I primarily use my iPad for video games, but I realized recently that it could be perfect for reading comics, something I enjoy doing. But then I tried to buy some.
Comics have been for sale on the iPad since Apple's tablet first went on sale half a year ago. I remember the Marvel Comics app getting a lot of press.
It's not because I grew up reading Marvel's competition that I didn't use the Marvel app or any other comics app until December. I shunned them because I've long enjoyed going to a comics shop every two weeks to get new comics. I like that tradition and was unmoved to turn my iPad into a comics Kindle. I also had no interest in grabbing illegal downloads, due to my theory that the people who made the comics should at least have a shot at getting some money for them.
My iPad would remain a gaming device.
In the final week of 2010, however, I was away from a comics shop, away from the graphic novels piled up near my nightstand, away from many things, but not away from my iPad and some cards printed with codes I could redeem for $25 of iPurchases.
The Way It Works
I decided to try reading comics on the iPad. This was a more pleasing experience than I expected, especially once I tinkered with some settings.
As far as I can tell, the most popular app for comics is Comics, which sells and acts as a reader for many comics publishers, including the big two, Marvel and DC.
The face of my iPad is nearly as big as a comic book page. Tapping on the right half of its screen I could flip the pages of a comic, silently so as not to awake my wife who is often sleeping nearby when I'm flipping through a stack of new issues.
By default, the Comixology app zooms in and out of the panels of the comics you've downloaded as you try to read them, as if comics reading was an act done by telescope. I experienced this feature first on my iPhone, on which I read my first Comixology comic. I couldn't stand it and made sure it was turned off by the time I tried a comic on my iPad.
New comics are listed in the various Comixology apps every week, on Wednesdays for the most part, to match the sensation of picking up new printed comics when they show up in shops in the middle of the week. On January 5, nearly 150 comics were added to the Comics store, from Adam Wreck & the Kalosian Space Pirates to Y: The Last Man #23. A lot of the comics are slightly old. Peter Parker: Spider-Man #11 is from 1999. Justice League of America #12 is from 2007. You wouldn't find either of those comics racked in my local comics shop where anything older than last month is stuffed into back-issue bins, shredded or who knows what.
Most of the comics cost $1.99 except some of the newest stuff, like last month's Justice League: Generation Lost #16, which costs $2.99, the same price it did in the comics shop when it came out. The problem is, that, aside from the freebies, there isn't a comic in the Comics app that isn't more expensive than it seems like it should be.
If we're counting value in terms of time-to-consume, a $2 comic I can read in 15 minutes can't compete with a $2 TV episode that lasts 22 minutes or a $2 video game I can play for hours.
Aside from the freebies, there isn't a comic in the Comics app that isn't more expensive than it seems like it should be.
If we're counting value compared to what I get from a printed copy of a comic, the iPad comics price fails. Most of the printed comics I buy in the shop I frequent cost $3-4, but the increased cost seems to be justified by the more difficult manufacturing process of printing a comic than in uploading one to the Comixology server. More importantly, I know today a print comic will last long enough for me to read it years from now; I have no idea if my Comixology comics will. I can also pass a printed comic I buy at the shop to a friend.
What's stranger is that, below $2, the most common price I see for comics — the only thing that seems like a deal when searching for comics on the iPad — is free. The publishers working with the Comixology people and other comics-selling apps smartly realize that a free first issue of a series is an enticing first bite that will encourage me to decide to pay for the whole meal. I'm fine with that, but I'm surprised that the clever sales tactics end there. Why are second and third issues of a mini-series even sold separately? Who, when faced with the opportunity to buy the rest of a six-issue mini-series listed on the Comics iPad store, would skip issue #4? Wouldn't the standard reader of these digital comics, once intrigued by a free or discounted first issue, want to buy the full remainder of the work?
One of the most mystifying facts of the iPad Comics shop is that you don't even get a discount for buying the full series. A six-issue series costs a full $12. The 12-issue Crisis on Infinite Earths, a 1986 series from DC would run me $22 on the iPad thanks to a free first-issue promotion. I can get the printed collection from Amazon for $20 plus shipping. And that's for a comic that is broadly liked and desired.
