Thursday, January 10, 2013

State of My Digital Comics Union, January 2013

So, as I mentioned, last year was the year I really got into digital comics. So some rambling thoughts on that.


Now, I've been reading comics on a screen for a long time.  Mostly public domain stuff from before 1960, found in places like this, where among other things I read almost every non-Marvel story Steve Ditko drew in the 1950s. And I've even bought a few items as DRM-free PDF files. But I never found the experience very satisfying, more of a necessary evil to read some interesting stuff I either could not find or could not afford in print. The resolution of my computer screen (800 pixels vertical) was such that the only thing to do was constantly switch back and forth between a full-page view so I could properly read the art and a zoomed view so I could read the script and somewhat appreciate the linework. I also read some webcomics, which were designed for the screen and worked better, but didn't really keep up with any of them for that long.

Getting an Ipad last spring changed that. Reading a comic page in portrait orientation gives a vertical resolution of 2048 pixels, so over 2.5 times what I got on my computer, and the full image has over 6 times as many pixels. That makes it readable. Not quite print quality, except in the case of some especially poorly printed comics, but good enough for 2012, higher than the resolution most of the stuff was scanned at, and enough that some of the other advantages of digital start to weigh in. Having over 15000 comics and related publications, bringing more paper into the house is something to avoid.

So, first order of business was finding the right reader on the Ipad for those public domain comics, most of which are just image files bundled together into RAR or ZIP format archives. For the laptop, I mostly used a program called CDisplay, which has always worked pretty well, even with no updates in about a decade.  And writing this post has paid off, since I just found out there's a newer program called CDisplayEX, which has most of the same features and some new ones. Have to try that out. But back to the Ipad, I still haven't settled on a single program. There are three of them I like, ComicBookLover (free), iComix (free) and Bookman ($3). Each has some features I like, but none has everything I want. I tried most of the other free programs and found them inferior to those alternatives. There are a lot of paid programs, but none seem that much better than what I'm using. Anyway, all three of those I have do the job, and provided they're well scanned the public domain stuff looks great on them, very easy to read. It helps that double page spreads, one of the big problems I don't think anyone has found an elegant solution for in digital comics, are rarely a consideration in those older comics.

So that provides me with some great reading, and a whole lot of entertainingly awful reading, on my screen. Let's go on to the paid stuff. I wrote a bit about the reading interfaces of the major platforms (Comixology, iVerse and Dark Horse) a few months back, and that pretty much stands. Comixology is serviceable, especially for shorter works, Dark Horse isn't quite as polished, but mostly the same in fundamentals, and iVerse is pretty awful. Still haven't found anything to buy on the Kindle or iBooks apps to test them out.

I'm still hopeful that the future, at least for major works, will be standalone apps, like the Eddie Campbell, David Lloyd and Hunt Emerson books published by Panel Nine. That structure just gives more flexibility to tailor the reading experience to the material, to include special features and to properly navigate something longer than 25 pages. Other than the Panel Nine stuff, the only standalone app I've really liked is for Eric Shanower's AGE OF BRONZE, with the first four issues up, in colour for the first time ever, and extensive historical and cultural notes for every page. The interface could use a bit of work, but it's functional, and $1 an issue for full colour Eric Shanower is a bargain.  Unfortunately updates appear to be almost as infrequent as new issues of the print comic.

On the major platforms, a lot of publishers have embraced the "first taste free" model, either permanently or as a series of limited time offers. So I've gotten a lot first issues. Reading them has mostly been good practice at reading on the tablet, very few of them have interested me in going on and reading the whole series. Part of the problem is that the pricing still seems a bit out of whack to me. I tend to think a fair price for digital content, especially stuff you don't really "buy", meaning you're at the whim of a company staying in business and being able to provide continued access, is in the range of one-third to one-half of the cover price for a quality print edition. That takes into account that I expect to be able to get most wide-release print books with a discount of 20% to 40% off cover price. In practice, that means I'm not paying more than $1 for a standard single issue, and probably never much more than $10 for anything. Most publishers haven't really embraced a pricing paradigm compatible with my views, so mostly I'm only buying stuff on sale, which usually drops them down to the range I'm comfortable with.

I've still found about 50 items to buy, at a total cost of just under $100. About half of that is stuff which I already owned in some print edition, but liked enough to want a more portable version.  That includes some Eddie Campbell stuff from Top Shelf, some of Larry Marder's Beanworld from Dark Horse and some Bissette/Moore/Totleben era Swamp Thing from DC. And when they've been on sale I've picked up a handful of older books I was mildly interested in but were either too pricey or too hard to find.

I did buy two books which were newly released in 2012 at their regular non-sale price, both from Top Shelf, one of the few companies that seems to share my ideas on digital vs. print pricing.

BLUE by Pat Grant is a bargain at $2 digital, compared to $15 for the hardcover. It's an entertaining first book from the Australian artist, with a strange story about aliens and growing up, plus a lengthy essay in the back detailing the history of Australian comics. It worked really well on the screen for the most part, as you'd expect for something that started as a webcomic, with a few awkward bits where there were double page spreads.

And Eddie Campbell's THE LOVELY HORRIBLE STUFF, in 2011 I would have definitely bought in print, but in 2012 I decided to try digitally instead. The $5 price felt right, compared to the $15 print cover price. It  was a pleasant reading experience for an enjoyable book, although the 100-page length is outside of what works well on Comixology's navigation system. I didn't like it as much as some earlier Campbell work, but I think that had less to do with the delivery system than it did Campbell's heavy use of photographs and sometimes bizarre computer colouring.

Meanwhile, on the webcomic front, most of them do look better on the Ipad, so that's nice, but the real breakthrough for me will probably come from the introduction of Comic Rocket, a webcomic navigation service which makes it easier to keep your place on any number of comics you're reading and navigate them in a consistent way, while still maintaining the page format of the original site. I still haven't gotten around to exploring all the stuff I might want to read, but I'm much more likely to do so when I have the time than I would be without it.

So, that's the state of the union on digital comics for me. It looks like they'll definitely be a part of my comics reading going forward, though there's still a lot of paper coming into the house (currently in the mail, the second POGO strip collection by Walt Kelly and the third and final NEMESIS book by Pat Mills and various artists). There's still a lot of room for improvement in the general presentation, which I expect will continue to improve, and the pricing, which I doubt will improve.

3 comments:

Javier Hernandez said...

Bob,

This post is helpful and informative. Though I'm not the biggest fan of reading comics on a screen, and I'm still not eager to invest in a tablet, I do find myself sometimes wanting to read something while at the same time not wanting to spend the money on the physical book (or bring even more product into the house!).

But thanks to your write-up I'm now more familiar with what apps are available to look for. Of course, the way this newfangled technology works, by the time I invest in a tablet there may be a whole new slew of apps and delivery systems!

Thanks for your sharing your experiences.

bob said...

Thanks, Javier. Not to turn this into an unpaid Apple commercial, but I was doubtful about getting a tablet, and it turned out to be probably the best electronics purchase of my life. The fact that I can so most of my web-browsing, e-mail and podcast listening on it has probably prolonged the life of my laptop by a year or more, and there are a lot of little conveniences that I already take for granted. It's still a big investment, but hopefully the price will come down a bit.

Javier Hernandez said...

Prolonging the life on your laptop isn't a bad reason at all. As mentioned earlier, the way technology keeps changing so rapidly it certainly won't hurt me to wait until I'm ready.

As a comics creator myself, and one who seriously needs to move forward with web/digital versions of his books, a tablet of some sort might be a more necessary investment than I realize!

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