Shiny Shelf

Print’s Not Dead

By Bruce Kent on 06 July 2010

It was Egon Spengler who put it best – “Print is dead.”

This has certainly been a rallying cry for buyers of e-readers, users of iPhones and early adopters of iPads.

The Kindle’s development of an always accessible (by 3G) online store provided a solution to the distribution problem which handily doubled as a source of revenue. This model has been adopted by Apple’s iBooks, to the extent that one of the key selling points of the iPad (somewhat anachronistically) has been as a way to read books.

But what about comics?

Until recently it has been difficult to truly assess the electronic version on a level playing field with the original printed page. Comics are much lighter, cheaper and easier to transport than laptops. Admittedly these plus points fall away when you consider the sheer quantity of data that can be stored on a relatively inexpensive netbook.

Even so the problem remains with e-comics as they did with e-books: the experience of reading off a computer screen is streets behind that of a tangible book.

This problem has not quite been solved with e-books, despite the e-ink of the Kindle or the Retina display of iPhone 4.0. Lengthy reading on these devices still feels counter-intuitive and uncomfortable. Comics, on the other hand are a medium designed for reading in short bursts relying on lush visuals – a medium, in other words, that seems tailor-made for electronic reading.

And yet development in this field has been slow. The big limit has been screen size. It may be challenging to read a book where each page has only a few lines of text, but it’s possible to reformat a manuscript in this way without too much trouble.

However a comic is a beast of a specific size – as soon as you start reducing that size you face problems; if you shrink the page to fit the display you end up with continual zooming in and out and scanning across the page in order to read otherwise illegible text and to make out finer detail (admittedly the touch screen of the iPhone and its ilk have somewhat reduced the mechanical problems of this approach).

Moreover with many  comics the layout of the page as a whole is of crucial importance – reading by flicking from panel to panel will only get you so far and will never quite capture the impact of a big splash page at a crucial point in the story.

This is where the iPad comes in – it offers a screen that is not much smaller than your average comic book page with all the jiggery-pokery of an Apple touchscreen and easily portable to boot.

At present there is simply no other device that ‘does’ comics reading as anything more than a novelty: you will inevitably impair your experience by using any smaller device, such as an iPhone or other smartphone, while bigger devices lack the convenience crucial to e-reading of any variety.

A partial view would be to describe this as a marvel of the modern era (no pun intended). A more objective view is that a device now exists, costing more than £400, which just about simulates the reading of a physical comic to something approaching an adequate degree.

As important as a device capable of displaying e-comics is the publishers’ willingness to support it, and this has changed significantly over the past few months.

Marvel has, never truly convincingly, been dabbling its toes in the water of e-comics for some time now, with a desktop reader that was both cumbersome and ill-supported by content. They recently launched an app for iphone and ipad that more fully developed.

DC has largely kept its powder dry until the last few weeks when they too released their comics app.

The basic model for both Marvel and DC (and Boom! Studios who also have an app out) is that of Comixology’s Comics store app (which sells most of those titles available in each individual publisher’s store under one virtual roof, making it a good – unbranded – catch-all option).

This boils down to an iTunes-style approach and works incredibly (and, in personal financial terms, dangerously) well. It’s possible to browse by publisher, creator, series and even story-arc and then select individual titles for download via stored account details – download starts (and money is taken from your account) simply by keying in a password.

The reader itself is integrated into the app, and is perfectly serviceable. In all honesty most of the hard work is done by the screen size of the iPad: the ability to scroll through the comic by swiping the screen and to zoom in by double-tapping is all you get and all you need. Conversely, when on a smaller screen such as a phone, all the bells and whistles in the world won’t cheer up the awkward struggle of trying to read a comic properly

The biggest practical problems with e-comics at present are price and availability of content. With regard to the former, individual titles are in general priced at between 60p and £2.00 per issue. There is some sharp practice (Marvel split the recent ‘Iron Man’ annual into three parts, priced as per regular issues) but by and large this seems pretty fair if not bargain basement cheap. Of course the elephant in the room here is the £429 of an entry-level iPad.

In terms of content there is an awful lot out there already, and much of it available under the Comixology store. Some publishers are more sensible than others when it comes to selecting their content.

