Comic Culture: Analyzing Print vs. Digital Reading Experiences
There are a lot of different ways to read comics these days. We can read paper single issues. We can read paper trade paperbacks. Or, we can read digitally through services like ComiXology, which sell both singles and trades. There is virtually no excuse to not be able to get your hands on comic’s right here and now, and that is all around a great thing. Paper and digital are obviously two different mediums, and what are also different about them are their specific and unique reading experiences. This idea will feed directly into this week’s discussion on the Comic Culture.
This week I want to talk about the experience of reading comics in paper format versus digital format. Is the outcome different? Is it the same? Is the experience person specific? Is one avenue better suited for sequential storytelling? Is one ultimately better than the other? These are some of the things I’d like to explore for a bit this week, so please indulge me if you so wish. We may not come up with a definitive answer, but maybe we can learn a few things along the way. Or maybe not, but either way, we’ll have a little fun doing it (I hope).
First, let’s address the obvious. Yes, I am a digital advocate. I have made it clear in numerous posts. And, yes, I am also a strong ComiXology supporter (even taking into account the recent changes they made to their app at the hands of Amazon). Those things aside, I do still read a lot of books in print and with this post it is my intention to be as rational as I possibly can. This examination is not meant to tally the pros and cons of reading in one format over the other. That has already been done before. No, this is an examination of the actual reading experience in one form over the other. And in doing so, I hope to dig a little deeper into both of these avenues. Now that that’s out of the way, let’s carry on shall we.
- Nostalgia – This is something that is very intangible, yet very important to a lot of people. When comics were invented there was no talk of digital, or probably even any projection of such a thing. All there was was paper. Comics were printed on paper, and were only printed on paper. Because of this some people have a hard time letting go of their grip on paper. This is what they’re used to, and even the idea of digital makes their skin crawl a bit. If a comic is not printed on paper, in their eyes, it isn’t truly a comic. Since I am younger (relatively speaking) I do not share this mindset. I simply see it as the medium growing and adapting. The new digital movement has opened up avenues for both readers and creators to take the comic medium further. Both options are viable and should be treated as equals and because of this, I consider this category a draw.
- Image/color quality – There is a HUGE difference here between print and digital. In general, I have found that images and colors (for the most part) really pop on digital when compared to print. That’s not to say that the quality is worse in print, but there seems to be more variables and inconsistency in printing versus an e-reader screen. The type of ink used the type of printing machine, the binding procedure and the type of paper can all make or break the quality of a book. The resolution of e-readers does differ from device to device (compare an iPad to a Kindle for example), but that withstanding, I still feel like the quality is more consistent on a regular basis. Comparing pixels to ink is a hard sell, and it may come down to perception, but digital seems to get the edge here for me.
- Degradation – Physical items deteriorate over time. It’s a fact of life. Depending on the materials used in production, the length of time for true deterioration to set in will differ. Case in point, paper comics will deteriorate and devalue over time (unless stored and secured properly but even then there will be minor deterioration). Some people don’t see this as a negative, but in my eyes, it’s kind of hard not to. If you own one copy of a physical comic and something happens to it, you either need to get another one to replace it or be smart (in the beginning) and have multiple copies up front. In the case of rare comics, it might be too hard to find or simply too expensive to replace once you’re copy goes bad. Then what? On the flip side, electronics can go bad, but with digital comics (ComiXology’s platform specifically) being stored in the cloud, readers will always have access to them across any and all devices. So, if one of their devices goes bad, they can get a new one or simply use a different one they might already have. With ComiXology you don’t essentially own your comics; it’s more like you’re renting them. So, as long as their servers don’t go belly-up they will always be there for you when you need them. And I trust that ComiXology has a backup system of some sorts, especially now that they are owned by Amazon. On the other hand, with the new digital rights management free (DRM-free) comics where you can get PDFs of books for your own personal use, readers should be cautious and make sure they don’t store those in one place because if something were to happen to where they are stored, they are not going to get the books back. It is always wise when dealing with computer files to have multiple backups! Be smart about it since it’s your own money we’re talking about here! In the end this might be one of the more complicated things to dissect between digital and print. I am going to consider this one a draw as well.
- Guided View – This feature is great. For the novice, it gives digital readers assistance in moving their eyes along from panel to panel, and dialogue box to dialogue box. With print comics, not that there’s anything wrong with it, you need to teach yourself the correct way to read them. Or, possibly, have someone teach you. Granted, when you’re in Guided View you may miss a few minor things, but I still feel it is an invaluable resource and once you get the hang of how to read comics (in general) you can leave Guided View and read normally. It’s basically the equivalent of comic book training wheels. Because of this digital wins this category in my book.
- Letters column/end matter – These items are STAPLES in print comics. However, in many digital equivalents these items are cut out. Now I am not sure why, because with digital there are no page restrictions, as with print. So it must be left up to the discretion of the publisher (in the case of the Big Two), or up to the creators (in the case of Indie books). I don’t always take the time personally to read these, but I know a lot of people eat them up like crazy. They can add insight into the creator’s mindset, or help fill in and flesh out things about the book you’re reading. Because of the inconsistency of them in digital books print books emerge victorious here. If you’re looking for a great use of the Letters column and End matter in general, it can be seen in Greg Rucka and Michael Lark’s Image book Lazarus. Both of those items really help flesh out the world the two creators have taken the time to create.
- Variants – These are more impactful in print, for sure. You can’t go to ComiXology and seek out a single issue with a specific variant cover like you could in a paper single issue; you are merely left with the standard cover. However, some digital books will throw the variants in the back end matter as a treat to fans, but this practice is not consistent across the board. And once again the fact that they are not always included in the digital version baffles me because of the lack of page restrictions. Perhaps it comes down to, once again, giving an edge to the brick and mortar comic shops. Either way, paper books win this round hands down.
So there you have it. Six different items that showcase the difference between reading in the paper format versus the digital format. And, while I am sure there are things I am neglecting that can be discussed even more ad nauseam, but I would rather not bore you all completely to death, so we’ll put a pin in this one for now and move on with a final few questions. So, who’s the winner, in your opinion? Digital, or print? In this case I don’t think there’s really a clear black and white winner. It may seem like digital squeaks out the win, but both platforms offer high-quality reading experiences. It’s really just a matter of preference. So, that leaves me with one question. Which do you prefer, and why? Feel free to let me know in the comments below or on Twitter.
Until next time.