I did one of my occasional contributions to the CBR Reviews section this week, reviewing "The Walking Dead" #79. The thing I didn't mention in the review - because it wasn't germane - is that I was reviewing a digital version of the comic. Specifically, I downloaded it through the comiXology app on my iPhone 3GS.

While I've played with the comiXology app and its Guided View way of reading comics, I've never tested it seriously. I never bought a bunch of comics I wanted to read and gone through them. On Monday, I read through two consecutive issues of TWD and discovered some interesting things.

First, Guided View isn't as bad as I thought. In fact, it occasionally backs into some neat cinematic tricks. Unfortunately, the downside is pretty bad leaving the overall effect frustrating. If you're unfamiliar with it, Guided View displays the comic panel by panel. Tap the right side of the screen and you flip to the next panel, or the rest of the panel in the case where a single panel is too large to be read on one screen. Sometimes, that latter case provides for a nice sort of panning movement with "the camera," creating a dramatic beat between seeing the first part of the panel and the rest of it. Sometimes, breaking up a larger panel (say, half page or greater) into two or three views to collectively show the whole thing works very well. More often than not, though, it doesn't. This week's issue of TWD has a dramatic full page splash to close things out. It's completely unreadable at full page view size. (I have the settings display the whole page to me before taking me panel by panel. More on that in a bit.) Furthermore, there is no Guided View version of that last page. If you want to see what's going on with all the squiggles on the right side of the page, you'll need to pinch and zoom. It's a compromise, though. With an iPhone, you can only display so much. I just think there has to have been a way to do a little Guided View version of that splash, is all.

There's something innately wrong with Guided View, ultimately. It messes up the storytelling's pacing and even its balance. You have no idea where you are on a page unless you set the program up to show you the whole page before Guided View does its thing. Some might consider that a way of slowing down the reading, and they'll want to skip it. Others, like me, like to have the lay of the land before starting to walk down the path. Internally, there's something in me that likes knowing, almost instinctively, how far down a page I am. Since most comic book storytelling is still done with the printed page in mind first, I think it's a valid storytelling concern. Writers and artists, both, often plan for a dramatic beat at the end of the page, or use the turn of a page as an easy transition to a new scene. Skip that page turn and you lose that visual cue and the scene changes rather abruptly.

Charlie Adlard's art is not so far out and experimental that comiXology doesn't work well for him. It actually does, 90% of the time. Adlard uses black borders and distinct panels. He doesn't break those borders. He doesn't use diagonal panels. He keeps the storytelling contained in neat little chunks. Guided View works better with an artist like Adlard, but throw in someone like a Will Eisner, who used the entire page to layout his work and employ various storytelling tricks, and you're going to lose something. Remember those experimental "Madman" issues that Mike Allred did last year? One entire issue was virtually one long panel from page 1 through 22. Imagine getting through that in Guided View. (We might not have long to wait. "Madman Atomic Comics" #1 - #13 is available on comiXology today. That one panel issue was #15.)

There's still a usage of the page space in Adlard's art that doesn't translate well to the screen space paradigm of a cell phone. Silent panels that can be used to heighten tension or to slow down the reader on a printed page wind up looking like lost orphan panels on an iPhone. Without the knowledge that the panel is part of a repeating sequence, or that the camera angle is going to switch in the next panel - which a print reader would see in their peripheral vision - those singular panels can sometimes be jarring (in the bad way) or confusing.

At a micro-level, though, the art looks fantastic when a simple panel fills the screen. There are no pixilation issues, and the lettering is crisp. The art is clear. It's a beautiful thing to see the art slightly larger than you might otherwise expect, particularly with a taller panel than a horizontal panel. The app allows you two choices: View the entire issue in portrait or landscape mode, or flip the panels to fill the screen. I strongly suggest avoiding the latter, because it means flipping the phone around, almost at random. There's nothing more annoying than tapping for the next panel and then having to flip the phone on its side, tapping for the next panel, and twisting it around again, over and over and over again.

Everything in life is a compromise. Everything. You want cheaper comics? You get fewer pages, or black and white comics. You want digital comics on a three inch screen? You get slices of pages in different orientations and lots of tapping to get through an issue. Full page mode on an iPad is likely be the vastly superior reading style, but since I don't own an iPad, I can't write about that just yet. Someday...

