Comics on the iPhone? I’m good, thanks.

I am no technophobe. When I first saw the iPhone, it was as if I’d found my own Red Ryder BB gun. I saw all the criticism and the ridiculous cost, and none of it mattered. I wanted it. I wanted it in a way unlike I’ve ever wanted a gadget.  

But, did I have $600? Well yes, I probably did. But was there something else that needed to be done with that money and would my wife have been okay with the purchase? Sweet god no!

So I waited, glad I didn’t have to wait in line, but still wanting, yet a price drop, a 10% coupon and the last meager bonus from my old job made it possible. And it was wonderful indeed.

As I am a person concerned with comics, I noticed a possibility of convergence. I heard talk of people saying they should put comics on the iPhone, and on the surface, that sounds like a fine idea. But a bit of time with the device taught me that traditional comics aren’t really able to be adapted smoothly to the iPhone or Touch.

I have a 24″ monitor at home, and I read comics on it from time to time, as I am an acclaimed and notable reviewer of graphic literature (that part was a joke). While it’s often necessary, and I’ve made do, I absolutely hate reading comics in this way. Granted, you can’t turn an iMac screen on its side, but the iPhone screen is approximately 7000 times smaller than my desktop, and I really don’t want it any bigger, as it lives in my pocket.

Of course, comics actually produced for the iPhone might read better, as evidenced by this particular attempt, which you can see in action here. But that’s going to require a highly adapted comics language, and really limit what the artist and writer will be capable of doing with a succession of images to form a story. Others might say that those limitations will actually force creators to have to use more ingenuity, but there is such a thing as a limit, and much like the three minute pop song limited musicians, I think my experience reading comics on an iPhone will be lessened by the very factors that make the thing so annoyingly ubiquitous. I’m not saying you can’t tell stories on an iPhone. I’m sure you can, but I tend to use it for quick hits, and the idea of holding it up and staring at the tiny screen for long periods of time isn’t so appealing. I’m perhaps not as angry as David Lynch about the mini-fication of my favorite art form, but I can understand where he’s coming from.

Lots of things are made better by making them smaller, but the amazing art of the best stuff in comics are not among them. Perhaps the Peanuts could work on the iPhone screen, but I’m not clamoring to have to zoom and search around a Bryan Hitch or Frank Quitely page on my 480×320 screen. I get some comics mailed to my email, and even reading Dilbert on the iPhone is a pain. Reading traditional comics would be a joke, and maybe your eyesight can take it, but not I.

The downside of the digital resolution and compressing is that we’re losing a lot of the details and we don’t usually know it. I can plug my iPod into my car stereo, and it sounds just fine. That is, until I put the same music on a CD and hear that through the same stereo. Oh, there’s a difference.

So is that a direction we want to go with for comics? To make them less, when they are so much more? How many panels can you fit in one iPhone screen? You’ll be developing an entirely new language for comics, but it will end up being remarkably limiting to creators, and not showcase what the best sequential artists can do. Granted, there are likely talented people who can take those limitations and make something amazing. But would anyone know about it? More on that in a moment. A similar experiment seems to be going on at DC’s Zuda, where a lot of good comics are being made, but even they have more screen real estate to deal with.

There are, of course, possible upsides to this idea. For one thing, even the most successful comics only sell in the tens of thousands, so while my first instinct is that an iPhone comic, which would really only be produced for the iPhone, would limit their accessibility. But really, when I think about it, more people with iPhones and Touches browse the iTunes store in a given day than probably visit comic shops in a year, so I suppose there is enough of a potential base to make it successful in theory. Will that actually happen? I would think not. What about people who don’t have the iPhone or Touch? Wouldn’t it make more sense to develop something for a more universal platform?

Unless, that is, there’s some breakout, crossover hit. I think in order for comics on iPhones to make any real traction at all, they’ll need their own Dr. Horrible. But you can’t manufacture that. It just happens. I’m sure there are lots of talented, young, hungry creators who will put their all into producing these specialized comics, but they’ll toil largely in obscurity unless someone big, or something viral puts the spotlight on them. Yet someone must blaze a trail. Fortunately for them, my ability to predict pop culture trends is abysmal, and by my saying this, well, they’ve got a fighting chance.

Where can iPhone comics succeed? If the comic publishers were smart, they’d see an enormous potential for marketing. Why not get some guys to produce some free teaser comics for the iPhone, and leave people wanting more? Of course, it would probably be more effective if there was a viable digital consumption solution for comics, other than pirating comics via bit torrent. But that’s obviously a different argument for a different time.

