In theory, the system works like this: each time I go to the comic shop, I read the new comics, enter them into my database, then file them away. Later on, I can pull out a particular issue to re-read (the advantage of drawers over a stack of boxes). In practice, the filing cabinets tend to be "write only storage", i.e. I put stuff in but rarely take it out again. I think the key issue here is accessibility. I have full access to the bookcase, so I can reach into any shelf to pull out a particular book without having to move anything else. By contrast, I have a table stored in front of the filing cabinets, so I have to drag that out of the way every time I want to get in, which is sufficient hassle that I can't really be bothered. Also, the individual issues are all in protective bags, so I have to faff around with sellotape on them.
So, one option I've been thinking about for several years is digital comics. That's why I originally bought a 19" monitor (back before it was common practice) - that's big enough to have a double-page spread of a typical American comic at full size. I was originally going to scan my own collection, but I only got as far as doing a few covers. In Jan 2006, I bought 40 years of the Amazing Spider-Man (from GIT Media Group): that's 11 CDs full of scanned issues, in pdf format. I paid £49.99, and it has 501 issues, so that averages out at about 10p per issue. However, in the last few years I've only read 1 or 2 of the issues.
In 2008, Cracked.com ran one of their Photoshop contests: "What if everyone on eBay was forced to be honest?" The entry in 7th place is for a set of comics, and the description says: "Great collection, but you'll just put them in your basement without ever looking at them anyway, so what's the difference?" That seemed quite bizarre when I first saw it; why would people buy comics and not read them? (Admittedly, there are speculators who want to sell the comics at a higher price later, but they've mostly disappeared now.) However, I now have to admit that there is a lot of truth in that.
I think part of the problem is "too much, too fast". I currently buy 7 comics a month, so even if I don't go to the shop for a while, I can still read the whole lot over a weekend. By contrast, if I get hundreds of comics at once, that's a bigger undertaking, so I tend to put it off. I did the same thing when I was buying Hulk back-issues (Peter David's run): initially I bought them in a fairly random order (as and when I saw them), and when I eventually filled all the gaps I decided to wait until I could read the whole lot chronologically. However, I put it off for so long that I wound up selling some of them unread. Fortunately, Marvel are now putting out Hulk Visionaries TPBs every so often, and this means that I'm actually buying the stories at a pace I can keep up with.
Coming back to the pdfs, one nice issue is that there's no DRM. That means that I can open them without needing a password or computer registration. These are scanned issues, so that means you get everything (including adverts), not just the story, but that's no worse than reading the paper copies. Actually, when I've read back issues from the 1960s and 1970s, it's quite fun to see the old adverts, although that doesn't apply to modern comics.
One downside of the CDs is that you get exactly what they promised on the box. In other words, you get every issue of The Amazing Spider-Man in the 40 year period, but you don't get any annuals. There was a DVD release a couple of months after I bought the CDs, which does include annuals, but I didn't want to buy all the issues again. More importantly, it doesn't include the other Spider-Man titles, e.g. The Spectacular Spider-Man or Web of Spider-Man. That's a bit of a problem for crossovers, e.g. Maximum Carnage had 14 chapters spread across 5 different titles. If you only read The Amazing Spider-Man then you'll only get chapters 3, 7, and 11. I hoped that GIT would do similar CD/DVD sets for the other Spidey titles, then I could combine the pdfs, but that hasn't happened. One other drawback is that it's difficult to find a particular issue unless you know which year it was published.
More recently (in Feb 2010), I took out a subscription to Marvel Digital Comics. I paid £42.12 (about $60) for a year's subscription. Most single issues cost either £2.20 ($2.99) or £2.85 ($3.99), so if I read 19 issues that I'd normally have paid for then I'll break even. So far I've read 18 that match that rule, plus another 10 that I wouldn't have bought in paper, so I'm happy with the money I've spent. One interesting example is Runaways. I initially bought that as "digests" (manga sized TPBs), so I have all of the first series (18 issues) and issues #1-6 of the second series in that format. I then bought issues #7-24 individually, then dropped it altogether while I was cutting back on expenses. When I re-read the series recently, I started with the 4 digests, then read issues #7-30 online. I think this is quite revealing: even when I had the paper copies available to me, I still found it more convenient to read them online. I think that paper collections are better than the online versions, particularly if I get deluxe (oversized) hardbacks, but I'll save that for special favourites, e.g. JLA/Avengers.
There are some free comics available on the Marvel website, so you can open them to see how it works. The main difference between this and the CDs is that I'm not explicitly downloading them. Technically that's not true; obviously the data is being copied to my computer, but it's just stored in a temporary cache file somewhere, rather than being a data file for me to double-click. That means that I have to be online to view the comics, and if I cancel my subscription then I can't read them anymore. On the other hand, this is more like Sky TV than iTunes: I pay a flat rate, regardless of how many comics I read. The online comics don't have adverts, and they're quite fast to load. One snag of webcomics is that you have a brief pause each time you click to the next page; it may not feel like much, but there's a definite cumulative effect, which is one reason to buy printed copies. With the Marvel website, you can start reading the comic before it's loaded the whole thing, and it will continue to load the remaining pages in the background, so that's far more efficient. It's quite easy to find a particular issue in their online catalogue (unlike the CDs), and once you've read it they offer suggestions for related issues (e.g. the next one in the series), so it's easy to click through.
