Saturday, January 1, 2011

Evolution of Comics

Entertainment is changing, which ironically is nothing new. In my opinion there is a move towards packaging serialized stories into larger volumes that could otherwise be digested in the original individual packets for nothing or more cheaply. So why is there a move towards paying more for something that we once received for free or for a little? It's because it offers immediacy to the medium and a perceived value in quantity.

Over the past decade TV shows have been bundled up into individual seasons and sold on DVD. This has revived some TV shows, most notably Family Guy after its third season cancellation, while enlarging the popularity of others but failing to revive them, most notably for Firefly. The packaging of these DVD sets have also become smaller over the years, taking up less space on the bookshelf so that more can be purchased. These sets are popular because they allow a viewer to watch an entire season commercial free, at their own convenience and most importantly (but related) allows the viewer to watch an entire season at once, as opposed to watching it once a week over the course of 6-8 months. Further, this lets people watch shows that they were not able to watch on TV because they were broadcasted in different countries (such as many of the BBC programs) or were shown on higher tier cable networks like HBO (thinking of True Blood, Dexter, etc.).

Most recently, the introduction of the PVR allows viewers to record TV shows and watch them at their discretion while skipping the commercials. While a PVR has a limit on how many shows can be saved at one time, excluding the ability to watch an entire season of one show, it does provide the viewer control over 'when' to watch and to watch 'multiple' episodes at once. In hand with the PVR comes the internet which allows viewers to download or stream episodes, providing the viewer with the same power as is found in the PVR while also providing a greater number of episodes to watch, similar to the DVD sets of a show's entire season.

The point is that viewers are gaining greater control (empowerment) over how they are being entertained. This is not a new revelation as many other people have previously pointed this out (and probably more concisely). What may not have been called attention to is that comic books are also moving in this direction and will continue to do so in the next ten years.

Trade paperbacks (tpb) have been around since the 1970's. These early trade tpb's were comic books (some call them graphic novels) that featured one long comic story with sometimes more adult themes. This style of tpb has continued today, for instance my earlier post about the Swallow Me Whole tpb ( In the late 1980's and early 1990's, tpb began featuring a collection of comic stories that were originally published individually on a monthly basis (eg. Superman issues #14-48). This is similar if not the same to how TV shows are now sold in DVD sets. This style of tpb became increasingly popular as many comic readers could not afford to purchase individual comics (tpb's are generally cheaper) or could not be bothered to return to a comic store on a weekly or monthly basis. Tpb's were also great for they interested readers who normally did not read comics. The tpb seemed like a more authentic and adult form of literature because it came in a book format.

Today, tpb's continue to be popular and the style of tpb's continue to change. The subject matter ranges widely and are now sold in places other than comic stores such as Chapters (always a good sign when a market expands). The medium that tpb's are being sold and distributed has also changed in the last 5-10 years -they've gone digital. Marvel comics has perhaps done the most to encourage the evolution of tpb's with their foray into the digital realm. Tpb's are currently being sold on DVD's, where individual frames and pages are shown on the screen. This creates a sense of movement, although I believe this moves the original medium of comic away from its original form of 'sequential art' and into a grey area between animation and sequential art. Sound effects are also often added to the tpb DVD's.

A second way tpb's have entered the digital age is through the internet and iPhone, iPod and iPad applications. Individual comic stories and tpb's are being digitized and then offered for download onto these popular devices where they can be read at any time and place (for instance Marvel's Spider-Woman series is featured on the iTunes store). Much like the earlier paper form of the tpb, this also presents comics in a more (perceived) legitimate context where society may not automatically consider it children's fair because now it is being read on something socially acceptable and labeled 'cool'. I find this very exciting!

I feel that comics will continue down this path of packaging long stories in small packages to be sold in different mediums. The future looks bright but has its pitfalls. One pitfall is that the audience who purchases the comics in a digital, compiled form, may not be drawn into the comic shops to purchase the original monthly and paper forms. This leaves the audience that does frequent the comic shop at a stagnant level while the digital audience grows. This situation has pros and cons.

Another aspect is that the longer and compiled tpb forms will continue in their popularity and force some comic properties to only be sold in such a form, otherwise they will be faced with their newfound readers leaving that property because it takes too long for the tpb (paper or digital) to be released. A solution to this, and perhaps something we will see in comics, is that comic properties like the X-Men and Batman will be created by a larger team of artists. These properties will be treated much like a TV show where a gang of writers will work on multiple scripts and a gang of artists will bust out the art. The combined effort of these individuals will produce a large volume of stories in a short amount of time, satisfying the demand of the audience. However, the rub is that the quality of the stories may diminish for the stories and art will be rushed. Also, gone will be the day of a single writer /artist with a single vision such as the legendary Frank Miller run on Batman in the 1980's or Neal Adams on the Green Arrow in the 1970's.

Needless to say, the past decade has shown that comics are not dying, they are evolving. The process might be slow and rough, but it is undergoing. I am excited to see where this leads but am also pessimistic by what might be lost.

Some sources:
Longbox Digital Comics image from:
Captain America Digital comic for the PSP image from:
Comic Book Evolution image from:

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