Growing up, I was never a big comic book fan, partly due to limited options. The small towns I lived in didn’t have comic book stores, so I would only occasionally get a copy of X-Men or Batman at one of the local gas stations when they happened to have them.
The writing and stories paled in comparison to the books I was reading at the time (Lord of the Rings, Dragonriders of Pern, etc.), so comics just didn’t interest me that much. Some of the artwork was neat, but the relentless exposition and corny dialog turned me off. It’s the same reason I’m still not a very big anime/manga fan. For such a visual medium, it seems like comic writers hadn’t heard of the concept, “show, don’t tell”.
Don’t worry, bub. I’ll cut through this cage with my claws, made of adamantium, the strongest metal in the world!” – Wolverine, in literally every issue of X-Men. In case we forgot… I guess.
Recently, I decided to give comics another try – partly because of reading Alan Moore’s Watchmen and partly because Merlin Mann won’t stop talking about how awesome Saga is on the Back to Work podcast (turns out, Saga is amazing). Enabled by technology, I’ve found some great comics that have made me revise my previous feelings.
Digital comics, for the win
Although I still prefer physical books to ebooks, comics are another matter. I never built nostalgia around physical comic books, so the migration to digital is easier for me than it might be for a long time comic book fan.
After reading digital comics on the high-definition retina screen of an iPad and comparing it to the few graphic novels I own, digital is definitely my preferred format. The lines are crisper, colors pop more, and the text is generally more readable.
Outside of that, the benefits and drawbacks are the same as ebooks: anywhere purchasing, a whole library in your backpack, and, unfortunately, DRM.
It’s all about the ecosystem
If you’ve decided to take the plunge and try digital comics, you’re faced with a similar choice as ebook readers: Which ecosystem do you want to plug into? Luckily, the situation is simpler than Barnes & Noble vs. Amazon. For the most part, digital comic book stores are device agnostic. So that’s one less factor to worry about.
It really comes down to how many apps you want to install.
The “Big Two” comic publishers, DC and Marvel, signed on to the digital media revolution pretty early on. Both have had apps available for the past couple of years and both apps work well. However, if you want your pick from both catalogs, you’re stuck with installing both apps. It’s obviously not a big problem, but it is a little inconvenient.
The better choice is ComiXology, an app that actually provides the marketplace platform and app engine for both DC and Marvel. Using the ComiXology gives you access to both catalogs as well as many smaller, independent publishers.
Aside from selection, ComiXology also does a better job with bundling and curation. Curated collections benefit from the more diverse selection and I’ve been able to discover some really great comics through the feature. They also have a larger selection of free comics that’s better implemented than the DC or Marvel stores, using free first issues to try new series (or more cynically, to get them hooked.).
Room for improvement
One feature I’d love to see added to ComiXology, or any comic store really, is the ability to buy the remainder of a volume or collection after purchasing a few individual issues – something along the lines of iTunes “Complete This Album”. This is as much an organization issue as a cost saving one.
The other biggie, and a problem that still plagues ebooks, is that of DRM. At this point, it should be obvious that copy protection doesn’t prevent piracy. It only serves as a false reassurance to rights holders and an inconvenience to customers. ComiXology does away with a lot of the inconvenience of DRM by making your purchases available on most major platforms, but there’s still the issue of “what if the DRM servers go down?” When I buy content it’s with the expectation that I own it, not that I’ve purchased the option of viewing it.
If you’re interested in starting with comics or getting back into them, it seems like now is a really great time to be a comics fan. There are some truly terrific stories being told: literary, pulpy, and everything in between. The art is also diversifying and maturing – I’ve found panels that I’d happily put up on a wall in my house (and my wife wouldn’t even mind).
The ComiXology notifications on my iPad have become the rare pop-ups that I don’t mind. Today one popped up that said “A new issue of Saga is available in the ComiXology store.” and my first thought was “Shut up and take my money.” Coming from a person who was very recently almost completely apathetic about comics, it’s a big change.