This article was originally published on webcomics.com in 2008.
Okay, so the Amazon’s Kindle can’t handle images. Neither, for that matter, can Sony’s Portable Reader System, a similar E Ink product that arrived in 2006 but received considerably less buzz. This lack of image support has caused much complaint both within webcomics and in the general market. Obviously, a device without image support is useless to webcomics readers and creators. But the level of disappointment surprised me. It hadn’t occurred to me that webcomics readers were really waiting for a new portable display technology. Nearly every major display we have readily available on the market today is optimized for image display, from computer monitors to television screens, to PDAs, iPhones, and iPods. And plenty of those are portable. Granted, PDAs and iPods aren’t ideally sized for reading comics, but as laptops get increasingly lighter and more tablet-like, they will almost certainly fill the portable reader needs of any comics fan.
eBook readers simply aren’t needed for digital comics to advance. There’s no lack of consumer technology for viewing images. What we lack is a consumer technology that adequately handles large chunks of text. That’s the point of E Ink—it makes large blocks of text more readable by eliminating the backlight and glare typical of existing display tech. That said, it’s still a new technology. Of course it will eventually handle images as well. The fact that it doesn’t need to is beside the point—I don’t need image support in order to listen to music on my iPod either, but it sure didn’t take long for that to show up. And there’s much more demand for images on eBook readers than there ever was for images on iPods.
The big question isn’t “if” or even “when,” since it probably won’t be very long—prototypes have already been seen—but “what will images look like on the new technology?” Again, eBook readers aren’t backlit, and they don’t have much glare. Those two aspects are what make screen displays appear similar to high-gloss paper. Take them away, and you take away the glossiness as well. (That’s the goal, after all, since glossiness isn’t well suited to text.) Does that mean that comics won’t look as good as they do on screen? Well, yes and no: different comics will look good on different devices, just as different comics look their best on different kinds of paper. Black and white line art tends to look better with less gloss. So does color artwork that strives for a more antique quality, such as Seth or Chris Ware. But flashier art styles that use a lot of bold colors may end up looking flat or washed out, even once the technology matures.
And that diversification of display quality may be the most interesting possibility that eBooks have to offer webcomics—just as we have options other than high gloss when creating a print project, we may finally have an option other than high gloss when creating for the screen as well. For those interested in exploring matte palettes, eBook readers may ultimately offer not just a new distribution channel, but new artistic opportunities as well.