Imagine if I wanted to take a risk on a series for which I couldn't be bothered to pay full price. This is the traditional comic reader's dangerous delight. We scoot to the side aisles of a comics shop and dig into the back issue bins, hoping to find old comics that might be worth a risk for a buck or two. We find the quarter bins and trawl for gems. Some do this as collectors, looking for rare items that can flip for high dollars on eBay. I've never done that. I'm a reader and I enjoy the promise that some forgotten comic from the 90s or 80s or whenever might be a great read… and I've enjoyed the quest to find the issues that go around it, to complete the story.
The iPad, with its digital downloads, has the ability to offer reams of forgotten comics and sell them to us comics readers cheap.
The iPad, with its digital downloads, has the ability to offer reams of forgotten comics and sell them to us comics readers cheap. Unfortunately, that's not what Comics and its competing apps do. They make a broad but shallow pool of content available — little from the 80s, even less from the decades before — and all for prices you have to think twice about.
Shopping for comics on the iPad should feel risk-free. I can type in Keith Giffen's name and see if the great super-hero comics writer has some old classic I didn't know existed and buy all the issues. I don't want to hesitate. But when I start developing a taste for the writing of a guy named Nick Spencer and can only find some half-finished mini-series that cost $2 and bear no indication in the app shop if the rest of the issues will ever come out, all I see is risk. It's easy to stay away.
I want to buy wacky old Superman comics from the 50s on my iPad. I want to buy the full Brian Michael Bendis Daredevil run for a reasonable price. I don't see these options. Comics on the iPad, sadly, bear the same key traits they do in the comics shop: scarcity and a high cost.
While searching for superior options I stumbled across details about Marvel's Digital Comics Unlimited service, a project launched before the publisher sold comics on the iPad. Their Unlimited plan lets people pay a monthly subscription ($10) for access to more than a thousand comics. You have to run it in a web browser. The iPad has a web browser! … The iPad's web browser is not compatible with the service. Too bad. That sounds like the perfect comics digital comics service to me, and it won't run on my perfect digital comics device.
I've yet to find a way to throw an iPad comic out. This bugs me because of what it implies.
I've recounted many things I find odd with comics on the iPad, but let me leave you with what I think is the oddest: I've yet to find a way to throw an iPad comic out. This bugs me, because of what it implies.
I downloaded a comic called Chew that I'd heard good things about. It's about a guy who can read the minds of the beings whose meat he eats; and it's set in an America where chicken is illegal. It's a good set-up, but I didn't love the comic. I won't buy the next issues and I don't feel the need to keep the current one. So I deleted it from my iPad. No, I tried to delete it from my iPad. The Comics app lets me delete the downloaded contents of the comic, but it keeps a copy of the cover and description of the first issue in the only-alphabetical "my comics" section on my app.
I can't figure out why they won't let me scrub the listing for the comic from my iPad, as I would delete a downloaded song or movie bought through iTunes. Perhaps it reflects a view of comics readers I've assumed publishers of comics have, a view that doesn't describe me: the hoarder, the collector. Not me. I'm a reader.
Comics publishers sell comics in real shops, and they sell many of them as collectibles. They release a new issue of Batman with two covers, assuming some people will be enticed to invest in the rare variant. I love that digital comics can defy that system. There's no collectibility to comics downloaded on the Comixology app. A digital comic's worth is solely related to how wonderful it is to read. This feels right. Let the collectors hoard coins.
I've read online about debates comics publishers and pundits have about the affect selling new comics through the iPad would have on comics shops, which stay in business thanks to customers like me who show up to buy the new week's books. This is a red herring. I don't care if a comic that I can buy on my iPad is new or old. I just want something that is good to read and that is cheap to buy. I'd like to read it, treasure it or toss it. When I can do that on my iPad, I'll be back.