Comic books have come a long way since the days of sitting in metal racks located in grocery stores and newsstands. Today, you can read comics from any of the big publishers, such as Dark Horse, DC, Fantagraphics, Image, or Marvel, and you can also read comic books made by the creators themselves—and some publish independently. Not only are comics available in printed form, but they’re also available digitally. Printed, on the web, or on an app? Where do you start? If you have a hard time choosing what to read and where to read it, you’re not alone, because the choices are limitless. With print and web and digital options, we now have so many comic books. (Perhaps too many.) I asked some comic book fans how they feel about digital and/or web comics, and one big take away seems to be that it’s less a matter of Where to start? and more about Where does it end?
There’s a distinction between digital comics and web comics which I think of as two different things. Digital is defined by the platform that they’re delivered on (apps like comiXology or even digital reader formats like PDFs) and web is simply a comic that is read on a website. Digital comics often work as print comics as well. A lot of the comics you can buy on comiXology are comics that are also available in print but the experience of reading them digitally can be very different either through the Guided View technology that is offered or just the differences between reading the art on the screen vs. the printed page. Webcomics, a.k.a. web comics, are really a completely different form, usually not adhering as closely to a print-friendly page size of page count although many of them do eventually get collected that way if they’re popular. Both have been game-changing for independent cartoonists and self-publishers although digital comics have offered more monetary opportunities for the creators.
That said, I tend to prefer digital comics over webcomics because I find the format of reading discrete volumes or issues at once at my own leisure easier than trying to keep up with the shorter, sporadic updates that many webcomics are hindered by (and I say this as someone who used to publish a webcomic a page at a time on a completely erratic schedule). I buy comics from comiXology and also subscribe to their comiXology Unlimited service where I can check out their comiXology Originals series which are kind of hit and miss.
Image courtesy of DC Universe.
I also subscribe to Marvel Unlimited which I’m a big fan of and may sign up for DC Universe when that launches. I use Hoopla through my public library which lets me read 6 graphic novels a month for free and there are a TON of great choices to read there. I occasionally will buy an independent digital comic directly from a creator’s website or sometimes I support a Kickstarter and just get the digital PDF copy of their book.
I wish that I could keep up with more webcomics because that is usually where you can discover some unique voices and up and coming talent. The entire comics industry has been influenced tremendously by webcomics over the past decade or so and if you want to see some future trends in comic storytelling, you’ll probably find them now on the web. I’ve recently been trying to follow some cartoonists that are publishing comics via Instagram which is pretty interesting. There is a lot of unique experimentation with digital formats out there, but I admit I don’t have as much time as I once did to keep up with it all.
Rich Barrett is a writer and illustrator.
I can remember buying my earliest comics in 1981. I’d have been 10 then. Batman. She-Hulk. Spider-Woman. I still have those. I collected comics for most of the 1980s, drifting more towards Marvel and away from DC (although I remained a very loyal Batman reader). In terms of Marvel I read a little of everything but I definitely was attracted to the X-Men, the various spinoffs and the overarching Mutant Saga.
I then started reading Dark Horse Comics in the late 80s. Hard Boiled, Aliens vs Predator, Terminator. By the early 90s I was a college student and my comics consumption dried up. I didn’t come back until after the dawn of the MCU in 2008. I bought comics the old-fashioned way, going back to the comic book shop I went to in the old days. The faces behind the counter were new but I developed a rapport with them and my brief commune with them turned my second wave of comic book reading into a fairly regular thing.
Then the shop got sold and those guys disappeared. It was around this time that I decided to take the plunge and go digital since the social aspect of buying comics had been disrupted. I’d always been skeptical of reading on a tablet, and I love the feel of a book. But with comics, digital is the way to go. My middle-aged eyes truly appreciate the guided mode that zooms in on individual frames. Such a superior way to experience a story in this format. I downloaded four reader apps: Marvel, DC, Dark Horse, and Image. The majority of what I’ve purchased and downloaded is Marvel but I read Bitch Planet and Monstress for a time as well.
Digital also eliminates the need for storage which my wife is utterly delighted about.
The big change in how I read comics now is I follow writers more than characters. Mark Waid, Ta-Nahesi Coates, Gary Phillips, Kelly DeConnick are people I will read almost sight unseen. I’ve slowed down my purchasing now to one book a month. Comic books are very cyclical, you read with interest for a while and then the interest wanes. Eventually you come back and the characters are new and yet pleasantly familiar.
