Monday, February 9, 2009

Comics on the iPhone

Having just discovered the blog io9, usually about science fiction television and movies that I couldn’t care less about, I was surprised and excited to read a report there form New York City’s Comicon, which took place over the weekend, concerning the transmission of comics as applications available on iPhones and other PDA devices. Companies like UClick are providing individual issues as applications that can be downloaded for about a dollar.

While such distribution methods have the potential to revolutionize the dissemination of comics, especially when one considers that independent publishers could make their content available to a wider audience, ever more important since Diamond Comic Distributors raised their minimums recently, I am unconvinced that this is going to work. Presented in individual panels rather than pages, the comics solve the previous problems of too much info being presented at once. This will likely work with a lot of comics, especially traditional ones, like this Superman comic drawn by Curt Swan.
But many layouts rely on a reader being able to view a whole page at once. For example, this spread in Brian Michael Bendis’s Powers is constructed in a way that necessitates viewing as a whole in order to understand the greater meaning being conveyed. (Sorry I couldn’t render this more effectively, but I only have a run of the mill scanner.)
Here we see Detective Walker interviewing a murder victim’s girlfriend while his partner Deena interviews all the students in a dorm across the street from the murder. Deena’s interviews are rendered only with images, each box being a different person facing her, and these boxes extend around the pages. All these panels are colored prominently in the dark blue used to connote nighttime. Meanwhile, the center panels that depict Walker’s interview of the girlfriend are cast in a greenish-yellow light, meant to evoke the feeling of an interrogation room. These panels contain both image and dialogue, but the success of these pages is the way that it depicts the police work going on simultaneously without having a bunch of cross talk between the two scenes. (I talk about this comic in slightly more detail here.)

It just doesn’t seem to me that relating this information to an audience would be possible using UClick’s format. Sure you can see it ‘panel-by-panel—just like the artists created it,’ but sometimes creators intend for a reader to view the page as a whole instead. How can a page like the one displayed above be shown on a device with such a small screen.

Shena Wolf, UClick’s comics producer, ‘manages this process by basically, moving speech bubbles around, adding letterboxing and providing other tweaks to the non-artwork areas of the panels to make them fit the constraints of the iPhone.’ I’d be interested to understand this process in more detail, but one thing jumps out at me right away: there usually isn’t art drawn under the speech balloons. So moving one to another place in a panel might suit the needs of the iPhone’s limitations, but distract from the product being viewed.

All this said, I haven’t seen the final material and thus must withhold final judgment. However, we hope to upgrade to iPhones soon and I will surely check out a few comics to see what it looks like. And as I said earlier, this provides independent creators with a way to disseminate their content much easier than before, perhaps even being able to earn a living through new readership and the selling of merchandise based on their creations. And new innovators will create forms that exploit the iPhone’s limitations and turn them into positives. Though I can’t envision what it might look like, I do believe that there is room for a comic that couldn’t exist successfully in another form the same way I think traditional comics might not work in this one.

This process is one that I will be watching closely here, and probably will revisit this time next week in comparing it with a similar phenomena in Japan.

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