“To Be Continued” – The Future Of The Humble Comic Book

If you’re a geek, chances are you’ve read your fair share of comics. Somewhere between the art, the stories, and the way that we can translate the voices & acting of characters in our heads definitely makes comics a prerequisite for being a geek.

I’ve personally got what I consider to be a decent collection of comics at home with the better half of my adolescent years buying & reading the works of Stan Lee and J. Scott Campbell among others.

But if you’ve ever picked up a comic, you’ll have noticed that they’re not exactly transportable, not by today’s standards anyway. These days, we like to have our music, movies, and anything we happen to be reading in our pockets.

As the gradual shift to digital media makes its way across the music & video world, so too will it affect that what we read. The shift away from ink printed onto paper to the new “E-Ink” format is already underway and anyone with a few hundred dollars can grab one of the few e-readers and try out the new format. These portable book readers are designed to hold hundreds of books and use a screen that is less likely to give your eyes a beating as the technology is meant to make the experience more like reading a book. All that’s missing from this is that nice old book smell.

Comic readers don’t quite have the same luxury. Short of that idea Tom Hanks presented in the movie “Big,” buyers of comic books don’t exactly have anything going for them when they take their illustrated stories on the go. Most people buying them have to read them while they’re on public transport and risk the possibility of damaging what could be a collectors item. For those who don’t care about the quality of their purchase, this isn’t a big deal, but for those who do, they’re more likely to spend their time reading in a safe place (like work or home) and then store the comics away for safe keeping.

Currently, E-Ink only supports black & white and until the technology is tested thoroughly with the wide variety of colours artists use, this might pose a problem for people. Luckily, there are a few solutions.

One way of handling the digital comic issue is by way of digital distribution, a solution which companies like iVerse Media are taking into their own hands. Joining together with comic book artists and comic book companies, iVerse are among but a few companies who have worked out how to make a small and easily used page turning comic-book styled application.

For iVerse, the comics are made into an almost one-panel design, your fingers sliding left or right to change the panel as you move through the story. This means you’re reading in a horizontal viewing position and you never really have to zoom in as the information is just about the same size as it would be in real life.

iVerse's comic system reduces the cover size and allows you to read panel by panel for a great price.

iVerse's comic system reduces the cover size and allows you to read panel by panel for a great price.

If you’ve got an iPhone or an iPod Touch, you can find these digitally distributed comics available on the AppStore. Prices start from $1.19AUD (99 cents USD) and the quality is actually pretty good. Considering you’re paying well less than what a hard cover would cost, as long as you’re not a collector, these turn out to be a great deal and I imagine help the artist make a little bit more money.

Another way of dealing with digital comics is to scan the images in. This process of compiling an image archive by way of scanned images has gained quite the underground following on the Internet and has spawned many a different application to read the said files.

I’m not going to discuss the legality of said practices as I’m not a lawyer and quite frankly have no idea on just how this could be construed as anything other than illegal. That said, it might work on the similar principle to the idea that if you own the original format, scanning your image might not be such a bad thing provided you’re keeping it for yourself (I’m borrowing the logic that people use for copying CD’s and DVD’s here but because I’m not a lawyer, you can’t use this in a defense). If you are, however, looking for public domain comic files, you can check this link for Golden Age Comics.

In this practice, scans of the comics are made and then compiled in either a RAR or a ZIP archive. To give these files their own comic book legacy if you will, people have renamed these files to Comic Book Archive files with either CBR or CBZ files. In this naming scheme, the CB stands for “Comic Book” while the “R” or “Z” at the end of the filename denote whether that file was originally a RAR archive (made by RAR Labs) or a ZIP file respectively. Renamed from their original filenames, these CBR & CBZ files are merely archives of images displaying pages from zero to where ever.

When looked at through a comic book viewer, the images come up nice and clear and quite frequently allow you to drag your way around the image as if you were using your hand or fingers up close to a very large image.

These comic book viewer applications exist for many platforms including Windows, Mac, & Linux, and also exist for video game consoles which can be modified by the end-user like the Nintendo DS and the Sony PlayStation Portable.

A few days ago upon searching for the word “comic” in Apple’s AppStore, I found that Apple had approved of a program that surprised me especially given Apple’s inability to be the slightest bit logical when it comes to the approval of programs by way of their Terms & Conditions.

iComic made by Yoshitake Yamamoto is a new application for the iPhone & iPod Touch that lets you view Comic Book Zip files (CBZ) and read comics the way you should be able to. Because the touch screen is multi-touch capable and actually really good on both the iPhone & iPod Touch, this program actually makes reading comics simple & easy.

Transferring Comic Book files isn’t the easiest of things to do as the program isn’t supported by iTunes, naturally. Instead, the developer here has decided to go for a web-based system whereby you upload files to a server and them download them directly to your iPhone or iPod Touch. While this system is easy for many people, if you don’t have any place to upload your comics, you’re more or less out of luck here and can probably blame Apple’s inability to allow anything non-iTunes approved to pass through its gates.

In order to use this system, you might want to set your device to stay on for a longer period of time as the screen turning itself off seems to occasionally kill the connection.

Once you’ve got your CBZ downloaded, it’s just a simple matter of loading it up and then browsing as you normally would. Clicking on the bottom-left corner flicks to the next page while hitting the bottom-right goes for the previous page. You can also zoom freely by using the regular push-pull controls Apple have mad famous or just double clicking. Compare this to using the in-built photo viewer found on the iPhone or iPod Touch, a system which reduces image size and quality without any choice from the user.

Left: Viewed through the in-built Photos app; Right: viewed through iComic

Left: Viewed through the in-built Photos app; Right: viewed through iComic

If anything, iComic shows just how good a system can be when it’s made well. While the legality of the files it can use can be questioned, the type of system it uses is something based off of an established and well-supported file structure. It still has some development legs to go as does the devices it runs on. But as far as helping push the future of comic books forwards, this is definitely one to watch, especially considering the low price it goes for on the Apple AppStore.

What does all of this mean for the future of the humble comic book? I think it suggests that we’re heading in the same direction as the literary brothers in the book form. These sorts of digital conversions are merely the beginning and it’s only really a matter of time before we start seeing more & more releases on devices as capable as the iPod Touch & iPhone. Give Mobile Internet Devices a chance as well as the plethora of other touchscreen smartphones and you begin to see just how much future comics have on these devices. And when E-Ink catches up with this side of the technological divide, we’ll have a real battle on our hands with a device that really can resemble real comic books.

Sure, the printed media will always remain as there really is nothing quite like a comic. But if you’re looking for something to read on the go, you can’t go past the digital future for comics.

Image 1: Proof, Issue #1, Image Comics & iVerse Media
Image 2: Ghost In The Shell: Human-Error Processor, Issue #1, Dark Horse