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BY AARON BLOCK

Two weeks ago, DC Comics announced that they’d entered into a partnership with digital comics leader Comixology to not only provide downloadable titles for the Comixology reader, but also offer it’s own dedicated reader using Comixology software.

DC joins Marvel, Image, Dark Horse, Boom, and nearly 30 other publishers who’ve used Comixology to make a smooth entry into the e-comics field. In fact, DC was the last of the major publishers to sign up, and so the news was followed by a flood of “digital comics have finally arrived” reports, no matter that Marvel, Boom!, and others had done the same thing months before.

But the arrival of DC in the digital market won’t mean much if comics don’t translate well to the new medium. So what kind of reading experience do the DC and Marvel apps (they’re identical, except for the content offered) provide?

The Comixology reader is only one part of the comixology.com hub, a social networking site where comic readers can create profiles, manage “pull lists” of books they’re planning to purchase, rate and review them, read columns, and download podcasts. The reader, currently available for the iPod touch, iPhone, and iPad, allows the user to then purchase digital content directly from the publisher for $1.99 an issue.

I downloaded the Marvel and DC apps for iPod touch, and found the reader itself to be quite simple and elegant. Each page is broken into its component panels—or sometimes separate sections of a larger panel—and rendered in reading order by touching the right or left side of the screen to move forward or backward. Often this is panel by panel movement, but occasionally a splash page, or dialogue heavy panel, is broken up into separate moments, creating a clear path through a barrage of information.

Touching two fingers to the screen and opening or closing allows the reader to zoom in on and move around the panel, revealing details in the artwork that might’ve gone unnoticed, given the size disparity between the 3.5” diagonal iPhone screen and the standard 6 5/8” x 10 1/4” comic book page. Widescreen panels can be viewed in the proper aspect by turning the device on its side, though repeated flipping is distracting.

I think the need to turn the reader highlights the drawback of both the Marvel and DC apps. A substantial library of both classic and contemporary releases from each company are available for download, but none of it was written, drawn, inked, colored, or lettered to be read one panel at a time on a small screen. It’s not entirely surprising that the Silver Age comics currently available on Marvel’s reader work best in the digital format. Jack Kirby’s design work and penciling on 1962’s Incredible Hulk #1 are genius, but the page layouts are rather straightforward sequences of similarly sized boxes.

But due to the influence of innovators like Kirby, Jim Steranko, Will Eisner, and others, graphic storytelling today is more complex and involved, and in most cases the page is crafted to be irreducible. Consider DC’s digital offering of Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s All-Star Superman #1. Quitely is probably the most gifted illustrator working in mainstream comics, and his layouts for Morrison’s scripts routinely break the six or nine panel grid in favor of a more kinetic approach that relies on the reader’s awareness of how the components of the page relate to each other. When broken down the story loses some of its emotional impact, and the reading becomes rote.

I recognize that the iPod’s screen size might bear responsibility for some of my reservations. I haven’t used Comixology on an iPad, but given that its size more closely resembles a traditional comic page it’s reasonable to assume that some of any given book’s nuances will be preserved. When original digital content eventually takes off (as it must), I wouldn’t be surprised if the Comixology reader for the iPad is considered the standard on which creators base their work. And I think there’s potential for incredible growth in simpler, short-form storytelling on the iPod and iPhone. But, for that to happen, creators will have to understand how the iPod-sized reader works and explore its storytelling possibilities, rather than retrofitting existing print texts for a new format.

Last week Marvel released Invincible Iron Man Annual #1 simultaneously in print and digital formats, and I can’t think of any reason to favor the download, except price. Aside from the smattering of free full-issues, most digital comics sell for $1.99, one to two dollars cheaper than a print copy. The low cost, plus the immediate lack of serial issues available online, suggests that Marvel and DC are still treating their apps as gateways to print comics, rather than a new frontier.

I suppose that makes sense from a business standpoint, but I want digital comics to succeed as a venue for breakthroughs in storytelling, particularly as mainstream print comics are in a bit of a creative lull (notable exceptions excepted). The Comixology reader could even be the solution to decades-worth of continuity and convoluted plotting that keeps new readers at bay. It could be a way to tell short, effective stories that might recall the infectious joy of the Silver Age, or the social awareness of the Bronze Age, or something else entirely. But until creators and publishers begin conceiving of content designed specifically for an ereader, comics on the iPhone will be little more than a waiting room diversion.

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