Why Even The iPhone Can't Do Digital Comics

By | Sunday, March 29, 2009 20 comments
There's something of a rush these days to design the "killer" comic book app for PDAs or smart phones or something. I'm here to tell you, though, that they won't work. Any of them. See, there's an inherent problem with the basic premise: the screen size is WAY too small to read comics.

Think about how much screen real estate you have with any of those hand-held gadgets. Maybe 2 by 3 inches? You can only get one or two comic panels in that space and maintain legibility. Even if you had an incredible screen resolution, you'd still be stuck at one or two panels at a time, just because the text would be too small to read for most people if you tried to get any more on the screen at one time.

"So?" you're thinking. "Sure, you wouldn't be able to read the whole page at once, but as long as there was a good navigation system, you could do one panel at a time."


How long does it take you to read a comic panel? One or two seconds? Then what? You'd have to scroll/click/slide/whatever to the next panel. Then you spend another second or two reading that panel, and then you'd have to scroll/click/slide/whatever to the third one. You'd end up spending as much time navigating the document as you would reading. And that's an inherent problem for two reasons: 1) the reader is constantly being removed from the story in order to manipulate the delivery object, and 2) the reader would increase the amount of time interacting with the comic, but spend a significantly portion of the time engaging the comic. That last one sounds like semantics, but it's a note-worthy point, I think.

When a user "interacts" with the comic, they're picking up their iPhone, loading the comic, reading a panel, clicking to the next one, reading a panel, clicking to the next one, etc. That's a lot of interaction, but most of it (the loading process, the clicking) is not "engaging" the comic. If a user, for example, would normally spend 15 minutes reading a comic, they might increase that time to 20-25 minutes if they had to click between each panel. But since the clicking is not part of the story (as is the case with video games) the reader essentially wastes an extra 5-10 minutes for each comic.

I don't know exactly where the market for transportable digital comics is going, but I know that most people won't tolerate the click/read/click/read/click read methodology. The delivery mechanism will need to be larger enough to get several panels on the screen at once, suggesting something more akin to a tablet PC.

That said, though, I'm thinking that the letter-size format most tablets resort to isn't exactly necessary, but you would need something with a screen at least the size of the Kindle's (roughly four by five inches) to even start making digital comics reading viable to mass audiences (well, "mass" being relative to existing comics readership). Tablets seem to work reasonably well, but they're collectively still a tad too bulky to make extended reading comfortable.

Somebody let me know when Fujitsu's FLEPia is available.
Newer Post Older Post Home


I used to read comics on my PSP pretty regularly, and I thought it worked pretty well. It was a good way to carry downloaded scanlated manga when I did a lot of traveling for my job. But it definitely lacked resolution, and I would end up switching between a sort of zoomed out view to get a sense of the page and a full-size image that I could pan around to read. Definitely not ideal, but it worked for an easy read of a free download. I wouldn't want to pay to read comics that way; a full-size monitor or screen is certainly preferable.

Well said, Sean. I agree on every point. Give me a color Kindle and I'm good to go.

In face, when the digital age comes and the readers are all still a little small, I bet we see adjustments to storytelling styles -- something closer to manga, with larger panels, fewer panels per page, less reliance on insanely detailed backgrounds. . .

Jon said...

I agree and disagree with you. I believe there are enough people in the younger generation who will be interested in reading comics this way. They are being raised on smaller and smaller devices, they are used to this format.

But for us, the older generation, we want our full page, full color comics and it will be hard to adapt to a smaller format. I know I've tried on my Treo and end up walking away frustrated after about an hour or downloading and adjusting.

So I agree with Augie, give me a color Kindle and I'm there.

Or, get this technology up and running and let's go...

Michael said...

All good points, Sean. Got me thinking. Maybe you can't read traditional comic book type comics on the iphone... but perhaps single panel or comic "strip" type web comics such as xkcd will work. Less resolution required, fewer panels, shorter attention spans... the iphone could rescue syndicated newspaper strips now losing papers. If they move quick enough.

ming said...

i haven't seen it for comics, but i've had a pretty neat novel on the iphone that actually scrolls the text at varying speed according to the slightest tilt.. tilting the comics left and right so slightly and having them scroll in seems like a great idea to me.

for both readers and creators =)

My work seems to be leaning towards this "idealized" format mentioned - A full-page style that's more akin to a newspaper strip in terms of amount of pacing available (4-6 panels a page), yet still legible on smaller screens. I keep meaning to try a small-scale project with 'em, but my main concern is the life of the project available to me versus, say, just expending that same energy on my webcomic, or even just making a mobile site for said webcomic.

mj said...

I'd like to respectfully disagree with you.

Though I can't show you something special, I can say that we have a pretty good solution for reading full size comics on the iPhone


jason said...

I tried reading comics on my Nintendo DS awhile back. It was hell, unless they kicked a consistent grid style for the pages. 90s style splash-centric comics need not apply.

So if the screen isn't bigger or if the books are designed especially for smaller screens, then count me out.

When you're talking about paper-page-sized comics, I totally agree. But for a lot of strip comics like just getting my Penny Arcade, Little Dee, or Dinosaur Comics feed. The iPhone works really well, I've found.

The interface alone still has some great untapped potential, I think for comics-makers who want to innovate with their formats. It's a shame more creators haven't run with the Infinite Canvas proposal more freely for full-sized monitor Web browsing, because there's still plenty to be done there. I'd love to see some similar attempts to Kit Roebuck's "Nine Planets In Search of Intelligent Life" in an iPhone friendly format. It could definitely be done and be interesting.

"Nine Planets Without Intelligent Life," I mean. Here's the comic I meant to reference there. Great browsing mechanics:


ming said...

infinate canvas will be the way to go here =)

Unknown said...

Even the Kindle is pretty limited as a platform for traditional comics, although it can be made to work with some reformatting. It can show about a quarter-page worth of comics fairly handily, but beyond that the lettering becomes too small to be legible. The dark screen is almost as much of an issue as the size and resolution.

I recently converted a mini-comic to the Kindle format, you can find the results here:

To those who suggested that my argument only applies to full page comics, I fully meant to say that it applies to ALL comics, regardless of format. Granted, the strictly horizontal strip format isn't AS bad as the more vertical format of a pamphlet comic, but there's still WAY too much user navigation that needs to be done relative to the amount of a comic you can legibly get on a screen. I don't think it works for Nine Planets or xkcd just as readily as I don't think it works for Action Comics or The Dreamer.

I suppose it's possible to develop a three or four panel strip that could fit entirely on one iPhone screen AND use so little text that readability wouldn't be an issue, but I would consider that an extreme exception and not the rule. I'll also point out that I'm using Scott McCloud's definition of "comics" here so Family Circus and The Book of Biff don't count.

I'm not saying you CAN'T put a comic on an iPhone at all -- clearly, you can upload one to the device and display it on your screen -- but I am saying that there's no way you can make it a viable format for any substantive group of readers.

Robot Comics said...

Misery Depot, our first comic, was downloaded more than 10.000 times only on Android mobiles.

I would call that a substantive group of readers.

Dave Baxter said...

I have to argue against the fundamental fact you're putting up here, Sean - that the need to interact with a navigation system disallows readers to become as immersed in the reading experience. It's a known fact that television requires less engagement or interactivity than reading a book (no holding the book, no turning the pages, no having to navigate your eye from line to line or panel to panel, etc.) By your argument, television is the only viable method of entertainment immersion (being less interactive) and books should be seen for the archaic old frauds that they've become.

Television audiences CAN loose themselves to watching a show easier and quicker than becoming immersed in a book, it's true, but it's a known fact that, neurologically speaking, television engages a viewer LESS than a person reading a book, who is far MORE involved in the reading experience.

Regardless of your resistance or non-resistance, interactivity - outside of any person's personal stubbornness - forever and always engages readers more. And in the light of that, I'm sorry, but this entire diatribe holds no weight whatsoever. --Dave B.

Dave Baxter said...

I should also clarify: increasing the reading experience from 15 minutes to 20-25 minutes for having to "click between panels" is arbitrary on your part - it increases the interactivity time by seconds, total, not 10 bloody minutes. And "clicking" is part of the story in a video game? Not at all, the story happens between all the clicking, usually playing out then allowing you to click again, then playing out again. The clicking in both mobile comics and video games is similar - you do it to move further into the experience, but the clicking itself does zippo to the story itself.


Thanks for your response, but I think you didn't quite get my argument.

Obviously, there has to be SOME interactivity or else there's no engagement whatsoever. My point was that the type of engagement with comics is too staggered and interrupting to the flow of the story, if a user must click/scroll/whatever between every panel or two.

