I’m Thacher E. Cleveland, one of the Super-Fly Comics podcast hosts and until the end of November I was one of the two owners of Super-Fly Comics & Games. After a lot of soul-searching I decided it was time to hang up my Comic Guy license and move on to new adventures. Not only do I have a new job in a new city but I’ll be buying comics again for first time in almost 7 years instead of just reading whatever I want, whenever I want. With the comic industry at a turning point with price wars, “event fatigue” and digital distribution, I’ve picked a hell of a time to get…Back in the Game.
A couple of weeks ago I alluded to the fact that I’d done something that I swore I’d never do. Knowing me that could mean a lot of things, but before your mind wanders off to unclean places let me set the record straight: I downloaded comics. Not in a “hey, let’s get a free sample via comiXology” kind of way” but a “I’ve got a demonoid account and they have comics there” kind of way.
I’ll be straight with you and say that I’ve downloaded more than my fair share of electronic media. Music, movies, TV shows, the whole works. In fact, all of the television I watch is downloaded (I’ve been lazy and have yet to see if the new computer I bought over Christmas will run Hulu consistently well). Can I defend it? Probably not, but that’s neither here nor there for the purposes of this column. When it comes to media I’ve become so incontrovertibly lazy that I just want to double click on a file and have it start playing on the 42” TV I’m using for a computer monitor. I’ve tried going the legal “digital copy included” route and it’s led me to nothing but heartache (like it has for Lee Rodriguez). I’m sure this makes me a terrible person in some people’s eyes. It’s what I’ve gotten used to and it suits me just fine.
Contrary to what the RIAA and MPAA would tell you, downloading stuff led me to spend money on artist I wouldn’t have discovered otherwise. “Hey, these are some great songs, I’m going to go and buy their CD so I can get more of them!” This, of course, being in the dark and terrible past where people bought CDs after questing for fire and avoiding hordes of dinosaur riding vikings. The same can be said for TV shows and movies, where I’ve downloaded them and then bought the DVD or box set. There were times when I went ahead and ordered a premium channel just so that I could have immediate access to new episodes the second they are aired. In any case, I’ve spent money after downloading something (not all the time, mind you) and this has turned out to be the case with my comic downloading adventure.
When I was putting together my initial pull list I’d talked about wanting to have some X-Men stuff on there, since I’ve been a fan of that little clique for most of the time I’ve been reading comics and have generally enjoyed what’s been done in the past couple of years. My dilemma was that I’m not particularly fond of Greg Land’s art, so I didn’t want to buy Uncanny, I still couldn’t get the taste of Vampire out of my mouth so I didn’t want to give the new adjective-less series a try and the rest had been generally less than wowing me. It was frustrating because I liked all the build up leading to Hope Summers return, the general direction Fraction had taken Cyclops and the rest of the X-Men and the whole shebang. Specifically though, there was nothing to grab a hold of. The only title I picked up after moving was Generation Hope, but I just couldn’t get past the Akira homage.
Amidst all that the good people at X-Men central had been prepping us for this new event called “Age of X,” promising some radical reimaginings of the characters and the X-men’s world in a manner that seemed to smack of the most successful of the X-Men events: Age of Apocalypse. There were teaser images, character reveals, QR codes showing off alternate histories. They threw everything at this, but for some reason it just wasn’t clicking for me. I was tempted, but it wasn’t enough for me to bite. When the Alpha issue showed up at my shop I leafed through it but was a little disappointed that it was just a little anthology of back stories for familiar characters in this new universe. I wondered if I’d missed something in one of the various X titles that set up the whole event. I gave it a pass, but a several weeks later, just after the third part came out, a friend on twitter mentioned how he was really enjoying the series. He and I had met up a couple of times here in Chicago and shared some drinks and talked comics, so I knew our tastes were relatively similar. I asked about the situation with the Alpha issue and he said that I could probably just give it a pass, as they just dropped the reader into the middle of the story to try to figure out what was going on along with the characters. Okay, now I’m interested.
