Salvatore Pane

Tag: iPad

Flashback Monday: How I Single-handedly Fixed the Comics Industry in 2005

The worst paper I ever wrote in college was for a graphic novel course I took in 2005. I was at the height of my literary snobbishness, and the sheer idea of reading a comic book made me rip off my monocle, slam it on my mahogany desk, and announce that “This is preposterous!” I read a boatload of comics growing up–the entire 200 issue run of the Spider-Man Clone Saga–and those were all pretty awful. So imagine my surprise when I ended up genuinely loving almost everything we read in the course. My position totally changed, and there were some weeks during my second comic reading heyday where I’d spend fifty dollars on new releases alone.

Unfortunately, this newfound enthusiasm didn’t translate into a decent paper. I started writing one that compared and contrasted Cather in the Rye and Ghost World, but about two pages in, I realized I had nothing else to say on the subject and wrote the rest of the paper about the comic industry’s notoriously low sales and how that newfangled iPod and iTunes store might be the key to salvation (five years before the release of the iPad and digital distribution). I’ve attached a portion of the second half of the paper below. What was so odd to me while rereading this is how close it is to what actually happened once the iPad was released. However, it wasn’t the indies taking advantage of the new medium, it was the major companies, the Marvels, DCs and IDWs of the world.

Below is the second half of my 2005 paper. Don't worry, I won't bore you with the Ghost World/Salinger stuff.

….how can the graphic novel capture a wider audience? Scott McCloud spends much of Reinventing Comics discussing the complete and utter failure of the current comics distribution method: the direct market. “The readers are just as abandoned by the corporate system as the creators, despite the importance supposedly given their hard earned dollars. The average comic shop can offer only a tiny fraction of an industry wide selection that is itself extremely limited in scope,” (McCloud 77). The graphic novel has not reached its mass market potential because it is using a more flawed version of the corporate distribution system that prose books have being using for years. As a newer medium, graphic novels require a newer method of distribution. Later in Reinventing Comics, McCloud discusses the possibilities of the internet and how that can one day be the future of distribution for comics. Originally published in 2000, McCloud simply was writing from a point of time which could not possibly suggest the method I am about to propose.

In November, the Apple Corporation announced that it will have sold a total of 37,000,000 iPods, their biggest handheld entertainment device, by the end of 2005.  The latest version of the device, the fifth generation iPod, has the ability to display video and pictures. Realizing that an installed base of 37,000,000 users is an astonishing opportunity, ABC quickly cut a deal to allow television shows, including recent hits Lost and Desperate Housewives, to be bought through Apple’s online store, iTunes, for $1.99 each and then be allowed to be viewed on the user’s iPod. Within two months ABC and Apple had sold 3,000,000 videos, as a result, NBC, CBS, and FOX are currently scrambling to pursue deals of their own with Apple.

This device is targeted at the 15-24 age group predominately, and is quickly changing the way we consume media. No longer are we shackled to our televisions to catch the latest episode of whatever primetime show is our current favorite. Even radio is changing and moving into two distinct camps, the satellite radio stations and Podcasts, which are free radio programs you can download from iTunes and listen to on any portable media player. The reason I bring this up is not only because of the cross section between iPod users and the readers necessary to bring the serious literary graphic novel out of obscurity, but because I believe the iPod itself is a possible solution to McCloud’s distribution problem that caused “a huge number of America comic book retailers [to] shut down,” (McCloud 10).

The current iPod and its cheaper variation, the iPod Nano, have the ability to display pictures. If the comics industry, specifically the independent comics industry, applied a similar method of distribution on iTunes as ABC has, a whole new golden age of comics would occur. Comic shops, delivery, stocking, and paper consumption would be completely eliminated. Also, the problem of knowing what to buy but not where to find it, a problem McCloud also brings up, would be abolished to as the iTunes database is literally limitless and could hold everything from Jimmy Corrigan to Wacthmen and back again. Prices could be fixed by the individual creators, and amateurs could upload their work automatically, just in the way that iTunes handles free Podcasts. With this system in place, creativity would flourish, as readers would have the choice to buy from the big two comic companies, Marvel and DC, the independents like Image and Fantagraphics Books, and weekend cartoonists. Also, the stigma associated with comics being a geeky medium would be shattered by combining it with an item, the iPod, so closely connected to what is hip and cool. If Ghost World was released today as a $9.99 download direct from iTunes to your iPod, I would highly bet that its readership would increase tenfold from its current measly 90,000.

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Optimism in a Digital Age

A few days ago, I watched a panel from the Brooklyn Book Festival entitled “Literature in a Digital Age”. Check it out here. My thoughts are kind of scrambled considering it’s Super Bowl Sunday and that Pittsburgh, where I live, is just now emerging from a twenty-two inch blizzard in which a tree fell outside of my house and missed my car (a prestigious 1997 Saturn SL 2) by just a few yards. With that in mind, I’m going to distribute some opinions via the bullet.

