Digital Comics Part 2: The Death of the Great Prints?

On April 3, 2o1o Apple Computing publicly released their latest... computing thing: the Apple iPad. Technologist Kevin Kelly called it "a portable portal" and said "Don't think of them as tablets. Think of them as windows that you carry." (WIRED, April 2o1o, Vol. 18, #2) Well, through the window of my iPhone's camera (ironies upon ironies) I saw a printed comic-book disintegrating on the wet concrete of New York City in a rainstorm and I fear that it may have been a portent of the world we shall see through this all-hailed 'window computer'.

Two days before the iPad's release (in what many must have thought was an April Fool's joke) Marvel Comics had its own special release. It deployed on the Apple 'App Store' (a web-based program that allows users to purchase 'apps,' i.e. small programs designed with simplicity in mind) its own Marvel Comics app for iPod Touch, iPhone, and, of course, the iPad. [It looks like the screenshot at right, on an iPad.] (IDW released one a long time ago, as did Archie Comics.) One iTunes Store app reviewer named "brianmhite" wrote: "I've looked for a place to buy comics in town. Wasn't sure if I'd enjoy them though. This app solved everything." This was echoed in another user's "No more trips to the comic store for my fix!" One "pixelslinger" went so far as to say: "Wow. Marvel just killed comib [sic] book stores."

The most amazing/inspirational statement was by someone going by "Jakeoster": "This may just get me into comics..."

The most terrifying was: "I'll probably never purchase a paper comic book again."

What a strange frickin' world, right?

Almost a month before the iPad's release, on March 11, Apple announced that they would soon begin to include comics and graphic novels for paid download in their iBookstore as a 'top tier category'. What this really ended up meaning for anyone or anything is still unclear.

Two years earlier, in November of 2oo7, Marvel announced Digital Comics Unlimited, a subscription service with a huge number of comics available for streaming, non-download-able reading on a PC. But that interface was pretty clumsy and slow. Worse, to some people's minds, is the fact that those thousands of streaming comics are inaccessible through the new app portal. Someone would have to pay for the subscription service AND download individual comics for a dollar amount per issue to read the same comic on the iPad and on their personal computer.

But what does this mean for comics? Or for print comics in specific?

A user named 'T. C. Ford' on ComicBookResources's article on Apple's March announcement commented: "From the publishing point of view, it's not Print vs. Digital, it's Print AND Digital."

Yeah, there's undeniably a time when they coexist. Like... now. Will these digital-comics-version of print comics programs kill print comics? Well, probably not. The fact that genuine webcomics and illegal digital scans of print comics have been available for years and the print comics industry hasn't keeled over yet is a good sign. Plus it should be noted that Marvel is not offering their brand-new weekly comics over the internet in either areas they are dipping their toes into. Certainly, having both sources of income simultaneously is what the publishers want! So they are going to be in favor of pushing one with the left hand and one with the right. But for how long? We won't know until we know.

I'd LOVE to tell you what's it like to read a comic on the iPad hands on. But I can't. Because it's a fucking $500 device, right? That's more than two-thirds of my rent, thank you very much. And upon visiting the 14th Street Apple Store here in Manhattan I discovered that the display iPads had absolutely no way to read comics and I was told I could not download new apps to the display devices. (There are video reviews, like this one from Jump to 2:01 if you're just interested in what it really looks like to read a comic on an iPad. But before I would sink $500, I would want to feel it in my hands.) I can tell you that it's a pretty hot mess on the old iPhone. Marvel's app is actually an almost exact clone of Comixology's app "Comics", which has been around for a long time, but with Marvel characters sprinkled into the background. Worse, as it is a clone of Comixology's app it has the same features and defaults. The default setting is something called 'guided view' and I HATE it.

Essentially 'guided view' is a mode in which a virtual camera POV pans from a part of a comics page to another part of a comics page at your controlled pace. It often crops part of the image out and makes awkward choices as to what you should see when. It creates a little frame-by-frame animated movie out of the panels of a comic. I suspect you'll have to try it to really understand it. One of those iTunes Store app reviewers named "SullStyle" wrote: "Finally I can read panel by panel without seeing what's coming on the next page." Yeah, you control the pace of this little animation, but not the exact content. It's like the old pan&scan videotape to film trade-off. You can own the thing digitally, you can control the speed, but you've lost part of the picture.

