Let’s Get Digital! – Meeting the iPad

A bit of a change this time around from my usual reviews of collected editions. I’d like to talk about digital comics, or more specifically the experience of digital comics on the iPad.

As anyone who listens to the WFTT podcast will know, I owned an iPad for 4hrs on launch weekend before returning it to the Apple store in NY when I found out that at that point it wouldn’t work with a UK iTunes account. Upon returning to the UK I thought long and hard about buying one but decided against it for a variety of reasons. I mention it briefly here but they’re not important to the core of this article. I feel that the iPad is lacking in features which I would suggest are a “must-have” even in the Apple world especially since the release of the iPhone 4. I believe that these will be addressed when v2 is released, which I’d guess would be Q2 2011.

I appreciate this isn’t exactly hot-off-the-presses as the device is 8 months old, but this weekend for the first time, while visiting a friend, I had the opportunity to spend some quality time with his iPad and also the opportunity to talk to him about his experiences and opinions particularly about comic-reading on the device.

There are a few areas to cover so let’s kick things off:

The reading experience

Whilst I do read comics on my iPhone 4 occasionally I don’t do it that often, the screen’s too small for a full page and you’re almost always forced into a panel-by-panel view. This forces you into switching from landscape to portrait mode in order to suit the original panels. I find this incredibly distracting in the same way I do when physical comics switch 90 degrees in order to do a portrait 2-page splash.

One of the things which I was uncertain about with the iPad was how legible a full page of comic text would be when presented at a maximum of 9.7″ and 1024×768. This is a couple of inches shorter in the diagonal than a traditional comic page…you’ll forgive me if I don’t bust out my leet pythagoras skills.

Using a variety of apps I found full pages to be completely legible, including most importantly the lettering. These were typically fairly recent books, unfortunately I didn’t have chance to look at silver age issues which might be a bit more dense than more modern books tend to be. I didn’t find myself needing to switch aspects at all in reading probably a dozen or more comics, a definite improvement over reading on an iPhone.

iVerse and Comixology have a similar reading experience, making full use of pinch-to-zoom, and swiping page-turns, so if you do get a panel you want to examine in great detail you can go in as far as the quality will allow.

Rating: 

The shopping experience

I’m going to treat the experience of shopping as slightly separate from the content as I don’t think it would be fair to level criticism at iVerse and Comixology about what they have to offer.

Both stores suffer a little from a UI which doesn’t seem to quite click. They offer all sorts of searching and sorting options but there’s a sense of being overwhelmed and it’s hard to pick out what’s new from what’s “new to the store”…it’s entirely possible this capability is in there, I didn’t have hours and hours of exploration (would’ve been somewhat rude!). I’m sure that personalisation is on their agenda with preference/recommendation systems to follow and probably at a guess some sort of social aspect.

One interesting thing I observed with my friend was that he didn’t immediately grasp that there was a difference between deleting the locally stored content and removing the comic from “My comics”. It makes sense as you wouldn’t want to pay for something and then accidentally lose it, but it does make it a little confusing.

Rating: 

The Comics

Right. Can’t avoid it any longer…we need to get to the hub, nub and crux of the matter. Comic reading on the iPad is only going to be as good as the comics you can get hold of. I’m going to ignore illegal downloads for the most part, hopefully for obvious reasons.

At this point in time I feel that as a platform for comics that iPad is one (or more) step ahead of the content and publishing models available to it. It has capability that’s being held back by the choices of publishers.

Price – The vast majority of mainstream comics are priced at £1.19 for UK readers. This compares to a price of about £1.95 in comic shops, so roughly on par with the $2.99/$1.99 model for physical/digital in the US. Value is entirely subjective but paying approx 2/3 of the cost of the physical item for a digital copy just doesn’t work for me for a few reasons. In fact if you’re lucky enough to be in the US and have access to DCBS or a similar service then odds are you can buy the physical book for the same if not a lower price than digital.

