Thoughts on comics in the iPad Age

Ok, some loose thoughts, that may or may not add up to anything and that not only will you disagree with but, over night, I’ll probably find fault with too.

In order to prevent me be a dithering waffler (as I am prone to do) I will state the following as ABSOLUTELY correct assertions and shall brook no compromise. Though, obviously, that’s just an affectation. As I’m probably dead wrong on all fronts.

1) The NEW digital comic format is landscape. Uh hu. It is. We’ve all been fighting it, because, frankly, we’ve too much invested in the old portrait format of print. But we’re all wrong. DC have a couple of books that are pure landscape format (they seem to have started by producing work that can be both landscape ipad and portrait print, by having an artificial half way point on the art, and getting the artist to keep that in mind when drawing. But, I think it’s a strange hybrid animal and if you do it so it works for ipad then it, inevitably, works less well for print – and vice versa)

2) Cheap comics weekly or Expensive long one offs. That’s it. That’s your choice. The monthly comic book format, 22 pages for $2.99 is a result of the current distribution model and, while it sort of works ok, produces books that are really perceived as not being great value for money.

A diversion on economics

Look, I’ll be honest, I know nothing about economics, but I know this: a thing is only worth what someone is willing to pay for it. You can scream and shout about how people don’t value your work because they refuse to pay $3.99 for 20 pages of comics, but you don’t get to decide how much someone is willing to pay for it. Y0u can refuse to sell them at other prices, sure, but you’re forgetting the work is probably available elsewhere, for free and without DRM (and if you succeed at stamping that out, well done, you’ve done what millions of dollars and thousands of US attorneys have been unable to do). Figure out a way to give readers value for money. You will be rewarded with their money.

3) Remember I just said landscape format? Here’s another thing: landscape format between 1 and 3 panels. That’s roughly half a comic book page. That means a 16 US comic page story becomes, basically, 32 pages of comic content on the ipad and a great price for that is 99cents. There’s your value for money right there.

4) Everywhere, everywhen. Go via comixology, graphic.ly, iVerse and whatever. Sell from your website as DRM free content. try and coordinate the damn things though (good luck on that front. It will be a nightmare).

5) Offer DRM free to readers who bought from a DRM store. Why not? What have you got to lose. Ask for a screen shot (or a copy of the digital receipt) or something, and email them a drm free copy – for themselves to keep.

6) Once you’ve got a bunch of weekly comics, get them collected and resell at a good discount for the lot, and include backmatter if you’ve got it. Make it enough of a good deal that people will buy it even if they’ve already bought the strips.

7) Unless ONE member of the team can bring a massive massive audience (thereby seriously increasing the readership and profit), you need to go it alone as much as possible. I’m sorry, there it is. The smart money is on individuals writing, drawing, colouring and lettering. The tiny pot of cash can only be divied up so many ways.

8 ) You’re going to get one good shot at getting money off people for one comic, the long tail is great in theory but it works for the store and not for the individual creator. Which is why you want to maximise that by either selling lots cheaply, weekly, or by selling one massive tome at a high price. And, you know what? if splitting a massive book into short chapters to sell to finance the creation of the work was good enough for Dickens, it should be good enough for you.

UPDATE:

9) Don’t forget, ignore all of the above and just make some pretty great comics. That’s good too.

should be good enough for you.

And that’s all I’ve got. For now.

12 thoughts on “Thoughts on comics in the iPad Age”

  1. Finally a professional I respect echoing a sentiment I’ve been feeling for a while. The portrait v. landscape question is the key issue to making digital presentation visually appealing (portrait shaped comics presented on a landscaped viewing screen is very good at breaking panel-to-panel flow that the comic artform requires). Also inexpensive Weekly/Fortnightly installments over traditional monthly distribution model makes the most sense to me as well.

    I’ve checked out DC’s most recent experiment with the half A3 page treated as a ‘single-page’. And it seems like a good transitional step. But you raise a valid point point about it being a half-measure. Not playing the strength of either print or digital in the end. If a writer/artist was going full digital, starting with a canvas that was ratioed at 16:9 (like most widescreen monitors are these days) would be a better starting place. But that’s just me.

    Do you have any plans to experiment with cheap, frequent, landscape digital? Being a 2000 AD alum you strike me having a leg up in this bold new digital future. What with short weekly installments being second nature.

  2. Hi James,

    I meant to say in the above post that the SECOND issue of the Justice League Begins seems to have abandoned the idea of joining the art, there’s still some oddities about it, but it certainly looks like it’s been drawn for ipad format.

    As regards myself: I’ve nothing specific planned. But I would like to a chance to play with the formats, and right now I’m poking and prodding at what the format can do. Certainly, I’d like to write something of my own, but I’ve too much work at the moment to really experiment.

    -pj

  3. I bought some digi comics recently, Darkhorse and they were in portrait standard. It seems that DRM and reselling will kill off the digi comic though imh. For instance I have Conan no#1 and I can keep that as a collector and sell it on, but a digi comic hmm? Also will the digi comic suffer the same fate as CD music and piracy kill it off or impact the finances of the artist?

