for the industry. If I’m right about the industry’s reasoning, I can only salute it for its insight.

I guess others might bring up other issues — the fact that comics degrade and crumble over time, the necessities of preserving an art form, so on and so forth. And these arguments certainly have validity. But really, what we’ve seen in the last few years is a revolution in the distribution of older comic-book material. All the scanning and downloading has probably done more to create and “hook” new comic fans than anything the industry itself has done.

One of the things you have to realize about comics is that for most people, it’s not a lifelong hobby. There’s a natural cycle that makes the comics business a little different than, say, the music industry, or the movie industry. Those industries see downloads as a threat to their business, which is arguable, but in the case of comics, I really don’t think there’s a threat of any sort.

My story probably isn’t any different than that of most comics fans of my age. I started buying comics at age 12 and stopped at age thirty — no doubt the demographic the comic industry hopes to reach. At the time I stopped buying comics, I thought it had something to do with the “Death of Superman” hype. Of course Superman wasn’t dead. Of course they were going to bring him back. Jeez! Didn’t anyone in the news media understand anything about comic books? It all seemed a little silly to me, the special “collector’s issues,” the comics that you were never supposed to remove from their plastic bags, the covers with the holograms, so on and so forth. I had other priorities — things like car payments and house payments — and my storage area was getting a little full. Seemed like I was buying comics mainly to fill up those white storage boxes. I also suppose that the thrill was gone, and in my late twenties I had finally outgrown comics. I suspect it was more a natural progression than anything else.

But now that I have kids, I’m doing my best to introduce them to comics — I mean, I’d much rather have them reading Batman than have them rotting their minds playing a video game. And since I’m not going to let them touch my old (and presumably valuable) comics with their peanut-butter-and-jellied fingers, the next best thing is to let them read the comics I’ve downloaded to my computer. Honestly, it’s been interesting for me as well, re-reading some of those comics I have tucked away somewhere in plastic bags, and I’ve enjoyed getting acquainted with the material that has been published since I stopped buying comics. Some of those graphic novels are pretty darned interesting. Look, I’m probably never going to start buying comics again, so it’s not as though the comics industry is losing any money on me. But by reading, and sharing, I’m probably infecting my youngsters with the same bug I had.

I think the downloading of comics is a terrific thing — and if the industry continues to wink at the practice, as it has so far, the industry may not last forever, but it certainly will last a few years longer.

by Erik Smith August 14th, 2007 at 10:13 pm

 

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