8 Apr 2010

Thought Balloon: The Apple iPad - The Future of Comics or a False Dawn?

By Stewart R

Since Steve Jobs sat on stage in his plush black armchair some three months ago and revealed Apple's latest innovation to the eager and salivating world the journalistic arena seems to have been bouncing the word 'comics' around with increased regularity when mentioning the iPad. Are we on the cusp of a new dawn for comic purchasing and reading with a potential to increase the audience that these great artistic stories are exposed to? Many seem to think so but I myself am less convinced at this stage.

Since the much heralded iPhone hit stores a couple of years ago and the term 'app' suddenly began popping up all over the place, there have been efforts to transfer the visual medium of the paper-printed comic into a digital format for ease of use with the mobile technology at hand. Some users have deemed such applications a reserved success, allowing them to carry a reasonable sized collection of comics around with them in a handy little portable gadget. It sounds great, as carrying around 10 or so titles usually would require some sort of unwieldy bag, but if you can put them on a reader that fits in your pocket, well that's got to be a handy alternative. Of course with great portability comes the great compromise of readability.

Your average comic measures some 12" across the diagonal for a single page while an iPhone squeaks in at 3.5" - that's a huge reduction and even more so when realising that the average size of an individual comic panel is larger than the screen on an iPhone. No-one was mentioning the iPhone as the future of comics, that's for sure! Then, with the success of Amazon's Kindle technology and the rise of other mid-sized eReaders, the news starting filtering through that Apple were ready to jump into the market with their own take on a digital reader.

Now out in the States and due on the shores of the UK by the end of April, the buzz has been positive for the most part and there are individuals out there who are stating that it's a game changer for the way that comics are going to be read. Certainly the size increase from a midget 3.5" screen of the iPhone to a more imposing and useful 9.7" adds a little more weight to that argument although at the detriment of portability. Even then a 9.7" screen size represents roughly a 30% reduction in readable area from printed to digital form and so there's still currently a significant compromise to be had.

This is where my major beef with the iPad as a 'game changer' is to be found. The comics from Marvel, DC and the like have been the same size for decades. At no point, even during times of financial difficulty for the industry, was it ever successfully mooted that the standard comic medium should be reduced by 30% across the board to save money. Certainly there would be big savings to production, material and shipping costs with such a bold move but would the readership take kindly to a smaller format? As I flick through my regular size copy of Amazing Spider-Man this week I'm tending to think that the consensus is that we, the readers, would not. If things got so bad I suspect we'd simply see a reduction in the number of pages per comic rather than making those pages smaller.

Take a look at Blackest Night #8 from DC this week and you'll see a comic where the creators have delighted in using the paper comic format and have even then shaped and molded it further for their own vision. During the issue we're give six instances where the storytelling utilises the double-page spread to great effectiveness AND also provides a little bonus in an interesting gate-fold page which, while yes, is a little gimmicky, shows that there's plenty of innovation to be had with the physical medium. When a single page is viewed at iPad dimensions the reduction may be bearable, but shrink a double splash page image measuring close to 17" down to fit the 9.7" pad page and the wonder that that image was supposed to instil in the reader will more than likely be lost between the squinting and resizing.

DC also proved last year that there's still a love for an even bigger format when they released the rather successful Wednesday Comics series which proved that comics the size of broadsheet newspapers could still sell by the thousands. Could something of that scale ever work successfully on the screen of Apple's wonder-tablet?

Is the the mighty double page spread endangered?

So why are we trying to be convinced all of a sudden that the iPad is the revolutionary saviour of the comics industry?

Brief internet demonstrations show us that the publishers are starting to get the wheels in motion for releasing their own applications to bring their products to the iPad audience. Marvel, already in full flow with their digital comics initiative via their website, released their own free application on the day the iPad went on sale, so eager are they to ensure that the marketing opportunity is not wasted in the media furore and queues at the Apple stores. IDW also have their app in the bag while DC are sitting in the wings to see how things pan out. These applications certainly seem to address the limitations that confront the readers so far. Allowing the reader to zoom in and out of the page should help with the problems of reduced size, as too will the applications intuitively being able to centre on any speech or text first before panning out to show the artwork.

