Why Most Comic Readers Will Never Fully Adopt the Digital Format

I’ve written about how digital comics aren’t helping the comics industry as much as it was predicted they would, but one of the topics I’ve kind of glossed over is precisely why a certain segment of the comics buying public is NEVER going to make the transition to digital comics. 


I personally believe people should be reading comics. Old comics, new comics, indie comics, mainstream. It doesn’t matter which kind, only that the medium is kept vibrant and alive and that people recognize that there is currently (and has always been) some exceptional art being done in comics. In spite of a certain lack of merit in a few publications, there are still some good comics out there. And while I believe digital comics are a great method of carrying massive issues of comics with you on the go, I still collect my comics in physical editions first and foremost.





The best thing about digital comics is they allow anyone to directly access old and rare comics that you could never buy a physical copy of. Digital comics solves that problem of hard to find back-issues. New comics explorers are now able to get instant access to almost any comic and go through thousands of previous issues for almost nothing with a subscription service.


It was Marvel Comics that first entered this unchartered territory with its launch of Marvel Digital Comics Unlimited, which is now a vault of many Marvel legacy comic books along with exclusive digital releases. For those interested in Marvel Unlimited, there’s a special $5 per month sale going on until January 20 if you buy a full year subscription. Now, DC, Dark Horse, Dynamite, IDW, Image, Lion Forge, Marvel, Valiant, and numerous other large and small publishers offer digital comics, either via their own services or an all-encompassing platform like Comixology ($5.99 per month). Unfortunately, Comixology Unlimited mainly lets you dive into select titles, typically those that are good jumping-0n points for new readers.




While it has never been a better time to read and (re)discover comics, there is still one serious flaw with digital comics that will continue to prevent many comics readers from adopting the platform.


Comics started out as something for a younger audience, and many of us were introduced to them when someone lent us a single issue. Just think of how many kids are converted into life-long fans because they borrowed Fantastic Four from a neighbor. When you buy a print copy of a comic, there are a number of things you can do with that copy beyond simply reading it. You can loan it to someone else. You can give it away or even sell it. Or you could check the graphic novel or collected edition out from your local library to do your reading.


Ever since major publishers began releasing comics in digital formats (around 2007), the model for most digital comics providers has been to offer access to files through a proprietary reader available through their apps or websites. Readers essentially enter into a leasing arrangement, being granted temporary access with an open-ended term limit. Readers can “download” a local copy, but this isn’t a true download. The file is returned to the provider’s cloud storage after a short period of inactivity, although access remains through your library on the reader.




While many people prefer the tactile enjoyment of turning pages versus swiping their tablet, the hesitation to adopting digital isn’t necessarily about the ‘feel’ of the comics, but the “ownership” of them. Many people who are into digital comics still don’t seem to understand that they don’t really own the comics they’ve purchased.  That’s right. You don’t actually own a comic book that you may have paid full cover price for. Not only can you not loan it to your friend, or trade it, or sell it on eBay, or even give it away to someone after you’ve read it; you never actually owned the comic to begin with. 


“So what?” you may respond. “As long as you’re able to read the comics anytime, anywhere you like, who cares about the details of the electronic agreement that’s been made that allows you to do that?”


Fair enough. Maybe you’re not concerned with the details of the arrangement, but are you aware that major publishers like DC Comics and Marvel Comics have altered a digital comic that has already been purchased by customers without the consumer’s consent? In other words, they’ve removed stories, changed artwork, and even made some types of edits to existing comics that were already part of someone’s online collection without informing the consumer of the changes.





While this apparently hasn’t caused serious outcry thus far, there have still been several high-profile incidents of comics being yanked back into the archives or altered due to changes in attitudes, inadvertent early releases, or simply because a publisher decided they no longer wished to sell a certain title.


For example, in late 2017, DC Comics published their DC Holiday Special, in both print and in digital form. The anthology title was solicited with the inclusion of a story written by Max Landis and Francis Manupul. When the title was actually published however, the Landis/Manupul tale only appeared in the digital version while the printed version of the comic instead reprinted The Silent Night of The Batman (1969) by Mike Friedrich, Neal Adams and Dick Giordano. A few days later, a ComiXology update was made and then the digital copy saw the Landis/Manapul story removed and replaced as well. No one has a legal copy of it any longer.


Was this decision made because Max Landis was about to get caught up in a #MeToo scandal? Who cares? People who bought the comic may have actually bought the comic for that very story by Landis and Manupul.  And this isn’t the only incident where DC Comics has taken advantage of the digital power to retroactively edit comics that were already purchased by consumers. 



