What’s Lost With the DC Comics Digital Reboot

Will tablet reading ruin the community of new-release Wednesdays at your local comic-book shop?

Comic book geeks have a special love for Wednesdays—it’s the day the shelves of their favorite comic shop are filled with new releases. Today’s arrivals also come with a bit of history, as DC Comics continues to “reboot” all 52 of its titles, starting them over at issue one and hitting the reset button on their storylines. Action Comics #1 hits the stands this morning, and might be the most anticipated of them all, with a new-look Superman and a story by Grant Morrison, arguably the best writer in the business (and probably the only one who’s channeled the spirit of John Lennon). But far more troubling than the Man of Steel’s new jeans-and-workboots uniform is what looms ahead for the comic book industry and future generations of fanboys (and girls).

The problem here is progress. DC is also selling its rebooted comics digitally, so if you have a tablet device, you can skip your friendly neighborhood shop altogether and download your Batmans and Wonder Womans. As the industry struggles to compete with everything from the Internet to video games, the digital shift makes sense as a self-preservational business decision. It also feels like the first step toward making great local retailers like Fat Jack’s and Brave New Worlds obsolete. Part of what makes comic fans so passionate is the culture that’s devoted to the form. Sure, you can stop by to pick up your weekly haul and head home. But the fun comes from hanging out—browsing for titles that catch your eye, discovering the next big thing, like The Walking Dead series that’s now a hit TV show, or engaging in debates over esoterica, such as who is the all-time greatest Spider-Man villain (Green Goblin, duh). I’ve never been to a comic book shop that’s silent; there’s always chatter between the clerks and customers. So what happens when Wednesdays are just the day when you tap a button on your iPad?

I still remember weekends at the old Holiday Inn on Rt. 73 in South Jersey, where comic vendors from across the Delaware Valley would set up shop in the hotel’s huge ballroom. It was nerd heaven. Rows of boxes filled with tales of the superpowered and the supernatural. Vintage comics in protective bags hanging from the walls that were far out of my adolescent price range. The smell of old paper and the feel of brittle pages from issues printed decades before I was born. Hours would disappear as I thumbed through my favorite titles and discovered exciting new ones. I fell out of the hobby in high school and it wasn’t until years later that a friend and former colleague, Duane Swierczynski, turned me on again. It felt like getting back to my roots, and I realized that reading comics as a kid had expanded my vocabulary and, in a way, led me on the path to a writing career. Duane did me one better—he’s now a successful comic book author, with credits on some of my favorite characters, including the Punisher and Wolverine. The excitement of walking into Fat Jack’s and seeing one of his books on display can’t be replicated by a digital download.

It’s tempting to draw a parallel between comics and the music industry, where Tower Records and mom-and-pop stores have been replaced by iTunes. A few years ago, the owner of my go-to music shop growing up, Tunes in Voorhees, told me he was holding on with help from online sales. Like his business, the best comic retailers will find a way to survive the coming digital revolution. Many others will fold. With music, I admit to being part of the problem—even though I often feel like the last guy on Earth who still occasionally buys an actual CD, most of my purchases these days are MP3s. Regardless of the delivery method, what matters most with music is what you hear.

Comics are different, though. There’s something lost in not holding those pages in your hand, or meticulously storing your books in acid-free plastic sleeves. There’s also something sacred about comic books shops, especially on new release day. I’d argue they are more like art galleries than record stores. Imagine if the only way you could appreciate a Wyeth painting or a Rodin sculpture was to download photos of those masterpieces? You can joke that fanboys already have a gathering place—it’s called the Internet—but no website can replace the sense of community you’ll find today as the new Superman is dissected and its pages are turned by hand. Hopefully, DC and other publishers can find a way to keep up with technology without sacrificing what makes comic books such a beloved, vital art form.