If you're reading this on your phone, drop it! (Or at least, drop it once you've finished this article.) That little screen of yours won't give you access to some of the wildest, weirdest, most innovative images and words bubbling up into the culture right now. Said miraculous content can only be found — brace yourself — on paper. To be precise, it can only be found in a flood of new periodicals by brave (or perhaps deluded) publishers who've declared war on digital monotony. Where in the world could such a quixotic movement emerge, you ask? Only in alternative comics.
In the past year or so we've seen the birth of some half-dozen new comics magazines and anthologies, all offline. The Comics Journal, storied arbiter of the indie-comics world, launched a biannual paper edition in January — the first time it's been in print form since 2012. Publisher IDW is on vol. 3 of its quarterly Full Bleed, and political cartoon site The Nib is putting out its fourth print issue (though it recently lost its corporate funding). Then there's Fantagraphics' anthology Now, whose sixth installment dropped in May, and Kitchen Table, from Top Shelf comics' Brett Warnock.
"If I'm looking at artwork, I'd rather have something in my hands," Warnock says. "It's something you can revisit. I don't think digital content has that kind of hold, honestly. I don't trust digital things."
You could argue that such sentiments are mere airy dreaming, typical of a community that's not exactly known for its hard-nosed business sense. After all, the mainstream comics industry has turned its attention to digital delivery. Marvel parent Disney and DC are both launching subscription-based streaming video services, and smaller competitors Image and Dark Horse have direct-to-consumer platforms. But when it comes to alternative comics, paper is still many readers' top choice — or so some publishers hope.
"Comics fans value a good printing more than someone who's reading a novel on Kindle," says The Comics Journal's R.J. Casey. And while The Nib's Matt Bors appreciates a good online experience (noting that his site is optimized to be viewed on phones, with single-panel layouts and features like pinch-to-zoom), he says he's long yearned to see his publication in printed form. The third issue, on the theme of "Empire," includes Rosa Colón's history of the Puerto Rican sugar trade, Spencer Ackerman and Bors' look at the drone war in Somalia, and Whit Taylor's take on the Bachelor TV franchise.
Casey believes comics readers are fundamentally different from people drawn to, say, art books or even mainstream magazines. He points out that many fans fell in love with the medium as kids, through superhero comic books. Their devotion to the form was forged after bedtime, reading comics under the covers with a flashlight.
Besides instilling a love of print, that experience gives comics a unique aura of surreptitious pleasure, says Domino Books publisher Austin English. He says he's always associated reading comics with a sense of privacy.
"There's something that attracts a certain kind of person to cartooning. Because it doesn't take that much space, people can create them in private," he says. "You experience comics in private [too]. There's something positive that happens when you're reading on paper and the only comment you can make is in your own mind."
That feeling of readerly solitude can also come from settling down with a long essay, English says. And so the first issue of his new magazine, But Is It... Comic Aht?, is mostly devoted to a 20-page (counting illustrations) interview with Artichoke Tales author Megan Kelso. Also featured are a review of Julie Doucet's Carpet Sweeper Tales and a look at the Mexican comics scene by Alienation author Inés Estrada.
Coincidentally or not, there happens to be a story on Mexico City's La Mole Comic Con in volume 3 of Full Bleed. The feature — a mélange of text, photos and a striking full-page illustration by Danica Brine — encapsulates the rather astonishing scope and variety of IDW's 200-page, hardcover quarterly. The publisher, which uses Kickstarter campaigns to drive sales, says it's sold 2500-3000 copies of each $25 volume.
"I'm not gonna lie and say we're getting rich on this particular project," says IDW creative director Dirk Wood. He says $25 for 200 pages of content is quite reasonable in the art-comics space, where a single graphic novel can go for that much. Cost control was also on Eric Reynolds' mind when he was planning Now. Though it's printed in color on heavy stock, Now's soft cover and 7" x 10" size mean it can sell for about $10 an issue. Now has featured work by Jesse Reklaw, Noah van Sciver, Eleanor Davis and Tommi Parrish.
"I wanted to make something cheaper that felt a little more utilitarian than some ... high-end art object, something that I thought could reach more people partly because of the price," Reynolds says.
For Warnock, on the other hand, there's nothing wrong with a magazine that feels like an art object. "My favorite food magazines are beautiful," he says. Kitchen Table is packed with prose, photography and comics on all things culinary, from a photo essay on mushroom foraging to a cartoon history of popcorn.
But even a simple newsprint publication can evoke something you don't get from reading online — or so Gabe Fowler believes. The owner of Brooklyn's Desert Island Comics has been putting out Smoke Signal, his Eisner-nominated anthology, for a decade. He sees it as a way to keep a certain kind of old-fashioned, pre-Internet authenticity alive.
"I'm 44, [so] I came up in the indie rock era of mailing things to each other and finding things at the record store," he says. "The Internet is a communication machine that's forever changing, in every second ... it's chaos. [Smoke Signal] is a self-contained object that has meaning."
It says a lot that mere newsprint, once the veritable paradigm of disposability, is now the raw material for "a self-contained object that has meaning." But so it is. If you want the cutting-edge content Fowler and his fellows are delivering, you'll have to embrace permanence — at least for a little while. So: Take a deep breath, count to three and drop your phone ... NOW!
Etelka Lehoczky has written about books for The Atlantic, The Los Angeles Review of Books and The New York Times. She tweets at @EtelkaL.