On digital comics: Insufferable, Avengers vs. X-Men: Infinite, and more

Friday, June 01, 2012

Insufferable by Mark Waid and Peter Krause

My time collecting single-issue comics far outpaces my time reading collections-only. When I switched from issues to collections, it was for specific reasons: the price of a single issue no longer justified the time it took to read it; single issues no longer provided a complete reading experience, requiring multiple months to get a "full story"; and juvenile advertising increasingly junked up every other page of single issues. All of this pushed me squarely to the collected side of things.

There are things that I miss about reading single issues, however. Collections don't come out as frequently (though the DC Comics New 52 is challenging this) so I don't always have the ceremony of the weekly trip to the comics shop. I certainly serial fiction, and when comics were both full stories and had a weekly aspect -- i.e. the Superman "Triangle Titles" -- that was fun to "experience" week after week. And the internet, I believe, has only increased the value of serial fiction -- you can go to your comics shop, pick up an issue, and then chat about it with almost the entire world for a week before you go back and do it again, something that's tougher with collections.

In part to recapture my enjoyment of some of these aspects of comics, I've wanted to get in to a webcomic for a while, but hadn't quite found the right fit. With no offense intended to anyone involved, I wanted to read a "webcomic" and not a "comic strip," so to speak (an involved story and not a one-off "joke" strip, not that there's anything wrong with that -- been loving Little League lately).

I didn't want a print tie-in -- something that would require me to pick up a print book in addition to reading the webcomic to understand what was going on. I wanted something self-contained; I wouldn't pass over a webcomic from the major publishers, but I wasn't interesting in having to learn about a new universe for this experience.

And -- as if I'm not asking for a lot already -- given that I'd be reading the comic online and not technically owning it as I do with my print comics, could it be free, as well? I wouldn't balk at some unobtrusive ads around the corners in exchange, as long as they didn't break up the reading experience as they do with single issues.

I have found all of that, at least for the moment, in Mark Waid's Thrillbent series Insufferable.

I'd seen mentions of Thrillbent around the edges of the sites I visit for a little while now, but it was the headline of Waid's recent attention-grabbing post "Marketing Through Piracy" that drew me in. (That Waid is releasing Insufferable as both CBR and PDF files in addition to it being readable online ought not be as controversial as it initially seemed to be, considering Insufferable is, after all, already free.) Waid's decision to release Insufferable in these "offline reading" formats has paid off, at least for nabbing this reader -- I was much more likely to become (and now am) a regular reader of Insufferable if I could download and read the comic in the e-reader of my choice than if I was limited to just the web console.

(Maybe this takes the "web" out of webcomic, but it remains that Insufferable otherwise fits the criteria of being weekly, being an "involved story," and being -- wonderfully -- free. I don't stress the web/offline digital reading difference too much.)

Two other things grabbed me and made me what I'd now call "an Insufferable fan." The first is Peter Krause's art, which is quite attractive, evocative of Michael Lark on Gotham Central (a comparison which earns anything special notice from me). I actually remember Krause's 1994 Metropolis SCU miniseries (itself a spiritual precursor to Gotham Central, and notably published alongside a Newsboy Legion miniseries) -- Insufferable seems to me not a bit like Gotham Central, except that there are some interesting down-to-earth conversations between Nocturnal and the friendly neighborhood police detective especially in this week's installment #5. Regardless, the professionalism of Krause's art (with no offense meant to anyone else, since my sampling in this field is admittedly limited) is one thing that drew me in and has kept me coming back.

(I'll reserve talking about Insufferable's story until we have more installments in hand; I do expect to be offering a formal review at some point.)

The second is Thrillbent's digital comics-reading process. I didn't have a problem with Comixology's "guided view," rather liked it actually, until I experienced Thrillbent's. I realize we're talking apples and oranges here -- something Warren Ellis goes into good detail about, in that Comixology's "pan and scan" approach is meant for printed comics going digital, and Thrillbent's approach works for digital first -- but since I experienced the "Thrillbent method," something about the alternate ways bugs me a bit.

By "Thrillbent method," I mean a kind of glorified flip book approach, where panels seem to "move" when you flip pages, when it's actually a new page with the previous panel copied over and subtle changes made.* Given that Insufferable is free after all, you might as well just go over there and see what I'm talking about.

