Format Follows Form

By | Friday, June 14, 2024 Leave a Comment
Do you recall Comixology's launch back in 2007? Probably not because they didn't come right out of the gate having Marvel or DC material at all, and there wasn't a stand-alone app for it at first. I happened to write, a few months before its debut, what would need to happen for digital comics to take off...
Maybe it would only take Apple to create a hi-res tablet PC type of device specifically designed for reading books and comics. Include wireless and blue-tooth technology to download books on the fly. A good size hard drive to hold an entire collection... Built-in software to read various electronic book/comic book formats. Make it look really cool. It might work.
(Italics in the original. I also mocked up this accompanying photo of Bill Gates showcasing a digital Mr. Miracle #1 back then as well.)

I can't seem to find a date when any major publishers first signed on with Comixology. The way I have some of my old blog posts written, it seems to suggest they started signing on in the 2009/2010 timeframe. But the specific date is kind of moot because Comixology didn't have a stand-alone app until 2010 anyway. Do you recall how that app got promoted? It came pre-loaded as a default app on Apple's brand new, launched-at-the-exact-same-time, first generation iPad. It did an excellent job showcasing the higher quality display (roughly twice the resolution of most computer monitors at the time) using bright and colorful costumed heroes as well as the natural-feeling user interface as readers could casually swipe through a comic page by page. It was a perfect pairing with perfect timing for everyone involved. It effectively hit on all the success criteria I had outlined in 2007 wth the additional bonus of also being able to play games and take notes and check email and everything else.

At that time, smart phone adoption was low. The iPhone had made a big media splash when it launched in 2007, but by 2010 overall smart phone adoption in the United States was still only around 20%. It would be another four or five years before a majority of Americans had a smart phone of any sort. South Korea moved a little faster in that regard, with a majority of Koreans owning a smart phone by 2013. And that timeframe is significant because Naver Webtoon launched it's worlwide app in the first half of 2014.

Before I get to the ultimate point I'm going to try to make, let's switch over to the world of print comics for a bit. Publishers have long capitalized on the idea of collecting a bunch of previously published comics into a single volume. Heck, the earliest things that we might recognize as "comic books" were just reprints of newspaper strips in a collected form! But it's really only been in the last 15-20 years that comic book publishers have leaned into that form. You can see it manifest in a number of ways, but the two most obvious are a greater reliance on four- and six-issue limited series and the emphasis in ongoing titles for six-issue story arcs that are effectively self-contained. Long-running, ongoing sub-plots essentially don't exist for larger comic publishers any longer, and creators no longer plant story seeds months in advance.

(To this day, I remain impressed how John Byrne "revived" Dr. Doom in Fantastic Four #287. The explanation of how he had survived was very "comic book-y" and initially felt like a massive retcon, but when you look back at Doom's apparent destruction in Fantastic Four #260 -- a full two years earlier -- you can easily see that Byrne had set up for himself the later reveal. It wasn't evident to the reader at the time, but it's plain to see in hindsight. I don't know if Byrne planned on letting that gestate for two years when he first wrote it, but he was clearly playing a longer game when he "killed" Doom.)

The notion of "waiting for the trade" started popping up in the mid-2000s as publishers began collecting much of their serial material with increasing regularity. Readers started to realize that if they could wait until after the monthly issues were published, there was a near-100% chance they would be collected in a trade paperback, which could be purchased more cheaply than all the individual issues. And as we get in the early and mid-2010s, "writing for the trade" starts cropping up as concern though. Publishers were (deliberately or not) pushing creators to write stories in self-contained, six-issue chunks that could be later collected more easily. They were leaning more heavily into their trade paperback programs. So instead of every individual issue having its own beginning, middle, and end with an eye towards enticing the reader to come back next month, it was the overall arc that had a single beginning, middle, and end that offered a (theoretically) satisfying conclusion and didn't require a follow-up of any sort.

My point with all of this is that every outlet for comics ("comics" in the broad sense of the medium) has unique properties that differntiate it from other form factors. How you read and interact with a pamphlet comic is different than how you read and interact with a trade paperback. Which is different again from how you read and interact with a digital comic on an iPad. Which is different yet again from how you read and interact with a comic on your phone. Any creator worth their salt will develop their comic based on whatever the primary venue for reading it is intended to be. And, if they're particularly talented and/or forward-thinking, they'll also craft it with an eye towards whatever the secondary venue is intended to be.

I'm thinking about all this in light of Rob Salkowitz's recent piece on GlobalComix and how CEO and cofounder Chris Carter talks about how comics on your phone need to scroll verticially and in weekly installments. While that is a reasonable insight, the implication he also seems to put forth is that you can just take a regular monthly pamphlet comic, break it up into five-page chunks, and run the panels vertically. Yes, that might be technically possible, but it still won't be a good reading experience because pamphlet comics are not written to be read like that. Just like reading them in their monthly format today can feel halting and less than ideal because creators are "writing for the trade," transferring those to the weekly phone model Carter is suggesting is going to exasperate those reading problems. Carter is very much on to something with the need to present comics for the venue in question, but simply re-orienting a comic designed for an altogether different platform isn't the best way to do that. The way to achieve success is marry the format of the comic to the form in which it's presented. That's why Comixology didn't take off until the iPad, that's why Webtoons didn't start achieving much of their success until smart phone became more the norm than not, that's why trade paperback programs exploded once publishers had creators work specifically to that format. Form follows function, but format follows form.
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