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A Survey of Digital Comics Readers

This article was originally published on webcomics.com in 2008.

Every few years, a traditional comics publisher makes a renewed plunge into the webcomics market. And each time they do, they feel the need to introduce some “revolutionary” new piece of comics presentation software, as if this is what some purely hypothetical online comics industry has been waiting for. “Finally,” we are meant to exclaim, “we can actually read comics online!”

Given how the vast majority of webcomics do just fine as a succession of image files on web pages, it is a curious phenomenon.

There are a few reasons why they do this, such as concerns over Digital Rights Management, as well as efforts at branding the comics reading experience. Neither of these purposes benefit readers, of course, but it’s also increasingly clear that at least some of the comics software developers are making a good effort to improve the comics reading experience. For publishers re-purposing print comics to the screen, the goal is to balance text legibility against the appeal of displaying full pages of artwork all at once. Also, most reader applications attempt to do away with the manual scrolling that some readers complain inhibits their reading enjoyment. Of course, many supposed features of these applications actually make the reading experience more irritating rather than smoother.

With a new batch of such readers having just arrived in the past year, it seems worthwhile to survey the current contenders and see which ones have finally started to pick up on legitimate reader concerns, which have developed worthwhile innovations of their own, and which still think blink text is the hip new thing on the internets.

The first two readers up in this survey are the two that made the biggest headlines last year, coming as they do from major print publishers who have, in the past, shown pretty poor understanding of how to approach web-based comics. These are, of course, Marvel’s Digital Comics Unlimited (DCU) and DC’s Zuda Comics.  The other reader applications covered in this article had smaller budgets to work with, but really seem to have been designed with reader or artist concerns in mind. None of these is as high profile as Zuda or Digital Comics Unlimited, but each has its own advantages—and two even have the advantage of being available for use by any comics creator.

 

Marvel’s Digital Comics Unlimited

Digital Rights Management (DRM), of course, plays a big role in Marvel’s decision to use a reader application (not to mention its decision to only include older comics). Right-clicking has been high-jacked, with all controls removed from the pop up menu. The ethics of DRM can certainly be debated; what can’t is the effectiveness. Since any on-screen DRM can be easily defeated by a simple click on print-screen, readers are pretty useless for this purpose. Also, rumor has it that the reader itself automatically caches copies of the comics pages on the reader’s hard drive, making DCU’s DRM even less effective.

The first bit of good news about Marvel’s digital reader is that you don’t have to keep the default settings. This is very good news indeed, given how awful the default settings are: page transitions use those goofy animated page turns that were cool for about three and a half seconds ten years ago, and the text is much too small to read comfortably unless you use the kludgy magnifying glass tool to blow up individual text panels.

The controls for changing both the transition mode and the page display are easy to find in the top right-hand corner of the reader. Go for “plain” on the page transitions (you can skip right past the “cube” option, unless you really enjoy motion sickness.) As for page display, the single-page display is a big improvement over double-page as far as text goes, though it then requires scrolling, and loses the view of full-page art. The better option is the “Smart Panels” view, which introduces each new page by displaying the full-page art before zooming in to smaller sets of panels with large, readable text. The rectangular outlines that briefly highlight panels as you pass through can be a little distracting at first, but are ignorable. You also have a choice between “smooth” transitions or “jump” transitions. Both are okay; “smooth” introduces a little bit of a lag in text display, but retains a better sense of page flow. “Jump” is a little abrupt, but allows for a more natural reading speed.

The Smart Panels mode also provides the best navigation to be found in this particular reader. All three modes allow you to turn pages with the left and right arrow keys, which is much preferable to hunting the little arrows in the page corners. In Smart Panels mode, you have the added feature of being able to zip back and forth between the panel you’re currently reading and the full-page art—nice if you like stepping back to see how particular panels fit into the larger flow of a page.

One additional navigational option is the “autoforward,” which turns the page automatically after a set interval of time. This one is excellent for readers who enjoy the challenge of having to read very fast, so that they can finish each page before they run out of time. It’s kind of like a speed-reading video game!

None of the modes allows you the basic “click anywhere on the page to advance” navigational methods that most webcomics readers have come to expect as standard.

