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Comics on the iPad: The Digital Revolution Really Is Here

When it comes to technology and gadgets, I’m not much of an early adopter. I learned that lesson as a fan of video games who was there on day one for the original Gameboy Advance, which had a screen that was only visible when sunlight was focused on it through the Staff of Ra, and only then after you removed one Kadan to honor Shigeru Miyamoto, whose Mario game this was.

Apple’s iPad, however, was a different matter. I wanted one of these things from the moment it was announced, and that’s almost entirely because of its implications for comics. Between its size and portability and the announcement of stuff like the Comixology app, it seemed like it had a pretty good shot at being the device that’s going to revolutionize digital comics distribution and may — as my pal Jim Shelley has often insisted — sound the death knell for paper comics.

I’m not sure if the change for the industry is going to be quite that dramatic, but after a week of owning one, I will say this: It is basically the perfect way to read comics.That’s not to say that comics on the iPad are completely without a downside. More than any other form of entertainment, reading comics can often be about far more than just the story you’re reading, from the tactile experience of the paper in your hands to the triumphant feeling of a collector finally tracking down the last issue of a run, even the smell of old newsprint, which, now that I think of it, is often pretty unpleasant. These are things that you lose going digital — you can get Adam Hughes to sign your iPad, but it’s probably not a great idea — and since there’s a huge percentage of comics readers that are collectors, I imagine there’ll be a lot of resistance to the idea.

For me, though, there are benefits that far, far outweigh the drawbacks. For one, there’s the simple matter of space. Comics take up a lot of room, and as someone whose job requires him to be able to grab issues for research, I’m kind of stuck with them and lately, it’s been getting a little claustrophobic around here. The iPad, though, is roughly the size of a Marble Composition Book, and, if I’m figuring up the average filesize right, can hold about 2,500 comics — the equivalent of a little over eight long boxes — and still have room for Netflix.

The biggest tradeoff in regards to physical space is that the screen on the iPad is slightly smaller than your average comics page (and certainly smaller than experimental formats like “Wednesday Comics” or even the faux-Golden Age size of Image’s Next Issue Project books or “Vikings”). It is, however, slightly larger than most digests and manga (or, for example, “Scott Pilgrim”), and the fact that you’re not dealing with an actual book means it’s a lot easier to see the side of the page that would usually be lost to the binding.

Oddly enough, out of all the different sizes of comics I’ve got laying around, the screen size is almost exactly the same dimensions as a copy of “Detroit Metal City.”

For another, I’m pretty much in love with the distribution model.

The Marvel, Boom! Studios and Comics apps are all based on the same program, developed by Comixology, which means that they’ve all got the same interface, so it’s a darn good thing that it’s actually a pretty good one. Again, it could stand for a few improvements (and I’m sure they’re coming), but for it to be this solid out of the gate is a pretty good sign of things to come.

It can be a little tricky to navigate at first — which, now that I think of it, is a lot like going into any new comic shop for the first time — but it’s pretty intuitive once you get the basics down. The biggest thing that threw me off was that while there’s a pulldown list, there is not, as yet, a way to browse through every series visually to get a quick overview of what titles are on offer. The drop-down menu does, however, allow you to browse by series, creators, or story arc, which is pretty handy, especially if you’re looking for just comics by Brian Bendis or all of “Annihilation.”

But for something so rooted in graphics, that’s not as obvious as it could be. Instead, popping open the program brings you to what’s featured, with an obvious (and very handy) link to comics you can download for free.

This is something that I think is very important about Marvel/Boom/Comixology’s approach to digital comics distribution: As long as you’ve actually got the iPad (which is a significant chunk of change, no lie), you can read a lot of perfectly legal digital comics for free. Marvel’s got a handful of books on offer, from fantastic gateway comics like “Runaways” #1 and “Immortal Iron Fist” #1 to stuff like the first issue of Dwayne McDuffie’s all-too-short run on “Fantastic Four” and a forty year-old issue of “Uncanny X-Men” that explains how Professor X was paralyzed.

The Comics app, though, blows it away in terms of selection on the free stuff. That’s to be expected, considering that it encompasses Marvel as well as indie companies and creator-owned books with creators offering samples, but the end result is that you can read full issues of great comics like “The Middleman,” “Atomic Robo,” “Action Philosophers” (and the fact that the free story is the Ayn Rand one is hilarious) or the truly phenomenal “Chew,” with samples and previews of plenty more. In effect, it’s the marketing model behind Free Comic Book Day applied to every day.

Once you get past the free stuff, though, there’s plenty to spend your money on, but that, I have mixed feelings about.

