More iPhone Apps for Comics Fans

Mon, December 29th, 2008 at 11:28am PST | Updated: January 1st, 2009 at 1:42pm

Comic Books
Andy Khouri, Editor
8

comiXology home screen

Many CBR readers doubtlessly received iPhones and iPod touches for Xmas. CBR News previously wrote about comic books’ relationship with mobile technology in a piece focusing on the iVerse Comics Reader from iVerse Media. Reader and industry response to the article was so big, we’ve decided to spotlight an additional three applications for the device Time Magazine called the invention of the year, each one offering comics fans a unique experience on the iPhone (or iPod touch).

comiXology

comiXology is a new application that seeks to make it easier for comic book readers, retailers and publishers to connect in the extremely convenient environment of the iPhone. The $1.99 application is not a comics reader, but rather a multi-featured utility for the fanboy on the go.

Launching the app brings you a remarkably well-designed home screen that lists several options: Previews of new and forthcoming comics from a variety of publishers including Image Comics, Dark Horse and launch-week exclusives like Red 5, IDW Publishing, AdHouse Books, Archie and Radical; a list of new comics, trade paperbacks and hardcovers shipping this week, next week, last week, or whatever week you like; and iPhone-ified access to comiXology’s web content, including reviews, articles and podcasts.

“We try to make useful tools and services for people to find the comics they want and discover new comics in a social environment,” comiXology’s David Steinberger told CBR News. “We make products that we, as comic book fans, want to use. It's great to have a confirmed shipping list with images and previews with you to thumb through on Wednesday before you hit the store, or read an article while you’re waiting online at the bank.”

comiXology’s features can be tailored to meet each user’s unique tastes by signing up for a free comiXology account and creating a virtual Pull List. Logging in and checking your Pull List gives you previews and other information for items, formats and publishers filtered per your specifications. Account holders can also contribute their own ratings and reviews for other users to access, making the comiXology iPhone app a kind of social networking tool for comic book readers.

Among other features, comiXology offers free previews from publishers including Dark Horse

“It’s not so much the pull list, but the comic books themselves that are the unique component for socializing about comics -- including creators, characters, story-arcs and publishers,” Steinberger explained. “Pull lists are a part of it, and that’s where we started, but they're just a part of the whole.

“Integration of all the tools is key, which is why you don't see us rushing new functionality out the door before it's ready. We'll have a lot to say, social-networking-wise, at New York Comic Con next year, so keep an eye out for that.”

As for other forthcoming features, Steinberger was kind enough to give CBR readers a sneak peak:

Connection to your local retailer. “One of the most exciting things we're working on (and this will automatically extend to the iPhone app) is our services for comic book retailers,” he said. “We already have many retailers signed up for our free tools, and we're beta-testing tools so a customer can pull on comiXology.com (and the iPhone app) and pick up their comics at their retailer.

“In support of these, we're beta-testing title subscriptions (auto-pulls by title) right now. For those who aren't afraid to brave the bugs, they can check that out on our development server (dev.comixology.com). It's open to the public but isn't for the feint of heart.”

Among other features, comiXology offers free previews from publishers including Dark Horse

iPhone enhancements. “In our next version for the iPhone, we'll be introducing search, more filter options, and many refinements to how the app works (including screen rotation on previews),” Steinberger explained. “We'll eventually add the social tools we're working on. As soon as Apple allows for notifications, we'll be looking into that. It would be cool to have a notice on your iPhone when there was a new preview to check out, right?”

Other mobile platforms. “Keep an eye out for Android and Blackberry versions of comiXology. Eventually.”

comiXology also aims to address the troublesome disconnect between digital comics distribution and traditional retailers. “The digital comic book scene will take a few years to settle, and we're not satisfied with the current state of reading digital comics,” Steinberger said. “Marvel's [web-based Digital Comics Unlimited] is nice, as long as you don't want to read away from your computer and internet connection. I expect they’ll be on the iPhone before long. Zuda, which doesn’t present DC Universe stories, suffers from the same limitation -- you have to be connected to the internet to read.

“For the iPhone, the ‘comic-as-an-app’ approach is okay. iVerse and UCLICK both offer single issues as an application, but don’t really feel like the comic book they come from. There's no way to scan the page like you do when you're reading a printed comic. Not to mention the clutter on your phone once you get to more than six comics -- how could you handle hundreds that way? The publisher's brand disappears -- you can't tell an IDW comic from a Red 5 comic. That's not healthy for the publishers.