The problem was that the next week I went to my shop and they were sold out of the third part of the series. I’d pared my list down and was ready to plunk down money for X books but I couldn’t abide the idea of just skipping a part. The idea of downloading books wasn’t a new one. After all, what better way to replicate the experience of working in a shop then getting all the books that came out that week for free? I knew, though, that I’d rather read a comic in the format it was designed for (printed) and that I’d want to have a solid copy of something to refer back to later (browsing folders on a computer may work for music, TV and movies but it lacks something with text works). In this instance though I figured I could get caught up while seeing if my apprehensions about the event were well founded. I’m happy to say they weren’t and Age of X is quite enjoyable (you find a lengthy discussion of it in the later third of the ungodly long Episode 97a PoP Cast and a little bit in Episode 44 of the Super-Fly podcast). As soon as I was done reading the first three parts I knew I was going to be adding the rest of it to my pull list the next time I was down at Vigilante.
Digital has been talked about in comics for a while now, mainly as an avenue to broaden distribution channels since good comic shops are so few and far between but piracy also comes up a fair amount of the time as well. What I did may not sit well with people, but what if I downloaded a copy of the first issue of a series or mini-series I was interested in but wasn’t 100% sure I was going to like? Or something I’d heard talked about after the fact but the first issue wasn’t available at the time? What if after doing that and liking what I saw I went ahead and bought the rest of the issues in the series? It that a rationale for being cheap or is it being a smart shopper? It does fly in the face pre-ordering comics by adding them to your pull list as soon as they show up in Previews, but there are plenty of things in there that we don’t want to automatically add to our lists but we tell ourselves “I’ll check it out when it comes into the shop and see if I like it.”
Is this a strategy I’m going to pursue only a regular basis? I’m not sure. I know sometimes publishers or creators will send a shop a digital copy of their book around the final order cut-off date, and that had a big impact on how we’d order it. If we enjoyed it we talked it up to customers and we’d certainly order more copies. Hell, there were times when we’d order something just because someone made the effort to contact us and spell our names right. This idea of making your own preview by downloading isn’t the same thing, but how different is it from borrowing a friend’s book or ready copies your boyfriend or girlfriend bought? In a similar vein, while waiting for Meghan to straighten something out at her shop I saw that a new issue of Generation Hope (#5) had come out and I wanted to see how the series had been progressing, so I picked it up and gave it a read while I waited. It was a wrap-up of sorts to the first arc, reuniting the “Phonogram” creative team of writer Kieron Gillen and artist Jamie McKelvie. I’m big fans of both and was pleasantly surprised. I may have to give the next issue a buy to see where the series begins to go. Here’s the thing: Is this any different than what I did with Age of X? I still read the issue without paying for it to see if I’d like the series. Typing this reminded me that I still had the digital copies of Age of X and I just deleted them, so I don’t even have them anymore.
The fact of the matter is that everyone has those comics in their collection that they just don’t want. First issues and parts of story arcs that just weren’t to your taste. The more it happens, the more gunshy you become on trying something new. There’s a reason why superhero books are predominant and why almost every licensed property gets remade over and over again: people want as close to a sure thing as they can get. At some point a “free sample” of a work can go a long way to easing someone into spending money on a title or creator further down the line. When Steve Lieber’s “Underground” series was uploaded to 4chan, he interacted with the folks there, asked them to consider buying it if they liked what they saw and his sales went through the roof, mostly because of a large group of people reading the book for free. I don’t think there are any hard and fast answers, although I would like to reiterate that I don’t support downloading comics en mass just so you can read everything and not pay for it. If you love comics, you should find a way to contribute financially to what you read so that we can continue to still have an industry. I know it’s difficult, especially where on weeks like this a pull list can get completely out of control. For the first time since I’ve been buying books I have to wait until payday to get them. In those two days, I’m sure I’ll be able to resist the siren song of free download-able content.