    But as a median I think it will be good for throwaway burgerking comics in the future! :)

  4. Hi PJ,

    Good points but I don’t agree with the portrait/landscape thing.

    Nothing wrong with landscape comics, but I don’t see why it should have to be one or the other.

    The points you make about resolution don’t hold true if the content is being made for the ipad. It’s the same resolution either way you turn the device. True, the aspect ratio of US comics doesn’t fill to the edges… but a 2000AD page fills the entire screen.

    If the content is made for the ipad/other tablet device, the lettering and art will be at the optimum resolution/size and it should not matter what orientation it is.

    Less panels per page does make sense I guess, but what if 12″ ‘home’ tablets become popular as tablets become more ubiquitous? Then there should be enough space/res to have pages as busy as current print comics without compromising on readability.

  5. Hello Brian!

    I should stress this is just my current thinking, and I’m MORE than capable of convincing myself I’m right and then convincing myself I’m totally wrong – so there’s no absolutes.

    On the landscape / portrait orientation, what I managed to forget to talk about that sort of led to my reasoning:

    1) Scott McCloud did a presentation in Belfast where he made a damn fine case for the idea that comics are actually a landscape format – open up two pages of comics and you have landscape. And this suits how our vision works – two eyes across means landscape fills our vision. In fact, one reason he hasn’t allowed his books to be reformated for the ipad is because he feels that portrait is just wrong for them.

    2) Apples recent iBooks Author defaults to a landscape view for graphical layouts – turning to portrait turns their books into pure text. I’m not one for saying apple never makes mistakes, but, when it comes to judging user interface stuff like this they’re usually more right than wrong.

    3) The example sited above, of DCs Justice League Beyond – an ipad comic formatted for landscape is the clearest example of how much more satisfying that format can be.

    All of that said, I haven’t seen any portrait comics that are drawn to fit the ipad – and those, may actually look and read great (almost all portrait content has been drawn to suit print).

    I’m not sure what point you’re responding to on resolution as I don’t think I really talk about resolution in the article (and I’d try and avoid worrying about it, an ipad 3 will come along and blow the current resolutions out of the water). Certainly I’d keep in mind the PHYSICAL size of the ipad – roughly 10″. I don’t think we’ll see 12″ tablets, or, if we do, I don’t think they’ll sell anywhere near the volumes of a 10″ tablet (let’s face it, right now, there are… according to this ipod.about.com/od/ipadmodelsandterms/f/ipad-sales-to-date.htm 25 MILLION 10″ ipads out there… 12″ devices will have to sell by the bucket load to get near that number…)

    The point of the landscape/portrait is that landscape fills your field of vision, where portrait doesn’t.

    (CAVEAT: I could be wrong about all of the above :) I’ve certainly been wrong before!)

  6. Hi again PJ,

    I seem to have gotten mixed up with a section of the Forbidden Planet blog post about your article, and your post itself. Sorry :)
    forbiddenplanet.co.uk/blog/2012/comics-in-the-ipad-age/

    The resolution bit I was yapping on about was in relation to this:
    “Of course like any tablet, Android or iPad, I can turn it and the screen flips itself from landscape to portrait display automatically, but PJ has a point, although I can read a portrait format page comic, the screen is wider than it is high, in the now standard ‘widescreen’ design, and frankly I can read a page easier and at a larger resolution in landscape format. But then I have to keep scrolling over and up and down as the page isn’t formatted that way, which is annoying and distracts from the reading experience. Of course, if you do design your comic in landscape, as PJ notes, it will work better on a screen but not so well for print…”

    Re: landscape comics, I don’t think you’re wrong at all… though I think that a lot of this will remain a matter of opinion with no absolute right or wrong.

    I’d love to see more landscape comics. I’ve seen so few.
    Newspaper strip collections read well in two-tier landscape collected books but that doesn’t really count as that’s not their original format – though the full colour Sunday strips are about right for the ipad aspect I think.

    I know that this conversation is about digital comics as a whole as opposed to ‘page at a time’ webcomics but I think landscape orientation is much more important for webcomics as they have to cater to all web platforms as that is their primary medium. Whatever about orientation aware tablet devices, computer and laptop widescreens aren’t going anywhere and webcomics have to cater to these – so for these landscape is without a doubt the way to go.
    But even when this format is adopted (e.g. www.gunsofshadowvalley.com/2009/07/21/chapter-1-page-01/) I feel that there is still too much clutter from website navigation. Ideally, whether on my ipad, laptop or desktop, I should be able to put my browser to full screen and see nothing but the full page and some basic and intuitive navigation (or invisible navigation – click left to go back, right to go forward, top/bottom for index). This would not be hard to do if you could get your hands on someone with a bit of javascript skill.

    The ipad has a 9” screen. I’m sure portable tablets of this size will remain the most popular, but I would love a 12” tablet for comics and websurfing when on the couch. I do think there will eventually be a market for this, even if it is just a fraction of the main market. A sort of coffee table tablet (fill it up with artbooks!!!).
    (I think there are already some 12” android tablets available.)

    Ok, I’ve gone a bit off topic with that.

    Back to digital comics (aside from webcomics)
    I’m a film student and absolutely understand what you mean about the natural way to view being landscape – filling your field of vision. I agree 100%.

