Print-On-Demand Comic Books Change the Game

The big players in the world of comic books, DC and Marvel, have grown exponentially in the past decade, thanks to their movies, television programs, games, and more and more merchandise. If you don’t want to or can’t align with a publisher to get your own comic book out there, consider print-on-demand (POD), where printing technologies and printing companies allow you to create whatever you want, whenever you want. Print-on-demand benefits creators in a big way, and the perks for readers are huge because it provides plenty of titles to choose from—far more than my grocery store ever used to offer.

Print-On-Demand Comics

Comic Books Then & Now

I grew up with comic books, and my weekends were spent hunting and gathering my favorite titles at the local grocery store (who sold them in a metal rack) or the newsstand at the mall (who had a much nicer wooden rack displaying them). I loved reading them, and wanted to make them, but breaking into comic books then meant breaking into the industry, getting your foot in the door at DC or Marvel, two of the biggest players in the comic book world. By 1986, Dark Horse became another option. And when seven of Marvel’s comic book creators broke away in 1992 to form Image, it signaled a paradigm shift. Creator-owned comics became a reality.

If you didn’t want a mainstream publisher, or one wouldn’t pick you up, you could also create your own short-run zine, making copies at the local Kinko’s or AlphaGraphics, or other print shop. Alternatively, if you created your comic on your computer, you could print it yourself using your dot-matrix or laser or inkjet printer. (Caution: this has always used a lot of paper, and you have to dedicate a lot of time to binding and distributing your book yourself.)

But with print-on-demand, the production is out of your hands. And thanks to the web, you can easily distribute your comic book. Make your comic book or graphic novel—or any other book for that matter—send the layout to the vendor, then select your paper, binding, and quantities, and finally, click order. Done and done. Over the years, my students have used a vendor out of North Carolina named Lulu for creating their comic books and graphic novels, and they have had a positive experience from the moment they’ve placed their order up until the time they receive their books. Lulu even has a special part of their site dedicated to comic books, where you can order from their available titles or create your own.

Print-On-Demand Comics

Expanding Your Reach

With POD, both readers and creators benefit since the market is wide open. Richard Graham, associate professor at University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s University Libraries, has been familiar with POD since 2004, when he saw an Espresso Book Machine® at North Dakota State University’s bookstore. More and more Espresso Book Machines (EBM) are popping up around the world. Graham, a member of the 2015 Eisner Award Judging Panel and an Eisner Award and Harvey Award Nominee (2012) himself, is co-author of the book A Brief History of Comic Book Movies and sees plenty of benefits for POD, with creators and readers benefitting. With POD comic books created on the EBM or at vendors such as Lulu, Graham says, “The publisher is no longer the gatekeeper, and optimistically, it should bring more readers into the fold.”

Print-On-Demand Comics

Availability is also a big issue, and POD solves that problem. From Graham’s perspective, “If a rights owner makes a series available through POD, I can now access what a brick and mortar didn’t have the space for or a compilation that a publisher didn’t think would recoup expenses.” That could be a book like Unbelievable Gwenpool—which Graham uses as an example—or it could be a title that’s part of neither Marvel nor DC. John Jennings, professor of media studies at the University of California Riverside and Eisner Award recipient (2018) for Kindred, began using Lulu in the 2000s. Jennings has observed POD and its competitive pricing functioning as “the life’s blood” of counter-cultural black comix, with heroes and stories created by the African American comics community. “When I see conversations about ‘the comics industry’ and ‘the future,’ it always seems to posit a monolithic industry and that isn’t true. There’s many aspects to American comics and just as many audiences. Most people are generally talking about the Direct Market which is run by Marvel and DC. The culture I am a part of doesn’t do business with that space so much and, honestly, isn’t really allowed to. So, to me, on-demand printing is a liberating force to underrepresented voices even with its limitations.”

Questions of Quality

Limitations can be small or large, depending on your perspective and expectations, and depending on the vendor or vendors you use. In addition to Lulu, there’s IndyPlanet and comiXology, both of whom offer print-on-demand services to create your own comics and graphic novels—like Lulu, each have digital book equivalents. ComiXology Originals titles will now be produced by Amazon and its print-on-demand technology, making Amazon a publisher, printer, and distributor. But on Twitter, Eric Reynolds, associate publisher of Fantagraphics Books, has been outspoken about comiXology, especially when it comes to quality. Are print-on-demand comic books entirely low-quality, with shoddy paper, poor binding, color gamut problems? “All of the above,” says Reynolds, “You have vastly fewer options to choose from. The print quality is poor. The binding is cheap. The paper feels icky to the touch (I don’t know any other way to describe it). It’s the fast food of printing.” (When contacted for an interview, comiXology did not respond.)

Reynolds sees the danger in Amazon staking a claim like this. “We already know that Amazon already is the most dominant player in the digital comics marketplace and that they want to consolidate that market share even further. This is an attempt to integrate the physical and print arms in such a way to further condition consumers to patronize Amazon, by making original content exclusively available to Amazon consumers. Amazon also is offering POD services to publishers that also aim to strengthen Amazon’s market share for all content, and to condition consumers to patronize Amazon by giving them product (POD) when no other booksellers have access.”

Having read what Reynolds wrote on Twitter, Jennings appreciates his stance. “I think Eric has a lot of valid points. However, I also think that comics in our country need some kind of ‘tumult’ to shake things up a bit. The Direct Market is a really terrible model for the monthly pamphlet comics and it’s not a welcome space for new diverse audiences. I say let’s see what happens. If Amazon/comiXology can help get more comics in more people’s hands (even if they have some printing issues) then why not? Something has to change.”

Where Quality (Really) Counts

For many creators, quality matters, and rightfully so. Taking pride in your craft means seeing the highest levels of production at all stages, including the final product. For Reynolds, “the quality of print-on-demand still remains sub-par to our own personal standards of book-making.” He is, however, supportive of the opportunities presented. “Look, it’s great that comiXology is creating opportunities for cartoonists and (by all accounts) paying competitive rates to creators. Theoretically, I suppose, it could introduce some new readers to comics (although I’m skeptical about that, in practice).” As a young comic book reader decades ago, paper and ink quality didn’t matter a whole lot to me. I had to take what I could get—newsprint, blobby inks, and all. When high-quality comic books came into the picture towards the end of the twentieth century, it dramatically changed the landscape, especially for collectors. Richard Graham says that those printing and publishing advances might have introduced us to slick books, with nice paper and inks, but there’s a downside. Maybe we’ve become a bit spoiled.

Sure, high-quality printing is nifty but it’s also expensive, something that John Jennings sees as a deterrent. “We’ve elevated the graphic form of the comic a great deal but it definitely out a particular class and demographic because of the cost.” If POD comics and independently produced comics cost less, and in turn become more accessible, than it’s a win for everyone. It’s a chance for something new, something special, something readers may have never seen before, something great. And in terms of greatness, there’s one thing that really matters according to Jennings. “Personally, I will read a comic if it’s scrawled on a paper bag. If it’s a great story, a streak in a solid black isn’t going to kill it.”

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