After years of writing about digital comics, I am finally a tablet owner. I got the new iPad on Friday and eagerly put it through its paces over the weekend.
Everything you've read about the screen is true. This is the single most impressive display I've ever seen. Yes, it's just the iPhone display times four, but there's something that can't be explained about the way that size increase makes everything look different. I can't wait for the future when all of our displays are as capable of producing high def imagery the way this one is. I mean that for laptops, desktops, and even the wall-mounted TV in my living room. It’s coming, though it might take a little time to get there.
In the case of comics, it's suddenly a whole new game again. You don't need any permutation of Guided View on the iPad to clearly read comics. You can read the word balloons legibly on a screen less than ten inches diagonal without zooming in. To put it to the best test I could think of, I downloaded one of the free previews of the recent "The Smurfs" books that Papercutz (i.e., NBM Press) publishes. I've mentioned in this column in the past (last week, most recently) that the pages are shrunk down an awful lot from the original European publication. As it turns out, the new printed page is about the same size as the iPad’s screen, which makes a one to one comparison easy. Even for a comic that has four tiers of panel per page with lots of tiny lettering, everything is perfectly legible on the iPad's screen. These are books that wear your eye out after a dozen pages in print that work digitally without any zooming at all.
In fact, due to the high resolution of the screen, using Guided View gives you lower quality images. They're zoomed in and blown up, making them look soft. As digital distributors make Retina Display-resolution comics available, perhaps this will be fixed, but right now the optimal view quality is in full page displays. And that, quite honestly, is how I want to read my comics. Even when reading them on my iMac with its 27" display, I always read comics at full page size, and even in two page view. That's how comics are designed to be read, and chopping them up into a series of panels might be the trade-off one makes for an iPhone reading experience with its relatively tiny 3" screen, but the only 'true' way to read comics (to me) is a page at a time, as they were drawn and designed.
The quality of the reading experience is so high that switching to digital distribution for "The Smurfs" comics is a real possibility. I won't, simply because I like the paper collection and I'm not carrying my iPad around with me everywhere (just yet), but it's something I could easily do without feeling like I'm trading off picture quality for something else. As a bonus, the digital versions of these books sell for $3.99, a couple bucks less than the paperback editions and seven dollars less than the hardcovers.
I used comiXology's "Justice League" #1 digital comic as my demo item at work on Friday afternoon. The opening double page splash with Batman and the final full page splash of Superman were big hits around the office. They were the images that sold the display: detailed, bright, poppy, three-dimensional. The whole issue was impressive -- again, in particular, the highly legible lettering is the biggest feature -- but the eye could glide over the other pages in favor of those two selections. The larger images continue to work best.
And, best of all, the coloring doesn’t look like mud! You can even turn the brightness level up to make it more clear. Bad coloring will still be bad coloring, but bad printing is no longer a problem.
I did all my testing with the comiXology app. It had not been updated for the Retina Display resolution yet. What I'm seeing right now are very good in “standard definition.” The app update is awaiting Apple approval, and comiXology is going back and updating the comics in the library as fast as they can, specifically for the third generation iPad. [Ed: Since Augie wrote this, the updated app has gone live in iTunes] There was some worry there’d be an extra charge for that or that the publishers would resist the move out of, I don’t know, some weird sort of piracy fears that made no sense. But it looks like they’re all getting this one right. That's the best digital comics news I've heard in some time.
I also loaded up some review PDFs I had laying around. I used the ComicBook Lover app for that, since the desktop app is what I use on my desktop computer. (Also, it’s free. I know GoodReader is probably the way to go for $5, and I’ll get there eventually.) The controls are easy enough to use, but the variable here is the PDF quality. Since these files are just meant to be review copies, they're not the highest quality files. They're not meant to be displayed like this. The ones that get e-mailed out, in particular, are often lower resolution just to fit them in the email without breaking anyone's account. When viewed on the Retina Display screen, they look soft, pixellated, and unfinished. They're better off being read on the desktop, where the lower pixels per inch mean they'll look cleaner and bigger on a larger display. I know that sounds odd, but it's true.
Hardware wise, the new iPad is a comic-loving geek’s dream come true. It’s the best way to read digital comics today. Full stop. The software and the media will take a little bit of time to play catch-up, but the delightful news is that it's happening already. The iPad has become the single best device for reading digital comics today.
The only problem we have left to solve is DRM. I've said in the past that I'm not buying into digital comics right now because of their lack of mobility. The comic you buy on comiXology won't work on other distributors' platforms, and the fact that you're not getting a file downloaded that can be played independently means that everything is locked in and subject to the whims of the owners/distributors. Buying digital comics today is not future-proofing your collection. Those books I bought in 1989 are right over there in a long box. I can pick them up and read them with just a bit of digging. The digital comics I buy today might be recalled tomorrow and disappear from my directory. They're licensed to a specific platform that, let's face it, could get updated and start to stink tomorrow. Do you really want to be locked in at that point? Do you like effectively renting comics? I don't.
I’m still hesitant for that reason, but with the quality of the comics reading experience on this iPad, I’m starting to loosen up a bit. Perhaps it's more enjoyable to be pragmatic than dogmatic? With the continuous 99 cent sales going on, there’s bound to be a day when I’ll catch up on some series by spending $12 to get a year’s worth of comics from a series I’ve read good things about. I definitely plan on sampling things more often now, perhaps a month later when they drop a dollar off the cover price.
I’m going on vacation in a couple of weeks and have a couple hours’ worth of flying to do each way. Looks like I’ll be reading comics on the flight down with this thing. But I’ll bring a paper book with me as back-up, too, for when my daughter wants to play with it. I’ll be sure to download one of those Smurfs comics for her first, though.
I'll be back next week to revise and extend my remarks, should the comiXology app get the update in time. I also want to give the other digital comics distributors a chance, so look for expanded coverage in the weeks ahead.
Don't worry, I'm not going to obsess over this. There are still plenty of printed comics to talk about, and I'll be doing some of that, too. There are lots of exciting books out on stands these days that I don't want to overlook. Maybe I'll do a round-up of those next week. In the meantime, keep an eye on my Twitter stream for my thoughts on those books as I read them.