Webcomics Vs. eBook Readers

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.

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RSS Reconsidered

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

Last month I presented a list of webcomics technologies that have failed to ignite my technophilic enthusiasm, despite their popularity or general usefulness. Over the past several weeks, I have given one of those technologies, RSS, a second chance.

First a quick recap of my original objections to RSS, based on my early attempts to use RSS readers:

  1. Tracking RSS reads required keeping an additional application open, on top of my usual web browser. I’m already a multi-tasker, and disliked the additional clutter.
  2. As a creator, I wasn’t keen on having to create and maintain another tool for my website.
  3. As a reader, I found that only about a quarter of the blogs/comics I read had RSS feeds at the time, so using the reader didn’t really save me much effort anyway.
  4. Once my web browser was open, I just didn’t often remember to open the RSS reader, since it was basically redundant technology.

Despite all this, I did respect the goal of RSS — I can certainly appreciate the desire to have a single service tracking my web reads, keeping me informed of updates, so that I don’t waste time looking at sites that haven’t changed since my last visit. For this reason, I fell in love with Piperka.net rather quickly. It performs that same function, but without any of the problems that made RSS unsatisfactory; Piperka is a website that I can keep open in a tab of my regular web browser, and it can track almost any webcomic with no effort on the part of creators.

Of course, Piperka isn’t perfect. Comics that use non-standard content management don’t slip easily into the system (It’s only recently that Dicebox was finally included, and even now it only seems to catch updates when there’s a new chapter, rather than a weekly update). And for some reason Piperka will occasionally miss updates, sometimes several in a row, but will later randomly catch up. Or not, depending on the strip. I can’t remember the last time Dan Mazur’s Palindramas showed up in my Piperka updates, even though it updates pretty regularly. So there’s definitely room for improvement.

So, with all that in mind, several weeks ago I adopted Google Reader as my primary tool for following any webcomic I read that supports RSS. And just to be completely thorough in my experiment, I added most of the blogs I read to my RSS subscription list as well.

Some of my original objections fell away immediately — Google Reader is web-based, just like Piperka, and can be used in just as convenient a fashion, with no need for extra applications. I also found that a much larger percentage of my regular reads support RSS these days. The fact that so many comics hosting services have automated RSS feeds certainly helps. In fact, there were only a handful of exceptions among webcomics, and the only blog I couldn’t find a feed for was This Modern World.

Given the current near-ubiquity of RSS feeds, the RSS reader wound up with an advantage over Piperka — it’s much rarer for it to miss an update than for Piperka. In fact, the only site whose updates I’ve noticed as absent from my RSS reader is Webcomics.com. Whether this is due to a glitch in the reader or an error in the site’s own RSS code, I couldn’t say.

Another advantage that Google Reader offers over Piperka is the option of collecting webcomic and blog updates directly in the reader. Piperka is able to track any webcomic, with or without creator approval, precisely because it doesn’t scrape any content from the sites; it simply lets users know when those sites have updated. On the other side, since RSS feeds are creator-defined, they allow creators to opt-in to RSS syndication. Not all do, but enough do to make it a worthwhile feature for users of the software. And so long as all you want from the site is the comic itself, the presentation is perfectly satisfactory. My only major frustration on this front has been the Narbonic Director’s Commentary, where the feed sends me each day’s strip (which I’ve already read) but not the commentary (which is what I’m now following the strip for).

Ironically, I’m far less satisfied with the technology’s handling of blogs. Neither Journalista nor The Comics Reporter include images in their feeds, which is a big part of the value of both those sites. Journalista’s feed is still useful, since the bulk of the blog is text, though the lack of images makes it harder to scan quickly for interesting items. The Comics Reporter becomes nearly unreadable without images, however, since Tom Spurgeon has a habit of making posts with nothing but an image, a title, and a link to the subject of the post. And since the links are tied to the images, you don’t get those either, making it impossible to judge my interest in any of the books or events he’s mentioning without jumping back to his site for each one. And if that’s not troublesome enough, his posts also come through my RSS reader without any line or page breaks, making longer articles completely unreadable.

