I originally wrote this in summer ‘07, so now it’s me in the past, writing about a future, and in it I mention what is now the present and found a funny coincidence, but anyway, here it is:
So here we are, in the future. Or at least, this was the future yesterday. I’ve spent a good portion of time in the history of comics in my life and some in the present, so now I believe I will careen into the future, and damn the torpedoes. And before anyone says “not fair” or the equivalent, I will remind them that this is Comichouse Five and I can carom around the centuries any which way I please, not unlike the Silver Age Flash or Superman, for whom a trip to the future was about as complicated as going to get a carton of milk.
However (and there always is a however in these things, isn’t there?), the future, as I stand in it, isn’t all that well defined. Plus, we are discussing comic books (or we were until these opening paragraphs this week) so there are of course a few possible futures which I can examine. And today, dear hearts and drunken people (it’s a riff on an old song guys) we will walk and talk our way through the future of comics.
Let’s begin with Al Gore’s favorite self-invention, the internet. Many people, most of whom work for a computer company, have espoused the idea that comics, as well as other forms of literature, will one day be online, and online ONLY. Even the comic companies have bowed to this idea in the 90s, giving us comics on CD-ROM. I once got a DVD from the library of the Twilight Zone mostly because it featured a Zone comic in PDF format. And I can remember that at one time Marvel offered 1940s Captain America comics on microfilm. So now, let’s begin by examining these “new Coke” ideas one by one.
Comics on microfilm. … Really. I believe a stressed out Ned Flanders said it best in an episode of the Simpsons: “Springfield’s answer to a question nobody asked”. I don’t know about you, but how many times I can never recall how I get home from work, change, make a warm soup for dinner and then snuggle up to my living room microfilm machine for a satisfying evening’s worth of comic eye-strain. Okay, all kidding aside, I can see their point. Marvel wanted to preserve books that were (or they felt were) fast becoming too scarce to extinct, and maybe they thought that after 50 years the Cap comics had enough historic relevance to interest college librarians. It was a sound idea, but the execution was problematic: they advertised this in comics. I don’t know the actual figures but I would think the overlap between Marvel readers and college/public librarians (the youngest of whom are around 40 from my experience) was and is entirely too small for this to have been an economically feasible idea. But then again, this came out during the 90s comic boom, so I can see why they thought this was workable. In fact, looking at it objectively, it would be very nice to read these old comics for free at the library in a format that can be enlarged on the screen and would be durable in film form. My grad school had microfilm copies of popular magazines of the 1880s to the 1920s so this would be a natural extension of that. But I think that not enough time has passed yet and comics haven’t quite yet made it into respectability (psst, that means the majority of students still think of them as fun and not as boring or just “eh” to read) to open the library/archive market. But this vision of the future has already passed, since here in the future, microfilm is not even yesterday’s news anymore. Everything is digital, baby.
Comics in PDF format. Now, at first, this seems like a good idea. As durable as microfilm, if not more, it can be sent anywhere and shared for free. It won’t burn, rust, or corrode. It can be wiped out in a drive crash, but that’s what back ups are for. Yes, here in the future, PDFs are just dandy. Wait….oh shit….well, that’s just, that’s just–damn. My friends, beware! Here in the future, we face a terrible monster in comic reading, and that monster’s name is: scrolling!
Comics in PDFs aren’t bad, but they are hard to read. To begin with, if the comic isn’t scanned right, or is enlarged too much on screen, it gets blocky, as if little Legos have begun to invade the art and worse, lettering. The art is passable, but the effect on lettering makes it hard to read. Strike one. Secondly, and most importantly, you have to scroll to see the page. Yes, you might see the whole page if you reduced the image enough, but if you do, then you can’t read the text anymore. So to read the text, you must enlarge the page. But if you do that then the whole page won’t fit on the screen. The screen just isn’t big enough. I know, I know, you’d think that in the future we’d have 200 inch computer screens, but we don’t. It isn’t economical, and what with the recession of ’09 and the depression of ’12, we can’t afford it after shelling out $35 a gallon. Not even after we made Iraq the 53rd state. This is because the 52nd state, Mexico, still drains too many funds, now that everyone’s on Medicare. But back to comics in PDF, the screens aren’t big enough. Sometimes you can’t even see a whole single panel at once if it stretches too far down, so you have to wait to read the next character’s response, or you skip over it, not seeing it before you go to the next panel to the right and thereby getting way too confused. If you’re lucky enough to scroll down that panel to get the next bubble, you may overdo it and ruin the surprise in the panel at the bottom, or just get too annoyed that you keep overshooting your scroll downs. Strike two. And, after all this scrolling, your eyes can feel the effects and feel “wobbly” after all this up and down. Strike three. Finally, scrolling along a comics page might be good for a preview on DC’s website, but a whole book of it tests your patience and makes you read slower, because plain and simple, scrolling is slower than natural reading. Strike four. So, this vision of the future also fades before us. Let’s move on.
