COMICS DON'T CRY: THE iPADIZATION OF THE MEDIUM
I hope everyone enjoyed my interview with Jason Latour last week and had a chance to check out his "Daredevil: Black and White" stuff on the stands. I was at a comic shop this weekend with Television's Ryan Callahan, and when he looked to pick up the issue, it was sold out. No Latour for him. Hopefully you didn't run into the same problem.
But the week before that, you may have noticed that "When Words Collide" was absent from the CBR Monday rotation. It was right after the megalith of the San Diego Comic Con, so the missing column may have passed unnoticed, but for the first time in over a year – after 104 consecutive weekly columns – I skipped a week. I was away on a family vacation and I just didn't have as much time as I thought I would to finish the column before I left. It was a focus on one particular aspect of Warren Ellis and John Cassaday's "Planetary," specifically the anxiety of the Vertigo influence, and that column will come later this month. But I just plain didn't get it done before it was time to jump into the family Canyonero and head to the hills.
Okay, we actually went on a cruise instead. One of those "Supposedly Fun Things I'll Never Do Again," that you may have read David Foster Wallace write about from time to time. Though it was actually fun this time, mostly because we had the entire family with us, and our dominance in the movie trivia events overshadowed the unbearable heat and incredibly long lines at the so-called "Wizarding World of Harry Potter," which we stopped at during our visit to Port Canaveral.
Because it was a cruise, and not my first, I knew there would be times – a lot of times – when my wife would be going off to wait for some diamond raffle or pretending to care about the hideously garish post-velvet Elvis paintings they discuss during the art auction, and I would have time to do my own thing. Which, as you can probably guess, involves comics. Specifically, reading them.
Wait, I went on a cruise for a week, all the way to Florida and the Bahamas and spent the whole time reading comics? No. Sometimes I read self-published "Dungeons and Dragons" advice books. Other times I swam in the amazingly blue ocean. Other times I fell into bacon-eating competitions with my kids at the buffet. It was a well-rounded vacation.
But I did read comics, except I didn't actually bring any comic with me. Well, that's not entirely true. I brought the new "Scott Pilgrim," because I not only didn't have time to write any columns in those days before we left, but I didn't have time to read the most important comic of the summer either. So "Scott Pilgrim 6," yes, I brought that, and I read it, and it was good, and I'm not sure I have anything else to say about it. Maybe in a few weeks, after I see the movie and then reread all the comics and then draft the rules for a Scott Pilgrim vs. Interdimensional Hate Astronauts role-playing game. Maybe then I'll have something to say about it.
So, to recap: week-long vacation, no comics along for the ride except a single volume of "Scott Pilgrim," which, as great as it was, only took about 30 minutes to read. Normally on a week vacation, I'd bring a stack of recent comics and a half-dozen trades. On the last cruise, I read a bunch of Showcases and Essentials, like "The War That Time Forgot" and "Iron Fist." This time, I had only that little block of Brian Lee O'Malley goodness and, wait for it, an iPad.
You saw that coming, didn't you. Since it's mentioned in the title of the column this week. And you've grown up on Batman comics, so your detective skills are sharp. (Maybe even sharper than Batman's. It's taken him over 70 years to see that there's something fishy about his dad.)
The iPad. Yes, six months after everyone else, I've seen the future.
It was certainly a lot easier to carry than a stack of trade paperbacks.
It's actually a work iPad. And I got it just before I left. One of my jobs at my, well, real job, is to coordinate a major online learning initiative in our district. A digression: I've been a teacher for close to fifteen years now, and I was obviously a student for many, many years before that, and education hasn't changed as much in my lifetime as it has during the past five years. Think how much the culture has changed in just the past five years: YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, smart phones in every pocket, flat-screen televisions everywhere you look, high-definition television, newspapers closing up shop, video rental stores going out of business from coast to coast, the iPad. These are things that have fundamentally changed the way we consume media and/or interact with one another. Students come to school with an entirely different set of skills and contextual knowledge than they did even half a decade ago.
And nobody really knows how to handle that. It's the wild west of education. The old rules barely even make sense any more.
So now I have an iPad, and a mandate: play with it, and see how we can use it in the classroom. And an implied directive: figure out how this thing will improve student performance.
With instructions like that, I obviously had to load it up with comics and take it on a cruise. Because how else am I going to get to the bottom of life's new mysteries?