    But I don’t think that we read comics a full page at once.

    At first we take in the entire page, the general design and sense/feel of it. Then we focus in on panels/tiers.
    A portrait page made up of 3 tiers is essentially 3 landscape views.

    As an artist you obviously appreciate the magic of the storytelling progressions that can be achieved through various methods and the differences of progressing from panels within a tier, to jumping to the next tier, to turning a page. To most readers this is subconscious but they all definitely have a different effect.

    Anything beyond two tiers will be much harder to pull off in landscape (certainly far from impossible, just more involved I suppose). I’m ignoring non standard, non grid page layouts for now :)

    Changing to landscape hugely changes the pace of a comic. You will have more left to right panel progressions than you will tier changes. In your example above “a 16 US comic page story becomes, basically, 32 pages of comic content on the ipad” the 16 page and 32 page stories will have to be approached in a very different way.

    I’m not trying to suggest that you weren’t already aware of all this, or trying to find contradictions with your argument. It’s just an interesting topic.

    I think that portrait comics and landscape comics require a different discipline from the writer and artist and produce a different ‘feel’. I think there is a place for both. I would hate to see landscape become the new standard for the majority of comics, but would be overjoyed for it to be 50/50 portrait/landscape.

    I must check out this Justice League Beyond comic.

    An interesting thing I just remembered that’s somewhat relevant to all this:
    When Warren Ellis was doing Freakangels, he chose 2 tier for the webcomic. When you load the site on a screen (there is obviously variation here for different resolutions) you see the first tier and scroll down for the second. He likened the tier to the ‘fold’ in broadsheet newspapers, which gave him a new form of reveal in the web version of the comic.

  7. Brian! I’m enjoying the fact that your comments are now longer than my original post :)

    I don’t think we have anything to disagree on (I do feel the landscape nature of a comic book, though that’s not how we read it, is what gives the sensation of being immersed in the book – one of the reasons I hate US comics need to have an ad every other page is it really sucks you right out of the comic.)

    To quote an email I sent yesterday, on the storytelling (which, I really do agree with you about – landscape storytelling will look and feel different)

    “1) the format of the work – landscape, drawn 40% larger than ipad, at landscape (which, roughly speaking, is about double the height of traditional comic work )

    1)a) that forces how you tell a story to change a little. I’ve found the normal zig zag of a comic page doesn’t work so well.
    1)b) panel count, owing to the size of the ‘page’ is also limited. 2/3 panels work. Nice big chunky panels.
    1)c) LEFT to RIGHT story telling is more important than ever. Big single splash image? then best to have action going left to right.

    I’ve yet to really experiment on this front. I don’t want to drag anyone else into my insanity so I’m trying to write and draw (and colour and letter) something myself. But it’s finding the time. Plus it really goes against the grain for me to draw comics landscape, I’ve drawn them portrait for the entirety of my life!

    -pj

  8. I’ll write it! :)

    I just checked out the preview pages of Justice League Beyond on comixology. Looks nice and seems like it would be a nice way to read.

    I hate the ‘guided view’ thing on the ipad. It was interesting to mess with when I first got an ipad, but it just feels too gimmicky. Same goes for overly animated page turns. The simple slide animation in Comiczeal does the business (a straight instant change from one page to the next is a little more jarring – like the ‘flash’ on kindle screens)

    Looking at the art I’m guessing the JLB book is being marketed towards a younger audience. Less panels per page and bigger art is definitely good for young kids. What age do kids start reading? I can’t remember – I’m sure I had comics before I could read them :) but for kids 0-8, max three panels landscape seems ideal.

    And yeah, ads… that’s the reason I stopped buying Hellblazer. They lost money from me there as I might not pick up every trade but the comic was a habit I would otherwise have kept.

  9. I definitely agree with points 2 and 4.

    As someone who hasn’t bought a comic or read a comic since the late 90′s, I recently got interested again since I have an iPad. Unfortunately the current digital market was a big turnoff. I stopped buying physical copies because they started to pile up unread and I didn’t want the clutter any more since I was never really in it to collect them.

    I want a universal format which works in any reader without DRM, just like I buy my MP3s. I don’t want to be tied to a specific app and while being able to store comics in the cloud is nice, I want to be able to manage my collection on my home PC. I don’t think that is asking that much. It seems like the formats are already out there and it looks like CBZ may be the best iirc. Until this happens I don’t see myself coming back to comics. I don’t have a room to dedicate to comics so for me digital is the answer.

    On the subject of price, I definitely agree. Anything over $.99 for a comic book, not trades, doesn’t work for me and $.99 except maybe for new books doesn’t work either. I should almost never be able to buy a physical book for less than a digital copy. $.99 won’t bring me back especially when I am looking at 12 year old titles. I would love to rebuild my old collection digitally to reread it all, but it financially doesn’t make sense at the current pricepoint. Where are the crazy Steam type sales? Of course without downloadable DRM CBZs I don’t know that I would care if they were happening.

    Oh well, this turned more into a rambling rant than I intended, but as someone who was looking to get back into reading it is just frustrating.

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