Of course, most of these content inclusion difficulties are likely due to user implementation, not a fault of the technology itself. And, with the exception of the missing paragraph breaks in The Comics Reporter, may even be conscious decisions on the part of the content creators, since it’s still desirable for them to draw readers back to their largely ad-supported web sites. For content creators, RSS feeds do pose a conundrum in finding a balance between financial self-interest and audience accommodation; creators looking to make money need ad views, while readers don’t want to have to jump out to the website every time there’s a new post. One solution some creators have found for this problem is to imbed advertising directly into their feeds in one way or another.

In the end, though, the problems of RSS are far outweighed by the benefits—I’ve gotten very comfortable with my RSS reader, and don’t see myself dropping it as I have in the past. The technology has matured considerably since my early trials; as of today, I am officially a convert.

Three Technologies I’m Just not that Excited About

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

I love technology. Whether it’s little gadgets like my iPod, or useful applications like Google Calendar, I love all the little tech innovations that make life easier and more fun. The first time I heard about webcomics, I was thrilled. Automated content management? Fantastic! Integration of multi-media elements into webcomics? All over it. Do I want an iPhone or a Kindle? Oh my god, yes. Can I afford them? Not remotely. But I want them nonetheless.

And yet, there are certainly technologies that just don’t excite me. My first response to the “blog” was a hearty “meh.” I haven’t a clue what the appeal of MySpace or LiveJournal is — more industry-oriented variants, like ComicSpace make a little more sense to me, but just barely. And I still have no idea why the hell my telephone needs to take photographs. It’s bad enough that people can call me and talk to me no matter where I am, now they can demand that I send them pictures too? No thanks.

Sometimes I change my mind. Blogging, for instance, has won me over. Once I started seeing professionally themed blogs, news blogs, political blogs, blogs that served an informal journalistic purpose, the idea finally clicked for me. I still ignore most of the blogs that appear under the webcomics I read, but I can see the value of blogs, even if I think there are far too many of them.

With that in mind, I’ve decided to reexamine three webcomics-related technologies that have garnered my thorough disinterest in the past. I will lay out here, for the record, my initial reactions, and the reasons why I’m resistant to them. I will then devote a solid month of active usage to each before reporting back on my experiences and whether or not I’ve been converted.

RSS Feed Distribution

I’ve twice tried to use RSS reader applications to manage my blog reading. (One was Awasu. I can’t remember what the other was.) In both cases, I added about a quarter of the blogs I read to the reader (the other three quarters didn’t offer feeds), then proceeded to follow those blogs in the reader for about two weeks. After that, I stopped using it, mainly because I forgot I even had it. With so few of the blogs I followed readable in that form, I wasn’t able to break the habit of going to my web browser for blog-reading purposes. And, in any case, I disliked having to open a whole other application just to do some extra web browsing, especially since I tend to do my web browsing on more than one computer.

Now, many folks have been singing the praises of RSS feeds as a convenient way of reading comics; Webcomics.com’s own editor, T Campbell described the technology to me as “almost indispensable.” After my uninspiring early encounters with the technology, though, I’m skeptical. I can certainly see the appeal of not having to check every individual webcomic I read. It’s a huge time suck. Which is why I’m a devoted user of Piperka.net — a lovely little service that monitors my webcomics for me, and automatically generates a list of all the sites that have updated since my last visit. And unlike RSS, it manages this without putting any onus on comics authors to add yet another annoying technical doohickey to their websites. This is great for the creator, since they don’t have to do any extra work to have their comic included, and great for me, since almost every comic I read is included, instead of just the ones with RSS feeds.

So what do I need RSS for? I haven’t the faintest idea. One thing I can say for certain, though—if any RSS reader is going to impress me, it has to be web-based. I’m already a multi-tasker; with four or five applications running on my computer at any given time, I certainly don’t need a sixth. And I need to be able to access it from any computer, without installing new software to each one. Fortunately, it looks like RSS readers have moved in that direction since I last tried them out, so maybe my impression really will be different this time around.

