Comics on the iPad – First Impressions


After several months of wondering, "Gee, do I really need one–can I even afford one? Would I even use it if I did have one?" I find myself in the possession of an iPad (one of the benefits of working at a tech company that wants to support as many platforms as makes sense).  Suddenly, after months of looking at screenshots and looking at videos, I can actually use the iPad comic book applications that are available from DC, IDW, Marvel and others and see what the hub bub is all about, bub. 
I haven't had the device that long and, for a variety of reasons, the first being that I don't feel like buying comics that I've already read years ago, I have only had the chance to go through a few of the many apps that are available for the iPad, but I figured I would give you my first impressions of the products out there and, later, follow this article up with another discussing other comic book applications.  
Early verdict?  Well, this is definitely where it's going, folks.  Like we've discussed before, many times, the only variable in this particular scenario is time. Yes, floppy issues will still be around for a while to come–you can still get CDs at Best Buy, right?–but eventually, I'm thinking the majority of the comics folks will buy will be delivered and viewed digitally. 
So, we are at the beginning of a beginning, right now, with several intrepid developers working with publishers to provide the best experience for viewing comics on a mobile device. My initial thoughts:
1 – It's not really necessarily about reading a comic book on a device. Yes, yes, I know, you can imagine your iPad as a FutureBook™ with "pages" that you "turn,"  you can marvel at the expert layout of the page and then zoom in (or not) as you read the story.  This seems, initially, to be enough, but I am wondering…why?  Why do we cling that idea?  It's more comfortable, sure–it's less like you are betraying the concept of the comic book and just replacing one experience with a brighter, less paper-y one, but, from a story telling point of view, I think that artists may find themselves taking a step back and realizing that copying the "page to page" experience could be a less fulfilling a storytelling device.  Let me explain:
At first, I was all about going from page to page, and then, if I felt like I wanted to get into the art a bit more, I would zoom into the page a bit.  (It was not usually about trying to read small text–the iPad's resolution makes reading a full page pretty comfortable, but I can see it getting to be a problem as my eyesight continues to decay, like a zombie librarian.)  I was totally not into the whole guided view thing, which, apparently, Comixology has trademarked, so I guess I have to call it Guided View™.  My thinking was, basically, how dare some person tells me how to read the comic book page! I can do it myself, dammit! No one's gonna tell me how to read a comic book, I'll tell you what! 
But, I wanted to make sure I was honest in my review, so I read Wanted #1 on the Comixology application (their own app, helpfully called "Comics"–you'll see why I call that out below), using the Guided View™…guided view.  And I gotta tell ya, it kind of worked. Like, whomever was editing the guiding–directing the story, really– not onlt did a pretty good job but also created tension and surprise that would not have existed if I had seen the whole page first.  
I think it is worth thinking about that for a second, like, really thinking about the ramifications of sequential art being directed by a third party.  When I consider what that experience is, now closer to a film as opposed to a book, I have to think that we are looking at a new form of entertainment.  Now, you may argue that the animated comic books that you can find on iTunes have been doing this for a while, but I would argue that the animated comic book is closer to, well, animation, and less a comic book. This is one notch below animation–the reader still provides the voices for the characters, after all–and, I would argue, is a better experience.  The animated comic books that I have seen have been annoying to me, mostly because it just looked kinda lame to have panels that were designed to be static start moving around, and partly because I didn't like the voice actors because they did not match the voices that I already had cast for the characters in my head. 
As the directors of these comics — I don't know what else to call them — start working with the artists, I think we'll see a total break from "reading comics" on mobile devices.  I don't know what we'll call them, but it's not comics, it's totally something else. Yes, there will be companies that start packaging sound effects and music, and I think that some of those efforts will be successful. Like, I am kind of surprised we don't have suggested soundtracks for the books yet already, you know?  Would be easy enough.  
I gotta put it out there: eventually I see a day when the credits pages of these digital comics will include a director, that's how important I think the view-that-is-guided is, and I think we'll start talking about them with the same intensity as we talk about artists and writers.  
So, yeah, that series of realizations was surprising.
2 – Right now, the selection just isn't there, at least for me. This is purely a symptom of us being at the beginning of this digital comics era, but, like the what happened with music, this will start working when the content starts to arrive.  I read today that the downloads for the  Wonder Woman #600's digital preview were "phenomenal," which can't be a surprise to anyone–it's a current comic book.  I don't care about being able to buy Superman/Batman #1-11 again for $1.99 each, because I have them already, and there have been 62 more issues of the book published.  Perhaps this is just a production issue (I doubt it–I think publishers are going to squeeze as much as they can out of our willingness to spend $2.99-$3.99 on a bunch of paper), but the opportunity isn't just in giving new readers a chance to discover (old) titles; they need to start getting free copies of fairly recent first issues to get people thinking about dropping by the local comic book store to pick up the other books, or books that are similar. Like, instead of giving me Wanted #1 for free, they should give me Kick-Ass #1 for free, and then a checklist to go to a comic book store or a link to buy the trade from Amazon.  They should give out the rest of Superman #700 in two months, with a digital checklist to get people into the comic book store to see what else DC is releasing.  
There is obviously a tension here.  While the publishers see obvious cost savings and market research opportunities with digital comics, they can't leave the retailers in a lurch. There has to be a time, as clumsy as it sounds, to drive both digital comics and drive readers to the comic book shops. I would have loved, at the end of the Wonder Woman #600 preview, a link in the book that said, "read the rest of Wonder Woman #600 at <closest comic book shop>!"  The device already knows where you are, take advantage of it! You could even change the final page to say, "To be continued…at <local shop>!" For the time being, you know? 
But for right now, I think the comics that are available are really way too random to be taken seriously. Like, you click on the Spider-Man selection in the Marvel app and you are treated to…Civil War?  How is that helpful to anyone? At least start with Brand New Day, you know? It's a brand new day for Spidey and for comics, right? Blurgh.  Similarly, in DC's app, you get this great splash screen with Wonder Woman's face which lead me to believe there would be a pretty good collection of books to check out, but after clicking it, there are only two books available, and one of those is the free preview for #600! Right now, there is no statement about schedules, either–just how often will the books be updated, anyway, you know?  (That's a whole bag of gummy worms that we'll tackle later.) Marvel even has the gall to share with us their "What we're reading" list (like iTunes "What we're listening to" list, etc)–well, I highly doubt everyone at Marvel is reading Astonishing X-Men #1.  
Highly. Doubt.
3 – Comixology is defining the market, at least for the time being. In addition to the "Comics" app, Comixology provides the backend for both Marvel and DC's comic book applications, which I think is a pretty amazing coup from a business perspective.  From a feature set point of view, all of the apps are pretty similar, with pretty much the same UI (aside from Marvel's rather serious looking black–DC's light blue is a bit friendlier), with the buttons on the bottom and similar storefronts, with iTunes Store-like banner ads, and copious use of Cover Flow-like navigation. Viewing comics on Comixology's platform is very smooth and, so far, is my favorite implementation, even with the sometimes inconsistent experience of swiping (I would swipe one direction in Guided View mode and I would go forward in the story, but doing the opposite swipe would not always take me backwards–I think you gotta leverage a pretty broad swipe; I guess I am just used to the smaller iPhone screen real estate).
The other platform that I used was..well, I am not sure what company it is, but both iVerse and IDW are using this platform, developed by Derek Stutsman and Joakim Erdfelt, that provides what I would consider a serviceable solution, but lacking in the polish that Comixology has.  One challenge for the applications is that they have to create an experience that works both in landscape and portrait positions.  Whereas the portrait display is pretty much a no-brainer (show the page, give the user a chance to zoom in, make it easy to turn the pages, etc), when you switch to landscape, the app diverge pretty wildly.  The Comixology app chooses to display the single page view, basically forcing you to zoom in on the page (and thereby activating the view guidance).  The app that iVerse and IDW uses shows you two pages side by side, but then when you zoom in on a page, that page will zoom in while the other page stays the same.  I am not sure about this option–can't work that well in two page spreads–but I admire them for trying something different.  I do like the idea of being able to see two pages side by side–Comixology should do this, at least as an option–so we can still get that double page spread impact, but interacting with them as separate pages in this mode doesn't make much sense to me.
The apps also differ in the zooming experience.  It's good to be able to zoom in on the art–if the resolution is there.  Comixology wisely limits you to a close, but not super close magnifying level, while the other app lets you get really close to the art…which, sadly, means that you get really blocky text and graphics. Eventually, when digital comics are the norm, the lettering should be done within the app itself–that is, have the letters be provided by the device instead of just scanning the letters on a page. This will allow the text to scale with the zoom level and stay crisp and clear. 
4 – Navigation is key.  Again, Comixology is a bit more successful here, seemingly taking cues from the Kindle to make turning pages easy–let's face it, you don't always feel like swiping all the time. In addition to the swipe, tapping on the right or left hand side of the screen will take you forward and backward through the story, regardless of how you are looking at a page. The app that IDW and iVerse use do not support tapping–it's a swipe-only world for the moment.  I mean, I type this stuff out and I know how silly it sounds, but, like, these things really do matter!  When you are reading a book on your sofa, for example, depending on how you are holding the device, it's just easier to tap, since swiping means that you have to let go of one side of the iPad to swipe. The iPad is not that light, and with a case, it can be a bit heavy, and, well…it's just a little thing at first, but, over time, it is one of those things that can make a big difference.  (I made a video showing my swiping interaction with Comixology's DC application — click here if you can't see it below — as you can see, I had a few struggles with it!):

Well, these are my initial thoughts with my admittedly limited experience reading digital comics on the iPad. There are lots of other solutions out there and I will do another roundup in the coming weeks, I promise.  There are other issues that are worth discussing too; for example, apparently, customers who use Marvel's Digital Comics service on the web do not get free copies of the same books Marvel's Digital on the iPad.   That kind of stuff drives customers crazy–it's understandable from a business/technology point of view, but for the customers, digital comics are digital comics, you know?  Also, how can you share comics that you buy? A big part of the experience of printed comics is lending or giving them to friends. As far as I can tell, none of today's apps support that fundamental transaction.

So far, comics on the iPad are really great proofs of concepts–like, they look fantastic, thanks to the difference between projected and reflected light, they are more convenient, and, I think, will offer an experience that is fundamentally different than reading a printed comic. I'm not saying better (though it could very well be from a storytelling point of view), but it is going to be different enough that digital comics will not be a threat to the printed book, it will just be a different way to tell a story through words and pictures.  Honestly, there is nothing to recommend here, at least not yet. As great as the iPad is, I still think it is way too expensive and a bit on the "cool but not necessary" side of things to warrant the average comic book fan's hard earned bucks.  However, prices will continue to fall, and the iPad (and other tablets) are just going to get more and more popular.  It's interesting–we are rapidly entering the post-PC era…I think we're also entering the post-floppy comic era, too.  It's going to be painful… but it's going to be okay, too.  
Any of you try these apps out? What do you think they are doing right–and what needs to be improved?

Mike Romo is an actor and writer in LA, and yes, you are reading this column a day earlier as part of iFanboy's new schedule change. Drop him a line on email or follow him on twitter–it'll be delicious!


  1. Good piece, Mike.  I hope you revisit this as more and more improvements come.

    One thing I wonder about with digital comics is the sense of ownership. The rumors of the iTunes Cloud whereby users can simply stream music and movies rather than download them is a very interesting and compelling innovation. Still most of us fans prefer to own our floppies, bag them, board them, etc. I wonder how this will change the "collectivication" of comics.

    What does everyone think? In a world where we all have iPads and all of our comics were available on them, would we prefer to purchase (downloads) them or have them streamed? 

  2. I wrote about digital comics a few months ago ( and the sense that I got was that the reason we’re seeing so many herm "classic" books versus recent comics is because the publishers are really trying to ease the retail community into this.  They’re looking at digital as a way of reaching new readers, who might not care about current stories.  To these, somewhat mythological, new readers it doesn’t matter that Civil War or House of M are years old because they’re still all new to the new readers.

     Meanwhile for readers like those on sites like this we’ve read the books in floppies, maybe already bought the trade and the hardcover.  I downloaded (the original) New Avengers #1 and realized that I’ve bought the book four times now.  

