The future is now, apparently.

What is a comic? That's the question on everyone's lips, if lips were fingers on a keyboard and everyone was defined by Joe Quesada, Rich Johnston and Kieron Gillen! It all started, dear reader, last Friday when Joseph Quesada reconsidered webcomics at Newsarama: "For the longest time I’ve been an advocate that fans will always want the tangible book in their hands, and I came to that feeling because of what I saw as the reading habits of most folks on the net. But recently I’ve been a convert, I’m watching a very young generation of kids who are born into today’s computers and I realized that my take on this was completely selfish and was coming from a point of all that I knew and not what was really happening out there... there is a time coming, when for some kids the very first time they read a comic they’ll be reading it on their computer or their phone or PDA. That’s what comics will be to them and that number of kids will grow rapidly. Fans ask how we can bring the price of comics down; this is how it may happen. No print cost, minimal distribution and no shipping."

Wait... no print cost? No shipping? This "internet publishing" sounds like something that a smaller company, say one that prints critically-acclaimed but low-selling books, might consider as a way to save money while keeping certain books under contract. But who would do that? The answer, according to Rich Johnston, is Adam Fortier, at Speakeasy:

"The pattern goes as follows, according to Fortier. A book's first issue sells okay, makes money, the second breaks even, the third and fourth lose money. So rather than cancel the book outright, just cancel it in print and put the last two issues online for free. With no printing or handling fee for the creator from Speakeasy. Those readers following the book get a great deal, are guaranteed to be able to finish the series with no comics left hanging, and a completed mini series can then be represented for foreign of mass media rights - which might then lead to the book becoming financially viable again, finishing the series in print or as a graphic novel... And this model has other opportunities. Promoting comics. Completing series from other publishers, by putting already published issues online. This way they can continue the series and allow new readers to get on board. And also create a business model to pay to download comics that have been printed, if a reader has no local comic shop."

According to Rich, this is Fortier "living up to his Smartest Man In Comics TM tag", and he's doing it because "Adam Fortier doesn't want to saddle creators with debt or force them to cancel a book in mid-run if orders are too low." So, instead, he's going to cancel a book in mid-run if orders are too low, but use cutting edge PDF technology to keep the books alive online! And you can even use it to promote books through PDFs, you say? Why has no-one ever thought of this before?!? Truly, he is the Smartest Man In Comics.

Okay, now I'm just being a dick. Rich has a book at Speakeasy, in case you're wondering why he's pushing this as such a good thing. Me, I think it's interesting, but more as Carla Speed McNeil's policy being adopted as a company-wide thing than anything else. I think dressing it up as trying to save the creators money is a sleight-of-hand thing, as Speakeasy could adopt Image's print policy and save creators money that way, if that was the main focus; clearly it's more about the company's bottom line than anything else. I wonder how many of Speakeasy's books will make it past the 1750 initial order cut-off mark, and what the plus is for Speakeasy to publish the PDFs, as opposed to the creators doing it themselves. Presumably, Speakeasy's contract terms - whatever they may be - will stay in effect if they "publish", so that's the plus for them if there are media rights or whatever... But what are the creators getting out of it?

Speakeasy creators are starting to talk about it. Matt Maxwell, of the upcoming Strangeways:

"Now if I were a retailer, and I knew about this, I'd be far less interested in taking any kind of risk on a couple issues of a Speakeasy book if I knew that my preorders were going to possibly evaporate. But that's me. If I were a buyer and knew about this (which would assume I had to know who Speakeasy was as a publisher--and there are plenty who don't), then I'd probably be wary of picking up that issue #1. Why should I buy what I could get for free later on (on the assumption that if you publish issue #3 and #4 of a comic on the internet, you'd make #1 and #2 available in that medium as well.)"

Interesting to see how this pans out...

Anyway, back to defining comics. Kieron Gillen makes my head hurt:

"Cattle class on a British Airways flight to Seattle. I’m off to see a developer. I’m sitting next to Mathilde Remy, the legendary insane French-Woman of Joystick Magazine and probably the most important games journalist alive... She argues that Understanding Comics is - in fact - not a comic. It uses the tools of the form, but is in fact something else entirely. Comics exist to provoke emotion - they are a narrative form... She is stating the word 'comic' should /not/ be expanded to include anything that shares its tools. Comic is a specific use of these tools, rather than a description of the tools itself. Therefore, I expand, Comics is a subset of a greater over-arcing technique of Sequential Art - images placed in juxtaposition to one another to express meaning."

As you may expect, The Engine is all over this one.

Meanwhile, have we all agreed that Manga is comics? That's good. Manga is also, in certain cases, being shrinkwrapped to avoid more scenes like this in the future. Chris Butcher weighs in with some comments on this that are worth reading. Obviously, the solution is clear: If this manga was never a book, but instead downloadable onto the poor child's handheld electronic device of choice, chances are the parents would never have seen the offending images. Everything must be digitized. Now.

Brian's reviews, and list of shipping books, are below. Go read 'em.