Despite the fact that Marvel seems to be dipping their toes in the water with the upcoming “Iron Man Annual,” I think we’ve still got a lot of time to kill before same-day digital distribution becomes as commonplace as it is for music. And on one level, that’s understandable, as if the iPad and similar products become as ubiquitous as the iPod and mp3 players, digital distribution could very well destroy the comic shop as we know it. To be fair, Comixology does have a nifty brick-and-mortar comic shop locator, but as it pointed me towards a nearby shop that closed two years ago, there are a few bugs to work out.

It’s easy to compare it to the music industry, where CDs are still a viable format almost a full decade after the initial rise of the MP3 player, but comics are way smaller than music, and I’m not sure if they could take the hit. There have been plenty of people who have said that the only way for comics to survive is to get out of the comic book store and back into something that was accessible to a wider audience. The iPad has the potential to do exactly that, but — not to get too melodramatic here — at the cost of killing comic shop sales of new comics and reducing them to trying to subsist on a niche market of back issue collectors a hundred times smaller than record collectors.

At the same time, I’ve been on both sides of the counter, and as a reader who worked in a shop, I’m all for something that can provide the monolithic Diamond Comic Distributors with a little competition, especially if it comes hand-in-hand with the same democratization of the market that we’ve seen in webcomics, where it’s just as easy to find (and purchase) “Chew” as it is to get a copy of “X-Men.”

But back to the present: The model for Marvel seems to be set at a flat $1.99 an issue. For new comics, that’s a solid 50% of the cover price for a print issue, which is pretty good even when you consider that you can’t flip a digital comic on eBay next month. It does, however, seem a little high when it’s the price of an issue of “Hulk” or “Spider-Man” from 1963.

To me, selling these comics as individual issues at all doesn’t make a lot of sense. It seems like the older stuff would be better served in bigger chunks that can be bought all at once, rather than a piece at a time, as that’s what Marvel’s been doing in print with their Essential line. The Essentials (and DC’s similar Showcase volumes) offer up probably the best value in print comics, with 25-odd issues of a given comic sold for around $17.

Admittedly, the Essentials are in black and white and printed on newsprint, but that’s a function of printing cost. With digital distribution, it doesn’t cost any more to do a color version of a comic that came out 40 years ago than to get a black-and-white version. The printing cost just doesn’t exist.

Also, Marvel’s already done huge chunks of digital comics at a low price: the “complete” DVD collections of “Amazing Spider-Man,” “Ghost Rider,” “Iron Man,” and others. The Spider-Man one contained over 500 comics and retailed for $50, which is an astonishingly good deal where the only drawback is that they have to be read on a computer with a DVD drive. Meanwhile, the same price gets you only 25 issues of the same comic on the iPad — still not a bad deal when compared to print, but not when the DVD collections are still readily available to buy from Amazon and every bit as legitimate.

This points to another odd thing about Marvel’s digital offerings: It’s not just the older stuff that isn’t “collected”; there are no collected versions whatsoever for their stuff. For some things, that’s just a matter of having to touch the screen six times instead of once (“Annihilation,” for instance comes in at a total of $11.94, still a darn sight cheaper than the $24.99 trade paperback version, though the tie-ins and bonus features of the TPB don’t seem to be present), but for a company that has geared itself so solidly towards long-form, bookstore-friendly story arcs, it seems counterintuitive to parcel them out as single issues.

To take it back to the comparison with iTunes: “Armor Wars” (one of my favorite Iron Man stories) costs $1.99 per issue for 8 issues for a total of $15.92. “Van Halen 1″ has 11 tracks that sell individually for $1.29 each, but the entire album’s only $6.99. This probably has a lot to do with the fact that more people want to hear just “Eruption” and “Runnin’ With The Devil” than just want to read “Iron Man” #228, but I think it’s a fair question as to why it isn’t structured towards the arc as a whole.

Especially when indie creators are doing just that.

Matt Wagner’s “Mage” for instance, is already dirt cheap when you buy it issue-by-issue — 99 cents each, and #1 is free! — but there are also collected versions that are even less. “Mage” v.1, which collects the first four issues of “The Hero Discovered?”

Less than two dollars.

In four collected versions, the entire series will only set you back $10.96 — although it’s worth noting that it’s actually three cents cheaper to buy 13-15 individually, as the Interlude is also offered up for free — whereas my print copy of “Mage” v.1 has a cover price of $29.99.

What’s more, it’s currently out of print, which is another huge thing about digital distribution: Nothing ever needs to be out of print again. Every great comic that’s impossible to get because the trade had a short print run 20 years ago? It can be available to as big or small a market as it interests for a significantly lower cost than printing up a run.

Ditto for “Atomic Robo” (the “trade” version costs $3.99 for six issues) and “Invincible” and “Walking Dead.” The only problem is that these collected versions often aren’t easy to find — I wouldn’t have noticed them if I hadn’t been poking around to make sure all of Mage was available and spotted them in the list. So if anybody from Comixology is reading this: Spotlight the collected versions. Make them easy to get to from the start.

