Comic Books and the Digital Realm

October 9, 2010

By Christian Wright

RICHMOND, Va.– At the VA Comic-Con, people mill through stacks of comic books, their fingers running over plastic covers protecting classic comics.

Among first issues of Mad Magazine and Iron Man, artists draw sketches and caricatures for a fee, while in a group promoting a documentary blast their trailer on a loop.

Scenes like these are a continuing part of the comic culture, and along with comic book shops, are the indelible images of comic book culture.

However, with the introduction of tablet computers such as the Apple iPad, the comic book store and comic book convention could go the way of the record store.

“I don’t think there is worry in the next five, or ten years,” said Patrick Godfrey, owner of Velocity Comics near the Virginia Commonwealth University campus.

“But, once iPads and other computers get more cost effective and less glitchy, then it could be a concern,” said Godfrey.

Comics got their start in America at the end of the 19th century, with the printing of the comic strip “The Yellow Kid”.

Comic books exploded in popularity, and as early as 1908 comics were being collected in books to be published, according to Cindy Jackson, archival assistant for Comic Arts and Digital Collections at VCU.

“Comics were incredibly popular and mainstream, until the 1950’s and the Comic Code was implemented,” said Jackson.

The Comic Code, which set restrictions on what content can be printed in comic books, effectively neutered a lot of adult material that had been published at the time.

“Everything good about comics become taboo,” said Jackson.

“It almost killed comics in the 1950’s.”

Comics still thrived, however, with underground comics that ignored the Comic Code being sold in head shops or through mail order. As well, superhero comics returned with Stan Lee, according to Jackson.

“The 1960’s and 70’s were when comics started to not be taken seriously,” said Jackson.

However, comics are now incredibly popular, with comic book movies being major blockbuster movies and non-American comic books, such as the Japanese comic books, being major bestsellers.

The two hallmarks of comic book culture, the comic book shop and the comic book convention, still exist and thrive today. Some of the bigger comic book conventions, such as San Diego Comic-Con and Dragon*Con in Atlanta, receive media coverage as well as attendance in the tens of thousands.

Local comic book conventions, such as the VA Comic-Con hosted in Richmond, cater to local comic book fans.

“What’s helped comic book culture and raising awareness for our event are the big pop-culture moments, such as the comic book movies,” said Brett Carreras, the organizer for the VA Comic-Con and owner of Brett’s Comic Pile, an online comic book-selling website.

“However, this hobby is in a downward trend,” said Carreras.

According to Carreras, due to the nature of comic book publishing, comic books are starting to become too expensive for the average reader.

“You spend $12 on three comics books, and you read them in 45 minutes,” said Carreras.

“This is a problem for the comic book industry.”

Despite the issue of economics, some comic book stores, such as Velocity Comics near the VCU campus, are doing well enough despite the challenges.

“Last year we hit our high mark, despite having a customer base not here for certain breaks,” said Godfrey.

Even the introduction of the Apple iPad has lead to an initial burst of business for Godfrey, with customers who have comic reading apps on the machine coming in to buy a comic book.

“I’ve had customers who came in buying a comic book after getting a free preview from their iPad,” said Godfrey.

“The iPad hasn’t hurt my sales, yet,” said Godfrey.

Currently, the two classic comic book publishers, DC Comics and Marvel Comics, offer applications on the iPad for customers to read comics and purchase them. A comic book through the Marvel Comics application is also cheaper than a printed comic book, going for $1.99 compared to $3.99 for a printed comic book.

Jackson thinks that age will be a factor in whether comic book stores and conventions will still thrive in a world of tablet computers.

“The older generation likes to read the book, while the younger generation likes to read them on their iPad or their iPhone,” said Jackson.

“Because comics are such an art form, I don’t know how well they will translate to being looked at on a phone or an iPad,” Jackson said.

However, one person is hopeful about the power of iPads for comic books.

“If iPad comics increase in popularity, then comic book stores could possibly see people who normally wouldn’t buy comics become readers,” said Jamil Muasher, a comic book fan.

“It’s like when the VHS was released,” said Muasher. “People didn’t stop going to the movies just because they could watch them at home.”

For an example of the digital collections of comics at VCU, check out the following: