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The IPad as a Comic-book Reader

Even before the iPad was named and announced, the comic-book industry was watching Apple carefully. E-book readers like the Kindle may have suggested a revolution in the world of the written word, but grayscale e-ink screens just won't cut it when it comes to graphic novels.

But the iPad and its 1024- by 768-pixel color backlit display? Now that's the kind of device that could finally make reading comics on a digital device a reality. That's what everyone agreed when we talked about it at Macworld Expo in February. And in the first six weeks of using the iPad, I've found that it makes an excellent (albeit imperfect) comic-book reader.

It's about apps

When the iPad was announced in January, iBooks was the focus of most of the discussion when it came to using the device to read stuff. (Amusingly, I have not yet read a complete book in iBooks, while I've read several in the Amazon Kindle app.) But the iBooks app is pretty limited. It supports only the ePub file format, essentially an HTML file with a few extensions. ePub is great for text, because apps that read ePub can reflow the text as they wish, in different fonts, at different type sizes, with different screen resolutions, and even when you switch a device from portrait to landscape mode.

What ePub is not good for is stuff that is precisely designed or graphic rich. And so iBooks doesn't play back PDFs and it's not suitable for reading comics. As a result, the iPad's success as a comic reader has to come from third-party apps.

Over the past couple of years, three major players came on the iPhone comics scene, all with apps you could use to buy and read comics, legally: iVerse, Comixology, and Panelfly. Building those apps for the iPhone presumably gave those three companies a leg up on their iPad development; however, only iVerse and Comixology have made the transition. Panelfly missed the boat, though: the company's Website proclaims its app will be ready for the iPad sometime this summer.

In the meantime, iVerse and Comixology are the big movers when it comes to iPad comics. Not only do both companies offer their own reader apps--iVerse and Comics, respectively--but their technology powers several publisher- or brand-specific comic apps. iVerse's reader is also the power behind the Star Trek, Transformers, and IDW apps; the much-hyped Marvel Comics app is a custom version of Comixology's app.

Both apps, in all their variations, are quite good--and quite similar. Both provide a storefront that's inspired by iTunes and the App Store, with a showcase for featured comics, as well as lists of new and popular items. (Strangely, iVerse doesn't display prices until you tap on a particular comic.) Their approaches to the comics you've already downloaded are slightly different: iVerse places comics on a virtual bookshelf, a la iBooks; Comixology's view is a but busier but more powerful: there's a Cover Flow list of covers, a scrolling list view, and a Browse button that lets you navigate your collection by genre, publisher, creator, or title.

Reading comics on these apps is pretty straightforward, as well. Once you open an issue, you can spread your fingers to zoom in and pinch to zoom out, just as you would on the Maps or Photos apps. Swiping to the left brings up the next page, and swiping right takes you back. In portrait orientation, the iPad's screen is just about big enough to make reading a pleasant experience. I equivocate there because some comics seem a bit too small when fit to the iPad's screen size, while others don't. It's not much of a hardship to zoom in a little and pan around, but it's nicer when you don't have to.

Comixology's app also offers a guided view, which moves you through the comic panel by panel as you tap. It's a view that was necessary on the iPhone, which has too small a screen to comfortably view a full comic page. On the iPad, though, I found the feature superfluous.

It's about content

But even if the iPad is a nigh-perfect comic-reading device, and the iPad comics apps are all perfectly good, the whole thing falls down if there are no comics to read. There's both good news and bad news on this front.

The good news is, there are a whole lot of comics available in both the iVerse and Comixology readers as well as their publisher- or property-oriented doppelgangers. There are comics from dozens of independent publishers, plus industry giant Marvel Comics. (I counted 267 different series in the Comixology store alone, and roughly 1000 issues.)

If you, like me, are a comics fan from the era where Marvel and DC dominated so utterly that the indie comic scene was more of a curiosity, you will be delighted to discover that there are numerous independent comics that are made by the very best creators in the business, and most of those comics are available in one or more of these apps. I'm a big fan of Robert Kirkman's teen-superhero series Invincible, and the comic's first 63 issues are available exclusively on the Comixology app. I also appreciated reading Brian Clevinger's Atomic Robo, Kirkman's The Walking Dead, and Mark Waid's Irredeemable.

Fans of the "Hey! Kids! Comics!" era, who remember when comics cost 25 cents a pop, will be horrified to find that most of the digital issues cost either 99 cents or $1.99. A cursory examination of industry price lists suggests that the paper versions of these same comic cost $2.99 or $3.99 each, so the digital editions are generally cheaper than their paper equivalents.

Now the bad news. First off, fans of DC Comics will be sad to know that the company currently has no digital presence whatsoever. I've heard rumblings that DC has some sort of plan with regard to digital comics (the company's name practically screams it, doesn't it?), but for now it's not in the game. I also can't find any trace of popular Indie publisher Dark Horse comics. (There are a bunch of books the publisher released as iPhone apps, but they'll only run on the iPad in pixel-doubled compatibility mode.)

What's worse, some publishers who have released digital comics seem reluctant to part with their best stuff, or their most recent releases. The most recent X-Men issue in the Marvel app is from 2006; the most recent Amazing Spider-Man is from February 2008. If you're just getting back into comics after years in the wilderness, this won't matter; if you're a current comics fan who would like to make the move to digital, you'll find Marvel's selection woefully out of date. Irredeemable is likewise five months out of date. Invincible is currently 10 months behind.

It's a situation that smacks of the music industry in the heart of the Napster era. The fact is, scanner-equipped pirates have ensured that every comic book published is available online in a matter of days after release. At some point, the comics industry needs to understand that artificial barriers and the withholding of content just won't work, and that they need to provide a good-karma, legal alternative to the comic scans that abound on BitTorrent tracker sites.

The other issue out there is that the iPad comics market is fractured. If you buy a comic in one app, you can't transfer it to a different app, or to your desktop. Some comics are available exclusively in one app -- for example, all of Robert Kirkman's comics are exclusive to Comixology. There's no universally accepted format for legal comic files. (There are, however, universal comics formats: they're the CBR and CBZ files used on the BitTorrent sites.) I've heard from a bunch of former comics fans who are excited about reconnecting to comics via the iPad, but they're turned off by the confusion about which app they should use to buy comics. I'll give Marvel credit here: If you're a Marvel fan, you can just stick with the Marvel app and be pretty happy. (But you'll miss out on a bunch of other cool comics.)

Speaking of piracy

Now, not all of the comics out there in CBR and CBZ format are pirated. Just most of them. Still, if you happen to have some files in those formats--and I'll admit to having loaded my iPad up with some comics that are stored in paper form in my house--there's an answer for you, too. I'm pretty happy with bitolithic's ComicZeal, which handles CBRs and CBZs with aplomb. Bitolithic provides a transfer app that lets you copy comics to your iPad wirelessly, or you can just connect it to a Mac, open iTunes, click on the Apps tab, scroll down to Applications, click on ComicZeal, and just drag a load of files in. (It's easier than it sounds.)

There are a few comics I own that are in PDF format. (Some of them I received as a Hugo Award voter, along with a passel of novels and stories in PDF as well; others came from Marvel's DVD-ROM collection of Uncanny X-Men issues.) For these, I'm generally using GoodReader. It's a fine comic reader, though Marvel's unfortunate decision to save all of the X-Men issues as two-page spreads rather than single pages makes reading those PDFs unwieldy, and its decision to watermark every page if you don't read it in an official Adobe PDF reader makes me want to go find the equivalent issues on BitTorrent and call us even.

And that's the state of comics on the iPad in a nutshell, really: It's still early days. The logistics are a bit of a mess. The available comics are a bit scattershot, and many series are quite horribly delayed. One of the two big publishers is completely missing in action. There's fragmentation of apps.

The silver lining, though, is that the iPad truly is an excellent comic-reading device. Since taking possession of my iPad, I have not once opened a comic on my Mac or my iPhone, and I doubt I ever will again. Comics on the iPad just feel right. And the two main iPad apps that sell and display comics are good, too. The only hold-up comes from the publishers. Once they learn the lesson the music industry learned a decade ago--that the only way to compete with piracy is by fully embracing the digital world--the sky's the limit.

[Jason Snell is Macworld's editorial director.]

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