Friday, August 11, 2006

About bloody time

Flashback Universe fires an opening shot in this mission statement by writer/editor Jim Shelley:

I have watched as the vast, ever growing numbers of comic book downloaders has grown from 700 to over 12,000 in the space of 2 years. Every Thursday and Friday, the comics that you buy at your local shop are torrented all across the globe where eager readers download them to read on demand.

Is this legal? Is it right? Those are questions I can't answer.

What I can say is here is a PROVEN delivery system, using FREELY available software that the users have said they prefer. Not Macromedia Flash. Not Adobe Acrobat. CDisplay and CBRs.

Let's face it - cbr is to comics what mp3s are to music - the way of the future.

Wired Magazine said it best:

Most piracy doesn't spring from the desire to get free content. It comes from a desire to get it in a specific way. Successes like Apple's music business have shown that consumers will pay for content if it's offered at a fair price without unreasonable restrictions. Right now, comics publishers could enjoy a win-win situation - they could reach out to new fans and increase revenue - if they would just decide to take advantage of it. And if they don't? Worst. Decision. Ever.

The comics industry needs an iTunes Level distribution model to survive into the future.

Sadly, no such application exist currently, so we have decided to put our fate in the hands of those who would control this future - you.

Just a year ago, I wrote a message to Rich Johnston of Lying In The Gutters when he raised the question of what the future of downloadable comics might hold. Some of what I said then might be relevant now:

One big issue preventing the major publishers from embracing downloadable comics: take away their control of the distribution channel via Diamond...take away the costs of large-scale print runs and shipping...and suddenly the playing field looks a lot more level. An indie comic becomes as easy to find as the latest House of Infinite M Crisis tie-in.

This didn't happen with the iTunes Music Store partly because there's more to promotion and exposure of music than the online equivalent of rack space; television and radio are a big factor in the music world. And too, Steve Jobs cut a favorable deal with the majors to get their back catalogs into the iTMS...part of the deal being that iTunes isn't open to just any musician who wants to upload his or her own music and sell it. Apple has the mechanism and software for doing just that already in place...but hasn't made it available to the public to stay on the good side of the major labels.

With comics, television and radio exposure isn't an issue, so new content being displayed on a hypothetical "iTunes Comic Shop" would be just as good as showing up on the shelves of your local retailer. And that doesn't suit the business model of the major comics labels any more than it did the record labels.

All that said, I can imagine DC, Marvel, Image, and Dark Horse teaming up to form an online "Diamond Comic Shop" closed to any other publisher, using a proprietary format only readable by their software, and charging the exact same cover price for issues. This would just hurt the retailers while leaving the Diamond monopoly intact to gouge the public. Paying 99 cents for a single music track is steep, but it's less than the record labels would like; we could easily find Marvel and DC charging $2.99 for a comic book download and swimming in the profits like Scrooge McDuck in his money bin while locking out everyone else.

What we might want to do is find a simple format for downloadable comics -- an equivalent to mp3 -- and a simple but robust cross-platform reader available as a free download. The majors won't embrace it without some kind of DRM built in...but the DRM should be optional, for the indies who want to make their stuff free or don't mind people sharing.

Because the mp3 format was already out there and growing in popularity, the record labels were pushed in the direction of supporting iTunes against their greedier impulses, while the mp3 format has stayed available for individuals to use. That same compromise might work for comics as well.

What I didn't fully grasp at the time was that the open format was already in wide use: the .cbr file format used by comic bit torrenters. Armed with free bit torrent client software and free comics-reading software that can handle the .cbr format, a comics fan can go to certain naughty websites and download every comic that hit the stands this week, or a complete run of Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely's never-collected and never-to-be-reprinted masterpiece Flex Mentallo. When it's something that a company is selling even as we speak, it's no different from bootlegging copies of new CDs. But when it's something that the majors can't or won't release...the people uploading those scans are acting as samizdat archivists of comics history, filling a gap in the ecosystem left by the limitations of traditional print publishing. And when creators are publishing their own original material by uploading it in .cbr format...they're showing us what the future might look like.

Ultimately, I think we'll still need that "iTunes Comic Store" with digital rights management and onerous copy protection to get Marvel and DC and Image and Dark Horse on board. But just as the popularity of .mp3s acted as a spur to Apple and the music industry, folks like the guys behind Flashback Universe may be the ones who develop the momentum to make it happen.

