Digital Reading and Reading Digitally

You are a digital reader. You’re probably reading this on a smartphone, tablet, or computer screen, but even if you were to read this off of a piece of paper, you’d still be a digital reader, because this essay was digitally mediated: typed into a word processing program before it was uploaded onto the website that now hosts it.

Likewise, just about any comic book you read today is digital in the sense that it has been digitally mediated. Even a self-published single issue has probably passed through a digital scanner, but I can’t speak for every comic book. Let’s consider comics published by the Big Two (Marvel and DC) during the Blue Age.

Most books start with a pitch that has been solicited by an editor. An established comics writer might be able to pitch unsolicited, but you can’t just send your Spider-Man fanfic to Marvel (by email or snail mail). Professor Eve Ewing (Ironheart) recently tweeted (to a Twitter following on par with the number of Captain America #1s estimates were sold this summer) about pitching, revising, drafting, and doing work on spec for Marvel Comics (whose parent company, Marvel Entertainment, is worth upwards of 4 billion dollars). I can’t speak to that specific process, but I would imagine that it involved a number of emails.

I could keep going, but I think you get the picture. What’s left is a question: if all Blue Age comics are digital comics, then what’s the difference between someone who reads comics digitally and someone who reads comics in print?

When I first started reading superhero comics, I only read them in digital single issues. At the time, I was in my last semester of college and about to move to another state for graduate school. Even if I had known what a pull list was, I wouldn’t have started one with a local comic book store, because it wouldn’t have been local for very long.

And I didn’t imagine that the local comic book store would be an accessible place. I didn’t have a car, so driving there was already out of the question, and I was a 20-year-old Arab-American woman just beginning to read superhero comics (I’ve read manga since I was a kid). For most of those 20 years, by virtue of my gender and ethnicity, I wasn’t part of a target demographic for superhero comics. Girls have always read comics but haven’t always been recognized as a viable demographic in the American market, and in the eighty-year history of American superhero comics, as Jack Shaheen pointed out, Arabs were often the villains. There still isn’t a Big Two Arab-American superheroine, but there is Ms. Marvel.

So that’s where I started. Had Simon Baz gotten better press, I might’ve started with Green Lantern, but sometime between the fall of 2013 and the spring of 2014, I heard about Kamala Khan. I set up an account with and subscribed to G. Willow Wilson and Adrian Alphona’s new series. Ms. Marvel (2014-2015) #1 debuted in February. I graduated a few months later, went home for the summer, and then moved to the city where I would complete my master’s degree over two years. In that time, I would write my master’s thesis using trade paperbacks of No Normal, Generation Why, Crushed, and Last Days that I had purchased from the local comic book store as primary sources. So, if you were wondering, I read comics in print, too.

Now, two or three weeks of the month, I get an email telling me that at least one of the comics that I’m digitally subscribed to is being released that Wednesday. If it isn’t Wilson’s ongoing Ms. Marvel then it’s probably something written by Saladin Ahmed (I have one rule for my monthly subscriptions: the book must have a woman and/or person of color on the creative team). At 3:00 AM EST (midnight on the West Coast), my subs show up in my Recently Purchased queue on comiXology. When I wake up, closer to 7 or 8 AM, they’re there waiting for me.

I have a car now, and there are at least seven comic book stores in a fifty-mile radius of where I live, but I still read digitally. I stopped going to the store closest to me because I was made to feel unwelcome by an employee. I don’t need to see any arguments for supporting local business: my safety and well-being are more important to me than my money is to them. The rest are too far away to justify the back-and-forth trip just to pick up comics that I can more easily read digitally in my pajamas, from the comfort of my bed.

When the arc of a given series ends, I pre-order the trade paperback on Amazon (another example of digital mediation). There is a two-week delay between the time that new trades hit brick-and-mortar stores and the time that they are released by Amazon. There’s also usually a discount that makes waiting two weeks for comics that I’ve already read more than worth it.

So, what’s the difference between someone who reads comics digitally and someone who reads comics in print?

Single issues. Someone who reads single issue comics in print might just prefer the physical medium. They could be a lifelong reader or they could have just come to superhero comics, as I have, in the last few years. They are privileged enough to have a local comic book store within what they consider to be reasonable (and manageable) traveling distance and even more privileged to feel welcome there. And they don’t mind waiting until that store opens and has its product on shelves to be able to read a new comic book any given Wednesday.

But the biggest difference? Series can live or die by single issue print sales. So the money that a print reader spends on a single issue that they added to their pull list two or three months in advance is worth more than the same amount spent digitally on the same single issue (sans advertisements). That’s why Ewing wrote a guide to pre-ordering on Twitter. Those sales could make or break a new book like Ironheart.

Anyone that reads Blue Age comics is a digital reader, but the difference between someone who reads comics digitally and someone who reads comics in print is how much their money is worth. That often means that the money that marginalized people who read comics digitally spend to see themselves in superhero comics is worth less.