I can also tell you that Panelfly, one of the competing programs, doesn't force the reader into any bullshit 'guided view' on the iPhone unless you want it to.
This is something I can get a little more behind. Comics being shown page by page and easily read panel-by-panel OR page-by-page. Best of both worlds. (It's also all done with a nice design sense.)

Using the iPhone and iPad and everyday computers as a delivery system for comics is a great idea. Maybe even 'the future' of sequential art, if such a thing can be said. If new people are getting interested in sequential art storytelling through these programs and devices that's fantastic. That's a win-win. Will it kill print off entirely? Yeah, maybe it will. Well, I think us comicsmiths have to be prepared for that possibility. But there's a much bigger problem:

While this is sequential art. This is not.

Note the lack of sequence. And that's a damn shame. Especially when the original panel in print looks like this:

You'd think this is just someone asleep at the switch, but this is the norm and the default setting! Losing visual information with so little an effort to retain it in digital form is sloppy at best and criminal at worst.

Now someone who's never read comics before may not have much of a problem seeing a comic cut-up to make a bad short movie, but people who read print comics and see this 'guided view' usually react with an immediate: 'Why would I read a comic that way?'

In this writer's opinion, this 'guided view' cannibalizes new and existing comics into a weird user-controlled movie of still drawings. The sequence of 'man's face' and 'awe-inspiring mountain' in visual juxtaposition creates the scene 'man stares at mountain in awe'. Losing that visual juxtaposition loses so much of the concept of 'the comics page' that has been evolving since Winsor fucking McCay!

Over 1oo years ago on July 26th 19o8, Winsor McCay printed this!

Now, if we let comics go from that to this:
...we've lost something huge there.

Scott McCloud was probably pitching a fit somewhere on April 3. And rightly so, as he believed that going digital would allow sequential art an expansion to an 'infinite canvas'. (See his TED Talk video here on Jump to 12:50 for his demonstration of this concept. Note that he says: "look at the monitor as a window".) Not a regression to a badly animated single-panel-at-a-time!

For years, people spoke of a hypothetical 'iTunes for comics': a single free-to-download program that could allow people easy access to official digital copies of their favorite comics for a price and to read digital copies they already own. For my money, Panelfly is half of that equation. Marvel's stuff is on there, a bunch of the other big print publishers' stuff is on there. The only thing missing is the flexibility of the files themselves: I can't move a comic I bought on my iPhone to my MacBook Pro. Which would be great as it has a much bigger screen, doesn't it? Now the program ComicBookLover allows you to read files you may have already downloaded (more on this in the next part) and move them between your desktop and their app, but it has no system by which you can download new comics. Someone needs to combine these two platforms and develop a better system than the fucking 'guided view'. Then we may have the 'DVD' of comics, iTunes for comics. A digital comics delivery system that works.

Until these problems are solved, and something at least partially like McCloud's 'infinite canvas' is encouraged, I think digital comics on the desktop, on-demand is not much more than a mess. But technology is technology is technology. Paper printing combined with saddle-stapling makes a comic-book. In McCay's day, before saddle-stapling and before the comic-book, comic-strips were in large, folded pages inserted into newspapers. Before that they were woven into fabric or carved in stone or painted on walls. Graphic novels are now made more or less like prose books, with glue and binding and high paper-stock and all that nonsense. A digital delivery system is merely another step in the evolution of media. But for it to be an evolution and not a devolution it has to allow the medium to do more and not less. Print publishers would do well to take a harder look at how the webcomicsmiths do what they do.

Hopefully, the publishers will allow and encourage technological evolution to happen in all areas while striving to keep hold of the stuff that already works... on paper.

One more section of this article is planned to wrap things up.

UPDATE 4/16/2o1o: I would be remiss in not mentioning, which works on an entirely different platform. You can download comics, graphic novels and prose books from their website for for very cheap or sometimes for FREE on a rotating basis because they have sold advertising 'sponsorship' to various brand-name corporations. Intelligently, all their files are PDF format allowing you to save them to your computer, move them to ANY mobile reading device.

Their comics main page is here.

Honestly, I forgot about them until they sent me a newsletter today.

UPDATE 4/27/2010: I just discovered ANOTHER one. Eagle One Media's store allows you to use a credit card or Paypal to buy and download PDF files directly from their website. Simple!

UPDATE 5/6/2o1o: Forgot this one. It's called Longbox and it appears to be not quite ready for prime time despite being announced years ago. The beta o.7 version can be downloaded here. I have downloaded one and will try it out and get back to you.

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