So obviously, I’m hesitant. I love my iPhone. I love comics, but I’m not remotely interested. Perhaps unknown fans will make up that gap and make some of these ventures successful, because people making good comics, with passion, and being successful at it is always a good thing, and new means of distribution should always be explored. Still, I think their work is cut out for them.



  1. Paul Montgomery (@fuzzytypewriter) says:

    Right there with ya, man.  At best, I’d only want to read digital comics on a tablet with touch technology (which is coming, if rumors are to be believed) or if they go ahead with something like Surface, which is essentially a digital coffee table.  Of course, that’s not a portable option, but I read most of my comics in the comfort of my own home anyway.

    You need a big ass screen to make splash pages work.  And zooming in and out simply isn’t an appealing option. This is a tricky one.   

  2. This is the kind of thing that really tests my digital comics advocacy. This is basically what killed Calvin & Hobbes; papers kept shrinking the art until Bill Watterson gave up on the medium.

    I don’t deny the usefulness of the iPhone, but when I look at it I do not think, "Man, I would love to do a whole lot of reading with this." Sure, creators want to exploit any opportunity they can to marry comics with the technology that the Young People love so much (because comics are dyyying!!) but what good does it do you to get your comic in front of a million more people if you do it in a way that makes your comic unpleasant and hard to read? It only ends up reinforcing the idea that "comics are not for me." If you were intentionally trying to make the case that the medium was incompatible with the 21st century, this is the way you’d do it.

  3. I use Google Reader on my iPhone all the time.  But I have a few webcomic RSS feeds on there and even those suck on my phone.  I can’t imagine trying to read a full comic on that thing.

  4. I don’t own an iPhone, but I have used a friends. I couldn’t imagine reading a comic book on it. I have used a tablet PC to read comics on. It’s really not that bad. Until a digital model comes along that is both legal, and affordable, I will stick with paper.

  5. Flanagan, I’m proud of you for carrying your iPhone in your pocket.  Every person I know who owns one overzealously displays them on their belts.  It’s a tad annoying.

  6. Basically this is the future, computers and any modern cell phone is gonna try and sell stuff online. I agree though reading comics on a PC is still very tiring to do. You gotta zoom in, move the page, load times, god forbid you dont have a good internet connection…

    You’ll see, I’ll say it again The Jetsons have taught me the future. We’ll have holograms of comics in our living room and all of our computers will be touch screen and not just some of them. I’d say by the time I turn 60, comics will all be read on the internet…With lots of premium prices. -_-;

  7. I could see reading the webcomic shorts on the phone, but not a full comic. Penny Arcade, xckd, etc would work fine I think. There are some neat things someone could come up with gestures I’m sure to provide a fun experience. Maybe a choose-your-own-adventure where you flip your finger a certain way to see what would happen if a character makes a certain choice.

  8. I don’t have an iPhone, as it’s more retrictive in the UK; only available on one network (the most expensive one too) and with a rediculous minimum monthly tarif (is it still £60, any UK iPhone owners confirm or deny this?). Don’t get me wrong, I’d love one, it looks amazing.

    But I have a Nokia N-series which, while not as good, can basically do most things an iPhone can. Not as well, or snazzily (is that a word?), but it does the job. And I still wouldn’t read a comic on it.

    I’ve said this in other discussions here before, but I simply don’t want to read a comic on a screen. Prose is slightly different to me. The text is still just text, whichever format you read it on. It’s not preferable, and I’d rather read the actual book. But for some reason (and this is probably just me being wierd) comics are just not fun to read on a screen. All the texture is sapped out of the experience and it’s hard to get a flow going. Plus it gives me headaches.

    Again, this is just me, but I love comics being a tangible experience; the feel of the paper, the smell of the art. There’s also the small blessing of it getting me away from the damn computer, otherwise my eyes would be square.

    Having said that, if any iPhone users out there agree with me and want to get rid of it out of sheer disgust, then I’ll happily give it a good home. I won’t use it for comics, but… just sayin’ 😉 

  9. Paul Montgomery (@fuzzytypewriter) says:

    The other thing is a matter of brightness and optical tolerance.  Your eyes get fatigued much faster reading on a brighter lcd screen when compared to print on paper.  The Amazon Kindle uses digital ink technology which mimics ink on paper and is much easier on the eyes.  They haven’t figured out color yet.  