  • THE FUTURE OF THE BOOK! Maud Newton, the venerable blogger and novelist, is clearly the most invested party among the panelists concerning the evolution of what exactly will constitute a book in the future. She’s filled with an optimism that is quite refreshing considering all the doom and gloom we’ve been hearing for years on end from major publishers. As I mentioned in two earlier posts, alternative avenues are rising up to replace the literary gatekeepers of old. Electric Literature stands as one of the lit mag’s great new hopes for the future, and as the major publishers announce “no new acquisitions”, university presses and indies rally around writers of literary fiction. Newton brought up the possibility of Sony, Amazon and especially Google becoming the major publishers of this century, and that shift promises a sea change (and a slew of new opportunities for writers) for how we look at writing in the future. Oh, yeah, and there’s that whole iPad thing.
  • Class Issues. John Freeman, Editor of Granta, brings up the hornets’ nest of class differences when he mentions how eReaders will fundamentally change the price of books. In the past, anyone who wanted to read could do so for free with a library card or twelve dollars for a paperback. Not any longer when the average eReader is well over a hundred dollars. Doesn’t that remove an inherent element of democratization from American letters? None of the panelists wanted to really discuss this issue, and I’ll be interested when Maud Newton comes to Pittsburgh this week to hear her thoughts on the subject.
  • The bookshelf as death. The panelists described bookshelves as a metaphor for death (basically, if you have a lot of unread books in your collection, you only have so much time before you die to read them). Interesting point but there’s not much you can really do with that observation. Ok. Is that metaphor altered in any fundamental way by PDF books or eReaders? I’m not sure. I’m not even sure if it matters. Just an intriguing tangent that caught my eye.
  • Some of the panelists lament the fact that nowadays authors have to become public personas in order to sell their books, i.e. they have to have blogs and post on Twitter. Some of the panelists fear this will be deeply detrimental to future books, but Maud Newton doesn’t think so and neither do I. Isn’t the act of writing for mass consumption an inherently public act? In an age where everyone has Facebook profiles and YouTube videos, trying to become famous is now an integral part of global culture. Isn’t it the duty of writers to grapple with modern issues? And what better way to write about these themes than actually experience them firsthand? I detected a bit of stodginess on the panel’s part during this section.
  • Speaking of stodginess, what was up with the nostalgic reverence for all those “experimental” writers of the 1960’s? Very odd references that came off as pure crankiness. The great works of the past are great works, but to say that no one today is doing work on the same level of the drug-addled ’60’s crowd is a bit much for this millennial to swallow.
  • How about all those hipsters? Every time the camera panned the audience I thought they had cut away to the Pitchfork Music Festival. Yeesh.
  • I’m getting off topic but what the hell. As long as we’re on the subject of hipsters, check out this interview with Tao Lin. A friend of mine from Boston pulled out this tasty quote: “My target demographics include hipsters, depressed teenagers, depressed vegans, happy but sensitive teenagers, people of any age who are severely detached from reality, Europeans, all college students, and I think sarcastic vegans.” Yuck! I only stumbled onto the interview because Lin’s new book is named Richard Yates after my all-time favorite author, but regardless of your thoughts on Lin, few can deny that he represents a new breed of author. He’s super-young and a whiz at self-promotion. He recently even sold away his back end royalties for two-thousand dollar “endorsements”. Is a new literary Brat Pack that far away?
  • Finally, as a counter-point, I point you to Teddy Wayne.  I recently finished his novel Kapitoil for a review I’m doing over on BOMBlog and I absolutely loved it. More thoughts to come obviously, but this is the exact opposite of what I expected from a writer who frequently contributes to McSweeney’s and The Huffington Post. Kapitoil is a turning away from postmodern irony and a return to human emotion in a complex, globalized age. It comes highly recommended.

Digital Distribution? Video Games? Marvel Illustrated? The iWhat?

In my Salinger post a few days ago, I made a quick jab towards the end about the video game-ization (I coined it here first, folks) of novels. So in case you haven’t heard the news, the 14th century Divine Comedy is being converted into a video game by EA, the same company responsible for this. Numerous sites have already lamented the transformation of Dante’s words into a corpse-littered action game, so I won’t belabor the subject. What’s interesting to me is what’s next. Take, for example, Penny Arcade’s take on where this could go in  the future:

This is obvious farce, but it does bear the question of what shapes literary fiction will be made to fit in the future. Are we that far away from an Old Man and the Sea game? Maybe something that fleshes out the conquering back story of Othello? And what happens when we throw other forms of media in the mix? For years now, Marvel Comics has been adapting great literary works that have fallen into the public domain into graphic novels. That’s all one branch of their publishing house, Marvel Illustrated, works on. Check out their takes on Pride and Prejudice, The Odyssey, and yes, a deluxe, hardcover edition of the aforementioned Moby Dick.

So how will literary fiction be represented in the future? Writers are already bemoaning the fact that they have to keep up blogs and concoct elaborate viral videos even as major publishing houses slash their advertising budgets or focus everything on a few mega-blockbusters. What will happen when the release of a new novel must coincide with a tie-in video game and comic book? Will the actual work on the page suffer? Improve? Stay the same?

Obviously, e-readers like the Kindle are one way this whole digital distribution thing may shake out, but perhaps you’ve heard of Apple’s iPad, a project so long in development you can find cave paintings about its impending arrival. The iPad has promised to revolutionize the print industry through iBook, a digital distribution system/eReader. With the iPad and a wifi connection, users will be able to download books, order magazine subscriptions and even purchase comics without ever leaving their home. And the best part is that everything’s in color and the text can be displayed in two appealing ways: horizontally and vertically. It doesn’t resemble the monochromatic Kindle that looks suspiciously like my Gameboy circa 1989. It doesn’t matter if you think eReaders are the worst thing to happen to literature since Dan Brown. If the iPad has even a fraction of the impact on the book market that the original iPod had on the music industry, then we’re on the precipice of a major turning point for how the publishing industry will operate. There’s no point in commiserating. 

And if all this news about the digital is too much for you to handle, I suggest you take a deep breath, relax, and check this out.  It’s the Angry Video Game Nerd reading the novelization of Mega Man 2 in its 90 minute entirety. Enjoy.