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New Comixology app a high point for digital comics

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Updated: August 14, 2012 6:12AM



I used to claim that Comixology is the iTunes of digital comics. The description fit, but not precisely. The digital comics revolution is now an accepted fact. All of the major publishers and many of the independents are selling their comics digitally through Comixology’s online store. Usually on the same day that the print editions hit the shops, too. And slowly but surely, the bigs are re-releasing their back catalogues in digital format. When I fire up the Comixology app on my iPad, I’m transported back to the days of my youth, when I biked to regional comic-cons with a dot matrix printout in my back pocket and hoped to fill in some of the gaps in my “Fantastic Four” and “Avengers” runs. Today, I’m hoping to find that DC is getting around to digitizing Neil Gaiman’s “Sandman,” or that the Englehart/Milgrom run on “The Avengers” is in the Store.
In truth, though, Comixology isn’t like iTunes. It’s the Amazon Kindle of digital comics. Apple uses the iTunes store to enhance the value of Apple’s own hardware. Whereas Comixology is eagerly and gloriously building versions of their comics reader apps for every mobile device with a pulse.
This week, they released a Metro-style version of their Comics reader app, which runs on Windows 8 and Windows RT machines. And by “machines,” ideally I mean “tablets.” This app ought to run just fine on the upcoming Microsoft Surface devices. I tested it out on a Samsung Series 7 tablet, which is running the prelease edition of Windows 8 Pro.
This is the best edition of the Comixology app yet...and I’ve been reading almost all of my weekly comics on my iPad for nine or ten months now. I have one regular gripe about Comixology’s mobile apps: their disjointed and often confusing nature. The Metro app is totally new. It’s clean and clear from start to end. On the left of the screen are thumbnails of the covers of all of the comics that you’ve recently been reading. In the middle, there’s a grid of all of the comics that you’ve downloaded to the device. Off to the right, there’s a section with all of the books you’ve purchased and are awaiting your retrieval from the Cloud.
This is the first time a Comixology app has used the word “Cloud.” I can understand the company’s natural revulsion in the face of an overused buzzword. But it was definitely time.
I wish the Cloud section were organized by title, publisher, creator...or organized by anything, really. We’re fans of writers and artists. Sometimes I want to read “Birds Of Prey” and sometimes I just want to read the issues that were written by Gail Simone.
Instead, it’s a strictly alphabetical grid that you navigate by eye. That’s fine with a collection that numbers in the high dozens, but it’s going to get rough when I’ve acquired many hundreds of books.
(That said, seeing an enormous pile of covers scrolling ever Eastward filled me with a certain giddy joy. All comic book readers have an inner Gollum that we keep under short leash. “Mine! These comics...they are many, and they are MINESES!!!”)
Tap the cover for a synopsis and creator info. Then, tap a Download button to install it on your device, then navigate back to home base and open it from the “Downloaded” section of the app. Ig. It seems like just one tap ought to do it, right?
But reading your comics is a pleasure. A tablet is tailor made for this kind of content. Turn pages just as you would in an ebook, or use the standard multitouch gestures to zoom in and slide around. Comixology books are hyper-detailed. You can examine and appreciate the minute strokes of the artwork on the digital comics in a way you never could with a floppy edition. It’s like visiting the artist’s table at a comic book convention, and getting to look at the original hand-drawn artwork, which is typically drawn at nearly double the printed size.
Comixology wires up each of their digital comics with “Guided View” cues. When you double-tap on the page, a camera provides a zoomed view of the page, steering you from panel to panel, shot to shot, story beat to story beat, every time you tap.
This feature makes the comic easier to read on a tiny phone screen. On a tablet like this 11.6” Samsung (and even on my Retina-dispplay iPad), I don’t even need it. The whole page is clear, crisp, and perfectly readable at full-page size, even though it’s still slightly smaller than the printed page. A comic is actually far more readable when it’s presented digitally, I find. The screen is evenly backlit from margin to margin. Bright colors really pop. And subtle lighting, texturing and shading are delivered to your eye with every last nuance intact.
Put it all together with the fact that digital comics allow me to travel with whole runs of my favorite comics to read and you know what? I actually prefer digital comics to the analog treeware variety. Comixology purchases are locked into proprietary DRM, but I can download my collection into my iPad, iPhone, Android phone, Kindle Fire, and even the new Google Nexus 7 tablet.
The Metro edition of the Comics app is also a great validation of Microsoft’s Metro design language. The app is clean and uncluttered, with zero distractions. Yet the controls I want are always waiting for me, just outside the margins of the screen. I swipe up from the bottom, and after a single tap, I can scroll through thumbnails of the entire issue, landing on the precise page I want.
One shortcoming of the app: there’s no Store module. There’s just a button that opens up Comixology.com in Internet Explorer. You have to make your purchases outside the app and then download it from the Cloud when you return.
Why have I, as lifelong comics fan who can explain to you precisely how Jonathan Hickman’s popular run on “Fantastic Four” turns its back on the core values instilled in that title by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby (and who most certainly will, at great length, if you give me the slightest opening), turned my back on the floppy comics I’ve been buying since I was ten years old?
For the same reason why I buy all of my books and music digitally. Digital comics is just a superior format. We finally have both the kinds of devices that can do the comic book format justice, as well the momentum of the industry to deliver their content digitally.
And in Comixology, we have a digital store that can make it very easy for creators and publishers to get their work in front of the consumer’s eyeballs. Why is it so hard for so many people to get into comics? Easy: because so few people have a decent bricks-and-mortar comic book shop nearby.
(Still, it’s worth visiting http://www.comicshoplocator.com/ and checking into it yourself.)
I was a religious convert to digital comics before it was even possible to download them legally. Still, I didn’t know how far upriver I’d gone until I stopped at Midtown Comics, my favorite New York City shop, a few weeks ago. I held a copy of “Avengers Academy” in my hands, and for the first time...a paper comic book felt alien to me. It was just so big. The colors were kind of flat. I couldn’t fully appreciate the detail.
“So long as I can get the sex, and the drugs...I don’t really even need the rock and roll.” So said one of Spinal Tap’s ill-fated drummers. I find that so long as I can get the stories, and the endless arguments with friends over whether or not Wolverine or Spider-Man can even be considered proper Avengers...I don’t really even need the longboxes filled with slowly rotting paper.
See my YouTube walkthrough of the app: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AymCrb8gOyw


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