Comics on CD-ROM. Okay, let’s see. Durable? Check (provided you aren’t an idiot with them and treat them poorly and scratch them up). Long lasting? Check. Relatively inexpensive? Check (in the future anyway). Easy on the eyes? Fairly. Have the equipment to read it? Check. Any scrolling? No, not if presented one panel at a time on screen, as the better ones have been. Okay. Okay, not bad, I’m good with this vision of the future. Oh wait. Comics presented one panel at a time, while readable, and eminently “clickable”, ruins the timing of a book. Yes, for comics with more evenly or slowly paced books this effect is minimal, but when I’m reading about a battle between killer ninja robot zombies and gun-wielding flying judo pirate schoolgirls, I want to read fast, almost read everything at once and be wrapped up in the story. A reader can be annoyed or even angered with the CD’s inability to click instantaneously over, like their eyes could do with a paper book, which breaks the tension of the story, and ultimately makes the reader more disinterested. Unlike the PDF future, readers can still be surprised by big or revealing panels later on, but if reading in a dark room you could get eye pain if the last panel was small surrounded by black and the next panel is a screen-wide white flash. Even if you don’t, you might click twice and miss a panel. The best way to read a comic on CD-ROM is to click all the way through once so that all the panels can load up and the clicking can then be instantaneous and fast on the second go-round. Because of course you just clicked through the whole comic looking away without spoiling it for yourself. Yeah, sure you did.
But also, with CD-ROM comics, here in the future, you have to bring your semi-expensive laptop everywhere, which if you’re a child I’m sure your parents won’t let you do (unless they’re idiots or filthy rich or both). The alternative is to get used to reading comics in the same place on your home computer, which could be in the noisy living room, and of course, only when your father isn’t using it for work and it isn’t your brother’s turn to use it. And with CD-ROM comics, you can only read when you aren’t experiencing a black out or one of the weekly hurricanes we now have in the future, across half of our nation. And let’s not forget that, even if all this goes off swimmingly, comics on a screen are just a bit…cold. Surely, the future is now, and it sucks. Thus fades another comic vision of the future.
But wait…could it be? Yes, yes, I think it is. It’s another, final future time. A time in which a comic can be read any time, any place. A future where there are no screen, eye, scrolling, or power problems. A future where a comic (or its accouterment machines) doesn’t cost an arm and a leg, where you don’t have to go to the same place or share your access with your siblings. It’s a future where you don’t have to have library-quality machines or any machines at all, yet they are fairly durable. It’s a future where gas still is $35 a gallon, but comics top out at $4 maximum. The future of the comic is simply print. Comic printing has come a long way in the first 60 years or so, especially when the collector’s market exploded and people became seriously interested in keeping comics for years. Gone are the days of rag pulp and low quality. They are more long lasting than their predecessors. Not indefinitely, but no physical object outside of Pompeii is. Comics of the future are much like the comics of today. Comics will be on paper, well produced, and easy to read. Because as much as Bill Gates and the NY/CA ad agencies want you to think it, not everything is going to be online (or some other way to be all re-bought like video going from VHS to DVD), and not everything should be online. Comics are one of those things. Comic books will never, ever, ever go fully digital. They can’t. It’s something inherent in the form of them, in their very nature. A book is a book and a screen is a screen. They can overlap somewhat, like DC’s previews or book chapter excerpts, but they will never merge to create a bastard child of literary technology. Liternology…? Anyway. If the debacle of marketing that was e-books has proven anything, it is that books will always be sold in stores, comics will always be sold on racks, and nothing Gene Roddenberry or Isaac Asimov say will make that different. So rest easy, dear ones. The future of comics is squarely in print. And no, I have no doubt I’m right. That’s all from the future on comics. But boy, will you people ever be surprised when the human mask of the one known as Hillary Clinton falls off on public television in late ’07. Some still wake up screaming to this day. See you next week.