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The ComixTalk 2009 Roundtable

What do you think about comics on the iPod and other small screens?  There's an aesthetic and a business aspect for creators to think about when putting comics on to that kind of platform.  And then for readers is the experience good enough?  Will it get better with newer devices to come -- things like the rumored iTablet?

Draper Carlson: I think many webcomics are better on small screens than other kinds of comics, since many webcomics are strip-oriented, and the smaller format loses less in translation. Plus, they often depend on the text instead of the image, which also helps. I do think that doing iPod-only comics is a bad idea. Why limit your audience that way? If you're going to go digital, make the comics available on the web as well.

Garrity: I've been involved in some efforts to reformat comics for cell phones and iPods, but I think the issue will become moot as display technology improves and screens get bigger and crisper.  As it is, you can read webcomics on the iPhone on their websites -- you don't need a special webcomics browser or anything.

Draper Carlson: This is an excellent point. I read webcomics on my Android smartphone through the RSS reader and the web browser. I see no need for a comic app. The only reason I can figure many people create iPod apps is because the audience there is willing to pay small amounts for content, as Brigid points out, while that's not true on the wider web. As smartphones become more ubiquitous, I'm not sure that advantage will continue. 

What is an advantage that is rarely talked about is the ability to download PDFs, CBRs, and the like. When I travel, I don't want to pack a whole bunch of comics, risking damage and taking up too much space, nor do I have a continuous internet connection (although that will change as well). So loading a bunch of PDFs on my laptop is the best way and easiest way to keep up. But now we're wandering away from the topic of webcomics. 

Archie ComicsAlverson: I think the iPod and other handhelds will continue to be a small but significant part of the comics world for a number of reasons. From the consumer's point of view, the iPhone (and the Android) presents the dual advantages of portability and ease of purchase. Since I always carry my iPod, I always have something to read in my purse, and since all comics come from the iTunes store, buying them is easy. From the creator's point of view, there is a significant business advantage: People are trained to expect to pay for iPhone and Android apps. This is in sharp contrast to the internet, where people expect everything to be free, and if it's not, someone will make it free, just to do it. Having people pay for your comics directly is a simpler business model than supporting them with ads, merchandise, and donations.

Aesthetically, it's a different medium and you read it in a different way. Some comics are easily adapted and even read better on the small screen; I preferred the iPhone version of Archie's Freshman Year, for instance, because the pages in the print comic were cluttered and busy. Reading it one panel at a time was simply a smoother experience. I just read a post by a seventh-grade teacher who said his students preferred the iPod version of Bone for the same reason.

Other comics, mainly ones with big, complicated splash pages with bits of text all over the place, look terrible on the iPhone, and I'm not entirely convinced that readers that zoom you from panel to panel are the answer. The tablet may be the answer to that question; while it will lack the portability of the iPod, it should represent a considerable gain in aesthetics, and it won't have the first-generation feel of the Kindle. The Apple version, of course, will have the iTunes Store working to its advantage, so expect content to be paid on that platform as well. Some people think it will be the perfect comics medium, and that may be a stretch, but I'm looking forward to giving it a test drive.

Woodruff: I'm just speculating here but I personally think that handheld devices will help things like comics flourish when the devices hit small book/planner size, are durable and primarily touch driven. No one wants to lug around a full size laptop and no one wants to have to peer at too small of a screen all the time. Think about Penny's book from Inspector Gadget. It would be just about right for casual use and pretty sturdy. You need to be able to throw it in your backpack or gym bag and not worry about it.

Badman: I've not read any comics on an ipod/phone/mobile device, so I can't speak from experience. I do believe that the screen/display quality of ebook readers (and other less specifically "reader" devices) will soon get to the point where comics can be displayed with quality. Personally, I dislike any kind of comics reading that forces my reading attention onto a single panel or section of a page (like a lot of Flash based comics readers do). The layout of a page as a whole, and the interactions between the panels, images, colors, etc on a page are such an important part of comics that I don't want that aspect excised from the medium.

That said, I do think better digital reading experiences need to be figured out for comics online in general. The old model of display one page and clicking "next" endlessly is just too slow and unwieldy for any kind of sustained reading.  Had I some kind of small device I would certainly have given Lewis Trondheim's iphone comic a try.

Tyrrell: Since I got a smart-phone this year, I'm becoming more familiar with reading comics on something with way too little display space -- it can be done, but mostly I find it disjointed, verging on being a chore. If we get something tablet-sized it may go a long way to changing my mind, but right now any comic not expressly designed for that size, resolution, and loading speed? Entirely a matter of necessity over preference.

Cruz: With regard to the mobile devices, I love the idea.  I’m personally using my Blackberry to check up websites more and more frequently, and webcomics are one of those sites that are really difficult to read on the small screen.  Plus those comics that use a Flash interface just don’t work on mobile devices at all.  I have to say, though, some comics I’ve seen seem to be tailor made for online.  Set To Sea looks great on my Blackberry. 

As for the iTablet/Kindle market…. I don’t know if I’m still 100% convinced that this is the future of publishing.  I mean, it has to go somewhere what with the print market dying, right?  But I’m not sure people would want to necessarily pick up something additional to their laptop to lug along with them.  Then again, I’m a bit of a late adopter when it comes to technology.

