Gone in 60 electrons: Digital art swaggers down the cul-de-sac of obsolescence

No lessons learned from (literally) decades of media format wars


Something for the Weekend, Sir? Argh, where did I put that old comic? Someone told me it's a collector's item! It has value!

You may be disappointed to learn that I am not hunting down an issue #1 heirloom featuring caped billionaire fascists or drug-pumped soldiers in patriotic catsuits. What I'm searching for has less of the crime bashing and more, er, kangaroo snogging.

Found it! Found them all, in fact: a complete set of Deadline, all 64 issues from launch to collapse. Given that my move to France a couple of years ago effectively turned my house upside-down, it made sense that everything that used to be stored in the attic would now be in the cellar – and that's where they were.

I'm not looking to sell. I'm trying not to buy.

Maybe you're the same, I dunno, but I have an annoying habit of buying the same thing over and over again. The process goes like this:

1. I notice a serialised comic strip that appeals to me in an anthology that I subscribe to.

2. Months afterwards, I purchase the whole series anew when they are collected and republished as a graphic novel.

3. A decade later, I have forgotten where I put the graphic novel and end up buying the repackaged reprint all over again.

4. After reading the reprint, I pop it onto a bookshelf, only to find I have inserted it right next to the edition that I couldn't find.

Determined not to make all the same mistakes over and over again, on the cusp of ordering Shaky Kane's Good News Bible I went hunting for Mr Kane's originals in my copies of Deadline that I bought in late 1980s and early 1990s from my local newsagent. Hmm, I see the pages have yellowed a bit, especially after they switched to cheaper paper a year after the launch. Maybe I should buy the digital edition.

Ah, now. I forgot to mention step 5:

5. Despite owning the original print run and two alternative collected volumes of the comic strip series, I convince myself that buying a digital edition of the same graphic novel will ensure longevity.

Photo of early issues of Deadline magazine

So 1980s! Some Deadline magazines in Dabbsy's cellar

Here's where things get sticky, because this is often followed by a step 6:

6. The company that sold me the digital comic goes out of business and its app stops working. So I feel obliged to buy it all over again on another platform – as before, for reasons of "longevity".

Anyone would think the media format wars for video and music just passed me by, unnoticed. Yet I know plenty of people who own the same albums in multiple formats: on original vinyl, then cassette, CD with copy protection, post-1990s reissued CD without copy protection, Minidisc, MP3, FLAC, streaming and, of course, vinyl again.

It's a similar story for many dedicated movie fans, whose attics and cellars are piled high with multiple copies of their favourite films on VHS or Betamax (or both), laserdisc, DVD and Blu-ray, only to buy or rent them over and over again via download and streaming because they can't find a working VHS/Betamax/laserdisc/DVD/Blu-ray player compatible with their 8K TV which is equipped with an Ethernet port, an optical port and nothing else.

Which brings us to media content wrapped up in NFT platforms. By the power of Greysk… er, Ethereum and various copycat blockwagons delivering smart contracts, clever digital media such as animated, interactive 3D art can be bought, sold and generally pumped up in fiat currency value without losing track of ownership – even shared ownership of the same content.

Cryptocurrency trading simulator Crypto Parrot calculates that the cumulative trading volume of the 10 leading NFT marketplaces reached $1.63bn earlier this week. So disruptive!

Yes, it's all hype, but what isn't? If the art-as-investment market appears to be gambling on NFT, well, gambling on short-term value is what art dealers do. And who can blame the artists making a quick buck on the craze? It's not just the Banksys and Winklemen, either: London-based artist Andrew Brown recently put 40 of his works up for sale at $500 each and sold the lot almost immediately, earning him $20,000 in 20 seconds. Its value then increased by 25 per cent a week and the last time I looked the collection was worth in excess of $300,000. That's why art investors are interested.

None of this bothers me. I'm not an art collector, even less so if I can't hang it on a wall or balance it on a shelf. All that interactive digital wank is like art installations: they belong in a gallery, museum or pretentious loft space, not squeezed between the sofa and coffee table in my living room. And certainly not locked away inside the same bloody computer I've been sitting in front of all day, not to mention an arcane proprietary NFT platform and obligatory wonky VR headset.

But what's this? Oh no! The NFT craze is threatening to infect the comics industry!

The hugely talented, award-winning and very popular comics artist Nick Percival will see his forthcoming graphic novel Bloodlines published later this month in Terra Virtua NFT-only format. Good luck to him and all that but, kuh-rist almighty, not another format, surely?

"From any device, collectors can use the app to delve into Nick's different creative layers," says Terra Virtua's Jawad Ashraf. Judging from the Terra Virtua site, I suppose "any device" is NFT disruptor slang for "Windows and Android only".

Nick himself says: "I became fascinated in the ways NFTs enable people to experience art in ways that aren't possible in print." Examples of this experience might include animated artwork, being able to peel back creative layers to reveal original concept sketches, and discover "Easter eggs".

Yes, yes, I remember all this being said about animated books created in Macromedia Shockwave format around the turn of the century. And what happened to my investment in Dr Seuss's finest moments on CD? Now used as coffee coasters, the lot of them. And Shockwave's successor, Flash? Urgh. I'd have a better chance of getting Peter Gabriel's XPLORA1 interactive game from 1993 to run on a Hypercard emulator.

Do what you like with your Non-Fungible Tokens, kids, but I've been down the digital format detour too many times already and it always leads to a cul-de-sac. One day you'll discover – just as with my Shockwaves, AVE comics, Minidiscs, VHS tapes and all – that NFT ultimately stands for "Not Fucking There".

Youtube Video

Alistair Dabbs
Alistair Dabbs is a freelance technology tart, juggling tech journalism, training and digital publishing. He acknowledges that he may be wrong about all this, especially about the main aspect of collecting art, which is the process of building the collection rather than the art itself. He also sincerely hopes the NFT hype will prove to be a genuine and not-at-all virtual source of income for beleaguered comic artists. More at Autosave is for Wimps and @alidabbs.

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