Comics for Portable Devices

I already hate using my cell phone for anything at all, up to and including talking on it, so I’m not going to bother trying to read comics on it. But I’m open to trying comics on my iPod. I’ve seen a little bit already — I did download a handful of Brain Fist strips while I was working on my Daniel Merlin Goodbrey article. And I thought Goodbrey made good use of the delivery mechanism, crafting comics that benefited from the odd screen size. But I’m reminded of a Jason Shiga comic that was once described to me — the pages were all laid out vertically in a box. Each page had tabs on it, and the tabs each had holes in them, that allowed the pages to be lifted out with a metal rod. The holes were lined up just right so that inserting the rod into a different series of holes resulted in your lifting out a different series of pages. Each combination of pages told a different story.

It’s a remarkable idea, and my understanding is that the execution was very effective and entertaining. I’d love to see Shiga’s comics contraption in person and spend some time playing with it. But if that was how all of the comics I read were distributed, it’d be pretty ridiculous. It’s just not well suited to anything that isn’t designed expressly for that purpose, and it’s not efficient even for the ones that are. I feel much the same about reading comics on portable devices. It’s nice for the crazy formalist experiments that bend the technology to their will. I don’t mind an occasional inconvenience for the sake of a unique comics experience. But it’s really not how I want to read Wonderella.

Still, I do like my iPod, and I do like finding new uses for it (I just bought my first few RiffTrax today), even if I don’t normally use the video features. And with ClickWheel having just announced a bunch of new features and a deal with 2000AD, now seems like a good time to give the technology a try.

Downloadable Comics

Of the three technologies I’ll be looking at, downloadable comics is the one that I have the least initial opinion on, since I know the least about it. I did set up an account at Wowio a couple months ago, and downloaded a few comics. I read them, and the experience was fine. But I forgot to go back the next day to download more, and haven’t been back since. I just wasn’t that grabbed by it. I’ve never particularly liked reading any sort of document in PDF format, though it certainly has its advantages — the ability to print chief among them. I just wasn’t moved enough to go through the hassle of downloading and storing the files. But I wasn’t exactly turned off by the technology either—this really might be a case where I just need to get used to the new process before the advantages will really become clear to me. For now, let’s just call me “neutral” on the topic, and see what happens once I’ve immersed myself in it for a few weeks.

Start the Clock…

I’ve decided on RSS feeds as the subject of the first of my four-week technology stints. I’ve selected the reader I will use (Google Reader), and have started building my subscription list. For the duration of my trial period, I will use this reader as my primary means of staying up to date with my webcomics, relying on Piperka only for those series that don’t have RSS feeds. Check back next month for my full report.

NOTE: The incarnation of Webcomics.com for which this series was begun ceased publishing prior to the completion of the series.  Only my report on RSS feeds was completed.

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.

A Survey of Digital Comics Readers

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

Every few years, a traditional comics publisher makes a renewed plunge into the webcomics market. And each time they do, they feel the need to introduce some “revolutionary” new piece of comics presentation software, as if this is what some purely hypothetical online comics industry has been waiting for. “Finally,” we are meant to exclaim, “we can actually read comics online!”

Given how the vast majority of webcomics do just fine as a succession of image files on web pages, it is a curious phenomenon.

There are a few reasons why they do this, such as concerns over Digital Rights Management, as well as efforts at branding the comics reading experience. Neither of these purposes benefit readers, of course, but it’s also increasingly clear that at least some of the comics software developers are making a good effort to improve the comics reading experience. For publishers re-purposing print comics to the screen, the goal is to balance text legibility against the appeal of displaying full pages of artwork all at once. Also, most reader applications attempt to do away with the manual scrolling that some readers complain inhibits their reading enjoyment. Of course, many supposed features of these applications actually make the reading experience more irritating rather than smoother.

With a new batch of such readers having just arrived in the past year, it seems worthwhile to survey the current contenders and see which ones have finally started to pick up on legitimate reader concerns, which have developed worthwhile innovations of their own, and which still think blink text is the hip new thing on the internets.

The first two readers up in this survey are the two that made the biggest headlines last year, coming as they do from major print publishers who have, in the past, shown pretty poor understanding of how to approach web-based comics. These are, of course, Marvel’s Digital Comics Unlimited (DCU) and DC’s Zuda Comics.  The other reader applications covered in this article had smaller budgets to work with, but really seem to have been designed with reader or artist concerns in mind. None of these is as high profile as Zuda or Digital Comics Unlimited, but each has its own advantages—and two even have the advantage of being available for use by any comics creator.

Marvel’s Digital Comics Unlimited

Digital Rights Management (DRM), of course, plays a big role in Marvel’s decision to use a reader application (not to mention its decision to only include older comics). Right-clicking has been high-jacked, with all controls removed from the pop up menu. The ethics of DRM can certainly be debated; what can’t is the effectiveness. Since any on-screen DRM can be easily defeated by a simple click on print-screen, readers are pretty useless for this purpose. Also, rumor has it that the reader itself automatically caches copies of the comics pages on the reader’s hard drive, making DCU’s DRM even less effective.

The first bit of good news about Marvel’s digital reader is that you don’t have to keep the default settings. This is very good news indeed, given how awful the default settings are: page transitions use those goofy animated page turns that were cool for about three and a half seconds ten years ago, and the text is much too small to read comfortably unless you use the kludgy magnifying glass tool to blow up individual text panels.

The controls for changing both the transition mode and the page display are easy to find in the top right-hand corner of the reader. Go for “plain” on the page transitions (you can skip right past the “cube” option, unless you really enjoy motion sickness.) As for page display, the single-page display is a big improvement over double-page as far as text goes, though it then requires scrolling, and loses the view of full-page art. The better option is the “Smart Panels” view, which introduces each new page by displaying the full-page art before zooming in to smaller sets of panels with large, readable text. The rectangular outlines that briefly highlight panels as you pass through can be a little distracting at first, but are ignorable. You also have a choice between “smooth” transitions or “jump” transitions. Both are okay; “smooth” introduces a little bit of a lag in text display, but retains a better sense of page flow. “Jump” is a little abrupt, but allows for a more natural reading speed.

The Smart Panels mode also provides the best navigation to be found in this particular reader. All three modes allow you to turn pages with the left and right arrow keys, which is much preferable to hunting the little arrows in the page corners. In Smart Panels mode, you have the added feature of being able to zip back and forth between the panel you’re currently reading and the full-page art—nice if you like stepping back to see how particular panels fit into the larger flow of a page.

One additional navigational option is the “autoforward,” which turns the page automatically after a set interval of time. This one is excellent for readers who enjoy the challenge of having to read very fast, so that they can finish each page before they run out of time. It’s kind of like a speed-reading video game!

None of the modes allows you the basic “click anywhere on the page to advance” navigational methods that most webcomics readers have come to expect as standard.

All told, the reader is bloated, but it really isn’t bad—it has some strangely useless features that you can easily ignore, and some terrible pre-sets that you can easily change, but once you adjust the settings, it offers a reasonably comfortable reading experience. Not an excellent experience, by any means, but much better than seems likely at first. Of course, navigating a confusing set of useless options to get the thing to work properly may be more of a hurdle than many potential subscribers are willing to deal with.

The Good

  • Multiple display options
  • Multiple navigation options
  • Easy toggling between panel view and full-page view

The Bad

  • Bloat
  • Invasive DRM
  • Truly wretched default settings
  • Multiple ridiculously useless, nausea inducing transition modes

The So-So

  • Smart Panels mode offers good readability and art display, but introduces odd panel outlines and possible lag time.
  • The reader seems as though it could support page layouts beyond re-purposed print comics, but that potential is unlikely to ever be tested

DC’s Zuda Comics

While DC also uses the reader to remove the option of saving images from the right-click menu, it at least still makes use of the menu, including a variety of navigation commands. DC does take a slightly looser approach to copy protection than Marvel, though, choosing as they do to include the option of printing out comics pages. Of course, given that DC’s online comics are free, one wonders why they’re concerned about DRM in the first place. There isn’t really a whole lot of incentive to digitally pirate online comics that are already free. Or, at least there wouldn’t be, if not for the fact that some people just don’t like reading comics in reader applications, preferring pure image files. So, essentially, DC’s attempt to prevent piracy introduces incentive to piracy where there previously wasn’t any. So I guess that balances out.

Just like Marvel’s viewer, DC’s Zuda starts the reader off with a bad set of defaults. The reader window is quite small, and the page art is clumsily reduced—not only is the text too small to read comfortably, but the artwork itself is badly aliased. It’s not quite so bad as to be completely unreadable, but it sure makes one wonder whether DC really wants you to read it or not.