It’s a hard set of scales to balance. On one side you have the immediacy and portability of digital but on the other hand you have “ownership” and the potential for residual value. Don’t get me wrong, I realise that 99.9% of comics will never be worth anything more than a handful of pence, but that’s more than a digital comics using the current sales method of choice is worth. You don’t own a comixology comic, effectively you licence the right to download and read it for a one-off fee.

Selection – Let’s be honest, the selection available for digital comics at the moment is in the nicest possible way, piss poor. It’s the equivalent of Apple trumpeting the arrival of the Beatles on iTunes and then finding out that there’s one song from every third album.

An availability straw poll (titles picked at random)

  • Savage Dragon 166 issues – 16 issues available on Comixology
  • Hellblazer 273 issues – 19 issues available on Comixology
  • Chew 15 issues – 11 issues available on Comixology

Marvel make it harder to even find out as they don’t allow access to comics via the comixology website. Of the big three Image is by far the most progressive with DC and Marvel being embarrassingly poorly represented and unashamedly created massive physical to digital delays…in fact those times when both happen at the same time they digital copy is either as or more expensive than the physical!

Purchasing model – The lion’s share of iPad comics seem to be transactional download and to be stuck in a model where comics become available months/years after release. I understand that the publishers have an incredibly difficult balance to strike with their customers (who are LCSs and not us readers) but I find the situation farcical and actually wonder if it does indeed encourage piracy. I do not advocate pirating comics, I don’t do it but let’s work through a real-life example. This weekend I thought to get the whole experience I would buy a copy of Batman and Robin #1 on my mate’s iPad (don’t worry, I intended to give him the £1.19 I expected to pay), it’s a book that’s up to it’s 2nd or 3rd arc so I was amazed to find it’s not for sale! This is arguably DC’s #1 title, certainly a top 3, and I can’t legally buy it. However if I Google it within seconds I find a pirated torrent with dozens of seeds, I’ve no doubt that I could download #1-15 before I finish this article.

The main two iPad apps don’t offer a subscription model and I think it’s only recently that Image have started offering digital collected editions, which I think is absolutely to be commended.

Marvel’s Digital Comics Unlimited offering isn’t iPad compatible due to its use of Flash, which is absolutely crippling as I think that could be a killer app for Marvel, massively increasing digital readership…after all if I’m not going to truly own the issues why do anything other than rent them?

There are other models out there though. I subscribe to 2000AD via Clickwheel which allows me to download a DRM free copy of the issues in PDF or CBZ format, the prog is a week or so out-of-date when I get it but that’s nothing to someone used to WFTT.

Rating:

Summary

Digital comics on the iPad work. I don’t think that’s to be argued. My friend tried to convert me to Atomic Robo this weekend, he’s absolutely hooked on it…and he’s never held a copy in his hands. He’d never heard of it before owning an iPad and the glee in his voice when he saw that Deadly Art of Science #1 was out was palpable, he now buys every issue and is an active advocate for the series. However if the publishers found a way to embrace them whilst not destroying the LCS market then I believe we could see a comics renaissance beyond anything in the last decade.

There are 10m iPads out there and Apple sold 14m iPhones last quarter alone, my own belief is that the comics market in the US is no bigger than 500-750k people…there’s a scale of potential sales out there which could be bigger than the 90s boom with a readership absolutely primed for micropayments or subscription.  But they’re used to consuming content on their terms, I wonder how many regular iPad users sit down to watch a TV show live vs how many use time-shifting or on demand services?

The cost of entry is high at £429+ and certainly you’d need to be someone buying almost every digital comic published to offset that cost and “save” money within the life of the device…but more and more frequently I hear the argument from people that they’ve ditched buying floppies for the sole reason that their house is full of boxes and they physically cannot fit more “stuff” into their collections, for some of these people the cost to get into the game will be money well spent, if only the publishers will allow them!

Overall Rating: 

Author: Dave Williams

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One comment

  1. Dave /

    For the record this is me (Dave Williams) and not the mighty David Monteith

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