This Ain’t No Digital Library, Bub

It’s hard to believe that there was a time when once a comic saw print, it was, well, out-of-print. Miss that one issue, and you were screwed, especially in the distant days before the widespread existence of comic book shops. Maybe you’d luck out and find a tattered copy at the barbershop, or have a pal who managed to snag it and maybe trade it for a candy bar or at least let you borrow it. But otherwise, that was it; chances are you were going to live the rest of your life without ever seeing that missing comic.

And even with a comic store in the area, there was no guarantee they’d have that elusive issue. But the advent of the trade paperback changed all of that; comics no longer had a shelf-life of one week; these stories could now live on indefinitely, or at least as long as the publisher kept them in print. Either way, these creative efforts now had lifespans that could be measured in decades, instead of days. And the arrival of various formats, from attractive hardcover collections to inexpensive black and white phone books size reprints, gave readers a variety of ways to amass a collection that was cheaper and easier than trying to track down individual back issues.

But in lieu of back issues, collected editions had issues of their own. Like what, you ask? Why, I will . . . um, I mean, well, it’s cool stuff. But more cool stuff is often something we don’t really need. After all, if just one issue of an arc is needed, a collected volume of the entire storyline isn’t really the answer. Hardcover compilations might be too expensive, but cheaper black-and-white editions aren’t always desirable. And, volumes like these are widely available at conventions, comic shops, and online retailers at substantial markdowns, making it very easy to build up quite the pile, and then longbox, and then closetful, and then roomful of trades. And next thing you know, there just isn’t room for any more cool stuff.

And oftentimes, if the room is there, then it can be an undertaking simply to find a particular volume, unless you live in a mansion or a museum and have such a collection organized like the Smithsonian Library. This is perhaps one of the many reasons why Marvel’s launch of their Marvel Digital Comics Unlimited library a few years ago ( ) was met with some pretty positive buzz, with about 2500 comics, both classic and recent, made available on their website at that time. The collection has since grown to about 6000, and in that time has seen the addition of a specialized reader interface allows readers to navigate through the pages of each comic in a natural and intuitive way, negating the cumbersome back-and-forth panning and zooming that was always necessary to read a digitized comic in days past.

For either a monthly fee of $10, or a yearly $60, subscribers are given full access to the array of comics available on Marvel’s site, and the quality of the digitized images, especially of the classics of the pre-digital era, are far superior to many scanned pages offered by third-party companies such as GT Labs in years past. Searching the library is remarkably simple, and it’s easy to locate other comics that might relate to the one selected for perusal. Once again, an extensive comic publisher’s library is (legally) available at one’s fingertips. Fans might recall the late CrossGen’s own similar digital library from several years ago.

Very, very cool, especially to those that don’t have the room to store massive numbers of collections, or those who might but simply don’t care to wade through them to find a particular story in a particular volume. Also very cool to those who are cash-strapped; the cost of several trade paperbacks will pay for a full year’s subscription.

The downside? None, really, if one keeps in mind that this library does what any library is supposed to do: service readers. Old-school collectors, and old-school readers who need to have that actual, physical comic in their hand, won’t have much use for this. “New school” collectors, who might be seeking files to download, won’t find them here; there is no downloading capability, but then, this is a library, Bub, not a store. So the availability is only there as long as there is a valid subscription to go with it.

DC Comics has their own presence in the digital comics world; however, theirs is not a library. Bub. For those not aware, DC announced a digital store powered by Comixology back in November ( ). For a cost typically ranging from 99 cents to $2.99 per comic, readers can actually download digital copies of these comics that can be read on both computers and mobile devices, and thereby amass a digital collection if they so choose. However, short of a Previews-type description for each comic, DC offers no sample pages to check out before downloading. No idea how extensive their catalog is, but as of now their selection seems to be confined to relatively recent issues. Their entry into the digital comics market seems to come pretty late compared to Marvel’s, and appears to usher in a VHS vs Betamax-type battle as the market determines whether consumers favor DC’s traditional iTunes-like approach,  or Marvel’s looser subscription idea.

That is, presuming that consumers warm up to either idea, as comics are a hobby that is rooted in nostalgia and one whose fans are often resistant to change. But there’s also a potential market for both ideas, just as Netflix seems to happily coexist with, supporting both those who elect to rent DVDs, and those who choose to buy. That is, presuming publishers can belly up to the relatively untapped market of younger readers, who readily embrace this kind of modern tech, and get them interested in the product in the first place. Diamond Distribution has announced its plan to distribute digital comics from smaller publishers through comic shops, but this puzzling amalgamation of print and online business models seems little more than a misguided attempt to pacify fearful retailers. Time will tell if anyone, young or old, will embrace this at all.

Maybe there needs to be an app to replicate the smell of old comics . . .

About Jim Johnson

Jim Johnson (@quigonjimm) will tell you! He got a chance to write for the big boys at CBR, so we don’t see him around the site as much as we used to. Check out his stuff anyway!


  1. Poor CrossGen. If they just could have held on longer.

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