UCLICK home screen

“Of course, formatting original content for the phone is different -- you can craft the storytelling to the device. I think the current model is more compelling that way.

“A bigger issue, though, as digital comics stand now, is that the retailers are cut out of the digital comic circle all together, and we believe there are ways to keep them involved, increase sales for everyone and support the health of the industry.”

UCLICK

Unlike comiXology, the aforementioned UCLICK is a full-on comic book reader for the iPhone and iPod touch. Developed by Andrews McMeel Universal – a sister company of the omnipresent Universal Press Syndicate, known to all comics strip fans – Uclick comics are available as separate applications, priced at 99-cents each, and come with the same content found in a traditional 24-to-32-page pamphlet-style comic book.

The Uclick project is headed by Douglas Edwards, who told CBR News, “Uclick exists to find new audiences for the talented artist creators we represent. ‘Digital’ technology is a rapidly evolving opportunity that includes new devices and distribution channels. Our perspective is that we have to run, not walk, and have a vision of what is around the corner, not just immediately in the road everyone can see clearly. We must be innovative, entrepreneurial, and invest in new forms to deliver this art form, and we must expect that the form will be transformed by the inevitable changes and opportunities that new media and distribution bring to creators.”

Currently offering content from publishers including IDW, Mirage, Cartoon Books, Image, Devil’s Due, PaperCutz, Tashkeel, TOKYOPOP and Liquid (formerly Virgin Comics), the Uclick reader offers iPhone users content in an extremely slick panel-by-panel presentation designed especially for the iPhone’s high-resolution screen. “We work with original or digital source files that allow us to position balloons and images to create a sense of movement and story flow across the panel-by-panel presentation,” Edwards explained. “Our goal is to be faithful to the story while adopting to the new medium. This visual editorial management is done by artists on staff and contract who are passionate about the art form and understand the new media experience we're creating.”

"Basic Instructions" and "Bone" are two of the many titles that have been especially reformatted by UCLICk for the iPhone and iPod touch

Users can advance panels by flicking or by pressing a button, causing the image to slide to the side in a kind of animated fashion. If desired, images can be “pinched” and expanded, just as any other graphic on the iPhone.

The iTunes interface does a good job of solving the potential problem of having an iPhone cluttered with separate comics applications. iTunes archives every application purchased, regardless of whether the user wants it on their iPhone or iPod touch, and those comics can be moved on and off the devices without limitation.

Presently, Uclick offers only existing print comics in an inexpensive but visually excellent digital form, but Edwards said he “definitely anticipates direct to digital creative starting in 2009,” and that “we are expanding the depth and ease-of-use for consumers across all our delivery platforms. Our goal is to provide an ever more engaging experience as we grow both the size of our audience the depth of the experience. At our core is a vast portfolio of content that is refreshed daily and we expect that on desktops and mobile handsets that we can offer entertaining content that will draw consumers back every day. Add to that our ability to provide a showcase for new creators we anticipate that a vast pool of artists will seek out Uclick as a portal to present and prove their talent.

“Stay tuned. 2009 is a year we've targeted to deliver on several big ideas that will bring very positive change to the digital experience for both our creators and our audience.”

ComicZeal

While Uclick offers users digital comics in a very attractive, custom-made package in cooperation with creators and publishers, the ComicZeal application – which itself comes with a relatively simple pinch/swipe-style reader – provides something rather different: the ability to turn your iPhone or iPod touch into a traditional iPod-like device for storing and enjoying an existing digital collection -- i.e. scanned comics.

UCLICK screenshots

“The iPhone/iPod is such a fantastic device for viewing comics and we're determined to make sure everyone knows it,” said Emiliano Molina of Bitolithic, the developer of ComicZeal. “While reading comics is obviously intended to entertain and amuse, it's not a casual, short-term experience like playing a game. It's akin to listening to music and so in some ways, we are creating an iPod-like device..."

Still in ongoing development, ComicZeal requires you to proceed through a number of steps before enjoying your digital comics collections on Apple’s mobile devices. First, you have to download from the Bitolithic website the free ComicZeal Creator (available for Mac and PC), which converts .CBR and .CBZ files – the common formats used to store and transmit scanned comics -- into ComicZeal’s .CBI format, which is a compressed file optimized for the iPhone and iPod touch, designed to minimize processing power and thus reduce the strain on the devices’ batteries.

