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Escapist Friction: Apple Tablets – The Answer? Or Just Another Question?

As much as I love the idea of buying and reading comics on the (rumored) upcoming Apple Tablet, Gizmodo gets it a bit wrong with the headline “Apple Tablet Will Restore Comic Books To Former Glory.”

Yeah, the Longbox digital distribution platform looks pretty rad and I’m looking forward to its release. Yeah, it’ll be great for comics to have a stable, secure and quality-controlled outlet for digital reading, if things pan out. I like digital comics so much that I’d make the shift to buying single issues pretty much exclusively online if I could, with my bookshelf space reserved for trade paperbacks and hardcovers.

Here’s the problem with oversimplifying the dream, though: Industry-wide digitization alone can’t hope to solve comics’ problems or restore any perceived past glory – The only way to get more people to read comics is to make more comics people want to read.

So this “former glory,” which I take to mean greater overall circulation AND overall profits of mainstream comics can’t really be achieved with a new platform alone. I don’t want to nit-pick Giz to death, it just has to be said.

Comics are currently a boutique industry with a core group of regular consumers and readers and the majority of sales are made to genre fiction fans. That’s cool – I’m one of them. I rock the Spider-Man books every week along with my indie hardbacks. It’s all gravy to me. The problem is, tablets can only work if they bring in new readers with new content. Making comics easier to find and possibly reducing their price (to reflect diminished overhead of production and distribution) might make existing fans pay for more total tiles overall, but a reader’s existing weekly comics budget wouldn’t necessarily expand. So unless publishers (and the greater comics community) can find a way to expand comics’ core consumer base, the money will just get smeared around in a broader configuration. Spreading the love is great for creators seeking an audience, but money is ultimately what keeps quality creators’ schnozes to the grindstone.

That’s not to say the opportunity to bring in all-new or previously-incapacitated eyes isn’t there. Mobile comics have done very well on the iPhone, demonstrating that outside readers are willing to take a chance on a free or $1 read of fare familiar to the comic shop crowd. I’m just not convinced these outside audiences are sticking around for the long-haul, especially when a lot of the hottest content takes awhile to go digital.

That said, the only way for comics to move ahead is by changing the way potential audiences think about comics. Gizmodo may have missed the mark equating the past with a model comics should aspire to return to, but the site’s enthusiasm for a brighter future is something every fan should embrace. It won’t be easy, especially with superhero films and mainstream media coverage reinforcing longstanding cultural stigmas equating sequential art with capes and tights, but if tablets and other technologies are used wisely, a coordinated comics outreach could hopefully capture the hearts and minds of those on the fence about turning their attention to panels on pages.

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