Sunday, March 1, 2009

A New Way

Parts of the Internet comic book community is on fire. The arsonist? Apparently, Peter David. The whole "discussion" (because at this point it has evolved into little more than an Internet fight of epic proportions) is because the Livejournal community of scans_daily, a place where pages of comic books were posted, sometimes in very large quantities, was shut down after David supposedly reported the website to Marvel. You can read his whole entry about it here. I have talked and lauded about David in my recent post about X-Factor, and while I don't personally agree with the notion that access to pirated comics hurt sales (as an aside, it would certainly be very hard to prove if hurts or helps), I certainly agree it is his right to report violations of this kind once he becomes aware of them. While I personally did not visit scans_daily, it seems that what they were doing was in a very grey legal ground, and Livejournal is just trying to avoid a potential lawsuit. Apparently the community was very big and active, so I don't understand why they did not move to their own server, where they would have had more liberties and less worries about something like this happening. Instead of talking about the issue of Internet piracy, which would take a really long time and arrive to no solid conclusion (and maybe alienating readers), I wanted to talk about some of the alternatives that the comic industry could implement in order to avoid matters like these.

One of the biggest draws of scans_daily was that it allowed people to read (partially, apparently) comic books that they would otherwise pay no attention to. The people lamenting the demise of this community are claiming that there are no other ways to check out rare and or not as popular comics. One of the probably most underused methods to check out new comic books is actually very much free: public libraries. Libraries are increasingly carrying more and more paperback, hardcovers, and original graphic novels these days (and even more so for manga). While this obviously depends on the scope and size of your library, it is definitely worth checking out to see what they have. While the local library where I reside now has a shameful collection (it is very small and I do not live in the US, so it is understandable), the one in the city I lived before had full collections of many comics such as (Birds of Prey, Exiles, all the Ultimate books, Daredevil, Sandman, Invincible, Walking Dead, etc.) some of which I had never bothered to check out before (like Fables, Runaways or Jonah Hex, and I actually read Watchmen for the first time from the library). In addition, they had pretty much all of the Essential and Showcase books (those big, black and white ones) so you could easily read up on old stories of classic comic books. While it may take time, libraries will start carrying more and more collection of comic books. Companies (Marvel especially) are getting better at releasing the collection of both new and old comics, which is going to lead to a bigger amount of comic book in libraries, free for everyone to read and discover them. I do not know what kind of deal comic book companies have (if any) with public libraries, and it is not in their (from a marketing perspective) interest to promote readers to check out their books for free.

Then there's the option of online comic books. As it stands now, only Marvel is offering a digital service (more of that in a second), but for all other companies you are mostly out of luck (I read about some applications for the iPhone where you could download comic books to it, but the catalogue was rather small). There is always the option of downloading pirated comics, which is not that hard to do or to find a place where you could do so if one were intent on it. While the legality of it all is questionable, there's no denying that it is a very easy way to discover comic books that readers may not deem worthy of a second glance while they are in their local comic book shop. Marvel's digital service sounded like a good idea at first, but sadly the execution of it fell short. The service offers the chance to read an unlimited amount of comic books for a low monthly subscription. The problem stems from the flash-based reader that Marvel decided to use, which was incredibly slow and hard to scroll through (and my connection speed was pretty good when I had the free trial), low resolution image of the comics and the fact that you could not download the comics to your computer. Additionally, the service (while still growing) did not feature the possibility to read newly released comic books, which were only released weeks after the issue hit the stands (probably until it was off the shelves). I understand Marvel's point of view in this, if the readers get to see the new comic books online, they are not going to buy the actual comic books. But if you are trying to provide this service as an alternative to buying the single issues, it is imperative that subscribers have access to the newest comic books.

