There is a certain feeling you get when you walk into a comic book store. The stale musk of paper mixed with cologne and plastic packaging, a silence much like a library punctured by sporadic conversations between store clerks and customers whisper-yelling about their take on alternate universe storylines. This is what makes them unique, a dying breed. And yet, stores like Midtown Comics and Forbidden Planet in NYC, Atomic Books in Baltimore, and Floating World in Portland feel more like looking through your grandparent’s attic than searching for the newest issue of The Amazing Spider-Man.
It’s a deceptively simple hobby, with complicated storytelling and intricate layers of culture and humanism hidden between speech bubbles. But what does this nostalgic pastime have in store for years to come? Not even Professor X could tell you its future.
To put it into perspective, in April of this year Amazon acquired ComiXology, and subsequently changed (read: ruined) the face of digital comic books. ComiXology is a digital platform, much like iTunes, in which consumers can read, buy, store, and discover comic books with a few taps on an iPad from a digital storefront, rather than going to a store and flipping through stacks of comic books like vinyls. Could this truly be where comic books are headed, to the depths of an intangible Amazon hell?
Mark D. White, philosophy professor and chair of the Department of Philosophy at the College of Staten Island/CUNY, spoke with me via email about the medium’s new transition. White has penned The Virtues of Captain America: Modern-Day Lessons on Character from a World War II Superhero and Superman and Philosophy: What Would the Man of Steel Do, and also holds a column at Psychology Today entitled Maybe It’s Just Me, But… featuring articles oriented around comic books and superheroes as they relate to psychology. He explains their complex staying power:
“For many people, whether they ever read comics or not, most of the superheroes in movies are familiar, known quantities,” White says. “Superman, Batman, and Spider-Man are universally known icons. And even if they’re not familiar names to everyone, the concepts behind them are simple.” White agrees that comic books serve a higher purpose than in previous years, more of a distraction to the real world than a distraction from school work.
Unfortunately, this basic need for a superhero isn’t something that translates well off-screen. White explains that “comics seem to be doing very well in dollars sales historically, largely because of the current $2.99-$3.99 price point, but are selling far fewer copies per month than in the past. Millions of people see each superhero film, but most DC and Marvel monthly comic books sell in the low tens of thousands, and one that sells over 100,000 is considered a huge success.”
What makes comic books so hard to keep afloat is the fact that they are more like single pieces in a much larger, incredibly intricate puzzle. Our culture thrives on single-serving experiences, things that are neatly wrapped up in, say, a two-hour movie. Well-written comic books don’t work like that. “The books have storylines that take years to pay off in total,” says Andrew Gelb, an avid comic book reader. “It’s a lot more like watching a TV show, and waiting each week (month in the case of comics) for the next bit of story.”
“There are some characters, like Spider-Man and Green Lantern who I’ve just grown attached to and want to follow the adventures of,” says Gelb. “In other cases, there are writers and artists whose work has so blown me away in the past, that I’ll read almost anything they put out.” But for some, comic books will no longer take licking fingers to turn pages, making sure not to crease the edge when sliding them back into the protective plastic sleeve. Trading comic books between friends will become as antiquated as trading baseball cards, save for the ridiculously rare and valuable.
“The future of comics is trending toward delivering short-term jolts of shock rather than long-term story and character development,” says White, who feels that our culture is more interested in the continuation of the familiar rather than in the new and the now. “Fans have already grown cynical about relaunches and resurrections, just biding their time until the familiar versions of their favorite characters return. I really doubt we’ll see a new character grow today to be as deep and complex as Batman or Spider-Man are.” This means that it will be incredibly difficult for a new breed of comic book characters to break out into the canon.
Comic books will need to adapt to the times, much like how print media is going the way of the buffalo. Our culture can’t get enough of the ease and user-friendly nature of digital media and that doesn’t look to be changing any time soon, and for good reason. Digital sales of comic books along with the tagalong components to the books, plus the movie sales that are in no way in jeopardy, will change the basic structure of the industry.
And what goes along with digital media is the advantageous nature of self-publication. The internet offers an outlet for fledgling comic artists, like Neil Johnson, who agrees that “we are at a point right now where there are already a lot of comics that are produced and distributed all on the computer.”
“There’s always going to be a demand for comics, it’s just a matter of where you will find them,” Johnson says. “Online comics and digitally distributed comics have already changed the way people read comics.”
Not only has the internet changed the industry itself, but it has also affected how the audience commentary is packaged. Message boards and Subreddits are the new talking over bins in the back of the comic book store. Conventions heavily rely on a digital presence to boost sales and drive influencers to want to participate in the Cons, giving readers an opportunity to discuss their opinions openly, and for the first time, anonymously.
“The internet has obviously made it a global community and one in which reading about and discussing new comics and upcoming story-lines is as much as the lifestyle for many fans as reading the comics themselves,” says White. “The internet dominates comics culture for many fans and conventions have become gigantic multimedia events that receive national mainstream media coverage.” What this means it that the internet, and the things that stem from it, has taken over a large part of the backyard community surrounding comic books. “The internet is of course rife with piracy,” Gelb counters. “Though the industry and culture adjust to that as they have been all along; but it has also given rise to digital comics, which are easier to store (on a hard drive rather than in boxes) and to take on the go.”
The acceptance of the internet as a gift rather than a curse, for many genres of art, not just comic books, has lead to conversations that wouldn’t normally be had. Discussions about The Avengers in the 6912 comments on Joss Whedon’s AMA in r/Comicsbooks on Reddit or in the comment threads of articles like the ones surrounding the potential PG-13 rating for the Deadpool movie after leaked test footage was put online over the summer.
The internet has taken what used to be the simple act of going to the comic book store after school with a few of your friends and magnified it into a global conversation. Superheroes aren’t a new concept, but the exchanges stemming from a culture still trying to digest story-lines of characters that have been around for over 60 years are. The internet’s consumption of comic books and their characters has become the pumping heart of a dying, generational experience.
Superheroes and comic books, regardless of how they are consumed are still a bloodline in a culture that feeds on and bleeds things dry. “It’s become cliché by now, but with all the horrible things going on in the world,” White says, “we have a basic need to see heroes, even in fiction.”