E-Readers: The Final Comic Frontier?

(c) Treebeard2010Have you ever realised that we live in the future? Like, really. I know, we don’t have flying cars or personal jetpacks, but the stuff that we do have? Pretty freaking awesome. Digital formats are becoming not just the way of the future but the way of the present for music, movies, and books – is the next frontier comic books?

In the interests of full disclosure: the fabulously exciting life of an occasional internet columnist does not, alas, allow one to fondle e-readers at will. I have only tried out the Kobo (the Borders/Indigo house brand) in person.

The Cons

Not all e-readers are created equal. Not only can they range in price from around a hundred dollars to well over three or four, but they can function as anything from a simple e-reader like the Kobo to the social networking app-driven powerhouses like iPhones and iPads. Screen sizes and resolutions vary across brands. This isn’t an e-reader review (or revue, which would be awesome if hosted by Alan Cumming), but I’m going to touch on three major technical downsides to reading comic books on e-readers:

Compatibility

There are as many e-book formats as there are e-readers, or more. And not all readers accept all formats. Amazon’s Kindle will accept many standard computer formats like .jpg and .pdf, but not ePubs or e-books published by anyone other than Amazon. The Kobo, on the other hand, only reads ePubs and .pdf but cannot read e-books published by Amazon. There is no one file format that is readily accepted across all e-reading platforms and, while there are conversion programs out there, they aren’t perfect.

Graphics and Display

Let’s be blunt: e-readers screens are tiny – six inches diagonally. The average page of a traditionally formatted comic book (according to my tape measure) just over twelve. Which usually means that in order to see detail or even to have the speech bubbles legible in some cases, each page has to be zoomed in and then scrolled across. Which can be tedious and completely disrupt the flow of reading. Most e-readers take a few seconds to “turn the page”, which I found was enough to bring me out of the story, being used to having art flow from one page to the next. There is no such thing as a two-page spread on an e-reader, which can affect the quality of a story as well as the simple ease of reading.

e-readers are, however, perfectly sized for manga imports and locally grown comics in the same format, like Mary-Jane Loves Spider-Man or Scott Pilgrim. I’ve read the latter on the Kobo and found that it was almost the same as reading the hard copy.

But Scott Pilgrim is a monochrome layout, and there is only one e-reader which currently displays in colour, Sony’s brand new shiny one that was only released a few weeks ago and is not widely available on the market. All the others display in greyscale of eight to sixteen shades. This is great for independent comics, which are published primarily in black and white, but the monthlies from the big companies are predominantly in colour these days.

Collect and . . . oh, wait.

Basically, you can’t. Digital files don’t have a physical footprint. There will be no collector’s issues, no rare finds, no bargain bin of terrible seventies Star Trek comics at your local Dungeon of Comix.* While you can (illegally, I might add) share the digital copies of your comics with your friends and neighbours, “comic collecting” as a hobby will no longer exist.

*This is totally what I would call my comic book store if I owned one.

The Pros

Space Saving

You can’t beat e-readers for sheer portability. Most e-readers come standard with 2GB of memory (the Kindle has 4GB and the Kobo has 1GB, which can be expanded up to 4GB with an SD card), which is enough for dozens, if not hundreds, of even the most graphics-heavy comics. This means being able to jam the entire run of Preacher in your back pocket for a long bus ride, rather than hauling around a library on your back.

It also cuts down on your physical bookcase space, and the need for storage bags and boxes. Like I said, digital files don’t leave a physical footprint.

There is also no need to publish them in large amounts, or even in small amounts. If a comic is out of print, hard to find, or just plain old, if a digital copy of it exists, you can achieve it through the magic of the intertubes. It makes catching up on series or titles (or trying to get your non-comic-book-reading wife hooked on Fables) much, much easier. And, in most cases, cheaper.

Price

Did we mention cheap? Yeah, in most cases (most cases – I’m looking at you, Amazon), e-books are cheaper than paper books.

Even e-readers are dropping in price. The Kindle runs for about $140, the Kobo is down to $130 now that the wireless version ($150) is out and will probably drop further, the Sony Touch e-reader retails for $249, with the others falling within that range.

A New Hope

Like it or not, people are reading comics on e-readers. This means that some titles are starting to be designed and released specifically and exclusively for a digital format. For people who don’t have one, of course, they’ll still be accessible on a computer, but I, personally, find nothing more annoying than trying to read comics on a computer.

As well, with the need to find a publisher or financial backing, this opens up the field to more indie comics to find a market and exposure. It also gives established web comics a new avenue to branch out into. Diesel Sweeties has already compiled their first 2,200 comics into eleven .pdf e-books

The Rundown

Reading comics, whether the mainstream monthlies, independent comics, or web comics, on e-readers can make comic culture in general more accessible and more affordable. For people who do a lot of travelling or commuting, e-readers in general are a good idea.

But. I just can’t get behind the whole thing. Call me a traditionalist, call me a purist, but I like paper. I like the physical experience of reading. I’m probably still going to buy an e-reader of my own because I can’t deny the benefits of one. But I think that when it comes to comics, e-readers just don’t provide the graphic detail and clarity, or the ease of reading, that will lead to them replacing traditional comic books. Whether in general or just for me. The screens are just too darn tiny!

Am I right? Am I way off base? What has your experience been with your digital comic collections?

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