Digital Comics part 2: User Experience

This is part 2 of a projected 3-part series on digital comics. You can check out part 1 here. This week, novelist and critical darling Johnathan Franzen grumped about how eBooks were a threat to democracy. This morning I read a pretty good rebuttal by science writer Carl Zimmer. I tend to agree with Zimmer in that I believe eBooks are a great way to help raise awareness of deserving works, the way that paperbacks once did. It is simply a logical technological shift.

One of the biggest reasons I got an iPad a couple of weeks ago was to finally jump on board the digital comics train. In the past I have downloaded torrent files of scanned digital comics, just to see what the reading experience was like, and I didn't care for it. Reading a PDF of a scanned comic on my laptop just doesn't feel like comics should to me; the aspect ratio of the screen doesn't allow for comfortable full screen viewing, I didn't like having to click around and dick around. I'm not necessarily attached to always reading on paper - I wouldn't give a shit about reading a novel or some nonfiction books on a computer screen - but my brain processes comics differently, for whatever reason.

After some basic training with the iPad, I downloaded a few of the most popular readers: Stanza, Graphic.ly, Comics (by ComiXology), and Comic Zeal. Only Comic Zeal cost money to download; something like $8 I think, more than I would ordinarily pay for an app but well worth it. Unlike the other readers which are basically front-ends for a digital comics store, Comic Zeal is a reader for .cbr and .cbz files, as well as PDFs and other image formats. I used ComiXology to download some samples of standard format comics from the present and past, and used Comics Zeal to check out digital files I had already purchased, like John Allison's Girl Spy. While I was at it I downloaded torrents of some old issues of The X-Men, Scott Pilgrim, and Lone Wolf and Cub to see how they "felt" on the iPad screen.

Overall, reading comics on the iPad is a pretty good experience, for many of the same reasons as reading eBooks; I like being able to carry a library of options in one device, I like being able to zoom in when my old eyes are having trouble making out text. Some readers automatically load the next issue of a comic for you, and some offer "guided viewing", where the page zooms about from panel to panel, in an attempt to mitigate the difficulty of reading an entire page of a modern superhero comic on the iPad screen. This difficulty is less noticeable when the artwork is less detailed, like in an Archie comic or older, pre-1990 comics that predate digital colouring and lettering.

It is also much less noticeable when the original artwork matches the aspect ratio of the iPad screen, which is the case with a typical manga comic versus a typical North American comic. This was not always the case in North America; in the 1940s and 50s and partly into the 60s, the standard comic book was trimmed  to about 10" by 7". It is now about 10.25" by 6.5", which may not sound like much of a difference, but it is analogous to the difference between a "letter-size" piece of paper in the US and the European standard, A4; and what the iPad screen displays best is the "standard definition" page, not widescreen. If you buy Comics Zeal, you can download free copies of some old horror comics like Eerie and Charlton's Out of This World; they are quite readable without zooming, owing to the original page proportions, relative simplicity of the artwork and colour, and larger hand lettering.  Scott Pilgrim, thanks to its manga format, comes off very well; the reading experience is about the same. And Lone Wolf & Cub is a pleasure for my old eyes, displaying at a larger (and much more readable) size than the Dark Horse mini-digest manga. Some comics will probably never look good on an iPad, like Acme Novelty Library and other objets d'art, but for many comics the iPad screen is a good option.

As for the readers, I am pleased that ComiXology and Comic Zeal basically provide a dichotomy rather like that of iTunes and VLC do with video; one is the "official" player with links to a store and lots of content you can buy, and the other is the versatile and powerful catch-all for everything else. After a bit of a learning curve, I have come to really appreciate Comic Zeal's interface and options for organizing virtual "collections" of comics - complete with longboxes. If any of you out there have recommendations for other readers or titles, do let me know in the comments.