Unbound | Unwrapping the apps

I thought that I might be writing about reading comics on Apple’s revolutionary new tablet, a much-rumored expanded version of the iPod, by now, but their September meeting came and went with no news on that front. So I’m still reading on my iPod Touch, which has the virtues of clarity and portability and the vice of tininess.

Even with the small screen, though, my iPod is evolving. Back in the Stone Age (six months ago), each comic or section of a comic was a single app, which led to a lot of little icons cluttering up the screen. Now a reader can use a single app such as comiXology’s Comics app, iVerse, or Panelfly, to buy, download, and organize comics, which is a more elegant solution. ComiXology has just released a free version of its app, which allows readers access to all the free comics in its app store, and it also has a Lite version that is 12+, as opposed to 17+, presumably for younger readers.

I assume the hidden hand of Apple has something to do with the fact that these apps have similar design and functionality: You pick your function from a navigation strip across the bottom, with icons for the store, featured items, etc., and you move from a list of comics to catalog listings by tapping and swiping, just as with other apps.

These apps solve a glaring problem, which is that there is no obvious way to find comics in the iTunes store. (Of course, there is no obvious way to find these apps, either—that’s why you need columns like this.) Comics are classed as books, and books are a genre within the App Store, which is the sort of tortured logic that only a software engineer could love. The book section is dominated by other types of books, and comics are not necessarily marked as such, so trolling through the iTunes store in search of something interesting to read is pretty much out. You have to know what you want before you go there, which makes it uncomfortably like the direct market, i.e., uncomfortably lacking in serendipity.

The individual comics apps make it easier to find comics, although each has its limitations. Once you get the app, you can browse the in-app store for interesting titles. If you’re more comfortable navigating on the big screen, both comiXology and iVerse have regular updates on their websites and offer e-mail updates as well. Panelfly lists available comics on the website but doesn’t seem to have any sort of notification. In addition, all three use social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter.

As for content, comiXology and iVerse are definitely shooting for the Wednesday crowd, with lots of of individual comics issues priced at 99 cents each. Panelfly is more artsy, with a handsome, deep-red interface and a list that includes NBM, SLG and Picturebox. In addition to single issues, Panelfly offers full-length graphic novels such as Faith Erin Hicks’s The War at Ellsmere or Yuichi Yokoyama’s Travel. There is some overlap between the three; both comiXology and iVerse carry comics from Antarctic, Bluewater, and Image, for instance, and SLG titles are available via both comiXology and Panelfly. If you want Top Cow, though, comiXology is the place to be, and iVerse seems to be the only place to get comics from Archie or Boom! Studios.

The comics readers are different, though. Panelfly and comiXology have different readers, but they work in more or less the same way: Both zip you around from panel to panel on the page, following the same path your eye would. This takes a bit of getting used to. The comiXology reader has an optional page view feature as well, which shows the entire page before going from panel to panel; this is useful for orientation but is generally too small to be readable. Panelfly has the same thing but it doesn’t seem to be optional. The iVerse app gives the reader the option of viewing the entire page in the vertical mode or single panels in the landscape mode. Of the three, I find iVerse to be the clearest; their full-page view is actually readable, and their single-panel views are exceptionally sharp and clear. The downside is that they have to chop the comic up into horizontal strips; you can’t use the iPod’s zoom feature on the full-page view, and you have to rotate the device to landscape mode to read the single panels.

For those who are curious, but not ready to make a commitment, comiXology’s free app is probably a good place to start. I e-mailed CEO David Steinberger yesterday with some questions, and he confirmed that the app is a way for iPhone users who don’t want to pay 99 cents can see how the paid app works; the free app is the same except it only offers the free comics. As expected, the free version is being downloaded more than the paid app, and in fact, it’s number 18 on today’s Top Free Apps list, while iVerse and comiXology’s paid app rank a bit higher on the paid apps chart.

Free comics up on comiXology at the moment include a preview of FCHS, a new high school drama from AdHouse books, and all of issue 1 of The Darkness/Pitt, from Top Cow. “Top Cow didn't want to do a second print of #1, so this is an ideal way for them to get more people exposed to the series and hopefully go out to their local comic store to buy #2,” Steinberger explained.

At 99 cents each, none of these apps is going to break the bank. Be aware, though, that the much-touted “free comics” include a lot of previews and issue #1’s, so they are very much a marketing tool. For those who appreciate the portability of the iPod and are comfortable reading comics on a small screen, though, these apps are a good way to sample new comics and buy individual issues at a considerable discount from the dead-tree price.

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