There's also the potential that, with a big enough audience, publishers may begin to produce comics that are specifically designed to be read on the iPad and other reader technology that wouldn't be as effective in the paper format. Marvel's toe-dipping into the motion comic world recently shows that the House of Ideas is keen to try new things and keep the industry as fresh as it can while still appealing to the hardcore fan with the stack of long-boxes stashed in the corner of a room at home.

And maybe that's where the big pull of the iPad will come for some consumers. Comic reading and collecting can be a space-sucking hobby and being able to store your library electronically will seem like an absolute godsend to those who aren't prepared to sit down and bag and board their purchases week in, week out. Of course this then spins off into another issue - that of ownership. Having already spent the best part of $500 (£330) to Apple you're then expected to hand $1.99 an issue over to the publishers. Funnily enough, that represents just over a 30% drop in price compared to a regular comic and considering that just under 30% of the pages in mainstream comics these days consist of adverts, albeit occasionally for other products available from the publisher themselves, I find that price to be a bit on the expensive side. There's also the question of whether you own that comic outright or whether you're limited to where you can store and move that comic to in future.

Digital rights management is something of a prickly topic and as with the transition and conversion of music from hard media to the humble mp3 format the potential for piracy in this industry is huge. Why give Marvel $1.99 of your cash for a digital comic to be read on your iPad when there's a guy out there who has scanned his entire collection and is giving it away for free? That of course has been an issue for the music industry for almost a decade now and while not as big, the comic industry may have to address it soon if we're all expected to put down the paper and pick up an iPad to read our beloved comics.

Money aside, it has to be the quality of the conversion from one format to another that stands out as the overriding issue to prevent me from queueing up for an iPad at my local Apple store. I don't see it as a decent enough alternative to the print copy that I've grown to love and enjoy on a regular basis.

I love the weekly trip to the comic shop. I love perusing the shelves at Paradox for new releases. I love the double-page spreads and the interesting panel composition that different creators are free to use with the format. Heck, I occasionally even love the fact that there are still adverts in comics! Looking back through my collection it gives them a sense of period and history to see just what products and services were available at the time the story was being told.

Of course we only find ourselves at the dawn of the tablet revolution and who knows what magnificent innovation may rock the comic world's very foundations this time next year...


K Scully said...


I'm not sure the size of the screen relative to a traditional page is as much of a dealbreaker. Having used the Marvel app on the iPhone a little, the viewing mode of choice isn't the full page, but the panel by panel view.

Personally I would be thrilled to be able to view individual panels at the size of the ipad screen, as well as the ability to zoom and pan. It also has narrative implications, comics are unique in the manner in which a plot twist or event can be ruined by simply seeing the action unfold further down the page, being fed the panels one by one could end up enhancing the experience.

I think the real problem for me would be the same trouble that any ebook device runs into, the battery life. Once the juice runs dry, your comic ceases to exist. Until you get home at least.

I agree with the pricing, it's a difficult product to set a satisfactory amount though considering an artist has still drawn this, a writer has still written this. I don't want to insult their output, but at the same time I'm not getting any physical item for my cash.

The takeover of eComics is inevitable, digital distribution is the future of nearly every form of media, but some evolution needs to occour. I'd like to see a general comics app, instead of fragmented publishers only apps, that way smaller publishers as well as indie creators could be viewed through the same unified library, something a bit like iTunes.

Wait, let me think of a name... iGeek, iPow, iSmash?

Sorry, this was a really long comment.

Anonymous said...

