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Don’t howl in outrage, but comic books have always been a primarily disposable product. They tear if mishandled, and as any collector will tell you, faded ink and bent pages are inevitable if comics aren’t properly stored. Although iOS developers hardly invented digital comics, the iPad’s big, beautiful, portable screen makes the comic readers in the App Store a worthy alternative to delicately stowing and indexing each issue of Batman in a vacuum-sealed container.
When the iPad first landed, we were impressed by its ability to showcase regular old paper comic books in such a stylized fashion. Panels move frame by frame, vertically and horizontally. The colors and text are just as vibrant and crisp as in their native form, and the story keeps all its intensity. The price is right, too—currently, the six major comic-reading apps in the App Store offer a vast library of titles for $0.99 to $3 per issue. As a bonus, they provide access to your favorite stories on other platforms, like your Mac and your mobile phone. Obviously, this is a better alternative for the not-so-serious reader who doesn’t want to make the trip to the local comics shop every Wednesday. We spoke to plenty of publishers who love the idea of the iPad as a whole new distribution platform for comics. But can the iPad really ever be a replacement for the traditional comic book, or is it just a niche market?
The Boom Comics App looks simple, but its panel-by-panel, high resolution reading experience is one you have to experience.
Many publishers stood on the sidelines before diving in head first into the App Store. As with magazine publishers, they waited for someone to make the first jump, both to see what was possible and to determine what worked and what didn’t. “Apple has a great history of delivering game-changing devices,” says Chip Mosher, marketing director of Boom Studios, “and I was interested to see if this was the game-changer everyone thought it was. Part of it was taking a wait-and-see attitude to see how things were going to shake out. We had a clear vision of what we wanted to do, and we were able to turn on a dime.” Like major power players Marvel and DC, Boom Studios uses the ComiXology platform for its iPhone and iPad apps, which lets them avoid hiring their own team of developers since ComiXology does the heavy lifting of app maintenance.
But iPad apps can do more than just display the comics digitally. Graphic.ly, for instance, integrates a social-networking element into its mobile and desktop apps. Readers can sign up for an account and comment on comics panel by panel—and even reveal hidden secrets the artist might have put into the comic, like a fingerprint smudge in the graphic novel Berserker #0.
Graphic.ly's iPad app allows readers to comment on their favorite panels.
“The iPad has opened up this opportunity for creators to really drive the technology,” says Micah Baldwin, chief community caretaker at Graphic.ly. “Here’s something that’s technologically advanced, but matches to what print is. It’s a good first step into the world of what could be amazing stuff.”
Graphic.ly doesn’t constrain the user by locking all purchases onto one device. You could read Issue 1 of Astonishing X-Men on your Mac at work, purchase the second issue with your iPhone on the train ride home, and then read it comfortably in bed with your iPad. This model reinforces the idea that these digital copies are extensions of the comic-reading experience, not replacements.
Wade Slitkin, CEO of Panelfly, doesn’t think digital comics can replace the neighborhood comic shop, even though his company dubs itself the “local comic book store in your back pocket.” He feels like the real value in the comics industry comes from special editions purchased through these comic book shops. “Someone falls in love with reading Batman, they think they want one on their shelf or coffee table—that’s not going to go anywhere. Your consumer habits might be more into immediate gratification, but when you go into a store, you’re almost idolizing it again. People think, ‘That really meant something to me, I’m going to purchase the hardcover version.’”
Of course, these are digital distributors talking here. What about the shop owners who welcome customers who want to discuss their favorite series and get advice about what kind of graphic novel is right for them? Take James Sime, owner of Isotope in downtown San Francisco. His shop has excelled at evolving with the industry because it caters to graphic novels and special editions, rather than the single issues. Sime believes that the shops that focus on single issues really suffer because of the inflated prices for 22 pages of one-dimensional content. “I think they’re going to lose a lot of their readers to the iPad…it’s economical and cheap,” he says.
In the end, customers will inevitably choose whatever suits them the best, and companies like iVerse are banking on this. It’s one of the few vendors that still has a bit of skepticism about the iPad, even though it has an app. “Even as someone who is obviously trying to push things forward with digital—we as a company—we leave [the building] and go to a comic book shop and buy print books,” says iVerse Media founder Michael Murphey. He adds that if he ever quits his Wednesday ritual, he knows he’s done for. “It’s one of those things that if we lose our enthusiasm for this, we’ll never
There’s no guarantee that digital distribution will ever replace regular print comics, but confidence is growing among comics publishers and shop owners that the iPad is a new medium that can give comics better exposure. That’s undoubtedly a good thing, and it can only mean that the audiences who delve into a comic book on the weekends won’t be just the typical superhero fanatic hanging out at the local comic book shop, but fans of all backgrounds who have introduced themselves into the world of comics because they discovered them on the iPad.
Graphic.ly lets you read your comics on your Mac, iPhone, and iPad.
Every comics app leaves out at least one of your favorite comic book characters, which really just creates the perfect excuse to devote a whole home screen to comic book applications. Here's what they have to offer:
The official ComiXology app has one of the largest libraries in the App Store—its range of titles runs the gamut from big publishers to small: Marvel, DC, Boom Studios, Top Cow, Asylum Press, and more. The app uses Guided View Technology to shift your gaze to the appropriate panel. The standalone Marvel and DC apps use this same ComiXology platform.
Featuring titles from Marvel, IDW, and Image Comics Creators, as well as campy classics like Archie Comics, this app comes with 40 free comic books to get you started on adventures outside of the typical hero-saves-the-day storyline.
If you love chatting with friends about your favorite series, Graphic.ly can extend that experience to the digital format. All you have to do is create a Graphic.ly account to connect with your friends and then discuss comics, panel by panel, by leaving comments. Your purchases are also available in Graphic.ly’s Adobe AIR desktop application.
Though not yet natively available on the iPad, the Panelfly app offers titles from Marvel, Dark Horse, Top Cow, Boom, and a number of smaller publishers. You can browse with a Cover Flow view by flipping your iPhone or iPod touch into landscape mode. The app also uses sequential panel navigation to help you keep up with all the action on the smaller screen.