Comics on the iPad
I LIKE YOUR SMILE AND YOUR FINGERTIPS
So I bought an iPad with the money that I’d made from convention sales over the last year or so. And I’d be lying by omission if I didn’t say that part of the reason was to read comics on it. Specifically.
I suppose this makes me a philistine. But then I was accused of being such when I pointed out that, hey, trades make it much easier to read comics. This was in the 90s, when you could still count the number of trades out there with the fingers and toes of just a couple of your closest friends. In the 2000s, I said that, and then was told that if I wasn’t buying single issues exclusively, that I was killing comics and that I probably called single issues “floppies” and had to turn in my Team Comics membership card, don’t let the door hit my butt on the way out. That’s okay, I’m used to it. When everyone was eating up whatever superhero books DC was putting out, I was digging SLASH MARAUD and HAYWIRE and THE SHADOW.
I don’t plot well on the curve. It’s something you just sort of live with.
Okay, the iPad. I’ll get there. Back when the iPhone was just coming out, I wasn’t impressed by the early reports, unconvinced that this was something special. Until a friend of mine said, “Here, I wanna show you something,” and he handed me his phone. “Okay, just use it.” Everything simply worked. Sure, there were a couple of fumbles (like working indexing in a contact list, or browsing by initial, and learning to type was a little tricky in portrait mode), but by and large the interface was seamless and unobtrusive. I became convinced that this would be a very useful little tool for all manner of things besides just making phone calls. Because it’s a little computer that happens to have a new kind of interface.
I’d seen tablet computers, all driven by Windows, all clunky, all buggy, but even with that, the ability to draw on the screen directly was a huge boon to artists. But they weren’t consumer devices. They were specific and specialized tools (that do the job pretty well, by most reports). But they didn’t offer much. Though I did see that some artists could work with them propped up in their laps or on their desks. Try that with even a flatscreen monitor. You can’t. Back then, I thought to myself “Hey, a guy or gal could almost read on one of those.” But not quite.
A couple years back, I thought about sizing STRANGEWAYS pages down to the size of the iPhone screen. I even ran a test to see a whole page at once. It made me want to gouge out my own eyes. As the creator of the book and the guy whose spent probably more time than anyone looking at the pages, I could read it, but only barely. Zooming panel to panel worked…I guess. It, however, was inelegant and troublesome (and on some pages was flat out impossible due to Luis’ sometimes-fluid page construction). It looked a bit better on the Kindle, but really not great. I remember someone porting some Chris Ware pages over to the Kindle and a lot of people complaining about how badly they looked. Well, yeah, you take pages that big and shrink them down and they’re going to look *terrible* no matter what you do. The Kindle wasn’t made for that, though it can display some line art just fine (well, sorta.) The Kindle was made for text, which it does just fine (though the design and buttons and interface are all klunky in the extreme–still it’s hard to beat the convenience of downloading MURDER CITY in your bathrobe and launching right into it at 6:30 in the morning.)
Using the iPhone/app store, I actually paid for a couple comics, notably an issue of PROOF, to see if someone else had figured out a good way to display comics. It was…serviceable. Though any of the page dynamics got chucked into the shredder. I could follow the story, but if there was innovation in layout, that got lost. But then from a strictly mercenary standpoint, I don’t see myself as a formalist innovator, so I wondered how much would be lost if I went down that path. And yes, there are plans to get STRANGEWAYS out on various digital forms. Hell, both books were originally published digitially, at least as previews. But I didn’t see a workable platform yet. As a comics reader, I didn’t need the killer app, I can read sequenced .jpg files in Preview or Photoshop if I have to.
But I do *not* want to sit down at my computer to relax and read after having been at the computer all day. Will. Not. Happen. I won’t even do it on my laptop. I’ll read PENNY ARCADE and PVE and other things, a strip or two at a time, but not in quantity. I’ll even allow myself to get sucked into FAMILY MAN by Dylan Meconis. But do I think to myself “Time to read some Kirby THOR comics, so fire up the ‘ol laptop.”? No. Not only no but hell, no. I do, however, like the convenience of having a ton of stuff to read at one time on one device like the Kindle. But not for comics (sorry, Josh, but I haven’t downloaded a single chapter of TUMOR, not yet.)