Digital comics may well be the future, but it isn't a future that I have any interest in, unless the digital copies are given away as freebies when you buy the paper version (similar to the way in many cases you get a free digital download of an album if you buy it on vinyl). I'm a collector as well as a reader of comics, so the paper format is important to me. I have no interest in a digital version of the publication except as a nice 'extra'. I certainly wouldn't pay $1.99 for it, though I can see how Marvel would be delighted if I did, as that's a lot of profit bearing in mind they'd no longer have to pay for printing, distribution, or retail store mark ups.

- Rob N

Matt Clark said...

It's inevitable that some form of digital reader (whether it's the iPad or something else) will become the format of choice for many comics fans, but I think we're a long way off from seeing the death of the print versions.

It'll be a generational thing - just as a lot of people my age and older may use mp3s but still prefer a physical copy of an album on CD or vinyl, I think those same people will resist giving up on the comic book in favour of something they can only look at on a computer screen.

But, just as with mp3s, the next generation will grow up knowing digital formats as the main way to access the content they enjoy, so having some physical product in their hands won't have the same appeal as it does for people used to something tangible they can store on their shelves or in their longboxes.

Joe T said...

Not happy about the iPad, iPhone, or any form of digital comics at all.Digitalisation is absolutely ridiculous nowadays,before long they will probably try and invent a literal t.v. dinner! Books,comics,newspapers should remain on paper.Also, I could never justify spending that amount of money(bound to have an extortionate price-I mean hey, it's Apple!)on something that will constantly being upgraded,make me a prime target for mugging and will maybe last 7 years(only reason I have an iPod is because a friend gave me his second-hand one) when I could have the actual comics in my hand which I can then store and keep in good condition for my lifetime!

Tom P said...

Its a good point, one thing i love about a comic is you don't need an HD screen, Bluray player or fancy iPad to read them. I will always buy the comics I love weekly, thats just how I work. I can buy films on both iTunes and my PS3 but I don't, I buy the disk.

Saying that I do think the iPad is in incredible. Having had an iPhone for 2 years i have to say that sure it was expensive but its the most diverse, robust phone that I have ever had. Its changed the way I use the internet and i'm sure the iPad will do just the same. It will definitely make an impact. Love or hate Apple they know how to make attractive easy to use mass market device. I think it will open up the comic market to the casual reader and hopefully encourage them to seek out the comics or at very least a TPB and thats got to be a good thing ? I think I would buy a few comics on the iPad. Take a comic like Moon Knight, i don't want to pay 3.99-2.99 on a regular basis but i can give it a go at 1.99 and i'm not clogging up my long boxes and spare room. Or, Take something like the Nomad back-up in the current Cap comic, put a code in the book so i can choose if i want to read it or not! That would be a welcome move. Also if you could pay a small monthly subscription and read all you want! how good would that be? The comics you love will still be here folks, we all line up every week to get them! My only wish is just one comics App, having one per publisher will be deeply aggravating

Vic | UPrinting Coupons said...

I don't mind getting digital versions of some titles. I think it'll help us also conserve a little bit of paper. This will work of course if more freebies will be offered.

Anonymous said...

I should add perhaps that one of the main advantages of digital comics is a disadvantage in my case. As Tom says, digital comics will not be 'clogging up my long boxes and spare room'. i.e. the digital version will take up zero space in your home. But I actually want stuff that takes up room in my house. My ideal would be to have a huge study with all the walls lined with book shelves. I don't want something that takes up zero space and exists only on a data chip! That's a negative point as far as I'm concerned! :)

- Rob N

Joe T said...

Let's not forget
what happens when it crashes and you loose all your comics?

Stewart R said...

Good point Joe T but a member of the Paradox Group was telling me last night that Marvel will keep a record of everything you buy and allow you to re-download them should you lose everything. An interesting idea but it'll be interesting to see the bugs that turn up in that system.

Seems that things are getting interesting now what with Marvel's decision to release the Invincible Iron Man Annual in paper and digital format on the same day. Seems the iPad really has had an effect on their business model.