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The digital age: Why collectability survives

Monday, February 9, 2009

Kiel Phegley's account of the ICV2 forum at New York Comicon included an interesting comment by Dave Roman, cartoonist and associate editor at Nickelodeon magazine:

  • "Most people I know and that I’ve talked to don’t read books more than once. There is that collector mentality, but that’s a very niche comic book mentality that has to do with rarity and collectibility that will not exist digitally. The idea of a rare digital file may never really happen. So the idea of convincing somebody to pay for a book when so much reading online is free…that’s the reason newspapers are dying, because a newspaper would want to charge for their content — for like an editorial or something — but some blogger can do it for free, and for the most part people don’t care."
Roman's larger point was that he saw a multi-platform future for comics, including the web and print versions for fans of varying formats — and that does seem to be the way it's going. The interesting question, however, is whether a future in which new readers are increasingly accustomed to reading online erodes the market for physical books — and, since he mentioned it, the collectible market for such physical versions that exist. What we know of comics history suggests a few answers.

Taking the second question first: Would the availability of free-or-low-cost versions erode the collectible market? I think the record shows the answer is no — although the degree depends on what end of the market you're talking about.

Let's take the important Silver Age comics, many of which have been heavily reprinted over the years. The early issues of Amazing Spider-Man are among the most heavily reprinted comics in history — both in print and, now, digitally, both official and bootleg. And the value of the extant issues hasn't just held during the proliferation of reprints, it's increased. Prices spiked considerably after the 2002 Spider-Man movie was released — not from existing-collector-to-existing-collector transactions, but because of new money coming in. There were certainly new readers attracted to the Spidey stories who found and were perfectly satisfied by digital or print replicas; but there were also new buyers attracted to the original editions, growing the pool of dollars and, thus, boosting prices on the existing comics. (CGC and the advent of "slabbing" made it possible, as well, to lower the barriers to entry for new buyers looking for high-dollar items.) For these buyers, the replica will never be as good as the original, on paper or a screen — for the same reason as in all the other high-end collectible markets. It's a repro.

What about newer material? We certainly haven't seen aftermarket prices on recent material climb with the velocity they did in the early 1990s — when there were many more participants in the market — but it's hard to see the digital factor. Partially, we've had publishing strategies out there for a while where snap-reprints of things like the Obama Spider-Man issue become available quickly — so we're peeling off the people who are less "repro-resistant" ourselves. But on the other hand, for the entire direct market age publishers have had the ability (whether they did it or not) to keep initial supply relatively close to initial demand — and that's translated to tens of thousands of issues which, while they'll never be hot fodder for speculators, do exist in numbers fewer than those who want them today and thus have been retaining value.

Which brings us to the first question. Presumably, yes, any new reader who is unaware of — or otherwise willing to overlook — the ways in which an electronic version of a comic book is not identical to its physical version would then not be in the market for that version. However, the growth of comics industry sales in the digital age suggests that the physical version does have virtues that endure, parallel to whatever's happening online. The qualitative differences between reading the two are enough to allow markets for each. Compare that with the recording industry, where music is far less "digitally deficient": there, sales of the CD format were affected, because the product was seen to be identical.

This is not to downgrade online comics at all — far from it, in fact. Both comics crafted specifically for the online delivery system and online versions of print comics have dramatically increased the size of the audience for graphic storytelling. But while people have spent the last decade trying to make the print and the online experiences identical, recognizing the enduring value of both platforms (which is what I think Roman was saying in his introduction) could put comics well ahead of some other entertainment forms. Comic books aren't a niche — vinyl's a niche, because very few people have turntables. Meanwhile, you can still read a comic book in 2009 using the same equipment you used in 1939 — your baby blues. What that means is that while you may well have new readers who never take an interest in owning a physical copy — we're a lot more likely to see print converts than recording will see vinyl converts. Will that happen at the replacement level for every comic book in the secondary market? Probably not — but then, that's always been the case for something. The question is, does the number of dollars in aggregate increase? So far, it seems to have.

As the focus of this site is more on the past than the future, I don't often address issues of viability. But there are a few things to remember, when hearing horror stories about newspaper and magazine publishing:

Comics are not magazines, because, thanks to the direct market, most of the copies printed are pre-sold at full-retail prices, as opposed to magazines, reliant on cut-rate subscriptions;

Comics are not magazines
, because, thanks to the trade paperback, there is a proven sales channel for reprints; and...

Comics are not magazines, because the vast majority of people don't throw them away, but perceive them as items with intrinsic lasting value that someone will want to own, if not read.

That last speaks to the collectability aspect, and it is something we should not be quick to throw away ourselves. Past excesses have been destructive, and the primary reason to buy a comic book is to read. But fate's dealt the medium one more card to play that few others have. Unless the Earth is struck by a paper-eating spore from the Andromeda galaxy, physical comics will always be with us — no matter what future publishers do. My rough guess back in my "Things Nobody Knows" column in Comics Buyer's Guide #1598 a few years back was that somewhere around 30 to 35 billion comic books had been sold — that is, printed and not returned — since the 1930s, and that some goodly portion of that, including almost everything from recent decades, still existed. We may not have movies or music or news when the power goes out once and for all, but relax — we'll always have comics!


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