In a nice coincidence, at about the same time I was starting to read Insufferable, Collected Editions' digital comics guru Mark Sims emailed to recommend to me Marvel's Avengers vs. X-Men: Infinite. This comic uses the "Thrillbent method" via Comixology (Mark was nice enough to "gift" it to me through Comixology), so none of this is to say that the "Thrillbent method" is actually exclusive to Thrillbent (though Mark Waid also wrote Infinite); this "flip-book method" works just as well in Comixology. I know DC Comics is releasing digital-first content via Comixology (Smallville et al), but I have no idea if theirs also uses the "flip-book method" or if it's still "guided view" even though the comics are digital first -- anyone?

Infinite is enjoyable, though it's the very definition of a prologue -- the character Nova mainly just thinks to himself for three-fourths of it, and the attraction here is most certainly supposed to be the digital "movement" and not the story. It reminds me of the black-and-white preview comic that DC released for Final Night prior to that crossover -- matter of fact, I'm surprised Marvel even charged for this and didn't just give it away free. I'd be happy to see more such free digital preview comics with real story content come out of DC, Marvel, etc. I'll also mention that the first "pages" of Infinite, viewable at Gizmodo, do remind me slightly of beginners' Flash or animated GIFs, where text flashes in and out in the suggestion of movement. None of this is reinventing the wheel, necessarily, so much as repurposing the wheel in a new and different way.

Also this week, DC released twelve issues of Watchmen for digital purchase via Comixology at $1.99 each. As David Uzumeri pointed out, that's $24, more expensive than the trade paperback list price, and Jason followed that the Kindle Fire-exclusive edition is only $9.99 -- so whichever way you slice it, it makes purchasing these digital issues seem less than ideal.

As a collections reader, that we have even have exclusives in this manner befuddles me a little. I can understand how a single issue and a collection are different -- single issues have advertisements and collections don't, collections have covers made of sturdier material, and obviously collections follow one chapter to the next whereas you have to physically change objects to read the next part in a single-issue series. A set of digital issues and a digital collection, however, are entirely almost the same thing -- the former requires switching from document to document on your device, the latter simply flipping page, but neither takes more than a few seconds or requires you to get up from your seat.  It's inconceivable (and yet true) that a collection could be considered "exclusive."

And while I understand why one might buy disparate issues of various series digitally, I can't understand selling digital Watchmen in single issue form -- does anyone want just Watchmen #5 and no others?

This was going on at the same time that Bleeding Cool broke news that someone posted a method for saving comics out of Comixology, and then was promptly shut down by Comixology. Now, piracy is not for me (you can make your own rules yourself), but this was another unpleasant reminder that at the end of the day, you own your print comics but you don't actually own your digital comics. That's a fact that makes me very uncomfortable and has gone a long way toward pushing me away from "going digital" until these issues are worked out. It's another check in Thrillbent's favor -- I don't know how Waid and company ultimately expect to make money on this, but I'm pleased that they're making Insufferable "keep-able" -- if a print collection of the comic comes about, especially with Waid's blog posts or additional text or Krause's sketchbook or something included, I'm happy to support the digital initiative by purchasing one.**

(Started writing this post earlier in the week -- as it turns out, the New York Times had a bit on all of this Thursday.)

The takeaway from all of this, aside from the ins and outs and complications of the digital revolution, is that I'm reading Insufferable now, and I think you should be, too. I'm happy to talk about it, if you like. And there will be more to come here about my experiences with digital comics as I go.  See you next week!

* For further discussion is whether any "movement," even the same panel appearing twice on the screen with different narration boxes such that the narration boxes "move," negates the definition of the item as a "comic." The confines of a comic, previously, have been that the creative team has to fit what narration, dialogue, and so on in a panel as best they can, and then if they want additional beats they have to move to a new panel. The "Thrillbent method" offers potentially infinite use of a single panel to present dialogue or tell a story (though such would get boring pretty fast). What we have with the Thrillbent method is something not-quite motion comics, but not quite traditional comics, either, and I wonder if that begs some kind of new terminology.

** Mark Waid: Covers on the Insufferable PDF installments so they look nice on our digital bookshelves, if possible?
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4 comments:

  1. Thanks for pointing me to this. I just read "Week 1" and it's really interesting.

    I share the same concerns about digital comics. You don't "own" the comic, the guided view can be less than ideal, etc. I liked the way this was presented and the story has me hooked. I'll be following along for sure.