All told, the reader is bloated, but it really isn’t bad—it has some strangely useless features that you can easily ignore, and some terrible pre-sets that you can easily change, but once you adjust the settings, it offers a reasonably comfortable reading experience. Not an excellent experience, by any means, but much better than seems likely at first. Of course, navigating a confusing set of useless options to get the thing to work properly may be more of a hurdle than many potential subscribers are willing to deal with.

The Good

  • Multiple display options
  • Multiple navigation options 
  • Easy toggling between panel view and full-page view

The Bad

  • Bloat 
  • Invasive DRM 
  • Truly wretched default settings
  • Multiple ridiculously useless, nausea inducing transition modes

The So-So

  • Smart Panels mode offers good readability and art display, but introduces odd panel outlines and possible lag time.
  • The reader seems as though it could support page layouts beyond re-purposed print comics, but that potential is unlikely to ever be tested

 

DC’s Zuda Comics

While DC also uses the reader to remove the option of saving images from the right-click menu, it at least still makes use of the menu, including a variety of navigation commands. DC does take a slightly looser approach to copy protection than Marvel, though, choosing as they do to include the option of printing out comics pages. Of course, given that DC’s online comics are free, one wonders why they’re concerned about DRM in the first place. There isn’t really a whole lot of incentive to digitally pirate online comics that are already free. Or, at least there wouldn’t be, if not for the fact that some people just don’t like reading comics in reader applications, preferring pure image files. So, essentially, DC’s attempt to prevent piracy introduces incentive to piracy where there previously wasn’t any. So I guess that balances out.

Just like Marvel’s viewer, DC’s Zuda starts the reader off with a bad set of defaults. The reader window is quite small, and the page art is clumsily reduced—not only is the text too small to read comfortably, but the artwork itself is badly aliased. It’s not quite so bad as to be completely unreadable, but it sure makes one wonder whether DC really wants you to read it or not.

Fortunately, Zuda also offers alternative settings; it doesn’t offer as many options as Marvel’s DCU, but that’s largely a good thing, since most of what it leaves out are the useless features. No page flips, cube turns, or autoforwards here. Instead, you just get one lovely alternative: Full Screen mode. And that’s really all you need, because once you go into full screen mode, the artwork pops into beautiful, full-size, high-res images with big readable text. And since Zuda’s content is all web-original, DC mandate has all comics formatted to fit screen dimensions, eliminating any need for scrolling (while also eliminating the flexibility normally associated with online publishing). As useful as Marvel’s Smart Panels are in the Marvel viewer, nothing like that is necessary in Zuda.

Unfortunately, as nice as the full screen display mode is, navigation still leaves something to be desired. Like Marvel, DC has neglected to include “click to advance” navigation. What’s more, the on-screen page turn buttons are even smaller than Marvels, and require the use of an auto-hiding toolbar. Zuda does include keyboard commands as well, but they’re not very intuitive; why on Earth would they assign page turns to the chevron keys instead of the arrow keys? And what’s worse, keyboard navigation gets locked out once you go to full screen mode. (This could be a glitch on my own system, but I tried it in both Firefox and Explorer, and had the same result in both.) This is particularly frustrating, since the full screen mode has the potential to offer a highly immersive reading experience, if only the reader didn’t need to stay aware of the toolbar in order to turn pages. (Alternatively, you could use the navigation commands in the right-click menu, but this isn’t really an improvement.)

Those little navigational glitches are really the only thing holding this reader back. If they just re-enable keyboard commands in full screen mode, and add in click navigation (neither of which should be difficult to do), DC will have a very nice reader on its hands—it’s nicely streamlined, without any unnecessary clutter, and really presents the art in an enjoyable way. It could even pull off the trick of improving the online comics reading experience. So long as you’re in full screen mode, anyway; if you’re actually using Zuda, it’s best to pretend that the small screen mode just doesn’t exist.