In all of this, I took note of a little company you might have heard of called Comixology, who put together a reader for the iPhone that almost makes the device work for comics. It allows a floating perspective, from whole page to a number of hotspots that you can zoom in on. It lets you browse by covers or type in the name of creators you want to read or the like. In short, it felt like a very Apple-like interface for this (and don’t kid yourself, what you pay for on the iPhone is very much the Apple interface on top of things that most phones can already do. I don’t mind that, as I think Apple usually does a very very good job with its interfaces and always has.) Too bad the goddamn screen on the phone is so goddamn small. Fine for navigating your way to the closest sushi bar, but not so good for reading large amounts of anything.
If only the screen was bigger. If only.
Oh, right. Here’s the iPad. The screen is what, four times bigger? More? The interface is just as slick and seamless. Granted, I use the phone on a daily basis and have for the last couple of years. I’ve accustomed myself to the invisible rules of pinching and sizing and double tapping. Not everyone will have at this point.
So what was the first app that I downloaded for the iPad? Marvel comics, of course. Oh, don’t roll your eyes. I’m a Marvel kid and always have been, always will be. Doesn’t matter that all I read regularly from them is CRIMINAL and AGENTS OF ATLAS. I’m still a Marvel kid at heart. DC has had some great moments and characters, but if you’re going to make me choose FANTASTIC FOUR or JUSTICE LEAGUE, I’m going to go FANTASTIC FOUR every single time.
Now, the first comic I downloaded was the first issue of Jeph Loeb and Ed McGuinness’ RULK. Hey, it was a first issue and I actually like McGuinness’ art, even if the story is kinda broad and unfocused and not really my thing. I’d rather it have been PLANET HULK, but I’ll take what I can get for the first free download. However, as a showpiece for what the comic reader can do and how comics actually look on the iPad, it’s not a bad start.
The most important question for me was answered as soon as I flicked past the cover. Yes, you can read the whole page at one time without squinting. You can take the page in as it was written and see how all the panels flow together. See, I write comics a page at a time. The page is the single immutable rule in comics, the stage from which the story is told. You have to accommodate the stage and not cram it (unless that’s the point). But you need, need, need to be able to see the whole and read from the whole page. If you chunk it down into pieces, all that is lost. Now, you can write around that (look at SIN TITULO, which is being written with an eye to being compiled into a larger work, but still presented as strips.) But if the book was written to be read as a comic page, seven by ten or some approximation thereof, that process of breaking it into panels will likely toss some stuff out.
Now, one of the big complaints I hear levelled against the iPad is that it won’t do double-page spreads. Which is 1) wrong and 2) of dubious merit. Since I read superhero comics long before the advent of the widescreen era and decompression, losing double page spreads is not going to get my hackles up, even if it happened. But the thing is, you still get them. Just turn the darn thing 90 degrees and boom, double page spread. Granted, this is build into the Marvel Comics reader (which is really the Comixology comics reader with a Marvel skin on top of it.) If you do normal PDFs or something, you might have to fidget a bit more.
For me, though, I don’t write double page spreads. Maybe I’m gutless, or maybe I realize that I’ve got to pay for every single page of art the artists generate and if there isn’t a lot of story value on the pages, that’s an “unnecessary” expense. I write pages. And pages come out looking just fine on the iPad comic reader. (My problem is that I have a b/w work in a world of color and that may have to change. I ran with b/w because I love the presentation and because it’s dirt cheap to print compared to color. That part of the equation has now been chucked out the window. Reproduction cost has been minimized in the digital world.) But pages look fine. That’s the bottom line. That’s the game-changer. That’s the big fat hairy deal.
Now, will pages look as good as say, the Fantagraphics reprint of BLAZING COMBAT? No, they wont. Though I’d like to take good scans of material and compare to the printed version to compare. Probably will with FLEX MENTALLO at some time since I have both digital and print versions (and in truth read it as .jpg files before I could track down the single issues.) Will these pages look good enough for your everyday reading purposes? Yes. They will. And when the process is refined a bit more, I suspect they’ll look better. Truth is, if you do an extreme zoom on pages in the Marvel Comics reader, you’ll see some pixelation. But then you will on any scan if you zoom in far enough. Most of the time, you’d have to actually look for it to see it.
I realize there are people who will never be convinced and will firmly state that you can only take the paper from their cold, dead fingers. Okay, you got it. Keep your paper. I still intend on keeping mine. Particularly in the age of archival reprints that we’re enjoying. But for pleasure reading, just catching up with comics? The iPad delivery system is just fine. Better than fine, really. Easy to use (though with, as mentioned above, some quirks). It could use a series of prompts for novice users, perhaps as a dismissible overlay, but that’s a tweak, not a structural flaw. Oh and for people who quip that “Gee, doesn’t that flicking motion get old?” I retort “Golly, doesn’t turning pages get old?” That’s called looking for something to bitch about. You can bitch about anything. Find important stuff to gripe about. Like how there aren’t any issues of AGENTS OF ATLAS available right out of the gate. Or that fifth issue of the current CRIMINAL book.