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  2. I enjoy being called a "guru", although certainly don't claim to be such! When I returned to comics a couple of years ago, trade paperbacks seemed to me the best way to "catch up" on what I'd missed with the DC Universe, and I liked them for the same reasons you listed above. But 4 full long-boxes and a complaining (yet loving!) wife later, I saw digital as a way to potentially save even more money (depending on the TPB price) and just as importantly, save on space! When DC went day-and-date digital on the New 52, so did I, although in my TPB reading I'm still in the Brightest Day era. I finished buying the "old DCU" in print, all the way through Flashpoint, but everything newer for me has been digital. Funny enough, I still read them as if they were collections; I wait until I have 5-6 issues (or whatever issues are included in the announced unreleased collections) and then read them all back-to-back to get a (usually) complete story. Digital kind of merges the advantages of single-issues (the "now" factor) with collections (no kiddie ads, lower per-issue price). Oh, regarding the lower price thing, I should mention that I wait the 30 days after a digital comic is posted to buy it, so instead of $2.99 I'm paying $1.99. Although that does kind of compromise a bit on the "nowness" of it (still faster than waiting for the trade though!).

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  3. Some other comments:

    1) I thought that "Infinite" did a better job (or at the very least, used a lot more of) the "Thrillbent" method than Insufferable did at the time I sent you that email (around Insufferable installment 3 I think). I found out later from reading Waid's blog that that's because Infinite was actually done AFTER, but just happened to be released first (Waid naturally wanted to be "ahead" on his webcomic, while Infinite was a one-shot as far as I can tell). Also, I think the space-setting of the Nova story felt more "widescreen" than Insufferable's panels. But Waid (who's basically explaining everything he can on his blog at http://www.markwaid.com/ ) said that they're still experimenting and learning the best ways to utilize this technique.

    2) I don't think reusing the same panels disqualifies this from being a "comic". There's another webcomic out there, "Dinosaur Comics", that uses the same set of panels for every comic, and just changes the text! According to Wikipedia, it's been around since 2003 and has appeared in newspapers and has even had collected editions printed. That being said, I do wonder how Insufferable will deal with the inevitable print collection; some of the transitions will work well, while others (such as all the panels on a page slowly being replaced by other panels, or the same panel used repeatedly while the text changes, or the same panel being used twice with the focus changing from foreground to background) may be trickier to reproduce without feeling awkward. But I think Waid's focus here is on digital-first, and he's refusing to let the possibility of a print collection interfere in what he's trying to do.

    3) Waid said he still doesn't know how he's going to make money from this. :-) Hard to believe that he's sold his personal comics collection to fund it! I believe he has strong feelings towards comics future as digital content, while at the same time he maintains that it can co-exist with print.

    4) Regarding the ownership thing, yeah, it kind of bothers me that I'm just "licensing content." I felt better about it once Comixology signed deals with the major publishers; it seems that they're not going away anytime soon. Also, if they did happen to go under, and I lost my digital collection, I would probably feel justified in tracking down the pirated versions of those comics. Although I'm sure many others wouldn't feel comfortable with that. Anyway, most of the comics (and TPB's) I buy I only read once, so just being able to read the issues at the cheaper $1.99 price, while not having to wait an extra year for a softcover release, is good enough for me to justify the price (although I'd certainly prefer it was $0.99!!).

    5) $24 for the 12 issues of Watchmen isn't a particularly good price. :-) Personally, I think that DC should drop all their older comics to $0.99, although I've read that they can't do sales for cheaper than $0.99 per item (the cheapest per-item price allowed by Apple) and so they leave it at $1.99 and then do $0.99 sales on the older stuff (I've personally bought dozens of the 70's/80's JLA comics during $0.99 sales). Comixology does support sales of collected editions (Red5 Publishing did it with Atomic Robo), but as we know DC signed an deal with Amazon for that, so I guess that's why we get the singles of Watchmen.

    6) Peter Krause is pretty great. I've really enjoyed him on Waid's just-finished series Irredeemable, which I should also mention is pretty great. :-) I'm sure you've heard of it, but the basic premise is a Superman-type hero goes bad, and hunts down his former Justice-League type friends as they try to figure out how to stop him. I've really enjoyed it and it's one of the very few non-DC books I read (along with Atomic Robo).

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  4. I can't help but notice that this article's address reads "insufferable-avengers". That's a new title coming out next month starring Moondragon, Starfox and Doctor Druid.

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