Months later, if you picked up a physical copy of writer Brian Azzarello and artist Lee Bermejo’s Batman: Damned #1, you got a glimpse of a totally-nude Bruce Wayne in the Batcave (without your consent). After lots of backlash, DC decided that all future printings of Batman: Damned would show a censored version (pictured above). The digital issues were changed immediately to remove the “Batawang“. At the very least, Batman: Damned #1 instantly became a collector’s item, but only those physical copies, because for all intents and purposes, an uncensored digital version no longer exists. You can’t sell a digital copy anyway.


And DC isn’t the only one censoring their comics post-publication. Marvel made a decision to alter the digital and additional printings of X-Men Gold #1 (2017) after artist Ardian Syaf hid political and religious messages in the artwork that a Reddit user noticed. The messages referred to specific verses of the Quran and used codes that, in context, could be taken as anti-semitic and anti-Christian. 



Marvel issued an official response to the controversy, saying


“The mentioned artwork in X-Men: Gold #1 was inserted without knowledge behind its reported meanings. These implied references do not reflect the views of the writer, editors or anyone else at Marvel and are in direct opposition of the inclusiveness of Marvel Comics and what the X-Men have stood for since their creation. This artwork will be removed from subsequent printings, digital versions, and trade paperbacks and disciplinary action is being taken.”


But Marvel is no stranger to pulling controversial content.




Let’s face it, whether in a few years someone considers that digital comic you bought to suddenly be “problematic” and in need of being clawed back or censored due to prevailing thought, conventional wisdom, etc, or your comics provider like comiXology happens to crash or black out, you’re simply going to be out of luck. You never know when a story or character that is considered acceptable today, might one day be considered verboten, historical value be damned.



And it isn’t just controversial comics you might lose. As Josh Centers wrote at TidBits

What happens if ComiXology were to close shop? All the comics I’ve “purchased” will be lost forever, locked behind the gates of ComiXology’s digital rights management. Fundamentally, that’s the problem with buying DRM-encumbered content: you never truly buy it — it’s more of an extended rental. If the hardware or software that’s available to read the file becomes incompatible with the DRM, you can’t view the content. Plus, DRM flies in the face of the spirit of collecting comic books. What’s the joy of collecting something you’ll never own?



Such a scenario did actually happen a few years ago (2014), when what was known as the “iTunes for comic books” shut down. The digital distributor known as Graphicly announced that it was closing its doors after seven years in business, and gave subscribers and publishers 30 days to download their products before the company’s systems were deleted. Another digital company had acquired Graphicly’s staff, but not its database of e-books and digital products. And if you didn’t get the memo, you lost your digital content for good.




And it’s not just comics that are subject to this kind of action. There have been some weird examples of DRM censorship in the realm of prose books that include the Orwell debacle in 2009 when Amazon remotely erased from many Kindles copies of Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm. There’s also the story of a Norwegian IT Consultant named Linn Nygaard who had her Kindle account randomly deleted by Amazon (including all other books attached to the account) for reasons unknown to her.  She tried multiple times to get her account reinstated, and Amazon would not reinstate her account and would not tell her why.




Even indie comics publisher Image once offered DRM-free comics, but doesn’t any longer. Fortunately, there are a few progressive publishers still offering digital comics that you can actually own. These are known as DRM-free comics, and can be picked up from publishers such as Dynamite Entertainment. There are a few DRM-free outlets for other indie comics such as Comic Book Plus, Comics Fu (*a platform for creating digital comic stores), Panel Syndicate (*pay-what-you want website for comics directly from creators), *Rebellion Publishing, and *Thrillbent. Again, these options are limited mostly to just indie titles, so there’s no Batman or Spider-Man books to choose from. If you do want a DRM-free experience with any of the major publishers, ComiXology does offer DRM-free backups on a few select titles.


*I think it’s worth noting that if you’re creating your own comics to sell and want to sell them digitally, I do recommend that you check out some of the platforms I’ve mentioned above.




For decades and, in some cases, centuries, people everywhere have shared and circulated stories, songs, books, recordings, etc. in analog form. People just naturally want to share what they love, but in the contemporary digital realm the rights-holders have managed to make the simple act of sharing these things nearly impossible – and even illegal in some cases. 


So do the details of DRM I’ve outlined here convince you to stick with print comicbooks, or do you feel that this is just one of those things we have to deal with now since digital comics are so incredibly handy? Do you have a different take? Let us hear your thoughts by sounding off in the comments below.



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Chris Braly

I'm one opinionated, based geek. I try to steer this tiny ship and can often be heard monthly on the Comic Book Page Previews Spotlight podcast with several fellow "comic book nerds." Follow me on Twitter @ChrisBraly. My preferred adjectives are brilliant/beautiful.