The big word this year has been digital comics. Okay, maybe it was the big word last year too… and the year before. But this year it actually feels like something is happening, and we can probably thank the Apple iPad for all this increased attention. Publishers are putting a lot more content online… for pay, of course, because that’s the way big media likes it.
There are quite a few distributors of online comics out there right now, but the one that’s getting the most attention is comiXology, an app for the iPhone/iPad. Personally, I lack either of those devices, but I do own an iPod touch, so via the magic of wifi I can still download the app and see what all the fuss is about.
I haven’t downloaded any pay comics yet; I admit to being a bit of a luddite with my actual purchases. I prefer having something physical in my hands; something real that I can actually own as opposed to merely having a “license” to enjoy it, a license that can be revoked at any time for any number of arcane reasons (as outlined in the terms and conditions I might not have read since it can be dozens of pages long). But I did download a few things for free, out of curiosity and because I actually wanted to read them.
I downloaded a free Inception tie-in comic from ComiXology. To their credit, the app makes finding free comics very easy and downloading it is simple, though the actually download process for anything can be poky and my iPod actually locked itself while waiting for a comic to download.
I really like the reading experience of the app. You can use multi-touch to zoom in and out on the images, allowing you a closer look at certain parts of the panel if you do desire. You switch between pages/panels with a swipe of a finger, though this is admittedly a less successful interface and I was frustrated at times by a lack of responsiveness.
My experience was also hampered by the small screen. I am no stranger to digital comics, as I have been reading comics on the web for years, and have posted quite a few on this site. But the small screen is a very new experience to me, and it’s apparent that digital delivery of comics really is meant for the larger screen of the iPad.
To contrast, I tried out a desktop application called Graphic.ly, which also allows users to download comics for pay and for free. The app also purports to turn comics reading into a “social experience,” which is another one of those buzz terms that’s been floating around the Internet lately.
Getting the app on my computer and the comics into the app were simple enough; the real problems arose when trying to read these things. Unlike the ComiXology app, there’s no smooth, intuitive way to get up-close-and-personal with the panels, which is a big flaw considering that with printed comics and the aforementioned Apple devices, you can just move the object closer to your face. You can’t exactly be moving a monitor or laptop screen closer, so proper zooming is essential in any comics app. I can change the view around, but it’s not great.
I’m also not so sure about this social networking thing; on each page of the comic appear comments left by other users. When you mouse over the image numbers appear; mousing over the numbers gives you the actual comments. The comments don’t really add anything to the experience for me. Reading is by its very nature, a solitary experience. Why does everything on the web have to be social now? Sometimes you just want something that just works, and I haven’t figured out how to make these comments invisible, if there is such a way.
Despite all that, I’m positive about the future—for Graphic.ly, ComiXology, and digital comics in general. And so is Lucy Knisley, who did a nice little comic on what she thinks about digital books. It’s a very personal glimpse of how digital books have changed one person’s life, particularly as a reader/consumer, from a person who has a very large stake in the business as a writer/artist/content producer.