Friday, September 4, 2009

Comics That Will Never Smell

Geoff's love letter to newsprint (this is after all a writer with a blog called "Pulp Ink") left me fondly recalling my teenage stint as a comic shop clerk up in Winnipeg, Canada in the 1970's. The place where I worked ("Doug Sulipa's Comic World") was a big business as Canadian comics shops go, and part of my job was filling mail orders from all over the continent at a basement warehouse in the suburbs. There were endless rooms and halls filled floor to ceiling with stacks of moldering old comics, and you can be sure I squandered lots of time leafing through them when I should've been working. Needless to say, the experience left me with a Proustian response to the aroma of decaying newsprint: I get weak-kneed with nostalgic pleasure.

(Doug Sulipa)

But this is another century, and as we all know by now, everything is moving to the Internet, where nothing smells. In my last post, I got glum as I worried that the postmodern explosion of styles and schools of comics would lead us to a dystopia where artists outnumbered readers, and I laid at least part of the blame on digital delivery via the Web. So this time, in all fairness to the internet, I'd like to offer the optimistic side of the coin.

As Geoff pointed out in his post, music's move to digital distribution, via the CD and then the MP3 has had a pretty drastic effect on the aesthetics of what used to get called "album art". I happen to work in that very field, and I can tell you from long experience that everyone in the music business is acutely aware of what a shadow of its former self music packaging has become.

But what digitization taketh away, it can sometimes also restore - the new buzz is all about a project called "Cocktail" being cooked up between Apple and the major labels. Cocktail is supposed to be an attempt to revive the concept of "albums", which have withered away in the era of iTunes, by allowing listeners to download an elaborate package of liner notes, art, photos and even videos. The kicker is that Apple will (as the rumors have it) be releasing a new "tablet" computer - a sort of giant iPod - for listening, watching and reading it all.

Obviously, this sounds like the perfect platform for digital comics - a big portable e-reader with a color display. Whether it's really going to go according to rumor is an open question, but unquestionably devices like this are starting to pop up and will become ubiquitous soon enough. Still, what makes me optimistic that digital comics will even work, given their spotty track record up until now? Two things:

1. The embarrassment factor: I am a middle aged man, and I find it very difficult to go into comics shops. Something about them makes me feel a bit icky, like I'm shopping for porn videos. Frankly, I use my 9 year-old son as a "beard" when I want to go pick up some new altcomics treats: "Hah hah! Sure son, I'll take you to see the funny books". And when I read comics, it's in the privacy of my home. On the commute to work, it's the New York Times all the way.

But if I could read comics without having to flash them around... well, fuck the grey lady!

(Besides, it's already happening with little bitty cell phones.)

2. The convenience factor: I used to own thousands of comic books, but I got rid of them some time during my bachelor years because they were too much trouble to lug from pad to pad whenever I moved (also, they got embarrassing - see above). Lots of things get less convenient as your life gets more complicated - I owned hundreds of vinyl LPs too (which I kept - not quite as embarrassing), but I went through a period of about - jesus - fifteen years where I stopped buying new music and barely bothered listening to the CDs and tapes I had lying around. Too busy!

Then the whole iTunes thing happened. And within the last five years, I somehow managed to amass a collection of ... (goes and checks iTunes) ... 14,147 songs. Which is about 1400 LPs' worth, or about five times as much music as I owned when I was a 20 year old punk rock fanatic with no mortgage and no kids to feed.

This is the digital logic of it all. I'm already saving PDFs of old scanned comics I find around the web, stuff I'd never buy as books or floppies for any price because I have no where to put it. But would I spend money for say, the complete works of Carl Barks for an e-reader? You bet I would - even without the smell.


  1. personally I think it's cool to see a middle aged man or woman reading comics in public, esp in full business attire - it sends a message like: my mind is not a predictable generic receptacle...

  2. Heh - I think my problem is I look like such an old weirdo now that I'm trying to seem reasonably predictable/generic in public...

  3. Well, even if you did continue buying comics into the foreseeable future, most of those published within the last ten years wouldn't have that wonderful smell anyway, being as the're now printed on that slick, glossy paper.

  4. Too true! -- although I do remember the particularly pungent smell of the glossy paper in a 1972 issue of Playboy magazine my dad had stashed in the bowels of his upholstered white vinyl bar in our rec room. At least, I hope it was the paper...