SXSW: Comics on Handhelds

Obviously, if you're reading CBR, you love all things comics -- especially reading them. But what if you want to take your comics on the road with you and don't want to lug around a huge stack of titles? Instead of having to take paper comics, what if you could digitize them, take them with you and view them on your mobile device? Is this kind of thing possible?

Well, those are just the kind of questions we hoped to have answered by attending the Comics on Handhelds panel at the South by Southwest Interactive festival in Austin, TX. On the panel were Douglas Edwards, CEO of UCLICK; Molly Crabapple of Dr. Sketchy's Anti-Art School; Dave Bort, a Google/Android Engineer; Rantz Hoseley, CEO the LongBox Group; and Richard Stevens of "Diesel Sweeties" fame. The panel was moderated by comics creator and mobile comics proponent Dan Goldman.

First off, Goldman started with a definition of what comics are: stories told with words and pictures. He explained that comics can be in any form and do not have to be on paper in order to be considered "comics."

With that out of the way and hoping to provide a "common starting place," Goldman next went into a discussion of formatting comics for mobile devices and alternative delivery methods, using Warren Ellis and Paul Duffield's "FreakAngels" as an example; it works well on a mobile device despite being made originally for the printed page.

"Change in platform demands change in format," Goldman said.

He elaborated that one of the main issues is "panels or pages" because of the way in which mobile devices, such as the iPhone or iPod touch, display comics. Due to the size of the screen and the available resolution, comics panels have to be displayed in such a way that readers get only one or two panels at a time instead of entire pages.

This is also the case due to lettering, which cannot be read comfortably if the entire comic book page is shown on a small mobile device screen.

Goldman then threw out a few more examples of comics that have been formatted for mobile devices including an R. Crumb comic and "High Moon" from Zuda Comics, where the lettering was small and hard to see.

At that, Goldman turned to his panelists and the audience to brainstorm ideas on how to solve some of these issues. How can lettering become easier to read on phones both dumb and smart?

"What we need to concentrate on is making the comic an enjoyable experience for the reader and not just a compromise that people are willing to make just so they can read comics on the iPhone," offered Hosley.

Edwards agreed, saying, "The new media transforms the artistic expression. The form is sacred. The longer term experience is that artists will create content specifically for this format."

"You have to wonder if we've actually seen the first comic made for the mobile platform," added Hoseley.

One of the panelists then made the point that he doesn't see devices like the iPhone getting much bigger, physically, so the screen size will stay the same. Therefore, comics will have to work on that size screen or something very close to it. Many of the panelists agreed this was the case, with Goldman providing one caveat: "What's best for the device isn't always what's best for the storytelling."

He added that with devices such as Amazon's Kindle, we could see "A full-color device with that kind of size that could display comics. It isn't necessarily limited to iPhone-sized devices."

"Right now, two good sized pages can be put on the Kindle and be readable, " offered Stevens. "I've tried it."

"It makes sense to potentially get your content that way. You already trust Apple and you already trust Amazon," agreed Bort. "So why not?"

Goldman then took a few questions from the audience:

A woman asked about solving the small lettering problem by allowing the text to be read out-loud to the reader by the device. This was met with quite a bit of criticism from the panelists, who argued that would not be comics because, as summarized by Edwards, "Comics are a graphical visual form so that simply doesn't work. If you do that, add sound, then it's not a comic."

Hoseley agreed, "A simplistic solution is not always the best solution. If you add sound or something like movement, then you've got an animatic or a bad movie but not a comic."

Another question asked was whether creators were "wedded to the dimensions of the page" and if that was a factor in why it was sometimes difficult to create, or more to the point, format comics for handhelds. The panelists agreed that this was also an issue because creators often try to alter the traditional comics paradigm but do not meet with success when they do.

To illustrate, Crabapple offered an example of Kyle Baker's "Why I hate Saturn," where he "put the word underneath the panels instead of in them. But it never really caught on. But maybe that's ideal for mobile handhelds. Although, the text is really just too small."

"Maybe the bubbles could get bigger and smaller if you click on them?" chimed Bort.

"You could have different proportions depending on size of the screen in use. It could adjust automatically," agreed Goldman.

Another audience member asked if adding more resolution or more "dots" would help? "No, adding more detail isn't the way to go," said Bort. "Once the resolution gets higher, at a certain point you don't get much benefit from it with text."

"You could zoom in and you get the benefit but it doesn't really matter at that point because then you're back to reading a few panels at a time," offered Edwards.

At this point, the panelist agreed that there were many questions and the issues of comics on handhelds still needs more discussion.

Bort added that it's "important to get people to try and get things out for mobile devices. But that doesn't mean they don't work for other platforms."

"It's about planning," said Edwards. "Its just getting through to people that you can make money on iTunes and maybe you want to try and make things for that."

"It's a fertile field for exploration," agreed Crabapple.

And with that, the panel came to a close. There were many issues raised and although very few definitive solutions were offered for the problems with comics on mobile devices, the panel definitely helped enhance the conversation and provided clear direction towards the answers that will inevitably be found.

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