From there, you must utilize SyncDocs – a free and simple drag-and-drop wireless protocol for the iPhone – to transmit the new .CBI files to the ComicZeal reader, which is the only component you need to purchase – it’s $1.99. The titles you transmit are stored within the ComicZeal application, leaving no extra clutter on the iPhone’s home screen, and you can add as many as hard drive space allows.

It’s a quite a burden for average users to achieve with comics what Apple has made so simple with music and iTunes, something Molina and ComicZeal hope will change as Apple continues to develop its iPhone and iPod touch business model. “Definitely, Apple could give application developers access to the iTunes sync framework,” Molina said. “It's terrible that while the user plugs their phone into a computer every couple of days, we can't use that cable to move files to the device. We're forced to set up a wireless network between the PC and the phone. Thankfully solutions like SyncDocs are making the process easier all the time.

ComicZeal offers free Golden Age comics and the ability to store your existing digital comics collection on the iPhone or iPod touch

“From our part, we're currently working on a version of our syncing software that will reduce the steps required to get comics into ComicZeal. More details on that soon. In the meantime we have a demonstration video on our website that shows how our syncing system works.”

ComicZeal is a very small endeavor, undertaken by Emiliano Molina and his fiancé. The idea for this sort of comic book version of iTunes came to him after a friend wanted to loan Molina a stack of valuable comics that he didn’t wish to damage. “A colleague brought into work his collection of ‘Strikeforce: Morituri’ for me to read,” he explained. “I thoroughly enjoyed reading them but they were so precious to him that I didn’t feel comfortable subjecting them to a trip home in my bag.

“Even if I had taken them home, time is short. What I really wanted to do was read them on the way to and from work, over lunch, over coffee, basically everything that could really damage his comics.

“At around the same time the iPod touch was released in Australia, and seeing the amazing quality of the screen and the potential of the user interface we decided that Bitolithic’s next project should be a comic reader for the iPhone and iPod Touch. Scratching our own itch so to speak.”

ComicZeal screenshots

In addition to its function as a reader for users’ existing collections, ComicZeal also offers a huge number of public domain Golden Age comics for free, and they make for a handy way of demonstrating the application.

As with music and iTunes + iPod, ComicZeal + iPhone obviously affords some users the opportunity to make portable the increasing number of illegally distributed or “pirated” digital comics. And as with Apple, ComicZeal is against such practices. “Our position on comic book piracy is exactly the same as that on piracy of ComicZeal itself,” Molina explained. “We don't approve of it, don't do it. We give our customers the ability to move comics to their device so that they can read material legally. Buy a comic, scan it, read in in ComicZeal. Download a legal .CBR (like those from Flashback Universe or the thousands available in the form of 'Golden Age Comics'), read it in ComicZeal. Download a pirated comic, deny the authors their income, and you ensure that comic won't be around for long.

“ComicZeal allows our customers to protect their collection, it allows them to take their whole collection with them on holiday, it doesn't make it okay to undermine the industry that generates the content we all enjoy. I think our customers and the creators we deal with understand and support our view on this matter.”

ComicZeal screens can be pinched, expanded and advanced with the user's fingers or with the control buttons, which are designed to be used with just one hand

Obviously, such questions would be moot were the comics industry to cooperatively develop an iTunes-like solution to digital comics distribution. But as comiXology’s David Steinberger suggested, the problem is complicated. ComicZeal’s Molina agrees.

“We provide the ability to download directly to the device from a publisher's website. There's a catch though, what's in it for the publisher?” Molina said. “Comics are already relatively cheap, how much would you pay for a digital download? One or two dollars? A paper copy is only a dollar more than that. If you buy the paper copy, do you think you should be able to get the digital one for free? How about if you buy the digital and then want to buy the paper, would you expect a discount?

“Digital downloads are easy, putting a fair business model around it isn't.”

CONCLUSION

Between these three apps -- comiXology, offering a portable utility designed to enhance your visit to the comic book store; Uclick, offering some of indie comics' better titles in a specially enhanced and optimized form; and ComicZeal, offering advanced users a way to mobilize their existing digital comics -- comic book fans have more options than ever to integrate their love of the medium with the latest and greatest portable technology. 'Tis definitely the season to be jolly.

comiXology, numerous Uclick titles, and ComicZeal are all on sale now in the iTunes App Store.

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TAGS:  iphone, ipod touch, comixology, uclick, comiczeal

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