The Dark Horse iPad app and online store, which launch today, start off with a good selection of comics, mostly from the publisher's extensive backlist: Hellboy, Conan, The Umbrella Academy, Serenity, Lone Wolf and Cub, among others. Dark Horse launches their digital store with over 300 comics and plans to add more at a pretty fast clip: 45 to 60 titles a month, according to Matt Parkinson, director of online marketing. The emphasis is definitely on the classics at the moment, but Parkinson said newer comics are coming.
Dark Horse Digital works on two platforms, iOS (iPad, iPhone, and iPod Touch), and the web. This basically means it works on all platforms, because any device with a web browser, including Android devices, can access the online store. Both the iOS version and the web version offer a panel-by-panel view, which seems to be pretty standard by now. The app and store come pre-loaded with two free comics, but to access anything more, users have to create an account. That account allows users to access their comics and also sync apps across devices and the web.
The iPad app works about like all other iPad apps: Open to a catalog, tap an icon to learn more, buy the comics through the iTunes store, swipe to turn pages, etc. However, Dark Horse's developers have introduced a few interesting wrinkles that make it run a little more smoothly. One is that their digital store organizes comics by series and story arc, which makes for a more pleasant browsing experience—and allows them to get a bigger variety onto the front page. Open the Marvel App to the "Featured" screen, and you get a bunch of individual issues—four Thors and four Wolverines at the moment. Wolverine #26, #27, #28, and #29 are given equal space. Dark Horse puts eight different series in that very first screen; scrolling down quickly brings you through all series in the library, rather than a host of single issues. This cuts the signal-to-noise ratio and makes browsing a lot more pleasant; you can quickly find the series you want rather than wading through a sea of stuff you don't care about.
On the iPad, tapping the series cover brings you to a list of individual issues, but the web store arranges them into bundles, so you can buy a single story arc at once, and at a discount over the single-issue price.
The iPad app allows users to download their comics into a Bookshelf area, where they remain permanently. This neatly answers the question of who "owns" digital comics: If you download them to your iPad, you do. The catch is that digital comics are big files, so you won't want to do that with too many of them. So you can also leave them in the cloud (on the Dark Horse servers) and download and re-download them as much as you like. (Most comics apps appear to work this way, but the owners can "lock" downloaded comics, as comiXology once did.)
There's more: If you download comics and log out, the comics stay on your iPad. That means that conceivably several different people can download onto a single device, or you could download a comic onto a friend's iPad if you wanted to share a comic. Again, the size of the files is a natural limitation on how much you can do this, but it's nice to be able to do it.
And here's something I wish more developers would think of: One of the first things you download when you get the Dark Horse app is... a guide to how to use the app. It's not very long, and it covers just the basics, but I thought it was a nice touch. Most apps don't have much in the way of instructions, or they start with an instruction screen that then disappears forever.
As I said, the navigation of the iPad app is pretty standard. It avoids the mistakes made by others—for instance, when you download a comic, the button underneath it says "Read Now," not "Delete," as in the Comics + viewer, which requires you to navigate to your bookshelf before reading. The Browse menu has categories for free comics, new comics (added within the last two weeks), series, and genres, which I think addresses pretty well how people really think about comics.
The store is streaming only—you have to have an internet connection to read comics, and you can't download them to your computer as you can on the iPad.The comics viewer is strikingly simple, with just a few navigational controls: page forward, page back, full screen, small screen. That's it.
Dark Horse's digital launch comes more than four months later than planned, and their original concept of bypassing the iTunes store was shot down by Apple's decision to strictly enforce its terms of service. However, the resulting app is nicely designed and easy to use, and with twice the number of comics originally planned at launch, it seems to have been well worth the wait.