The Good

  • Gorgeous full screen display mode
  • Printable pages
  • Perfect screen-fit pages; no scrolling

The Bad

  • Terrible, unreadable small screen default mode
  • Glitchy navigation in full screen mode
  • Rigid page formats
  • Unintuitive keyboard commands

The So-So

  • DRM is present, but half-hearted

 

ComicMix

To say that ComicMix’s reader prioritizes reader concerns isn’t to say they leave publisher concerns out entirely; ComicMix still includes branding, for instance. But the branding never overshadows the usability of the software or the readability of the comics, as it often does any time a publisher becomes overly concerned with creating a unique reading experience. (Marvel has been particularly susceptible to this pitfall.)

ComicMix’s reader is a simple affair—nothing revolutionary, but nothing pointlessly flashy either. Pages appear as JPG files in the main window (and there’s no DRM here—you can treat these pages like any other JPG file, including saving or copying the images), with a toolbar at the top of the screen for navigating them. The usual options are present: single page view, double page, or thumbnails. The best reading is to be had by zooming in on a single page, but since the pages are print-formatted, this means seeing only half a page at a time. Unfortunately, there is no way to quickly toggle between zoom levels without losing your place on the page.

Navigation is similarly simple. Like Marvel and DC, ComicMix has left out the click-to-advance navigation, but they’ve done the next best thing—one-button scrolling/page turns with the space bar. There are a handful of other keyboard commands available, but with the occasional exception of the zoom controls, you don’t really need any of it; everything essential is achieved with a tap of the space bar. Simple, quick, and easy to find on your keyboard.

All told, using this reader doesn’t feel that much different from reading image files on a standard HTML page, with the addition of zooming controls. That’s a good thing; new readers to ComicMix’s site won’t have to waste any time learning odd controls or hunting for hidden settings. They can just get straight to reading comics.

The Good

  • Simple, intuitive controls
  • No DRM
  • Very easy to jump right into reading comics without needing to learn the software

The Bad

  • No quick toggle for zoom levels

The So-So

  • Adequate display. Readable on par with most traditional webcomics, but no option of high-resolution display.

 

The Tarquin Engine

The first of the creator-centric readers we’ll be looking at is the Tarquin Engine, a Flash-based reader developed by Daniel Merlin Goodbrey, and available, for a fee, to anyone who wants to use it. This reader serves a very different function from the other readers discussed so far, however—it is not designed to ease the reading of print-formatted comics, offers no DRM, and is devoid of any branding efforts. Rather, it is specifically a tool for creators looking to explore more experimental layouts, including infinite canvas works, horizontal-scrollers, and branching narratives, while keeping reader navigation relatively simple and free of manual scrolling.

Navigation in this reader is unlike in any other reader—since it’s intended to handle branching storylines, one-click advancement is impossible, since readers need to be allowed to choose between multiple paths. Instead, navigation is mouse-based, with the mouse pointer turning into navigation arrows that indicate each possible path along the comic. It can be a little confusing at first, but is fairly easy once you’ve spent a few minutes playing with it.

The most impressive examples of The Tarquin Engine at work can be seen in Goodbrey’s own comics, such as Externality or Don’t Shoot the Chronopath. Note that zooming out from an individual panel to view the full page layout, before zooming back in to where you left off is also easy—just click the space around the panels to zoom out, then click on the panel you want to zoom back to.  Other creators have used the reader effectively for much simpler purposes, though, such as the story Birdseed, by Austin Kleon.

Image display is a little trickier. Since the reader is flash based, and integrates a fair amount of dynamic image resizing, it really works best with vector artwork. Scanned artwork often doesn’t look it’s best in this reader, scanned text especially tending to look a bit ragged. (See S.J. Roberts’ Hot Lunch: The Psychadelic Transubstantiation or Nicholas Ivan Ladendorf’s Puppet in Chief: The Media Trix for example.) This may simply be a matter of needing different levels of resolution for different panels, but still, most of the creators using the Tarquin Engine to translate print comics to the web haven’t quite succeeded at keeping the image quality as high as it could be.