 

It seems likely that we're very near the end of the life of the current "floppy" comic book format with many more creators moving serialization to the web.  We also continue to hear the drumbeat of stories chronicling the decline of the newspaper business.  Is the end of serialization of comics on paper inevitable?  Is that a good or bad thing for comics?  Can you imagine a world where new technologies reinvigorate a means to serialize comics on paper to a mass market?

Draper Carlson: If we're talking the American comic business, especially the branch dependent mostly on superheroes, they aren't going to be as affected because they're already existing mostly on the dedicated fan of nostalgia. They want to read the characters they've known for decades, and they want to read them on paper. 

Small press creators, on the other hand, were already being driven out of the dedicated direct comic market, thanks to increasing catalog minimums, so going online makes more sense for them. Build an audience, refine the concept, get plenty of practice meeting deadlines and telling stories, and then bring out a satisfying chunk of story to the bookstores. I think that's a good thing, but then, with two exceptions (Love and Capes, Comic Book Comics), I don't keep up with stapled comics any more. I want to read book-format comics, so that's what I buy and support. Including print collections of webcomics, which I buy when it comes to my favorite strips.

Woodruff: Comics are considered inexpensive and light entertainment. It seems that paper books will always be desired by fans but casual readers are looking for cheap throwaway entertainment. If you could get comics reliably into dollar stores maybe they could come back.

Draper Carlson: Reducing the price and losing more money than publishers already are isn't a workable strategy. Those driven by price are already reading manga scanlations and superhero torrents for free. If they want to save money, they put more effort and work in; if you want the casual reader, they're already buying manga at the bookstores or getting Marvel Adventures digests at the library.

Garrity: It's not just comics; the publishing industry is hit hard across the board.  In fact, comics may have a better chance than prose of surviving in print, because it'll take a while before it's as easy and convenient to transfer comics to a digital format as it is to, say, download a novel to Kindle.  The floppy and newspaper strip markets are struggling because the markets themselves have enormous built-in flaws, and the current print recession has just worsened the existing problems.  It's not good for cartoonists because it seriously constricts the available paying markets, but it's hard to fix.

Alverson: It seems likely that we're very near the end of the life of the current "floppy" comic book format with many more creators moving serialization to the web.  We also continue to hear the drumbeat of stories chronicling the decline of the newspaper business.  Is the end of serialization of comics on paper inevitable?  Is that a good or bad thing for comics?  Can you imagine a world where new technologies reinvigorate a means to serialize comics on paper to a mass market?

You know, I remember when comics cost 12 cents, and floppies were the only format. (*Reaches for cane to beat some sense into the young'uns.*) That model worked because comics were a mass-market medium.  Now comics cost $4 and can only be bought in special, inconveniently located stores. That¹s fine if you're marketing to the base, but you can't bring in new readers if no one knows your product exists. That's why I'm intrigued by Boom! Studios' move back to the newsstand, which seems to be doing well. Put comics in front of the kids and they will buy them, especially if they are already familiar with the property (i.e. Toy Story, Wall-E, etc.). It's not really an issue of technology, it's distribution and marketing. I really think serendipity drives a lot of leisure purchases, especially where kids are concerned.

Cruz: I’m surprised it’s lasted in this format as long as it has.  Paying close to $4 for what’s essentially something that’s Part 1 of a, say, 6 part story?  Which you end up having to wait for the payoff over 8-10 months or so?  That’s ridiculous.  This is why everyone’s gravitating to the trade paperbacks: you get the entire story without the waiting period and its costs less.  I think the death of the “floppy” comic is not only inevitable, but it’s also a good thing.

I’d like to think of the webcomic model as a modified form of the trade paperback.  Rather than having to pay for partial content in 6 supposedly monthly installments, it’s free.  And for those who prefer reading on paper or having something nice on their bookshelves, there’s the collected works (i.e., the “trade paperback”).  I don’t think it’s much different from the old model, except they’re eliminating the middleman and passing the savings on to you.

Art from Box BrownBadman: I think serializing on paper as a mass medium is going to die, but, with the decline the mass produced comic pamphlet there is a certain rise of the comic as handmade art object, though I guess that is independent of serialization itself. I don't think it's good or bad for comics... it's change, it's evolution. With all the great comics I get through my RSS reader each day or week, I don't miss getting pamphlets at all.

Tyrrell: Weirdly enough, as we get further into the age of comics in digital formats my weekly purchases of floppy comics keeps going up. I like the physicality, I'm not immune from the collector's impulse ... and lots of creators that work on the web (people like Randy Milholland, Box Brown, Lauren Monardo & Stephen Lindsay) are putting time and effort into floppies because they still have an appeal for both creator and reader.

Fesworks: With the emergence of things like comic viewing Apps on mobile devices, the Kindle and the Nook; there is no shortage of non-paper ways to read comics. However, when computers and the Internet took off, it was theorized that people would use less paper... in fact, people started using MORE paper. I think it will be a long time before physical reading material goes away. However, I think your typical trades will see more of a decline; whereas free online comic content will see an increase in physical book sales. People just love to physically have something, but I'm not naive. I'm certain that the future will eventually tip scales to the opposite, if looking at the music industry is any clue.