After I bought my first iPod touch back in 2007, I downloaded an app called comiXology. At the time, there was a lot of buzz about how touch screens were going to transform how we read everything, including comic books. This was before the iPad, so all the available touch screens were still much smaller than the page of your average comic book.
ComiXology got around this impediment by showing you a “guided view” of just one panel at a time. It was sort’ve like having somebody show you a comic book through a peep hole under a magnifying glass a little bit at a time. It sounds like a horrible experience, but it’s actually pretty neat.
The effect was supposed to mimic on a small screen the eye’s natural movement across the page. “Guided view” is actually nothing at all like reading reading a comic with the unaided eye. It’s much better.
Comics and graphic novels have always been a scrolling, cinematic medium, and the “guided view” enhances these natural strengths. It enhances them so much that for me at least, being guided through a comic on a screen is as emotionally involving and exciting as watching a film. This power was always present in comics, it was just latent.
I have a habit of reading too fast when I’m looking at a printed comic. My eyes flick across the panels and pick up the words at the expense of the visuals. Until reading comics on my phone I’d never realized how much storytelling information is in the visuals alone. My experience had been like watching a movie on fast forward with dialogue cards. I was getting the gist, but missing most of the fun.
When I’m in comiXology, I take the time to appreciate the “shot composition” of each panel, and I see how it relates to the images before and after it. I’ve learned that some graphic novel artists take as much care as any cinematographer. And they take more risks, because they aren’t restrained by the high costs of making a live action film. The same goes for the storytelling in graphic novels. It’s freer and therefore riskier.
Back in 2007, the app became unavailable just a few months after it debuted. I assumed it was a casualty of the mass extinctions of new media that go along with hardware evolution. I was delighted to discover a few weeks ago that the app is still around, and their format has even been adopted by Marvel and DC for their proprietary apps.
I’m hooked into the nook ecosystem, and I’m grateful that Barnes and Noble unlocked its operating system to allow access to Google Play last year, which has let me load comiXology onto my nook HD. The nook screen is bigger than my phone’s, but I still use the guided, panel by panel view.
The native nook OS has a comixology style function, but its automated attempts to frame the panel it thinks I should see next are laughably bad. It’s yet another step in what seems like nook’s relentless campaign to put themselves out of business.
But the best digital comics reading experience I’ve had by far is the one I get when I use comiXology on my partner’s iPad. All the panels are in HD, which makes a big difference. The only drawback is that I eventually have to give the iPad back to him.
So hon, if you’re reading this, remember that I have a birthday coming up in August.