    I’m glad to see DC going day-and-date with at least one comic (JLA: Generation Lost).  I’m afraid that trying to coddle the retails through the digital revolution is going to make it harder to catch up later.  An app like ComicZeal lets users read any comic saved in either .cbr or .cbz format and so it’s really easy to get free pirated comics.  If that’s what people get used to, it’ll be as struggle to get them back to paying $1.99. 

    Which, and I don’t think you mentioned it, isn’t a bad price.  If all comics were out-day-and-date for that price I’d certainly go completely digital.  Which is exactly what the retailers don’t want to hear.

  3. First, they need to sell these in a non-proprietary format. I need to be able to read the comics on my Notebook or iPad.  2. $1.99 for a digital comic is still too pricey, they need to be $1-$1.50 per issue even more so if it is a proprietary format. 3. Dive in feet first! Meaning sell every single new issue in digital format and just make the plunge.  

  4. mike–how do you feel about the weight of the iPad? and by that i mean reading through a whole comic and not getting fatigued? Whenever i’ve played with one at the apple store, it always seems a bit heavy as i’m trying to read through a publication. After about 4 or 5 pages in it just starts to feel awkward and uncomfortable which definitely affects my reading experience. Just curious how you or others felt about that…

  5. @wallythegreenmonster: I’m not Mike, but I’ve got no problem with the weight. I’ve read multiple comics in a row on it without a problem.

  6. I totally agree on you “directed comics” thought. I first encountered this on the PSP Comics app which, because of the screen size, this was the only way to read comics. It really does add a whole other level to storytelling. I hadn’t tried in on my iPad, but will give it a shot after reading this.

    Also – while not great for new releases, i have read the entire Dynamo 5 run on my iPad, and have switched from trades to the iPad for both Walking Dead and Invincible. They’re pretty close to being current.

  7. Thank you for this review, Mike.  I’ve been considering an iPad and this informed my decision.  Now I’m just waiting on day and date releases.

  8. Nice piece Mike.  I’m excited for the future of digital comics, but am waiting for it to form just a little bit more before I take the plunge.  Maybe with the second or third version of the iPad, I’ll be ready.  It sounds like some great progress has taken place though.

  9. Guru! Gang Starr!

  10. Mike – great article on the iPad and comics!  I went to visit a friend who lives in Chattanooga, TN and he has had an iPad for just about a month.  He’s convinced that this is the future of reading – and he’s 66 years old.  He let me play with his iPad to my heart’s content.  I downloaded the Marvel app and read a free issue of the early Avengers.  It was beautiful.  The colors were lush.  It was easy to read.  I loved the zoom in and out function, as well as the navigation function.  It was sweet.  I could easily see paying $1.99 and reading all my comics on the iPad.  But alas – I am still addicted to my floppies for now.  But in time, I can easily see making the transition.

  11. I love the comics on my iPhone, specially the old school ones. I imagine it will be better on the iPad.

  12. I’d love to have a ipad to read comics on, but atm it’s horrible on iphone. I absolutely detest the guided view, and it’s far too small to read any other way. But the potential is all there.

  13. I got my mitts on an iPad recently, and have given the comics apps a thorough spin! I have to say straight off – I love it. I’ll talk about my experience with Comixology’s ‘Comics’ app first, then add my thoughts on the others at the end.

    The ‘comics’ app on the iPhone was a bit of a gimmick for me – the guided system although making a story perfectly followable just lost a lot of the impact you got from the artwork, and reduced it to a ‘only if I’m on the go’ type thing. The iPad counterpart however, is stunning. You can easily view a full page and even a full double page without needing to zoom or pan, and the art just looks beautful. The colours really pop, I honestly think comics have never looked so good. Text is all perfectly legible, and the story follows really smoothly thanks to the lack of ads breaking things up. Double pages do require a 90 degree turn of the device to view legibly, and the constant turning could prove tiresome in a comic such as powers where the format changes from 2 page to 1 page frequently. Also (with powers in mind) text that is upside down or spiralled would require the device to be locked before turning it so that the page does not automatically re-orient. Small issues I’d say, since the majority of comics won’t have this problem.

