When I first started reading comics, I had little idea of what to pick up – weirdly, the first thing I read was the legendary issue 181 of Daredevil, iconic because it featured the death of Elektra at the hands of Bullseye, in the midst of Frank Miller’s legendary noir-esque run with the character. This was just a coincidence, however, a result of purchasing a random low-priced Panini reprint of classic Marvel storylines. Next, I went for Batman: Year One, because the name implied it was a good jumping-on point. It was, luckily. I went from there, studying high-profile characters on the web and easing my way into each major publisher’s vast mythologies.
Whether you’re a new reader or a wayward fan who lost interest in the past, jumping back into monthly comics must seem like a daunting prospect. It certainly does to me – I’ve read comics in trade form for a number of years, now, but with the ownership of an iPad and comics so well-realised on the Apple tablet, I’m ready to give monthly comics another go. I also think new readers would be drawn in by this novel format of engaging with comic books.
It’s daunting, though. Digital comics aren’t quite there yet. They’re too expensive for what you get (paper trades are often cheaper, which makes absolutely no sense), publishers still aren’t releasing comics day-and-date with stores and the catalogues lack most classic titles. This is absolutely the greatest opportunity comic book publishers have had to expand their businesses in years – but it feels like they’re holding back.
“They’re a little bit too worried, frankly, about the guaranteed buck,” writer Warren Ellis told me a few months ago. “The point of a direct sales system is there’s no returns – you solicit a book, the retailers pay for it, the retailers are stuck with it. Unlike the book industry, there are no returns. So it’s a guaranteed buck. It’s short term, focusing on the guaranteed buck – but you’re not doing anything about the fact that comic shops are going away every day. And you’re selling into a closed system that is now shrinking every week.”
That might explain why monthly comics are so impenetrable – preaching to the converted is easy, while preaching to anyone else is a risk. The problem is, just by lifestyle choices and convenience, monthly comic books aren’t something most people will get to grips with. I’m at least a train or bus journey away from my nearest comic book shop. If I want a magazine, I wander into Smiths, but if I want a comic, I need to seek out a specialty store.
So, to attract new readers, publishers will have to do everything they can to expand on digital platforms, and get their comics out there for a good price. DC offers a number of free comics on its app, some of which are of a very high quality, but it’s the unrelenting archives we need – if I want a 2002 issue of Nightwing, I’d ideally be 100% sure that I can download it right away. That sort of service will draw people in. The quality of the product should keep them there.
Batman: Year One is out now from Titan Books.