Also, unlike the more mainstream readers, The Tarquin Engine is not well suited to very long comics, due to a lack of clear pagination. In other comics readers, even where there is no bookmarking function, it’s a simple matter to note the page you’ve left off on in your reading and get back there later. This functionality could be effectively mimicked; since the software supports external hyperlinks, chapters could be separated into multiple instances of the reader, on unique web pages. The result would be very similar to Brendan Cahill’s presentation of his Flash-based comic, Outside the Box, except with integrated navigation for reaching the next chapter, rather than requiring the “next” button. And this would work just fine, so long as chapters were consistently relatively short. But this method adds yet another step to the process of preparing comics for presentation with the software. Not to mention that that this approach loses the appeal of capturing a large quantity of material with a self-contained application the way more traditional readers do.

In short, the Tarquin Engine offers some very interesting possibilities for formal experimentation; indeed it effectively handles navigational scenarios impossible in any other reader. And while I do hope that the existence of the tool might inspire more creators to explore multi-linear narratives, where traditional comics are concerned, this reader doesn’t achieve anything that can’t be done more easily, for both creators and readers, using other tools. For this reason, it will likely remain a fringe application, brought out almost exclusively for those projects that truly require it.

The Good

  • Enables branching or non-linear narratives
  • No fixed page dimensions
  • Highly customizable to the requirements of individual stories
  • Available to comics creators in the general public

The Bad

  • Not well suited to long batches of content
  • Scanned images often appear distorted (possibly due to user error)

The So-So

  • Navigation is effective, but not immediately intuitive
  • Excellent tool for formalist experimentation, but would be a little overcomplicated for more traditional comics

 

Infinite Canvas

Like the Tarquin Engine, Markus Mueller’s Flash-based Infinite Canvas application is designed specifically to empower creators interested in exploring dynamic layouts and infinite canvases. It seems to be capable of handling branching narratives, but is primarily suited to sprawling infinite canvases. Indeed, for handling infinite canvases or side scrolling comics, it is the most elegant option of all the readers examined for this article. (As a caveat, I should mention that one of my own comics was created and is displayed using this application.)

Navigation is simple and intuitive—in addition to basic forward and back arrows, Infinite Canvas is the only reader surveyed that allows readers to advance simply by clicking anywhere on the comic. Tym Godek’s Two Confessions shows the effectiveness of this navigation at its simplest in a brief side-scrolling comic. But, as demonstrated by Derek Badman’s Maroon Part 43, no matter how a comic’s layout twists and turns around the infinite canvas (even allowing diagonals, rotations, and fades), the reader never needs to adjust their approach to navigation—a single click will always take them to the next panel.

This reader could effectively be used for displaying print-formatted comics as well, easily mimicking the panel-to-panel transition mode of Marvel’s Smart Panels. There’s no obvious option for zooming out to view full page art, however, making it somewhat less suited to the purpose than those readers designed with more traditional comics in mind. Also, like the Tarquin Engine, Infinite Canvas would require multiple linked instances of the application in order to present longer comics that would require multiple sittings to read. Ultimately, this is another reader designed to address fairly specific needs; it does what it’s designed to do beautifully, but is not the ideal solution for most comics.

The Good

  • No fixed page dimensions
  • Enables easy reading of large, infinite canvas comics
  • Simple click-to-advance navigation
  • Customizable to the requirements of individual stories

The Bad

  • Not well suited to long batches of content

The So-So

  • Available to comics creators in the general public, but only for Mac OS. (Finished comics will operate on any operating system.)
  • Enables branching narratives, but branch points are not always clear
  • Excellent tool for formalist experimentation, but would be a little overcomplicated for more traditional comics

 

The Final Tally

Marvel brings up the rear, due primarily to excessive bloat. The Tarquin Engine and Infinite Canvas offer inspired solutions for specific concerns, but can’t adequately handle stories of any real length.

Zuda offers the best display options, but is hobbled by glitchy navigation. In the long run, though, Zuda’s may actually hold the most promise. It is still labeled as a Beta run—if they really do put in the work of fixing the navigational glitches, and make an effort to push full screen as the primary viewing mode, they may just produce an excellent comics reader application, one that pairs usable functionality with superior image display and readability. But potential is not the same as achievement, which leaves…

ComicMix’s application may not be the most inspired entry into the comics reader marketplace, but it is simple and intuitive, and offers a very comfortable reading experience, making it the winner for the day.

 

This article was originally published on webcomics.com in 2008.