Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Cory Doctorow's iPad (and Comic Book) Thesis

BoingBoing creator, author and agent provocateur Cory Doctorow has posted a lengthy missive on Boing Boing pointing out all of the reasons he (and by extension, you) will not buy an iPad. Some of the reasons I agree with and some I don’t, but since this is a book blog I thought I would take Doctorow to task regarding his stance on the Marvel Comics iPad app from Comixology, an app that aims to finally bring digital comics and digital distribution to the masses.

One of Doctorow’s major points is that the Marvel app has locked down content so that a user cannot freely share comics with friends. This is of course true, but the problem is that I don’t see a sustainable model for digital comics that doesn’t impose SOME restrictions on user sharing – at least not until the notion of buying comics online has become as ubiquitous as, say, iTunes. Every digital distribution method I’ve seen for comics thus far (and this includes several iPhone apps such as Comixology’s, Longbox and others) involves some measure of DRM. I don’t like it, but I can see the necessity of it until digital comics become the mainstream. Yes, this does mean that kids won't (for the time being) be able to share comics like they used to in the old days, but I'm not so sure it's still kids buying comics anymore anyway.

Doctorow also waxes nostalgic about the mom and pop comic book stores that have been the mainstay of many comic book geeks (myself included) over the years. Yet there are many details left out of this fond remembrance. Ever seen how much a direct market comics store marks up books just a week or two after they have been released? Ever seen a speculator clear the shelves of books before anyone else can get their hands on a single copy? Ever walked into a comics store to buy an issue, only to find out that you have to have a subscription with the store to get a copy of what you want? At my local store, the shelves are clear of most new issues by the time they arrive. The stores can’t afford to hang onto back stock, so there’s no room for issues that might attract a casual or even a new comics fan. These so-called mom and pop shops have been mistreating and alienating customers for decades. Is it any wonder, then, that more and more fans are looking to purchase digital comics – where prices aren’t arbitrary (and generally are lower than the skyrocketing prices of print comics) and where issues are available when they want them? Isn't this just the sort of distribution channel that might encourage new readers to try out comics? Isn't it time for comics to exist outside of the "bag it, board it, box it" subculture that has kept its audience limited for years?

Like Cory Doctorow, I’ve been reading comics for a long, long time (going on close to 30 years now) and I’m more excited about the future of comics than the past. Maybe he likes musty, ramshackle stores with rude and often dismissive (if not strangely elitist) employees, but I don’t. I don’t have room for that kind of business in my life any more than I have room for dozens of comics-filled longboxes in my house.

Bring on the digital age!


Unknown said...

Doctorow's arguments seem to largely relate to his concern that distribution models like the one Marvel has adopted for it's ipad products offer content in absence of a comic culture he identifies with and enjoys, and prevent connection/exchange.
The argument advanced in this post is essentially that you'd prefer to buy content in absence of this same culture (its places/spaces/personalities). Great, but since lots of folks who read this blog are into books, libraries, sharing ideas and building communities, I'd be surprised if they we're willing to accept the same terms. The losses don't seem to be offset by the gains.
How do others feel about this?

(*I think an agent provocateur is generally understood to be a person who infiltrates a group with the goal of creating discord from within or entrapping its membership. Does Doctorow do that?)

SkinnerBox said...

I think there's room here for both points of view, as I realize I don't represent everyone. Then again, neither do you. To presume that "lots of folks who read this blog" would not accept the terms provided by digital comics distributors is short-sighted. Such similar terms have certainly not harmed the success of iTunes.

As this blog deals with reading(not just books, libraries, etc) in many forms, and as it has not in recent memory dealt much with the notion of e-texts, I thought it might be interesting to stir up some debate regarding the notion of reading "cultures".

Finally, my choice of "agent provocateur" as a description for Doctorow (who I admire in many ways) was stylistic and relied on a more colloquial definition of the term. A properly contextualized reading of my post should make that clear.

Glad I was able to stir up some passions! I was beginning to fear no one would respond.