There's only one actual comic available for download at Flashback Universe: Saturn Knight, a superhero story that acts as a breathless introduction to what appears to be a meticulously worked-out superhero continuity inspired by the Marvel Universe of the mid-Seventies. The art is just right, and the story presents an interesting conceit to justify the introductions. The cleverest part isn't in the story itself, but on the website: a set of character descriptions delivered by each of the main characters about one another. That one touch persuades me these folks might really have something worth coming back for. I don't think building a whole continuity all at once and introducing titles according to a preset plan is necessarily the wisest move -- every prior attempt to emulate Marvel and DC's present status by reverse-engineering it has failed. Besides, the majority of people who like superhero comics want more of the characters they already know, not new ones -- even if the new ones are similar, or better -- at best, the audience only seems willing to accept new characters who are blatant homages and/or allusions to the old and familiar, as we see in Astro City or Supreme or Big Bang Comics. So I'm not sure if this attempt will pan out...but I'm taken with the energy and enthusiasm and sincerity of the attempt, and I'll be waiting to see more.

(Thanks to Chris Sims, on whose blog I saw this project mentioned.)


  1. Thank you for the great comments and glad to see I'm not alone in my thinking of what the future could be like!

    Would you mind if I reposted portions of this piece with a link to your blog in other places? (My website for instance?)

  2. I'd be delighted, Jim. Of course, I didn't ask you for permission before I quoted you at length, so you should feel free to help yourself in exactly the same way!

    I'm absolutely certain our shared vision is the way the future will go...eventually. The real question, it seems to me, is whether more publishers will see it in time to make this a viable mainstream publishing model for comics. Belaboring the music comparison still further, history suggests the big publishers will be the slowest to grasp what's happening, and we'll need a "Steve Jobs" figure to come along and twist some arms.

    Not that he would have to come from the comics world. The problems facing print comics publishers are facing all publishers of magazines and periodicals and even books. The ultimate form of the "iTunes Comic Shop" might be an "iTunes Newsstand" instead. The same downloadable format which comics could use would be the same as the downloadable format of Macworld and Cat Fancy; the same online store where readers could find the latest issue of Superman or Saturn Knight could also have Time and Newsweek. It has to happen eventually -- anyone doing it now is helping bring that day closer.

    BTW, I hope my comments on Saturn Knight didn't sound too lukewarm: I had a lot of fun reading it and I think you guys did a great job! I have some additional comments and observations which I'll send you via e-mail.

  3. I'm sorry, I'm just going to make a comment without reading and then go -- the 56K thing again, I'm sorry if it isn't quite appropriate.

    As a music publisher who doesn't sell twenty million copies a year, I urge everybody -- BOYCOTT iTunes! They pay the artist (that's me!) less than we get for any other release format (that means they get more), they have lower costs, and they make more money on it. If you burn a blank CD of what you download, they make even more money due to the levy. Me, I don't like it, and I don't make a penny on the digital-media levy or the iTunes thing because I think it's wrong, and I won't take it. I have contractually refused to take it. Music fans aren't thieves, but the various associations (SOCAN, Harry Fox, etc.) have been letting the record company associations frame the debate to the point where I'm sure the average joe is convinced that record companies represent artists -- which of course they do not -- and those record company associations seem to think music fans are thieves and can't be trusted, so people get the idea that that's what artists think. But they don't! Record companies, money-making people, are plenty pissed at anybody who doesn't cough up fifty cents every time they even hear a song -- ARTISTS DON'T CARE ABOUT THIS! And I can prove it, of course. Well, so can you. But anyway I am a publishing royalty holder and I strongly urge you to download my songs for free, and screw Metallica, you know? Please use your technology, anyone viewing this comment thread; please never, ever, ever pay for music online. I know you will catch me up on that in the bar when you see me. I trust you. Well, why shouldn't I? You are a music fan: that means you are the only person ever who has never screwed me around.

    But then again, why would you?

    Do me for free. Leave those bastards Metallica alone, and anyone else who complains. But I figure, if you're gonna buy a twenty-buck CD, take a listen at it first. Tha nkyou. Well, I want to make sure you like it first, you know?

    And thank you, RAB, I know this wasn't that venue, I just got my dander up again and I had to say it all. Thanks for letting me, it's because I hate hate hate iTunes. My God, let's have a revolution, eh? Why in the world, why in all the worlds of the worlds, would a person pay for music in 2006? 99% of artists sell less than 5,000 copies of albums a year. It simply can't make a difference to them. It's like fifty bucks. So who cares?