DC have taken arguably the right path by posting entire arcs, whether in the form of self-contained series (‘DMZ’, ‘Losers’, ‘Fables’) or taken from ongoing titles (e.g for Batman, DC have digitised the first two-thirds of ‘Hush’ as well as the start of Grant Morrison’s run).

Some arcs are presently incomplete but, crucially, DC are working through sequentially.

This seems simple common-sense, but Marvel have gone for a more scatter-gun approach, with titles plucked hither and thither from classic and contemporary stories alike. It’s less easy to sympathise with this approach, but one difference with DC is that Marvel are more willing to mine their back-catalogue – at present the earliest DC title is Neil Gaiman’s ‘Sandman’ as opposed to issues of ‘Spider-Man’ and ‘Avengers’ from the 1960s.

However a big limitation shared by both major publishers is their reluctance to tie digital comics to the release dates of their paper brethren -  ‘Justice League: Generation Lost’ is the only DC title to do this while Marvel have experimented with the ‘Iron Man’ annual.

Moreover there is no firm commitment to any title going digital on a regular basis. Even if you have an iPad, you are not going to be cancelling your standing order anytime soon. Basically the one “serious” application of e-comics is to catch up on a series that passed you by before – in which case chances are you can get a good deal on a trade paperback from any number of online stores.

Obviously collectors will turn their nose up at ditching paper, as will people of more refined aesthetic tastes, but as a casual buyer with no delusions (or aspirations) to being anything more than a straight up consumer of comics, I can see great appeal to having your whole collection on something the size and weight of a thick magazine.

This is a long way off at present (aside from anything else there is a need for a proper iTunes style management system for your collection – something currently missing, and likely to stay missing unless Comixology or another system becomes formally accepted as industry standard).

Ultimately e-comics are something to do if you have an iPad rather than a reason in themselves to get one. It’s nice to have a few issues of ‘Die Hard: Year One’ set aside for a rainy day or to stock up on ‘Fables’ on a whim but there’s little more appeal to it than that.

The collection of available titles will only grow and, if they catch on, tablet computers will likely become cheaper. Perhaps by that stage comic book publishers will have moved over to a digital model and printed editions will become rare collectors’ items. Until then, however, I’m afraid Dr Spengler was wrong.

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By Bruce Kent

5 Responses

  1. My perspective on a digital comics app for iPod/iPad/Adam Tablet/etc is that I’d not be comfortable investing in anything other than a subscription based solution similar to Spotify. You can read the comics ‘live’ online, you can even cache them for offline reading. You could have different levels of subscriptions with the ‘lower’ levels supported by adverts (just like the real paper+ink version). Of course, that business model isn’t without pitfalls and perils and I often wonder how long before the little green Spotify icon will disappear off my desktop and iPod Touch.

    I’m less bothered about new titles. Archive catch-ups would provide such a broad and deep spectrum of material I’d defy anyone to say ‘Meh, read it all.’

  2. Mark Clapham says:

    That’s interesting, as I would be interested in the opposite to a big archive – I’d quite like a sub that basically allowed me buffet access to a set number of the week’s new releases, perhaps on an ‘X credits per week’ basis. It’s those incoming, big name releases that I’d be interested in reading in a temporary, electronic format, and be happy to never see again.

  3. I think my perspective on preferring an archive approach is also influenced by my love for my local comic shop. Whilst they do sell TPB’s and some older back issues their main bulk sales are the new releases (and back stock of the last 5-6 issues) and the folders that regulars have. I’d miss that monthly experience to go and empty the folder, and see if they’ve spotted anything they think will peak my interest. It’s that personal touch I’d hate to lose. I see where you’re coming from, but I hate to think of the possible effect an approach like that could have on a paper & ink store, and I’d imagine Marvel & DC would (and maybe already are) feeling considerable leaning from the newsstand and wholesale trade. A digital distribution model for new comics could impact heavily on Diamond Select and their various customers.

    Whichever approach the comic corps decide to take they need to start moving forward at a quicker pace… they’re slacking severely right now.

  4. Mark Clapham says:

    I’m a long way away from my favourite comic shop now, so my standing order is just durable stuff that I know I’ll want to keep and which will still be worth reading if I only pick it up every quarter. It would be nice to read the fad book of the week now and again.

  5. hey guys, there’s been some talk on here about myPadMedia and I thought I’d give it a review after getting my iPad.———–