It's not just the education system going through radical upheavals because of the shifting culture and the transformation in media consumption. Everything I said about how "the old rules barely make sense any more" applies to almost everything in the field of entertainment or journalism or communications. And it's no surprise that it applies to comics, and we've all seen the same articles and message board chatter: is this the end of the periodical? Will the direct market implode? Will digital comics take over the Earth and turn us into baby birds with our mouths open wide, hoping for something tastily regurgitated from the mouth of Steve Jobs?
My response: no, no, and, damn, that's a horrifying image. Why did I write that?
It's taken my a thousand words to get here, but my basic observations about the iPad and digital comics – a view from the readership trenches, with no vested interest in this device or digital comics or the direct market – can be summed up like this: the iPad isn't the thing. But it's close.
It's too small to read comics. Too small by at least an inch or two. The lettering doesn't scan at the current size. Shrunk down like it is, it's a chore to read. It's barely a chore, but it's a noticeable one, especially after reading a bunch of comics on the iPad and then going back to read some physical comics, and feeling a great sense of relief at not having to strain to decipher each word balloon.
And the pricing is absurd. Sure, it's great – wonderful, even – to be able to download all six issue of "The Infinity Gauntlet" or the first half of "All-Star Superman" and have them sitting in a neat little row for easy reference – but you're paying at least two bucks an issue for most of this stuff. And if you're buying "Justice League: Generation Lost," it's $2.99 per issue of digital content. That's an unsustainable price point, especially when, for exactly the same price, I can download an entire 44-minute episode of "Breaking Bad."
Yet there's something to the iPad. Particularly – and Marvel and DC have been quick to jump on it – the Comixology app and the "Guided View" technology. The first day or two with the iPad, I stuck to reading comics the old-fashioned way, with a page at a time, maybe zooming in on a particularly important or hard-to-read panel. I tried the "Guided View" option in Comixology and didn't like how it turned the comic into a CD-rom experience. A motion comic without the sound effects.
That prejudice lasted for about five comics. Then I let myself go to the power of the Comixology app, downloading comics I hadn't yet read in physical form (like that overpriced "Justice League" series), and I found that the iPad, and Comixology, had reconfigured the reading experience in such a new way, that I was able to appreciate comics I probably wouldn't have appreciated in another context. Let me put it this way: if I had read those Giffen/Winick/Batista issues as part of my weekly stack, they would have probably just been some mediocre superhero comics. Quick reads, quickly forgotten. As Geoff Johns has said, and I'm paraphrasing, I think: "sometimes we read comics as if we were eating potato chips."
The iPad lets you linger a bit more, and Comixology encourages close, panel-by-panel reading, in a way that I found transformative to the experience. It's not like I usually skip panels or ignore word balloons, but by having the frame so purely focused on a single image and a single set of words, I found myself less distracted by what else was going on in the page. I know that sounds a bit ridiculous, and page composition is a major part of storytelling – a part of storytelling that I teach when I run my comic book workshops – but, as I've said, the old rules? They no longer apply.
But because comics haven't all made the shift to a new way of thinking (and the "Justice League: Generation Lost" series is a better fit for the iPad than many comics, because Giffen's grid-like layouts lend themselves to equal attention, panel-by-panel), and because the physical comics provide a different experience than you get from reading an iPad, comic shops aren't going anywhere.
As amazing and useful as the iPad is, it doesn't, honestly, replace anything. It creates a new space for itself. It's not as good as a productivity tool as a laptop or even a pad and pencil. It's not going to do any hardcore gaming or video editing or digital manipulation like a desktop. It's not as satisfying or comfortable as reading a trade paperback or a book from your bookshelf. But as a 21st century Trapper Keeper, housing your files and your notes and your slices of media for consumption at your leisure, it's pretty great. It's not perfect for anything, but it's very good at a lot of things. And reading comics panel-by-panel is one of those things.
It also has another thing going for it, or it will, in a year or so. That Jason Latour comic my brother wanted to pick up this weekend? He couldn't buy it, because it was sold out at the shop. With the iPad, he could have just downloaded it instantly. If it were available.
In addition to writing reviews and columns for COMIC BOOK RESOURCES, Timothy Callahan is the author of "Grant Morrison: The Early Years" and editor of "Teenagers from the Future: Essays on the Legion of Super-Heroes" anthology. More of his thoughts on comics can be seen regularly at the Geniusboy Firemelon blog.
Follow Tim on Twitter: TimCallahan