Digital technology is intruding everywhere. No matter how much criticism or praise it receives, artists themselves are aware of it. The theatrical milieu benefits from advanced computer graphics projections, cinema and series gain in popularity with on-demand services, literature is also consumed on e-readers, etc. Of course, the ninth art - the comic book - was not going to escape digitization. However, this comes with questions about what's next, especially in European countries like France.
A great French resistance
The Hexagon belongs, along with Belgium, to one of the most creative lands in terms of the ninth art. What about digital consumption of comics? ... Not so high, according to figures obtained in 2021. Thus, a study by the National Book Center would show that 99% of children and 98% of adults surveyed prefer to consult their pictorial adventure in paper. Figures that would almost make one say that the country is a Gaul that "defends" itself against the digitization of this art cherished since childhood. But the picture is actually much more mixed. Because the market share of digital photography is only growing. In fact, a quarter of young people and a third of older people have also read some digitally on a tablet or computer.
Besides, pandemic-related containment has contributed to this growth. Nevertheless, it is growing much more slowly than in other parts of the world. While it is becoming almost the majority in Asia (more on this below), it only accounts for 2% of industry sales at best. Moreover, consumption also seems more "conservative". Indeed, there are two types of digital comics: the one adapted from the traditional model to be read on electronic devices and the so-called "native" ones, designed for the digital universe and with software. The latter are more often called by the English term "webcomics".
Or, if the sale of those adapted comics seems to be correct, that of the natives does not interest readers as much. Thus, a French platform thought for the latter, BayDay, had to close the doors after only one year of existence. In fact, most French and European players recognize that the market is nothing like the Asian one.
Massive adoption in Asia
Let's talk about Asia and especially South Korea. While manga is the proud fruit of Japan, Korea can boast of being the motherland of the "webtoon", comics expressly designed for digital. They first appeared around 2000 and the first official sites, including Naver Webtoon, went online around 2004. The latter has 72 million users in the world 17 years later and has a turnover of 500 million dollars. From Thailand to the United States, everyone is clamoring for the various adventures, dramas and more. Much of its success is based on its top-down reading mode, so it's perfect for viewing on phones on the way to school or work.
There are now more than 50 platforms hosted in Korea and nearly 30 worldwide, including Webtoon France, representing the French-speaking world, which is increasingly fond of these stories. Is this approach a revolution? It's hard to say, but the world of comics has decided to get more serious about it. On the Internet, more and more sites are offering both classic and native works online. The European giant is called Izneo, but others are also trying to make their mark like Sequencity or bdBuzz. On the American side, ComiXology offers access particularly to American comics from Marvel and DC, among others. This platform also offers thousands of French-language titles.
Adapting art to digital
This metamorphosis of the ninth art requires adaptations related to the medium. For example, tables of contents need to be much more visual so that the reader knows where they are and can easily resume reading in a timely manner. This can be done through visual cues that adopt the codes of the work's universe. A way to immerse the individual in the story.
Comic book fans, especially comic book fans, are often very proud of their collection. The many issues amassed are a source of pride, and they usually know where the various story arcs are. As this American analyst of the field explains, current applications don't always take this into account. As a result, it can be very difficult for an avid reader to find the issue he or she is looking for in their library on ComiXology. So he suggests that those in charge of the software think about the indexing of works so that patrons won't have to break so many heads.
As the medium goes digital, more and more experts are talking about comics in NFT (non-fungible token). The idea is to use blockchain technology to create unique achievements in very few copies. In the way that some old comic books have become valuable given their rarity, this would be the same for some comics. The VeVe service wants part of its catalog to be made up of these NFTs. Incidentally, Marvel has launched on this platform offering classic issues of Spider-Man or Captain America in this form.
For now, the NFT effect is still very small on the medium. It is a young technology and comes with its share of criticisms. Its environmental footprint is abysmal, uniqueness certification is controversial, and the debate is likely to arise as to what will be part of NFT. Will the classics be in the hands of only a few richer people?
So the digitization of comics comes with still big question marks. Nevertheless, it has allowed a democratization among young authors who, thanks to webcomics, have sometimes gained notoriety they would not otherwise have had. The self-publishing that the Internet offers is an undeniable source of freedom that will be able to influence many budding artists.
Illustration : Erik Mclean on Unsplash
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