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Why The New iPad is a Turning Point for Digital Comics

By Norman Chan

The high-resolution screen puts digital comics on par with their print counterparts.

When Apple handed tech bloggers and journalists the very first iPad back in early 2010, the loaner unit came pre-installed with a cherry-picked selection of apps that were meant to wow the reviewers and convey the potential of the device (and they did!). Among those was the Marvel Comics app, developed by a company called Comixology. It was an unexpected surprise for reviewers, many of whom gushed over the fluid experience of reading a digital comic on the iPad. The print comics business has been in steady decline over the past decade, with sales a far cry from their peak in the 90s. Back in those halcyon days, a top selling book used to sell a million issues per month; now, only flagship titles like Batman or Superman can surpass 100k monthly issues sold. Regardless of whether it was the fault of surging comics piracy, rise of alternative forms of entertainment, or plain apathy, comics sales needed a boost, and the iPad was potentially its super soldier serum.

As a longtime comic book reader, I was extremely skeptical.

I resisted adopting comics on the iPad for numerous reasons. The iPad's 1024x768 IPS screen, which by no means bad, was insufficient to appreciate the level of art detail in modern comics. It was comparable to going from watching a movie in the theater to watching it on a netbook. Sure, you can still make out the story and get the gist of the images, but not fully appreciate the art. It didn't help that the iPad's 9.7 inch screen is smaller than the actual dimensions of a standard comic, with different aspect ratios as well (the iPad's display is 4:3, while comics are closer to 16:9). And on smaller 7" screens like the Kindle Fire, full pages and two-page splash spreads just aren't comfortable to read without zooming in. That's one of the reasons that Comixology included the "Guided View" panel-by-panel navigation feature in its digital comics. Some people claim this is a better way to follow along a comic story, and prevents spoiling plot details when you scan a full page. I respectfully disagree, and would prefer to enjoy reading a full page as the writer and artist originally intended. Guided View compensates for screen images that aren't as crisp as printed ones.

I gave comics on the iPad a fair try, but it always felt more of a novel complement to reading traditional print comics--and perhaps useful for archiving--rather than a substitute.

But that's not how comics publishers saw the platform. Digital comics have had pricing parity with print comics since their inception--a new issue of Spider-Man is still going to cost $4, whether you buy it on the iPad or at the comic book store. Yes, middlemen like Apple and Comixology have to take their cuts, but this is the publisher saying that they think the reading experience on the iPad is the equivalent to that of ink on paper, when in my opinion the digital experience was inferior.

This has improved over time, of course. Pricing as decreased and comics publishers have learned from other digital distribution services, adopting sales models not unlike how Valve's Steam store runs its sales on digital PC games. Older comics are often priced as low as $1 an issue, which makes buying a six-issue story arc or trade paperback very affordable. And those discounted comics often rocket to the top of Comixology's best sellers list. Demand for comics is pretty elastic, it seems. Additionally, Marvel conceding the idea that digital comics are more attractive as a complement to print ones, bundling download codes with many of its print issues.

But the primary concern is image quality, and that's something that no longer an issue with the release of the new iPad and its 2048x1536 display. Comixology has been preparing for this update for a while, and was quick to update its app to support their new "CMX-HD" comics format. Their implementation could not have been better executed.

CMX-HD files are about twice the size of previous digital comics files--40MB instead of 20MB each. But the image quality is dramatically different; comic pages are actually higher resolution than the new iPad's screen (and yes, higher resolution than pirated comics too), so fidelity doesn't decrease much when you pinch to zoom in. With the older comics files, getting close up to a panel revealed image compression artifacts, which are all but gone in the CMX-HD comics I tested--you really have to squint to notice any image compression. Better yet, the "upgrade" comes free if you already bought the comic, so there's not the same remorse that DVD collectors felt when Blu-Ray was announced. The only caveat: first-gen iPad and iPad 2 owners unfortunately don't have the option of downloading the higher-res comics in the Comixology app, nor do new iPad owners have the option of going back to lower res comics to conserve space. Comixology's CEO David Steinberger told me that the conversion process is simple since the source files are high-res, and the company has already upgraded well over 1,000 of the comics in its 20,000 issue library.

The upshot is that quality is no longer an issue for me. In fact, despite the new iPad's screen still being physically smaller than a print comic, I think the art actually looks better in some situations. This is the case when reading at night. With a backlit screen, colors are really striking, and the glow of the white panel borders makes for a better frame than room lighting on paper. It is definitely a matter of preference, but I have really enjoyed reading comics so far on the new iPad.

That's not to say that I think digital comics on the new iPad will save the comics industry--far from it. There are still plenty of trade-offs you have to make to go all-digital. With a collection of digital comics, I actually find myself reading older comics less. It's not as easy for me to pick up a comic from a shelf or table to read when I have an extra moment as it is to pull them up on the iPad. Plus, once the iPad is in hand, comics are competing with everything else I could be doing on the tablet--games, web browsing, or watching video. Print comics give me a rest from the digital world--iPad comics are firmly entrenched in that world.

And just like the discontinuation of the print edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, going from print to digital comics would forsake the serendipity of comics discovery. I have a lot of fun occasionally digging through storage bins to read old comics issues, even to read stories out of order or one-offs that I've forgotten. I don't find myself doing that with the iPad--the digital shelf just isn't as fun to browse. Of course, there's also the trade-off of weight and portability. An iPad may be lighter than a bin full of comics, but it's nowhere as near as light as 24 printed pages, which you can read in the bathroom and upside down in bed.

But the real barrier is still price. Even though the quality of content is worth it, $4 seems like a lot to ask for a digital comic, pirated options aside. It's an especially tough sell for someone who has just spent $500+ on an iPad. In the minds of readers, that's like paying full price for a drink at a club after paying an exorbitant cover charge just to get through the door. Heck, $4 already seems like a lot to pay for comic in stores--it's why readers who can wait prefer collected issues in the trade paperback format.

I'd like to see the comics industry adopt a subscription model like Spotify. I would be perfectly willing to pay $10 a month to be able to "stream" any one comic issue at a time, or pay $15 a month to sync six of 12 issues at a time for offline reading--the typical equivalent of one major story arc. Comixology, though, won't bite. "We continually consider all sorts of models on an ongoing basis and always include our partners in discussion, but for now we're excited in the growth of the retail model and haven't been compelled by any subscription model," Steinberger told me. I think that's a missed opportunity, especially since the economics work in Comixology and comics publishers' favor considering the potential market of 100 million iOS users. The à la carte model seems more attractive for existing readers and not potential new ones.

Like other entertainment mediums, the comics industry will move to a primarily-digital business eventually. And there will be strong resistance from comic collectors, just like there was for the transition from CDs and DVDs to digital formats. Books have had a relatively smooth transition so far, but without the crushing pressure of piracy, the book business has more time to make the switch. More importantly, the utility you get from reading a book comes from the quality of content and not the medium you read it on. Text is text, no matter what font or resolution you are it at--as long as it's readable. With a comic, both the story and art are paramount, and the quality of the art is 100% tied to the reading format.

In that sense, comics are like the music business. Comics on previous iPads were like listening to a 128k mp3 with Apple earbuds--good enough for some people--but clearly not the same as listening to a CD with a nice set of Sennheisers. And the HD comics now available on the new iPad are like 256k VBR AACs--near archival quality. Eventually, physical comics will be like vinyl records--made in limited quantities for the fans who want something tangible to collect and display, and priced at a premium. The music industry is surviving because it finally was willing to compromise. The hardware and software platforms have matured to a point where it makes sense for the comics industry to do the same.