But, in a pinch, the iPhone app isn't a bad way to go about reading a new issue. Buying it was simple, downloading it was quick and reading it was convenient. Some quirks will never be overcome, and that's where the compromise comes in. What are you willing to trade for which features? Until we get to a point where all comics are made in nine panel grids, these issues will persist, and even then it won't solve all of the issues mentioned above. But as comics move more into the digital landscape, I expect we'll see storytellers change their approach to the format in print, as well.

In the meantime, I'll enjoy the comics where and when I can get them.


If you like the graphic design of Chip Kidd and the ubiquity of the Trajan font, you're going to love "Icons: The DC Comics and Wildstorm Art of Jim Lee."

There are two things I look for in an art book: lots of cool art and some context and/or explanation for it. An oversized hardcover book with lots of big images is what works most often for me. If you can throw in some behind the scenes details, all the better. This book has plenty of the former with some bits of the latter thrown in. For sure, Jim Lee is an active part of this book, throwing in his little quotes here and there to explain his thoughts behind certain characters or the larger work. A lot of it sounds soundbite worthy and doesn't give me too much new insight into his work, but there are some glorious exceptions, such as Lee's description of what "All Star Batman and Robin the Boy Wonder" is meant to be.

Most interestingly, the larger the images, the more exciting they were to me. The two page spreads were pages I lingered on, while the multi-panel pages I tended to breeze across, even with the additional art. There's still a lot of great stuff in here, including a lot of convention sketches that probably haven't been seen before. Lots of them utilize White Out, which appears to be Lee's favorite art tool in the last ten years.

Lee's comic work is very tightly penciled. Funny enough, the stuff he inks himself seems a lot looser. That work is usually done for covers or sketches. But I can see the work that Scott Williams puts over Lee's pencils now better than ever. Lee has a lot of lines, and Williams' final pages do, too, but you can see where Williams adds the feathering and the crosshatching and solidifies the black areas, too. Left to his own, it appears Lee is more interested in the gesture and the figure than in the finer details. Williams is a technician and a craftsman. All of this makes the release of a "Batman: Hush" paperback with only Lee's pencil work in it all the more fascinating to me. That's coming up in early 2011, as I recall.

Organization for the book starts off strong, and then tails off into a random assortment of cool images. Logically, the book begins going title by title for Jim Lee's work at DC, starting with "Batman: Hush" and then onto "Superman: For Tomorrow." Problem is, Jim Lee hasn't done that much long-form work. ("All Star Batman and Robin the Boy Wonder" is the third and currently unfinished series in that collection.) So the book needs to vamp for organization, which means we get sections dedicated to Supergirl for a couple of pages, with a desperate attempt to tie it into the Jim Lee chronology by discussing the character's different origins, and how she relates to Superman. Wonder Woman follows, first with her more classic DC look, and then the Frank Miller-inspired "ASBARBW" series look, before the book heads off to Lee's "Trinity Covers" and more.

In the end, this is an art book. Organization is nice, but not entirely necessary. We want this book to be about all of Jim Lee's art for DC and Wildstorm. That's what the book promises and that's mostly what the book delivers. I saw "mostly" because the earlier WildStorm years are given short-shrift. That might just be due to a lack of material to use. Are those sketches from the earliest "WildC.A.T.s" days still around? Did they ever exist, or were things just made up on the page on the fly? Meanwhile, modern Batman and Superman sketches abound, often scanned in from sketchbooks Lee has drawn in for others, or warmed up in for himself.

The books winds up with a large gallery, mostly of covers Lee's done over the years. The big selling point for many is a new original short story at the end. It's a Legion tale written by Paul Levitz and drawn by Lee.

While I might be critical of the attempt to organize the book and wish Lee's comments had added a little bit more than what I got, the book is a beautiful collection of images and offers a good insight into the artist's work and process for those willing to look at it. It's published by Titan Books and is available today. Cover price is $40.

There is no digital version of the book, and I imagine reading this on an iPhone would be missing the point. Some things still work best in large format on dead wood.

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