On Saturday afternoon at Comic-Con International: San Diego, a panel was held to discuss the rise of digital technology in the comic book medium. Discussing the issue were writer Mark Waid (Kingdom Come, Irredeemable) and writer/artist Scott Kurtz (PvP). Scott Kurtz and Mark Waid opened up the discussion by expressing their belief that the comic book industry, particularly the larger companies, need to start accepting digital media and alter their business model.
Early during the panel, Waid remarked, "Like I said at the Harveys, one of the few things I said that didn't get tomatoes thrown at my head, we don't have the luxury of anger at this point. Piracy exists... and trying to get rid of it is like playing wack-a-mole with the world. Take the morality question aside and ask how do you use it to your advantage?"
Waid later added, "Sales have fallen not only in comics but everywhere. We saw what happened with Tower Records and then we saw what happened with Blockbuster and then we saw what happened with Border's Books. Young people need to take this medium of comics and redefine what it's going to be in the future rather than having corporate men in ivory towers tell us how it's going to be."
Kurtz remarked that part of the problem is based on the comic book industry basing its business model on scarcity. "The product itself is scarcity. We have a certain number of books, they're available this month, if you don't get them soon then they may go up in value... And when digital comes in and says hey, I've scanned this and it's available infinitely, that takes the bottom out from that model.
Waid responded, "And there's nothing scarce about comics now when they wind up scanned by Thursday."
Kurtz added, "My strip has always been given away freely online specifically so it will be shared. But Marvel and DC seem to view digital media as a secondary thing. There's all this [new technology] coming out and the companies should be saying, 'ooh! Exciting times!' But because of a group of retailers who have a store that you may or may not want to go into... they say, maybe we shouldn't get excited about this. They say oh, well, we have this multi-million dollar business, but what about they're business? I've never seen that in any other industry."
Waid agreed, "There was not a single Sony executive worried about the record store in my neighborhood."
Waid then brought up his belief that the digital media could increase the fanbase by making comics more readily available for people who do not live in cities where major comic book stores exist. He asked the audience how many of them had to drive ten miles or more to reach the nearest comic book store. When a dozen people raised their hands, Waid nodded and continued, "That is not a matter of convenience. California, New York, Texas and the Chicago area have 50% of the major comic book stores in the U.S. But if you live in Montana? Digital comics are a great way to finally get more fans who don't have a store nearby. But it has to be a good deal too. How many people think it's stupid to pay $3.99 for a comic is stupid? But there are people perfectly willing to browse through iTunes and put a buck in a jar on impulse."
"Especially when you don't even own it then, you're renting it," Kurtz said.
Waid and Kurtz went on to say that as digital comics become bigger, the design of the comic book layout should change its ratio to better serve the shape of a computer monitor since "not everyone has an iPad you can just turn sideways. But many comic book store owners hate the idea of changing the shape of a comic book."
Kurtz laughed and agreed. "For about seven years, comic book stores asked me to change the shape of my printed books to fit their shelves. And now they want me to change my whole business model. And no offense, but if digital didn't exist, I don't know that the comic book industry would be doing better now. Call the major companies. These stories suck. When I pick up All-Star Superman and my reaction is, 'That's amazing. I've waited so long for a good Superman story and there are a hundred of them in the shelves,' that's a problem."
"If you're only idea of a comic is having it in a back and board, I feel bad for you. But it makes sense because there's a big desire to keep things the way they are now. The nostalgia is very much [part of the industry]. And an idea of entitlement. When I go to conventions that are not based around comics... the attitude is so different. It's very much people who are just excited that you're a creator and they want to support you. They're not pirates, they're not thieves. I sold out at PAX the first time I was there and even afterward people were giving me a dollar to sign their badge, because they wanted to support me. But here, downstairs, I have people expecting to take my books and items for free."
Mark Waid concluded the major discussion by saying, "There is that culture of consumers out there who understand that it costs you money to put out this stuff that entertains them and that it has value. 99 cents for a digital download for music is the sweet spot... If it were suddenly $4.99, because comics keep raising in prices, would you want to spend that money? It's going to happen. 'Holding the line at $2.99,' my ass."