    More plus points to mention are the lack of ads (thus far). I can read a full story uninterrupted and for the same price! Downloading comics can be done quickly and easily and purchases are carried across to all devices you have synched to your itunes account – iphone, ipad, ipod touch. You can delete and redownload at no extra cost, meaning you don’t end up with an unmanageable stck of comic boxes slowly devouring your home. You seem to get all variant covers with most issues as well, which is a nice bonus.

    Negatives would be the random selection, as mentioned in Mikes review, sporadic releases and lack of sorting options. All of your purchased comics are just listed alphabetically, one after another, with no easy way of scrolling past large numbers. My 70-odd strong catalogue of Invincible comics is a real bitch to scroll past if I want to read a jonah hex. I actually found navigating to the store and finding the comic in there rather than in my library was an easier way to open it up. 

    One addition to the library of comics on offer that I think are great deals are the TPB style collections – Invincible vol 1 and 2 a key example. These are dirt cheap and don’t clutter up your collection – I hope more comics are added in this format in the future. 

    iVerse reader is pretty similar to Comics, only with a much poorer catalogue and clunky functionality. 

    As far as the other apps go – DC and Marvel – I have no idea why you would buy from them. Purchases made in these apps are NOT synched with your comics app purchases, and so you’d have to keep them seperate at all times.

    It seems these apps are taking off, both Marvel and DC seem to be investing quite heavily in it and I wouldn’t be surprised to see a much faster turnaround from new comic to the comixology store in the near future.

  14. @ChrisMorley There are some books that are exclusive to the Marvel app, Gravity for one.  Any comic that you buy in the DC app that is also in the Comics app can be viewed in the Comics app.  Haven’t tried it with Marvel yet, so far the only series I’ve wanted to try is Gravity and it’s Marvel app exclusive.

    You can also view any non-Marvel publisher on the Comixology web interface.

  15. @wallythegreenmonster: The weight really isn’t an issue at all. I have been reading quite a bit on it, both comics and regular text and it doesn’t bother me one bit. Standing up at the Apple Store will make it weird sure and I can see that being a little fatiguing but trust me as someone who’s had once since 2 weeks after launch I’ve never had a problem. 

    Also for you other readers out there, Comic Zeal Reader is pretty awesome and lets you load other formats for reading.  

  16. I feel like everyone is catching up to me finally.  I’ve preferred digital comics for 5 years now.

  17. I might be reading comics on a doohickey in ten years or so. I bought my first mp3 player last year.

  18. @JumptingJupiter – Welcome to the World of Tomorrow!!!

  19. I’ve got extensive time with the iPad as well (though oddly enough my worktime productivity has decreased). 

    It’s almost perfect. I think most of the flaws in the actual comic reading will change as creators adjust (what’s the point of a double page spread on a screen in which it will look smaller than a single page one?) Another problem easily rectified is pricing. I think there needs to be more trade sized books than single issues. Atomic Robo for $4, all of the Dark Horse books, and honestly a lot of the independent stuff is priced very well. Make the album/trade pricing cheap and those that need their quick fix pay their $2 or whatever. $2 is too much, $1 seems to be cutting it too close (and since $1.50 is not possible), then do a $5 for 4 issues system and decrease the dollars to issues ratio as issues grow in count for the album. So $7 for all Walking Dead trades, $5 for the first two Invincible volumes, $6 for the third, and so on. Basically just the number of issues+$1. Price accordingly for extra pages, but do not charge for anything that isn’t a story page. Tis a slippery slope.

  20. Looks like I’ll buy one in about five years. Maybe six.


  21. Selection is the problem. I have all the apps and desperately want to buy my issues this way but there’s just so little there and I have no idea what the future schedule is like. They need to get on the ball with this. But so far it’s far more than I could ever have expected from the big guys.

  22. @nmoline. Comixology allows you to view any comic you bought on their web viewer too. So it works surprisingly well on laptop and notebooks. So far this is my preferred way of reading digital comics.

  23. I agree with rafterman, there aren’t enough new books out there and the ones that are new seem to have a really weird pricing model ($6 Iron Man Annual vs the $5 one in stores).  Comixology does a great job at making a schedule for print books on their website, it would be nice to see a digital one so I don’t have to wonder what day and at what rate they are going to release their books.