On my shelf of Good Stuff, within reaching distance of me as I type this, are two small manga anthologies by Yoshiharu Tsuge — he of the famously-weird Neji-shiki, among other things. I bought them for $3.50 each from the Strand in New York City. One of them still has the obi strip; the other has a dedication written in black-fading-to-brown ink on the flyleaf. They are physical artifacts. I imagine that long after I have sold off or given away many other books in my library, I will still have these.
By the time that happens, I worry that I might not be able to have comics as physical artifacts anymore.
For a while now I've been trying to write an essay about e-publishing and manga — or, more generally, comics — and I keep running into the same problem. I don't believe, in the seat of my funky soul, that comics deserve a fate like e-publishing. I worry that the rush to electronic publishing is destroying the idea of bound printed matter as an end in itself. I worry that swapping pages for screens is not and can never be a one-for-one, or even a one-for-many proposition. I worry a lot.
I know, I sound like a Luddite. Worse, a fretting and potentially hypocritical one, since I'm typing this on a computer (gasp) with two monitors (double gasp) while my Android-powered smartphone remains within reach as well. But I will also say that familiarity breeds contempt, or at the very least skepticism.
The entry tithe
The first problem with digital comics, e-manga, is a problem I have with e-publishing generally. E-publishing is going to remain a niche as long as there's a $100, $200, or even $600 tithe required just to get in the door. A big niche, but still a niche.
I suspect this problem will be one of the first to be solved, but it's worth mentioning because it's not solving itself automatically.
I already have a phone, a computer, a laptop — why do I need to shell out another few hundred bucks for another device which will be used for nothing but reading digital texts? Those of you who are more of the Cory Doctorow persuasion will understand what I mean when I say they're not really selling you e-books, but a content-protection channel. (They're not even selling you the books, come to think of it — not as long as you can't give them away.)
To all this, one person I know replied: Why is it worth getting up in arms about the cost of e-readers, when nobody with a leg to stand on gripes about the cost of the XBOX 360 or the PS3?
Said I, Because those things have no precedent. Books have been with us since there was ink to smear on paper, and constitute a least-common-denominator approach to reading that remains relatively cheap.
To turn around and demand that you suddenly need to raise the bar for entry from "a light source and a pair of eyes" to "a fragile, friable, possibly proprietary electronic gadget with who knows what kind of lifetime and vanishingly few ways to transfer used copies of media without being a pirate" is not exactly progress, especially if you're talking about that being the savior of publishing as an industry (which sounds more like chicken-licken-the-sky-is-falling than an actual strategy).
Yes, comes the answer. But we have to be realistic. We may be headed towards a world where producing books as we know them may become as economically untenable, as inefficient an approach to distributing information as the wandering minstrel. If one e-book eclipses, over the lifetime of the device, the production cost of a thousand print books, is that not a positive thing?
It probably is — provided the publishing industry as a whole is able to accept the cost of the e-reader as part of the general cost of e-publishing.
This is something else that's not happening automatically. All the more reason it needs to be stumped for, aggressively. Other folks have mentioned the idea of, say, getting a free e-reader with the purchase of X number of e-books, which by itself would go a fair distance towards justifying the price of the unit upfront. But right now the publishers and the digital gatekeepers have such an adversarial relationship that I don't see such things become commonplace until they learn to need each other a little more.
Art as artifact
The other problem with digital versions of what has been an inherently analog medium — up until recently, anyway — is that you lose something in the transition. Namely, the medium itself.
This past week I've been reading a couple of titles that I wanted to read on paper, not on a screen: Taiyo Matsumoto's No. 5, and Seiichi Hayashi's Red-Colored Elegy. Neither of these things were devised to be read on a screen, and it shows. No screen that can be reduced to anything remotely economical (either in size or budget) can reproduce the kind of detail available through conventional offset printing. That goes trebly for color, or for spot inks, or for unusual printing/binding materials, etc.
All of which, I'd argue, are at least as much of the publishing experience as the words themselves. Doubly so for comics, which are inherently visual and benefit that much more from being a visual artifact. When they're reduced to pixels on a screen, they become a recording instead of a live concert. Those of you without a portable digital reader (or anything passing for same) are stuck peering at a computer screen, wherever you may be lucky enough to have one.
Comics are like photo or art books: they're as much about the presentation as the material. They're physical. Yes, they can be presented electronically — but only at the cost of making them into something else. What was once the domain of print is now being asked to turn into, for lack of a better way to say it, a webcomic. What used to live in two entirely different domains are now being asked to co-exist that much more forcibly.
There are some disadvantages to paper that I cannot deny. When I read a copy of, for instance, Dark Horse's editions of Lone Wolf and Cub, I resent that the brushwork and inking has been jammed into a space barely larger than my spread hand. It wouldn't be bad to zoom in on the details and see them in their full glory. I just fear that such convenience comes at the cost of too many other things that also make comics what they are.
You choose, you lose — but choose you must
So which is more important: the medium or the content? And if this is a false dichotomy, how can we stump for that?
The easy answer is to just shrug and wait for a time when this isn't a relevant question. Someday, it'll all be digital. But that's also the wrong answer, because in waiting you give up any power of controlling how the transition takes place, or what it costs.
I know a lot of people who essentially grew up reading comics in one electronic format or another are not going to find this as egregious. I don't want to dismiss them by saying they don't know what they're losing if they never had it in the first place. They have had the luxury of choosing both paper and plastic (to coin a phrase).
I also don't doubt that things may be entirely different from the creator's standpoint. They may not care how their work gets into readers' hands as long as they're benefiting from it. Few of them lament losing the opportunity to draw every copy of their work by hand or press them on their own hand-cut woodblock press. After enough time has passed, they will almost certainly feel the same way about paper vs. pixels.
But that kind of hindsight is years, if not a generation or more, away. We need a way to make the transition gracefully, to create a system where the pixels and the paper complement each other instead of trying to squeeze each other out, and the whole problem of how to deal with comics (and manga, specifically, with its scanlations and other quandaries) is fast shaping up as an arena for most of that work to be done. This is the place for the hardest work to be done, and it has to be done now before someone else does it for us.
Sad to say, I haven't the faintest idea how to strike this balance. I know that several key tools are already available — print-on-demand, for instance, which radically cuts down on the amount of outlay required to put a book into print. It is not the solution, but one component of the solution, and it still requires aggressive development to be useful for publishers whose output is mainly graphics and not text.
I just want to know that for at least the next generation or more, I am not going to be forced to use anything other than my own two eyes to read the books I love — and I don't want to blame my own fellow readers, in their rush towards whatever's new at the expense of whatever's tried-and-true, for that sorry state of affairs if I can help it. Nor, I imagine, would they want the blame in the first place.