And finally, my crazy idea for a new way to check out comic books: renting them. Alright, so it probably is not *my* original idea, surely someone has thought about this before? But the notion is practically unheard of in comic book circles, even though movies (and games) have been doing it for decades now. It is the same concept, and I have no idea why it has not been done for the comic book industry: a movie originally comes out in theaters (analog to singles issues), and is later collected in a format that is easier for people to digest such as VHS, DVD, or Blu-Ray (hardcovers or paperbacks). If it works for one form of entertainment, why couldn't it work for another? So here's my (very rough) plan: first of all, no reading in stores, a rule that some comic book shops already have in place, but others do not. The change may upset readers, which are used to flipping through some books while at the shop, but you can't see the movie that you are renting on Blockbuster either. The renting could be done in two ways: in-store and regular renting. For in-store you would need a place where people could read (a lounge area if you will) with seats and charge a small price (I am thinking fifty cents) for an allotted amount of time (thirty minutes should be plenty of time for most comic books, but not a long enough time to get more than a second reading) to read the comic book. Of course, this system has its flaws, such as comic book stores needing the appropriate space to handle customers sitting down to read and most people like to read in the comfort of their own home, which is where the second way of renting comes in. Just like you would rent at your local video store or blockbuster, you could pay a fraction of the price of the comic book (one dollar per rental has a nice ring to it) and you could take it home for one or two days to read at your convenience. This brings another set of problems, such as needing information (maybe a credit card number, like video stores do) from customers, so they don't run off with your rental, and the danger of customer damaging the comics (which could later be sold at a discount price if needed). In both cases, a customer could decide to purchase the rental by just paying the difference between the cover price and what has already been paid, or just directly buy the item without renting it first (which is what most of us do anyway). At the prices I have mentioned, you could read 6 comics in-store for the same amount you pay for a regular-priced single issue ($2.99), or take three issues home to read at your own leisure.

I think it would be a good business model, and it could also possible be applied to collections ($5 for a week rental), but sadly I have no idea if there is any market for it. Comic book fans take pride in also being collectors of said items, so I do not know if they would even use this system. What do you guys think? Could it possibly work, or am I just delusional?

(P.S. I apologize for such a long entry with absolutely no images, it is probably an eyesore to read, but I do not think there are appropriate images to go along with this entry)


  1. Funny you should mention renting. The LCS I used to go did rent comics for a $1 a day. They stopped it after a while though. I don't think renting will work though because of libraries since they are, well, free. The only downside from libraries is that a)they are not always well stocked and b)they are not always up to date. I had to get my comic fix from libraries for a couple of months and I was lucky that my local libraries had a pretty good selection but I never found anything that wasn't at least a year old by that point, aside from a few WWH trades. So, its a nice way to catch up but kind of hard to stay current, if you care about such things.

  2. I wanted to mention (but forgot) that libraries usually take a while to stock their collection, so you would not be able to stay up with the most current stories.

    Libraries also have pretty big collections of movies, documentaries, and even TV series (I rented all of the seasons of Scrubs from mine), but people still go to video stores and use Netflix, etc.

    Interesting that your LCS used to rent, I had never heard about one doing that. I wonder if they stopped because people weren't using the service.

  3. Just wanted to clarify the extent at which Scans_Daily posted images. It was a heavily moderated community in which the maximum number of unique pages that could be posted for any comic was 11 and rarely did it ever go that high. You could consider it an extended edition of my Moments of the Week column. This was no where near being a torrent site or some other form of full issue downloads for people and violators of those rules had images removed by the very active mods.

    Also, from what's being said, PAD's complaints didn't actually cause it to be shut down. Supposedly, Livejournal took action before Marvel's lawyers could even complain.

    The whole thing is just really odd since I've seen several high profile creators posting and interacting with people on both Livejournal and the Scans_Daily community with no complaints, whatsoever, about their work being up there - Gail Simone, Warren Ellis and several others, for some examples.

  4. Kirk, I did not visit scans_daily, so I do not exactly to what extent images were posted. I have read some people saying that sometimes full comics were posted, in separate parts. I do not know if this is true or not, as mis-communications and lies are being spread quite liberally, but I am glad to hear it from someone whose word I trust.

    Even then, half of a (regular sized) comic book is quite high for a "sample". Can you imagine being offered the preview for anything else, like a book or a movie, be that long? Your moments of the weeks are usually at most like two or three pages long. Like I said, I do not think that sites like scans_daily are hurting sales, I can see how Peter David, Marvel, or Livejournal could consider this to be excessive.

  5. First, about libraries, the reason why people still use stuff like Netflix is for convenience. Most libraries don't have more than one copy of anything at any given location so you could end waiting a while to get something or going to a bunch of different branches to find something.

    Second, about S_D, they did push what constituted "fair use" a lot. It was only a matter of time before Livejournal got scared of a lawsuit and shut them down.

  6. @ Eric, I would usually end up having to request stuff from libraries, but it was pretty fast (most stuff that wasn't on high request would get there in a couple of days). I guess it depends on the size and efficiency of each library.