I find webcomics through the artists I follow on Twitter or Tumblr. A few of them host them on comic sites and some have their own domains. On Twitter, I follow @theyoungdoyler’s comic Knights-Errant. I read it on Sparkler Monthly. I enjoy the world building and societal constructs especially. It’s well researched and compelling!
Images courtesy of Jennifer Doyle.
On Tumblr, I follow this comic called Starward Lovers. I love the graphic style of this comic, it lends itself well to the action scenes. I think the thing that drew me in most was the pacing of the story telling. I’d always wanted to know what happened next.
I also read Black Sheep by @lirthel. The designs and world building are completely fantastical and unique. Additionally, the character acting/relationships are stellar! It’s a slice of life immersed in a fantasy world done exactly right.
One negative for me though about webcomics is that I personally find it hard to keep up with them consistently. This is mostly due to the way I keep up with them through Twitter/Tumblr update posts but also because they generally update one page at a time (at least the ones I read.) I’m someone that likes to binge whatever media I’m consuming and I end up having to reread a few pages, if not the entire chapter, before I’m able to remember all of the events.
Despite that, I try to return to them because I enjoy the storylines and character relationships because I think web comics tend to have more interesting characters/plots and take more risks. I also have a lot of respect for the artists, who write and draw and post them consistently (for free too!).
If available, I would definitely buy a physical copy of the comic as well. I try to support my favorite comics if Kickstarter campaigns are started, such as Knights-Errant. In the end I do enjoy reading comics in the physical form but I have nothing against reading them online.
Ling Chou is an illustrator who shares “sketches and stuff” on Instagram.
“90% of everything is crap” has become a lowball figure now that we have to factor in web comics.
There’s a reason that Charles Schulz never yielded control of his Peanuts: only he could position his kids’ eyes and render their mouth line just so for maximum emotional effect. No one else could come near the subtlety of his drawing skills. Like Fred Astaire, he worked hard his whole career to make the extremely difficult appear effortless. So from an art appreciation standpoint, I have no tolerance for copy-and-paste dinosaurs.
But there have been glorious exceptions, artists with the brilliance and skills to make the web aesthetic work. I’d credit David Rees, the first breakthrough talent. His classic, post-9/11 Get Your War On used generic clip art in the exact way it was designed for: endless online repetition. And it was perfectly suited to deliver his subversive political messages in a way that would make any hard-core Situationist proud.
And there have been other landmark web-toonists with enough creative flair to master and advance the medium in marvelously unique ways. I’d put two at the top of my personal pantheon. One, Kate Beaton. Her lusciously illustrated Hark, a Vagrant was always a delectably witty treat for the eye and the mind. And Emily Horne. Her poignant photo-comic A Softer World, written by Joey Comeau, provided hauntingly beautiful, thrice weekly, zen moments.
All three of the above web comics series are either archived online or preserved in book form, but they’re gone from the net. So here I sit in my rocker, laptop in my lap, yelling at all these tediously unimaginative, visually incompetent young whipperbloggers to keep off my monitor.
Okay, seriously: I never miss Tom Gauld, the meta-Kate Beaton, on Tumblr.
And when I interviewed Peter Kuper for Print online about the digital versions of his recent books, he had a two-part answer. He told me that he felt obligated to explore the medium, “since it’s clear that this is a direction books are headed.” But he also said, “It is really striking to see the pages illuminated this way, but not worth the loss of the tactile experience of a print book.” I agree with his first answer, and take strong issue with the second.
Images courtesy of Peter Kuper.
If you’re not a hard-core print person, you need only to look at his Diario de Oaxaca on an electronic device to be awestruck by how the vividness and luminosity enlivens and enhances the artwork and the colors. This is what I consider to be an excellent example of an illuminated manuscript for the 21st-century—as someone who considers stained glass windows depicting the Stations of the Cross in churches and cathedrals to be “visual narratives,” a.k.a., comics, with roots in medieval times. There’s also Digital Comic Museum and Comic Book Plus. These are online repositories of what seem to me like innumerable public domain comic strips and books. As an historian, they’re a treasured resource. And as a hard-core comics person with an insatiable appetite, and a limited budget, they’re, well… priceless.
Michael Dooley is creative director of Michael Dooley Design and teaches History of Design, Comics, and Animation at Art Center College of Design and Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. He is also a Print contributing editor and author.
Contributor testimonials were edited from a series of electronic interviews.