I Spent Some Time Reading Comics on the iPad

Runaways by Brian K. Vaughn is a series I always meant to read but never got around to. Last week Marvel posted the first issue for free on its iPad app, so I figured I’d read it to see if the series was as good as I’d heard (short review: not as good as Vaughn’s Y: The Last Man, but good enough that I bought the rest of the issues Marvel had online). It gave me a chance to see how reading comics on the iPad is.

Marvel’s app is done by comiXology, which also has an app called “Comics” and one for Boom! Studios. The basic principle is this: you can read the comic page-by-page, or you can double-tap on a panel and enter “guided view”. The iPad’s screen is about 80% the size of a standard American comic book, which makes the size of most letterers’ text just a smidge too small for my eyes to comfortably read. For some it might be great. If you hold the iPad sideways and and stretch the image to fit its width, it’s a nice large size. You have to scroll up and down to read the bottom half of each page, but I don’t mind. Unfortunately, Marvel’s app doesn’t remember your zoom level, so each time you turn the page you have to zoom in again. (Marvel: Comic Zeal does this perfectly.) In “guided view”, the app zooms in to show you just one panel at a time. It ends up feeling halfway between reading a very, very long newspaper comic strip and watching a slow-moving cartoon. Guided view by default “letterboxes” the rest of the page, so you only see the one panel you’re reading. I prefer to see the neighboring panels, so I turned letterboxing off.

Design-wise, Marvel’s app places too much focus on its store and not enough on reading the comics you’ve already bought. There’s a “Browse” button in the upper-right that lets you navigate by series or authors, but the main pane needs a few options for sorting by read/unread status, publication date, etc. Marvel oddly requires you to sign up for a free account with them before you can buy anything, despite transactions themselves being made as in-app purchases with your iTunes account. I assume Marvel wants you to make an account so it can track your reading habits more precisely than whatever Apple provides. You have to buy issues individually and can’t subscribe to a series. The app claims that it will send a push notification when new issues go up for sale but I haven’t seen one so far. The ability to download a batch of issues at once would be very nice.

Comics cost $1.99 from Marvel’s app. That’s one or two dollars cheaper than new comic singles, but if you consider that most storylines run 4-6 issues, the digital price winds up being about the same as buying the trade paperback from Amazon. Indie publishers in comiXology’s Comics app charge $0.99 for some books. Comic retailers are terrified that readers are going to stop going to comic book stores and go digital. Rhetoric from the publishers to retailers is that the digital copies will help get new readers interested in comics and drive them to stores, but I can’t see that happening all that often. Maybe people will sample an issue online and decide to buy paperback or hardcover collections, but are they going to pay full price in a comic book store, or get 35% off and free shipping from Amazon?

In general, the comics industry doesn’t know exactly how to react to digital distribution. It’s sort of fun to watch all the different publishers play around in this new frontier. Smaller publishers are more willing to experiment. DC doesn’t have any digital offerings at all. Marvel has a few hundred books in its store, but it’s still experimenting. One of the big debates is around how quickly new comics should show up online. Personally I don’t think it’s a big deal for there to be a lag of six months or so (like DVD releases vs. movie theaters), but so far Marvel is just publishing older stories from a few years ago. Ideally they’ll start a regular publishing schedule so people can start following ongoing series. In time the publishers really need to make sure all of their output is online, not just a few flagship titles.

Verdict: I don’t personally intend to stop buying physical comics, but if you’re someone who has interest in a few series, iPad reading will be great for you. No need to go into a specialty store every week. Quick gratification. The art looks nice on the iPad’s bright, colorful screen (though I wouldn’t complain if both the artwork and the screen itself had more resolution).

Con: Anything you buy is locked in the app, so your ability to read the comics again in a few years hangs on how long Marvel keeps the service going. Record companies eventually agreed to do away with copy protection, but I don’t see publishers just offering PDF copies of their books. Personally this makes me very wary of investing in the platform heavily, but for light, casual reading, it’s probably okay.

Recommendation: Immortal Iron Fist by Ed Brubaker, Matt Fraction, and David Aja. Doesn’t require much foreknowledge of the character, has lots of kung fu action.