    Unless it gets you to like them and go to their show!

    And that would be great!

    I'll be less strident next time. Thanks again, RAB. I know, it was totally off topic. But people should know, damn it, and they don't!

  4. I honestly will post a true comment on this topic, that addresses what it's about, and pays some respect to the subject concerned. It may take me a little while. A week? But I'll get there.

    Just wanted y'all to know I wasn't simply gonna rant and run!

  5. Yeah...I've worked in a few different capacities in the music biz, and what you say echoes the attitude of pretty much every musician I know. The record companies are so predatory and exploitive, they make any comics publisher look selfless and philanthropic by comparison. But both are still structured with a total plantation mentality.

    When I use "iTunes" as a model, it's the concept of easy electronic distribution of new material and back catalog I'm talking about, not the avaricious business plan. I have no doubt that, left to their own devices, the comics publishers would adopt the exact same policies we see from the record labels: not paying creators, not counting online sales as sales, lying about online sales numbers to conceal how much profit they're keeping from the creators, and generally shafting creators. If I knew a mechanism to prevent that, I'd tell you!

    Perhaps the ideal would be an "iTunes" in which individual creators could upload their own work without the mediation of a big label or media company, set the price they choose (if any), and keep the proceeds. Pragmatically, money should be involved, because doing good art -- music, writing, comics, what have you -- is time-consuming and the creators of good things should be able to devote their time to the creation of more good things. Otherwise, art becomes the occupation of only those who are independently wealthy or have gobs of free time left over from earning a living with other things...and who knows what good art we'd never see if that's the barrier to entry? It shouldn't be left only to those with the freedom to be hobbyists.

    (And one thing I know about self-publishing comics, or a band releasing its own albums, is that doing this properly is a skill set in itself; being good at making art absolutely doesn't make you a good accountant or businessman. Ask Alan Moore.)

    If we had an ideal iTunes in which musicians owned their own work and could upload and sell it (if they wished) and reap the profits (so that they could spend their time making more music) there would still be a place for the major labels and their Christinas and Tobys -- the commercial pap that drives people to the online store and gets them seeing the other stuff. If we extend that to comics, the latest issue of 52 Civil Wars of Anihilation Crises could bring the punters in...but when they arrived, it would be to a comics shop with infinite rack space that could contain every indie publisher and every comic that ever existed, past and present. I admit, through gritted teeth, that the big publishers will demand the DRM and copy protection. But in theory, we can have these things and demand in return fair and enforceable contracts that give artists the justice they deserve.

    Personally, I like my comics the way I like my music: stolen by pirates, yarrrrr! Flex Mentallo is a work of genius!

  6. You're right of course that the music companies are so evil that they make the comic book publishers apprear to be FEMA when all is said and done.

    (BTW, I don't know if you've read Jen Trynin's "All I'm Cracked Up to Be", but it should be a required reading primer for anyone even thinking about being courted by a major or minor music company)

    I agree completely about the need to get product thatthe companies will not or cannot release as being the main motivation behind the bit torrent phenomenon. I download each episode of Doctor Who right after it airs in the UK beacuse the BBC simply won't bring it over to the US quickly enough. I buy the DVDs to support the series when I was fianlly brought over, and watched it again on SCI-FI, but that was 8 months after watching it on the computer. My one comic shop here in northern CA is a tiny little place, and I can hardly bear to go in there and not think about the amazing shop that I used to go when I lived in New York: Midtown Comics. Still I only buy from another distributor if they cannot get what I want to read.

    And as someone who worked in comics professionally, and got out, I want to see other distribution channels desperately because thats the area that I expect to be putting my art out on as I work on new properties. The comics equivalent of ITunes wouold be oneway to go. I makes me think t hat we go so used to the Marvel DC machine and distribution model, that for years I used to marvel at Cerebus being published monthly, and yet sim made enough money to do ok andkeep going, so clearly there are economies of scale that can be put towards the print, if necessary. Still, we need to move withthe times and embrace the new media or we get mowed downby it.

    If you don't mind I'll posting some of your piece with my comments over on my blog as well!


  7. Charles, that FEMA comment is so perfect, it makes me want to retire and leave the commentary to you. And reading your excellent blog only strengthens that feeling. I certainly wouldn't mind you taking up this topic and using my comments there.


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