I used to be in my local comic book store every week, buying stacks of new books and speed reading them all in one sitting. I started reading in high school and I was a zealous convert to the cult of Marvel and DC (and eventually more obscure publishers outside of the big two). Around the time I started going to University, it was really hard to justify making trips out to my usual comic book store. My house was already in a corner of the city that was far away from the comic book store and now I was spending half of my time in a different, equally far away corner. So, I started reading digital comics to make sure I was still getting my fix. At first, it was great. Digital reading was a little cheaper and a lot more convenient. I loved scrolling through new releases and taking advantage of the weekly sales, which saved even more money! After a while though, a funny thing happened. I stopped reading, almost entirely. I would ebb into it every once in a while but I drifted, without fail, back out of reading regular books. Ever since my latest reading resurgence took the form of walking back into a nearby comic books store and actually buying physical books, I’ve come to the conclusion that there is something (indeed, many somethings) off putting about the digital comics experience.
First of all, when you buy a comic book digitally the experience goes a little something like this: click “buy”, scroll through it and that’s it. Perhaps you read through it a couple more times but if you’re anything like me, you don’t think about it too much after that. There is a weirdly impersonal weightlessness to digital comics that keeps me from pouring over them in the way that I might with a physical addition. Out of sight, out of mind and all that. Seeing the latest issue of Harley Quinn or Green Arrow* on my table might encourage me to reread it in a way that has no real digital equivalent. When I am reading digitally, I tend to rack up more books than I actually read. This doesn’t occur when reading physical comics. Everything I purchase is read, usually more than once. I grant that this bit is subjective and even if this digital disconnect exists for you, it is by no means a deal breaker. After all, it is cheaper and leads to less clutter around the house. So, why else should you make the trek out to your local comic book store?
Well, a sense of community and an opportunity to bond with people over mutual interests is a pretty nice perk of the local comic book store (LCS) experience. I don’t want to get off on too much of a tangent but we live in an unprecedented era of isolation. Even people who spend all of their inside dwelling days talking to friends on Skype or Discord are in some sense lonely. Our stupid bodies make a distinction between socializing in person and socializing across long distances and, unfortunately, you really only get the full boost of serotonin and dopamine that comes with socializing when you are doing the real thing. So, why not go to a hub of like minded fans and talk shop with your fellow nerds?
It’s not just a social thing either. While comic book stores can be the inhospitable, gatekeeping institutions that you’ve often heard they are, this is actually something of a stereotype. A lot of comic book stores are filled with employees who can’t wait to recommend you good books based on your existing interests. If it weren’t for my LCS in Winnipeg I would never have started reading Marvel on such perfect, high quality entry points. I was recommended J. Michael Straczynski’s run on Thor and Brubaker’s Captain America, for the record. I would go to the store with the intent on chatting about last weeks books, trading micro-reviews and getting opinions on what else I might read. I know plenty of comic book nerds want this experience and I can safely say that it is worth the effort to go out and get it. It also helps recoup some of the costs, as you are much more likely to spend your money on something you’ll actually like with the guidance of seasoned experts.
So maybe I’ve convinced you that there are some perks to going out to your local comic book store. All of the little perks in the world won’t matter if digital comics are the best ones to actually read. I’ve heard a lot of people who prefer digital reading purely as a means of best enjoying the medium of comics and if guided viewing and being able to zoom in on individual panels is your favorite way to read then all the other stuff is probably going to fall by the wayside. For me, holding a physical copy of the book will always be the best. For one thing, the copy of the book in my hands never fails to load the next page and thereby hauls all the momentum of the story entirely. I equally enjoy that there are no failures to calibrate the page, such as the ones that occur when I rotate my tablet to get the best view of a splash page (This occurs without fail for me in the Comixology reader. The page goes off center and the scale gets all messed up, causing me to have to go back and then forward again).
Even if your experience is free of technical hiccups, guided views and panel zooms have the potential to do the medium a disservice. See, when a (good) comic book artist lays out their page they are always mindful of spatial relationships. To see what I mean, consider the following theoretical example of a page that depicts Batman leaping down into an alleyway and saving someone from a mugger. You might dedicate most of the page to Batman as he glides down in shadows then have smaller panels on the same page that convey a criminal’s fear of the Caped Crusader. Seeing a comparatively large Batman towering over a criminal who takes up little space on the page doesn’t just look cool, it metaphorically communicates that Batman makes this crook feel small and frightened in the face of his larger than life presence. The image relies on being taken in all at once rather than in the discrete bites it would be broken down into if you were using a digital reader. I’m well aware that digital readers need not utilize these features, I am mainly hoping to convey that the use of them isn’t necessarily the perk that I have heard some people claim it to be. For those interested, I will link an excellent video essay that uses pages from Art Spiegelman’s Maus to argue make the argument that I am making here.
There are other benefits to reading digitally, such as the lack of ads (though I love bad comic book ads that feature heroes somehow using Snickers bars to save the day) or making comics accessible if a disability is keeping you from making the journey down to the store. I merely want to give physical books their day in court, as I think that they are the superior way to enjoy the medium and, frankly, local shops need all the help they can get competing with Amazon and other platforms. I accept that the medium is probably going to undergo a massive paradigm shift no matter what any of us do. I would personally be surprised if DC and Marvel didn’t just go full digital and offer a Netflix style distribution system for all of their books. Each company has a service like this already, after all. Still, what I wanted to argue here was that if comic book stores are going to die off, then we should certainly try to delay that event as long as possible. The medium of comics will be hurt of access to physical books becomes more difficult than it already is. So, why not pop in and give physical books a try? I think you’ll be glad that you did.
*Yes, I’m a DC fan but I promise I’m not one of the weird ones that go around picking fights over the auteur genius of Zack Snyder.