Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Reading Batgirl on an iPhone is a better reading experience than I'd expected

One of the fun aspects of going digital with Comixology (and possibly Dark Horse as well, although I have yet to experiment) is having the ability to download your comics to your iPhone and read them through Comixology's app.  Yes, this traditionalist finds reading comics on an iPhone fun.  I downloaded all my Cass Cain Batgirl issues to my phone (plus my Nexus, New Mutants and old school Valiant titles) over the weekend and they really came in handy yesterday as I ran errands and spent a lot of down time just waiting for others to handle their end of my very important business.

My initial objection to doing this involved not being able to scan the entire page.

I believe page layout to be a dying art in this age of "widescreen" storytelling, where artists generally just stack a lot of horizontal panels on top of each other, then break it up with a vertical close-up inset shot of someone screaming.  There aren't that many Will Eisners or Bernie Krigsteins or even Jim Sterankos walking around.  It's gotten to where I prefer someone just doing the ancient "three tier" format because you don't have to figure out panel order and sometimes the panels come closer to that pleasant "golden ratio" centuries of Western art has taught us to recognize and love.  For example, Jamie Hernandez with his beautiful drawings and simple, clean, fun page layouts.

Page layout is just as important as the panel-to-panel stuff in leading your eyes around and through the action.  A good storyteller remembers all that plane of action stuff and where the characters are relative to each other within each panel, but also helps the reader understand what's happening by doing the visual equivalent of expert tour guiding.  Plus all those tricks Will Eisner talks about in his books, varying panel sizes and shapes to create the illusion of time passing at various speeds.  It all goes back to layout.  As a reader, you approach the page as a whole, then delve into the little squares and rectangles within which your favorite characters strut their stuff.  I didn't want to lose that.

Anyway, to my surprise, I discovered Damion Scott's Batgirl actually reads better on the iPhone, which takes you through with the rest of the page cropped out, than it does when you have the actual comic in front of you.  While he's an excellent action-based storyteller in panel-to-panel terms, sometimes his pages are a bit busy.  On the iPhone, some of Scott's panel-to-panel transitions almost animate themselves as you click through.  It's a neat effect.

Some of the other books I looked at didn't fare as well.  Panels had to be awkwardly snipped to fit on the screen and then "slide" so you could get the entire scene.  Sometimes it would give a nice cinematic pan instead, which was often a revelation.  Usually, though, this would have a "pan-and-scan" effect like watching a movie cropped to fit one of those TVs like the ones I grew up with, the heavy, wood-framed beauties that were as much furniture as they were entertainment centers.  It creates reading pauses that run counter to the artists' intentions.

The small size of the iPhone reduces the figures, which simplifies them slightly so you're losing a bit of the rendering the artists worked so hard on.  That's a bit of a disappointment.  Again, it serves Scott well because he specializes in broad acting, big, bold expressions and stylized faces that show up quite clearly on the iPhone screen.  Some of the artists who use a lot of subtle, fine-lined work tend to soften.  I wouldn't suggest any artist change his or her drawing style to fit this medium, but I think artists with simpler looks with fewer lines and lots of black spotting like Mike Mignola and Bruce Timm won't lose a whole lot on iPhone.

On the other hand, the text remains surprisingly clear and readable.  So there are trade-offs to the convenience of being able to carry with you at all times as many comics as your iPhone's storage capacity allows.  I see it this device more as an adjunct to your reading experience than a replacement for larger formats. It's a matter of convenience reading.

Now my main qualm about Comixology and Dark Horse digital comics is you're paying the same amount as you would for the print issue, but you don't actually own the comic itself, just a license to read it on your computer or phone.  At home, I can't download the comics I've paid for and read them offline.  I have to visit the websites.  I can understand this from a standpoint of preventing piracy, but to be frank, that Black Pearl has already sailed.  For now, this kind of like buying comics but keeping them at your friend's house and reading them through a window while she holds them up and turns the pages when you ask.

Even so, here in Japan where American funny books are difficult to come by, digital comics are your best bet for immediate gratification.  Walking Dead has been making me kind of sick lately, but at the same time, I can't look away. When #107 comes out, I'm going to be there on the first day rather than having to wait for a collected edition or make a trip to Tokyo in hopes it hasn't sold out at Blister.  And it's nice to know I have access to every issue of the Cass Cain Batgirl no matter where I am or what time it is.

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