What The iPad Means for Comic Books

I’m always interested in what’s new and seemingly always-changing with books and digital technology. One thing that I’ve noticed was the issue of how a different type of book — comic books, specifically — are transitioning from the printed page to the digital screen. A lot of the same transitional questions surrounding print to digital are being asked by the comic book as a medium and as a reading experience. But this is also a different, unique scenario from ebooks and words on a page, because of the visual nature of the comic book medium. So, I figured this is warrants a closer look.

It’s safe to infer that this question of the digital comic book became much more interesting recently with the introduction of the iPad. Let’s start with this article from CNET, “Digital Comics Come to Life on Tablets.

The history (and by history, I mean since 2010) of comic books and the iPad starts with Comixology and their iPad app, which gets right to the question of a changed reading experience:

“one of the very first apps to debut on day one of the iPad’s release in 2010 was Comixology, an app that allows you to purchase, store, and read comics right on the iPad.

Comixology’s iPhone app debuted in late 2009, but it wasn’t until the iPad version that the digital comic potential was realized. Comixology boasted a reading experience that’s almost cinematic, supposedly mimicking how the eye follows the printed page with a mode called “guided view.” In guided view, you read panel by panel, instead of page by page.”

While the Comixology app certainly seems to be the app of choice for many, the reading experience of ‘guided view’ seems also to have divided opinions of many users — it presents a more cinematic, panel by panel view, instead of viewing the entire page at once. Good thing, bad thing, or a matter of preference? Here’s a link to the Comics iPad app by Comixology.

One of the prevailing theories about comic books and the iPad is that the popularity of the tablet as a reading device makes it easier for anyone with even casual interest to find and buy comic books. Makes sense to me. Digital comic books are content, and the iPad was designed to be the ultimate content consuming device. Much ado has also been made about accessibility and ease of use — if once comic books were only sold at comic book stores or the occasional bookstore chain (oops, never mind), the iPad means an easier way to buy to comic books for the non-hardcore comic book fan.

CNN has an article (“iPad Boosts appeal of digital comics”) which follows much of the same premise — the portability and the wowness of the iPad’s color screen suddenly made digital comic reading more of an appealing mainstream option.

Another article from Wired (“The iPad Could Revolutionize The Comic Book Biz — Or Destroy It”) talks about some of the larger, industry-wide issues to the question, “should all comic books go digital?” It’s a complicated balance, as it turns out, and quite interesting:

“Comics, as it happens, look magnificent on tablets. But no one in the comics industry is really ready for what that magnificence implies. Sales of periodical comics are falling, and there’s no iTunes Store equivalent to sell them digitally — no single place where readers can buy all the comics they’d ever want, old and new, to read on their tablets.”

I recall when the iPad first debuted, that the Marvel Comics iPad app seemed to be getting a lot of the spotlight, likely because of the cool-factor. And it is after all quite a nice-looking app (here’s a link to the app on the iTunes store). One thought that occurs to me — and maybe or probably this has already been addressed — not all comic books are equally valuable or interesting. This means that the move from print to digital seems to bring another set of questions. A $1.99 download seems like a great price to be able to read Amazing Fantasy #15 (prized for being the first appearance of Spider-Man, the print copy of which seems to worth a lot) but not so great for Amazing Spider-Man #418 (the print copy of which is worth a lot less) … right? The point is, this seems to be a question unique to the comic book that we’ve not seen with ebooks thus far — comic books are about the value of the reading experience, and also something else. There’s something unique about the value of the physical, printed copy of the comic book that people care about very much.*

And finally, Wired has a nifty list (“Top Five iPad Comic-Book Apps Reviewed”). Apparently, you can use the Stanza app for reading comic books, too. Pretty versatile. As an ebook app, I’m certainly a fan. (And I’ll add to this list, Graphicly, another popular comic book app for the iPad)

* Had to look it up. A copy of Action Comics #1 sold last year for $1.5 million, making it the most expensive comic book in the world. Wow.

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Ok, this joke took me a second. But it’s funny in a very geeky sort of way. Comic books … Flash … iPad (link courtesy of Gizmodo):


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I run the ThinkLab at the University of Cambridge, and research digital habits, productivity, and wellbeing.

tyler shores cambridge

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