I don't know what the magic ratio of reading to navigating is and, yes, I pulled the minutes out of thin air because, frankly, that number is dependent on way too many variables (i.e. the reader's reading speed, the ease of navigation on the device, the density of images, the complexity of plot...) to put any real numbers to. But I am totally unconvinced by any of the comments here or elsewhere that a screen as small as a PDA's makes a viable option for comic distribution. Robot Comics noted 10,000 downloads and considered that impressive -- which it would be if you're comparing it to non-Marvel/non-DC pamphlet comics. But I personally think that's not very good for a webcomic. I can't seem to find exact numbers at the moment, but I know I've heard a number of other webcomic creators cite exponentially higher numbers on through other outlets. I daresay the downloads Robot Comics cite is also a very small percentage of their overall traffic.

Video games are another beast entirely. So are TV and movies. Trying to compare any of those user experiences with comics (digital or otherwise) is a fruitless (pun intended) exercise and is precisely why I didn't bring them up in my initial arguments. The user engages each of those media in a completely different way.

I am totally PRO webcomics. I am totally PRO delivering webcomics on portable devices. But I don't think a screen as small as a PDA can be an effective delivery system because the vast majority of people interested in the comics will NOT be interested enough to deal with the excessive navigation.

You may well find my premise fundamentally flawed. And I freely admit that I am not presenting any scientific evidence to back up my claim. The fact of the matter is that no one (to my knowledge) has done an actual study on precisely this topic, so we're ALL just spouting conjecture. But I remain wholly unconvinced by any of the counter-arguments presented so far that any smartphone or PDA has solved the issue with any hope of commercial success.

Mervyn said...

Sean, I think you have put forth a very interesting premise, but I would re-examine your starting point. For the same reasons Webcomics will not be a 100% replacement for printed comic books, I don't see mobile comics being a replacement for Webcomics or printed comics. The mediums are vastly different, the creators will be different as will the storytelling and maybe even the reader demographics.

We have only started to get storytelling that was designed for mobile devices rather than retro-fitted from web or print. Sure the screens are smaller on mobile devices and there is a little more user involvement for navigation, but that also offers more potential for enabling the user to control the flow from panel-to-panel on their time unlike a printed comic. There is more opportunity for creators to provide more context to stories i.e. director's cuts and maybe even audio. There are many possibilities in mobile comics that we have not even scratched the surface of to put more innovation into storytelling.

It doesn't matter if the medium is printed, web or mobile, you have to tell a compelling story through the combination of art and words translated through the medium. Mobile comics are less than 6 months old and there are only two publishers (iverse and robot comics) that I know of. I would give the medium a little more time and a few more titles. Then we can have a richer discussion.

Dave Baxter said...

I agree with much of what Mervyn says. I compared the dynamic between mobile comics and print/web comics to television and books, because they are ALL different mediums, and comparable as different mediums to each other. And the video game comparison was culled from the original blog post, so....

While different mediums can't be directly compared, per se, we always have to draw what conclusions we can with the past experiences we have. On that front, 10,000 downloads for a brand new book from a brand new company inside of an infant new medium is superb. I can't think of any modern webcomic that received 10,000 views in it's first month of existence, with no prior established readership. The comparison does work, more than it doesn't, and it shows a remarkably active potential audience. Even the comparison of "Robot Comics likely received vastly more traffic than downloads" isn't a negative - webcomic sites receive more traffic than comments, or purchases, or visitors that read more than the latest page. That's true for everything everywhere. 10,000 downloads is a solid, real number marking an ACTIVE readership. And it's a high number. Not even (but especially) considering the circumstances.

The idea that we haven't yet "solved" the mobile comic "problem" until we craft a mobile device that can simply replicate the print reading experience is simply not the way the world is going to go, or the medium. We're not looking to move backwards and return to the good ol' days only now in digital. The mobile marketplace is an evolution, and it will be different.

Larry said...

As quickly as the technology changes, there is no "optimum" format for everything. Cellphone screens come in a variety of formats and resolutions and they seem to change every 3 months. What about the longevity of our work? Do we chase every new tech fad and compromise our layouts just so our work looks good on the next gee-whiz device? Think about supplementing your main stories with animated shorts or quick comics (specifically for small screens) that don't take away from the main story telling. Then point the way to the main delivery vehicle - the website. Call em "webcomic trailers" ...