People can subscribe on a monthly or annual basis (I chose annual). From Marvel's point of view, I think the main risk is that someone could subscribe for a month, "slurp" down the entire archive, cancel their membership, then come back in a year's time to re-subscribe for another month. However, that's unlikely because you have to read online; the website will let you read as many comics as you like, but there are only so many hours in the day! If Marvel were concerned about this, one solution would be to rotate the content, e.g. to say that they will always have 1,000 back issues available but each month they would add 100 and remove 100. I hope that they don't do that, because then I wouldn't be able to re-read the issues that they've removed. However, I doubt it will come to that. If all the issues were standalone then it wouldn't be so bad, but removing random issues from the middle of a storyline would make it harder for people to read that story, which would put off new readers. Also, I think it's a slightly different business model here; even if I read everything that I want, and I'm not interested in any new issues, I still get value from my subscription by treating them as a storage facility (the online equivalent of Big Yellow). The main risk is that they may shut down the entire website if it turned out to be unprofitable, but hopefully that won't happen.
The biggest downside to the website is that they add issues in a strange order. I think this is because they don't want to compete directly with paper comics and cannibalise their existing sales, so they're not making it easy for people to go online as a replacement. If they simply had a time lag (e.g. 2 years behind paper issues), that would be fine, but they don't go in strictly sequential order. For instance, Marvel Zombies has had several mini-series so far. The Marvel website has every issue of Marvel Zombies and Marvel Zombies 2. It then has issues #1-3 of Marvel Zombies 3 and Marvel Zombies 4, i.e. it's missing the final issue of both. The publishing calendar doesn't mention when those missing issues will appear, so I could be waiting a long time between #3 and #4 of the 3rd series (much longer than the 1 month interval for paper issues), and I don't want to start the 4th series until I've finished the 3rd. Of course, I could buy the TPBs for both series right now if I'm really in a hurry, so in that sense the website is acting as an advert for the paper copies. Similarly, I mentioned Maximum Carnage above; the Marvel website has 12 out of the 14 chapters, but not the beginning or the ending, because they haven't digitized Spider-Man Unlimited yet. That's not a problem for me, because I have paper copies of those issues, but it's an odd choice.
When I buy comics at the shop, I have a "pull list", so each time a new issue of (say) Fables comes out, they'll put a copy to one side for me. It would be nice to do the same thing on the Marvel website, but at the moment I can't. However, I do get emails every week listing all the new issues, and it's not too onerous to read through that.
The website has a couple of "list" sections, e.g. "My Must-Read List", "Highlights", and "Fan Favorites". I can only control the first one, and it's mainly useful to mark things so that I can come back to them later. I'd like to have a separate option for my favourite comics (like on YouTube), but that's not there at the moment. Still, I can't do that with paper copies either, so I'm no worse off; I can just keep my own list separately (e.g. a text file).
The other downside to the website is that I can't read comics while I'm on the move. I do have a netbook, but the screen is far too small for this. When I got my Sony Reader, I considered buying an iPad instead: I could then use that for books and comics, rather than getting 2 separate devices. The iPad screen is roughly the same size as a single page of a comic; you can view a double-page spread by shrinking/rotating, but that will reduce the impact. In fairness, though, that may not be any worse than digests. Anyway, I decided against that for the time being, partly due to the cost and partly because the whole Apple thing feels like an ideology; I'm not ready to start wearing a beret and drinking in Starbucks just yet! (I know that's irrational, but it does show that the Mac/PC adverts have been counterproductive.)
Anyway, the upshot of all this is that I'm now going to get rid of (most) paper issues if I have them available in another format. There are some comics that I buy as monthly issues and then a second time as collections; that's because I don't want to wait several months between installments, but I also want to re-read them. Once I have the TPB, I'll never look at the loose issues again. Similarly, if I can read the comics on the Marvel website then I don't need the paper copies. Realistically, there are lots of issues that I'm never going to re-read anyway, but I have the child/cat mentality, where I don't want things until they're taken away. If I know that they're available to me whenever I want, that gives me peace of mind. I'm lying to myself, but at least I'm being honest about it! The worst case scenario is that I get rid of my paper copies, and then I lose access to the online version, so I will keep the paper copies for particular favourites (e.g. Fin Fang Four). Similarly, I can buy more TPBs if necessary.
I'll do a separate LJ post with the list of comics that are up for grabs, but one of my filing cabinets is now half-empty (I'm using 1½ drawers out of 4). In the short-term, I've created more clutter, because the filing cabinet takes up the same amount of space whether the drawers are empty or full, and I now have boxes of comics on my floor. However, in the longer term I'm hoping to eliminate one of the filing cabinets altogether, then I can rearrange my furniture, which should make it easier to get into the other one.
All in all, I'm happy that Marvel have done this, and I hope that DC follow suit.