Most of the decent-sized traditional comic publishers have now officially thrown their hats into the online comics ring. And for every new entrant into the market, we see the same arguments trotted out again about whether this format will work, or that business model will be profitable, and whether this will hinder pamphlet sales, and on and on... Typically, you'll have proponents of web dissemination on one side citing low barriers to entry and creative freedom and laissez-faire economics; then you'll have another group citing that people don't like reading comics online because the format's all wrong and clicking a button or using a scroll wheel is more annoying than just turning a page and you can't carry around online comics in your back pocket.
But while both sides have some valid points, they're both completely missing some extremely fundamental issues.
Let's start with a technology lesson. Monitors of all sorts work in the same basic way: a beam of light is transmitted onto a plane of glass. Televisions and old CRTs use a single beam that shoots an imperceptably brief pulse to each spot on the screen over and over again, changing its color as needed. LCD monitors have what are essentially a series of miniature light bulbs that cover an entire screen's surface and are lit up as needed with the correct color. (For technical experts out there, yes, I fully realize I'm way over-simplifying this.) In either case, each portion of your screen is lit up by a pinpoint of light.
In effect, your computer screen (or cell phone screen or PDA screen or whatever) works like a pointlist painting. Or, to borrow an analogy perhaps more familiar, an old comic book. Lots of little points of color that, when you step back just a bit, look like an array of colors that form an image. (Irony: using a digital image of a Lichtenstein painting swiped from a comic book to illustrate the process of how a digital image is made.) What that means, though, is that when you look at your computer screen, your screen is showing you a series of dots over a specific space. A number of dots per inch. This is actually called "dot pitch" when referring to computer screens, but it's the same idea as the "dots per inch" (DPI) that printers refer to. (Again, for the tech savvy, I'm simplifying here.) Commercially available computer screens these days typically hover at around 100 pixels per inch; older monitors were on the low end in the 70s and 80s, newer ones upwards of 120.
Why does this matter to our discussion? Well, it matters because the average human eyeball can discern resolutions up to around 360 dots per inch. (Typically measured at a normal reading distance. Obviously, if you press your nose up against something, you're going to see finer details.) Ink jet printers print at around 300 dpi, and commericial personal laser printers tend to max out around 600. That means that you can't see about a third of the detail that's possible from a laser printer, and you'd have to look pretty closely at an ink jet image to start seeing the individual specs of ink. But that also means you can see about three times more clearly than what's presented to you on a computer screen.
Now we get to the point that most people miss in the online/print comics debate. If you're looking at a printed comic, it's probably run between 300-600 dpi. Your eyes are going to absorb as much detail as they can. If you're looking at a web comic, it's being presented at 100 dpi and your brain has to fill in the 200 or so extra pixels for every inch of the screen to complete the image. You're literally having to connect the dots to make a series of small squares into a recognizable shape, like a hand or a word. This is an extension of the notion of "closure" Scott McCloud talked about in Understanding Comics. You have to fill in the spaces left by the source. In the case of a printed comics, it's just the actions that happen "in the gutters." In the case of web comics, it's that plus the thousands upon thousands individual pixels needed to complete each image.
Think about it like this. If you look at a connect-the-dots image, you generally can't tell what the image is supposed to be. Your brain has to work to mentally connect those dots into an outline that's recognizable to you. The more dots you're given to start with, the easier it is to tell what the image is of. The fewer dots, the more abstract it looks, and the harder your brain has to work to make it into something understandable.
Scientific studies (by Jakob Nielsen, no less!) have been done that prove people read text off a screen 25% slower than off a sheet of paper. That extra time is what is taken up by your brain piecing together all those pixels into letters. Computer Vision Syndrome (CVS) was identified as legitimate ongoing problem for people who spend more than two hours of their day looking at computer screens. Put simply, looking at a screen is harder on your eyes than looking at a sheet of paper.
So that means short-form comic strips are going be inherently easier to read online than longer-form comic books. (I'm not even going to start to address how the "traditional" comic strip format is also better suited to monitors than the "traditional" comic book format. That's another blog entry.) Readers, because of the eye strain, want to get in, read your piece, and get out. If they spend too much time reading in one place, their eyes are going to start to tire and dry out, making them physically uncomfortable, detracting from whatever possible enjoyment they might otherwise get out of the comic they're reading online.
You can forget portability, compatibility, usability, economics, and pretty much any other argument for either side until computer screen manufacturers start producing affordable, high-resolution monitors and a significant number of people start adopting them. The technology is there -- that's what HDTVs are after all -- but you still need to bring them down in price enough for people to start using them with their desktops and cellphones. Alternatively, you could theoretically convince people to start running their computer systems through their televisions, accessing the system with wireless input devices, but I personally think that's a steeper hill to climb.
Tomorrow, I'll see if I can address some of the other technological aspects of online versus print comics that no one else seems to have touched on yet.