  10. I think there is a place for digital comics, but a small screen reader is not the right device for it. A comic book reading device should have a large enough screen to be able to read the comic at 100% size, so an 8.5"x11" screen tablet PC with touch screen is probably the way to go. Or a larger, color Kindle. I would buy such a device if it were reasonably priced. Also it would need to have wireless and support Flash so I can get to the Marvel Digital Comics site, and also a DVD-ROM drive so I can read comics from my DVD’s that have the 40 years of Spider-man, Xmen, etc.

  11. The day I have to look at a screen to read comics is the day I officially bow out and stop reading them.  If I have to stare at a screen, no matter what the size, to read I’ll just go watch a movie or tv show instead to get stories about characters I like.

  12. They recently made some prose books available for iTouch via iTunes, and I gotta admit, I really enjoy the portability and the reading experience was better than expected. Obviously, the comics medium is a whole different thing, considering it’s, you know, visual and all, but I’m at least curious to try it. As with the books, the ability to have good reading material with me at all times is very appealing.

  13. One comics-related iPhone use I’ve come to love is the bookmark I have on my home screen to my printer-formated pull list on iFanboy. I pull it up whenever I’m in my LCS on Wednesdays, and I never have to worry about forgetting a book.

  14. I think this is safe to call the last comic reading technology you’ll ever need:

    Not as portable as the iPhone, but, c’mon, it’s hands-free.

  15. I wonder how long it will take before these interfaces become superfluous and we can just jack the images into our minds johnny mnemonic style?  Save a lot on paper and plastic eventually. 

  16. I actually just set up an comic reader on my iPhone, and read Ellis’s "Black Summer" series.  While not perfect, I found it a pretty nice experience.  I had hi-res scans that I didn’t reduce for the phone, so the page turns were a little slow as the phone loaded the big images into memory.  But the zooming in and out, and panning around becomes pretty sub-conscious after a while. 

    It’s all about the content, after all, and as long as your medium doesn’t get in the way, I am down with it.

     It’s pretty cool to have a 100-issue run of a title in pocket to entertain you when pretty much anywhere.



  17. I agree with most of the posts/comments here. I have tried reading some comics on my iPhone and it’s "OK" but not something i would do on a regular basis. It’s more of a one-trick pony/novelty act right now. Something i would do and consider in a situation where i don’t have a ‘floppy’ or graphic novel handy, or perhaps even where decorum might not allow a good read, but nice to be able to sneak a peak at Final Crisis when the missus isn’t looking…but heck, we have iPhone porn now so the comics point is moot! LOL (Just Kidding dear….)

  18. If you read a comic while seeing only a panel at a time, you’re not reading a comic.  You’re reading a slide show. The comic masters of the medium think not only sequentially but also treat the entire page as an art piece.  How panels are placed on a page makes a difference.


    But I’m all for an electronic paper display as long as it has color. 

  19. I can’t even get through a 30 minute TV show on my iPod without my eyeballs frying.

    I’m ok with an issue or two at a sitting on my LCD monitor, but any more than that I start to feel the strain. It helps to have a rotating monitor with an auto-sensing driver.  It’s similar to the fact that I’m ok reading a short story on my PC, but sweet jeebus a novel would probably kill me.

    I don’t think paper is going away any time soon.  But then again I never thought people would put up with the lossy sound of mp3’s either….

  20. a brian bendis comic book on the iphone? probably not a good fit.

    a bill watterson / chuck schulz comic STRIP on the iphone? totally great.

  21. It’s funny, because when I was writing that, and used the example of Peanuts, I specifically didn’t use the example of Watterson, because his work is so gorgeous (No offense to Shultz), and he’d had so many issues with the limitations of the standard strip size.

  22. Paul Montgomery (@fuzzytypewriter) says:

    He spoke ill of Peanuts.  The blood feud continues.  

  23. gay. no comics on the iPhone cuz then it takes out the fun of actually reading them. disappointed in Apple for this

  24. well I never thought watching movies on a tiny screen would ever take off. then apple go and bring out the video ipod thingy. wtf? i don’t think i’d ever be into reading comics on a phone but i’m sure there are gadget freaks out there who would love it.

  25. if it brings some new readers to comics, i say go for it.  Definitly not gay, dont see whats homosexual about it at all

  26. comic clickwheel is a free app on the iphone.  Has a number of comics that are free (ex: judge dredd) and it shows one panel at a time and isn’t that horrible.