But the distribution aspects only matter if you actually want to read them — the most important aspect of any comic, after all, is can you read it. And I’ve got to say, as a program for reading comics, Comixology’s done a pretty great job.

A lot of that has to do with the size, but their interface is intuitive, easy to navigate, and even saves your place in the comics you’ve read (although it saves you on the last page when you finish an issue, which makes it kind of a pain to re-read a book once you’ve finished it). I will confess, however, that I outright hate their “Guided View.”

It’s probably not worth complaining about since it’s a completely optional feature, and I know this is going to make me sound like the biggest comic snob on the planet, but the deal is that it isolates and zooms in on a particular panel, blowing it up to fit the screen. This sounds like a natural and I can totally see the reasoning behind it, but it also detracts from page layout and composition, which are very important aspects of art, and when panels aren’t shaped as rectangles, they can get cut off.

Also, there’s a curious effect when it comes to page-width panels. In guided view, this panel from Dwayne McDuffie and Paul Pelletier’s “Fantastic Four” #547…

Becomes this…

…which advances to this
It’s like watching a pan-and-scan version of “Ghostbusters,” and it imposes a new timing into the scene that changes the way the joke is read. Also, some panels get blown up to higher than their original resolution, which makes them look blurry and pixelated.

That said, it took me a few days of stewing over my hatred of Guided View to remember that the Comics app started on the iPhone, where the four-inch screen would make that kind of zoom necessary to be able to read the comics at all. For that, it’s actually incredibly useful, and a very smart move from Comixology. It just seems unnecessary on the iPad, but like I said, it’s totally optional.

A bigger problem for me was that double-page spreads, a standard of big action comics for everyone from Jack Kirby to Jeph Loeb and Brian Bendis, just don’t work. Well, maybe that’s too harsh: They show up and they’re readable, but the fact that they’re resized for the screen means that they lose their impact by coming out smaller than the single pages, even if you reorient the page from portrait to landscape. This is completely a function of the fact that they were made for a different medium, but it’s significant enough that it’s really noticeable.

Beyond Comixology, there are a couple of other really notable comics programs: There’s an Archie app (which is weird, because Archie books are also distributed through Comics) that was designed by iVerse. It’s a little clunkier than Comixology’s, but it’s notable for having a great selection of free, kid-friendly comics, including an issue of Archie from just 3 months ago.

And then there’s ComicZeal, which is probably the best CBR reader I’ve ever seen. It’s $8 in the app store, but worth it.

There’s no getting around the fact that CBRs and CBZs are the preferred format of digital comics pirates, and much like there are people who have entire iPods full of pirated music, I’m sure there are going to be a ton of iPads with nothing but scanned comics.

But that’s not all there is to CBRs. The reason they’re preferred by pirates is that they’re easy to make and a lot less clunky than PDFs, which means that there’s not only a lot of Golden Age comics that have fallen into the public domain that are actually living up to the pirate’s often-heard excuse of “digital preservation,” but there are also a handful of legitimate comics creators using the format to distribute their work.

The Flashback Universe, El Gorgo, and even those charming, devastatingly handsome folks at Action Age (full disclosure: I’m talking about myself here) offer up their comics as downloadable CBRs that can be easily imported to ComicZeal. Also, it gives anyone worried about Apple’s censorship of comics or who doesn’t meet Comixology’s criteria for distribution a way to circumvent that system. As much as it might lend itself to piracy, it also levels the playing field for independent creators to get distributed into a new format. It might be a double-edged sword, but it’s one that I think is worth keeping.

And like I said, it’s a well-designed program. The interface is virtually the same as Comixology’s:

The navigation and options can be turned on and off by tapping the screen, just like Comixology, but there are a few additional features that are lacking elsewhere.

Most notably, ComicZeal gives you the ability to organize your collection however you want. It lacks Comixology’s built-in support for organizing by creator or storyline, but the ability to customize things manually makes it a lot closer to emulating every comics reader’s homemade filing system.

Other than that, there are a few really nice visual touches: Comics are organized into folders that are represented on the home screen as long boxes with the cover sticking half-out at the top, books that you stop reading in the middle are marked with a bookmark, and when you finish a comic, it gets “bagged,” an overlay on the thumbnail of the cover that also has the effect of graying it out just enough that it’s distinctive from comics you haven’t read, but not so much that you can’t tell what it is. It’s very, very clever, and very, very stylish.

It all leads to a comics buying and reading experience that’s incredibly enjoyable and convenient. It is going to change comics as we know them, although much like Bat Lash, whether it’s going to save them or destroy them, I can’t say.

All I know is that I paid less than two dollars for 118 full-color pages of one of the best comics ever printed and had it delivered quite literally through thin air to my bed at two in the morning, and as far as I’m concerned, that is basically magic.

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