Now, in a subculture as dominated by the material as comics is, the iPad presents a new wrinkle. If we have digital issues, then what do artists sign? Or writers, for that matter. Artists can always sketch. Writers can, too, but you know how many written sketches I get asked for at the average con? Yeah, not many. I imagine prints or other incentive items can be created. People will innovate. But man, what I wouldn’t give for a Darwyn Cooke sketch on the pad as a backdrop or something.
In my case, though, reading the story is the most important thing. I don’t need more single issues. As it is, I’m lured by the siren call of cheap bronze-age junk (and gems) to fill up more boxes. Not at four bucks a pop. Two bucks is getting there. And no, they don’t “need” to be two dollars, but I was convinced by a friend that this was a good price to start from, allowing flexibility on promotional pricing and the like. That’s almost impulse buy level. Almost. I do hope that royalties are figured into this. Wouldn’t want what is ultimately going to be a big turning point for publishing (tablet readers, if not the iPad specifically) to become another way for publishers to squeeze the people who make the books? You heard that Random House was trying to retroactively grab eBook rights for the last twenty or thirty years of their catalog, right? Yeah, stuff like that is reprehensible. But it’s gonna happen until the new structure gets set in place.
The best part of all this? Apple’s done the hard work of getting a consumer tablet device (not just a viewer or book reader) together and putting the interface on it. This innovation (which in truth was not all their own, but the result of them tweaking an awful lot and packaging it very smartly and getting it all to work) could very likely do what the iPod did and open up a whole new range of consumer devices. Now, are all of these people going to want to read comics? Can’t tell ya. They won’t if they never hear about them, though. It’s not going to be overnight, but we’re not at a place unlike say 1994 was for the internet. Sure, there were websites, but not many, and a lot of them not much good past novelty. The content is there now, just that it has to get translated and prepared for the new delivery system(s). So go ahead, hold out for the Linux-based tablet that’ll run every Flash site on the internet before you jump in. But eventually you will jump in. Prices will go down, the technology will become more available and more importantly, my kids will always have grown up with being able to read comics that they snagged off the internet.
I’ve been hard on Marvel in the past, and will continue to do so. But I have to give them respect for jumping in with at least one foot and having this ready on launch day. You can quibble about the range of material that’s available right now, sure. That’s today. But if I can get me, for instance, a run of Steve Gerber’s DEFENDERS in color for a decent price? Or be able to catch up on a book that everyone seems to like, like say INVINCIBLE IRON MAN without having to go to five different shops to get them all? Yeah, that’s an improvement.
The unspoken thing here is “what the hell happens to the direct market?” I’m not even going to try to answer that. Everything I see is a lot of Not Pretty. And I say this as a guy who loves to go into a good comic store. I love to talk comics, I love to explore, to find stuff that I hadn’t read before. I love going into the Isotope and finding a warehouse copy of WALLACE WOOD’S CANNON, or going to Comix Experience for signings. I love that, but I don’t know how they’re going to compete. Though I will say that I have to refute Joe Quesada’s statement that all these digital comics are a road that lead people back to brick and mortar Direct Market stores. Seems to me that this is a road towards getting more people to read digital comics, possibly buying collections, but not the weekly, habitual buyers that have been the bread and butter of Marvel and DC and others for the last twenty years. Kiss that ship goodbye, as it has headed out, full power.
I love comics. Really, I do. I’m not necessarily married to paper, though. Comics have survived shrinking newspapers and quarrelsome syndicates, creative malaise, Congress, the collapse of newsstands, the collapse of the Direct Market and a so-far stubborn resistance towards acquiring new readers. Comics will survive the fading of paper too.
Oh, and a final word. For those of you who really believe that the iPad wasn’t designed as a creative tool, why then does it have a keyboard and not just a pulldown menu of pre-programmed options and destination sites? Why can you fingerpaint on it? Why can you get software that extends the functionality of the device? Do you get mad when paper doesn’t ship with pens, too? I’m not a maker, not a hacker, nothing but an end user and a guy who writes stuff. I’m that and I’m pretty happy with where I think this thing is going to lead. No device is going to magically breed a generation of creators, not when that impulse isn’t already there.
And it’s so much goddamn lighter than my laptop. Only thing I’m going to miss on the road is playing World of Warcraft. Maybe that’s not such a bad thing.
2 comments to Comics on the iPad