A Stray Thought on Digital Comics Hardware

This article was originally published on webcomics.com in 2008.

When reviewing reader applications for online comics, I was struck by just how much effort Marvel put into solving the problem of presenting vertically oriented comics on a horizontal screen. With multiple layout options, including full page, double page, various zooms, and their elaborate Smart Panels solution, Marvel’s designers might be a bit overly concerned with this problem; after all, most readers don’t get up in arms over vertical scrolls these days. But I do have to admit, it really would be nicer to be able to see a full page of art at a readable size, rather than having to choose between full pages with illegibly small text, or readable text on incomplete pages.

Still, after reviewing five different comics readers, all of which attempt to address this issue to one extent or another, none entirely satisfactorily, I can’t help thinking that the final answer to this issue won’t be new software, but rather new hardware.

The first time I saw a commercial for the iPhone, the feature that caught my attention more than any other wasn’t the touch screen, or the convergence of technologies, or the convenience of real portable internet access. It was the simple fact that when you turn the device upright, the screen automatically reorients itself, switching smoothly between wide-screen and tall-screen layouts. It’s probably not a particularly vital feature to a handheld internet telephone, but if my desktop monitor could do that, then print formatted comics could look just as good on screen as any web-native strip. You could even utilize the beautiful high res full screens such as in CBZ files or DC’s Zuda, and really make the most of both the page and your screen.

If comics were the only use for such technology, then it wouldn’t likely happen. But it seems there is already a demand for such a device in a number of markets, such as gamers, designers, and even avid users of PDF documents. As a result, rotating monitors, though not yet common, are available: For example, Asus makes a 19” LCD flat screen with 90 degree rotation. Meanwhile, the company Portrait Displays is producing a software package called Pivot that handles the screen reorientation. Such monitors may still be a little pricey for most folks—at $349 (on Amazon), the Asus model I mentioned above is the least expensive I’ve seen. Of course, if you really want the tech now, without dropping the cash, there are plenty of DIY tutorials out there.

So far as I can find, none of the currently available rotating monitors automatically reorient the way the iPhone does, but I have no doubt that the technology will come to our desktops soon enough. And after that, maybe Marvel will feel free to go a little simpler when they design the amazing new reader application for their next online comics initiative.