Fortunately, Zuda also offers alternative settings; it doesn’t offer as many options as Marvel’s DCU, but that’s largely a good thing, since most of what it leaves out are the useless features. No page flips, cube turns, or autoforwards here. Instead, you just get one lovely alternative: Full Screen mode. And that’s really all you need, because once you go into full screen mode, the artwork pops into beautiful, full-size, high-res images with big readable text. And since Zuda’s content is all web-original, DC mandate has all comics formatted to fit screen dimensions, eliminating any need for scrolling (while also eliminating the flexibility normally associated with online publishing). As useful as Marvel’s Smart Panels are in the Marvel viewer, nothing like that is necessary in Zuda.

Unfortunately, as nice as the full screen display mode is, navigation still leaves something to be desired. Like Marvel, DC has neglected to include “click to advance” navigation. What’s more, the on-screen page turn buttons are even smaller than Marvels, and require the use of an auto-hiding toolbar. Zuda does include keyboard commands as well, but they’re not very intuitive; why on Earth would they assign page turns to the chevron keys instead of the arrow keys? And what’s worse, keyboard navigation gets locked out once you go to full screen mode. (This could be a glitch on my own system, but I tried it in both Firefox and Explorer, and had the same result in both.) This is particularly frustrating, since the full screen mode has the potential to offer a highly immersive reading experience, if only the reader didn’t need to stay aware of the toolbar in order to turn pages. (Alternatively, you could use the navigation commands in the right-click menu, but this isn’t really an improvement.)

Those little navigational glitches are really the only thing holding this reader back. If they just re-enable keyboard commands in full screen mode, and add in click navigation (neither of which should be difficult to do), DC will have a very nice reader on its hands—it’s nicely streamlined, without any unnecessary clutter, and really presents the art in an enjoyable way. It could even pull off the trick of improving the online comics reading experience. So long as you’re in full screen mode, anyway; if you’re actually using Zuda, it’s best to pretend that the small screen mode just doesn’t exist.

The Good

  • Gorgeous full screen display mode
  • Printable pages
  • Perfect screen-fit pages; no scrolling

The Bad

  • Terrible, unreadable small screen default mode
  • Glitchy navigation in full screen mode
  • Rigid page formats
  • Unintuitive keyboard commands

The So-So

  • DRM is present, but half-hearted

ComicMix

To say that ComicMix’s reader prioritizes reader concerns isn’t to say they leave publisher concerns out entirely; ComicMix still includes branding, for instance. But the branding never overshadows the usability of the software or the readability of the comics, as it often does any time a publisher becomes overly concerned with creating a unique reading experience. (Marvel has been particularly susceptible to this pitfall.)

ComicMix’s reader is a simple affair—nothing revolutionary, but nothing pointlessly flashy either. Pages appear as JPG files in the main window (and there’s no DRM here—you can treat these pages like any other JPG file, including saving or copying the images), with a toolbar at the top of the screen for navigating them. The usual options are present: single page view, double page, or thumbnails. The best reading is to be had by zooming in on a single page, but since the pages are print-formatted, this means seeing only half a page at a time. Unfortunately, there is no way to quickly toggle between zoom levels without losing your place on the page.

Navigation is similarly simple. Like Marvel and DC, ComicMix has left out the click-to-advance navigation, but they’ve done the next best thing—one-button scrolling/page turns with the space bar. There are a handful of other keyboard commands available, but with the occasional exception of the zoom controls, you don’t really need any of it; everything essential is achieved with a tap of the space bar. Simple, quick, and easy to find on your keyboard.

All told, using this reader doesn’t feel that much different from reading image files on a standard HTML page, with the addition of zooming controls. That’s a good thing; new readers to ComicMix’s site won’t have to waste any time learning odd controls or hunting for hidden settings. They can just get straight to reading comics.

The Good

  • Simple, intuitive controls
  • No DRM
  • Very easy to jump right into reading comics without needing to learn the software

The Bad

  • No quick toggle for zoom levels

The So-So

  • Adequate display. Readable on par with most traditional webcomics, but no option of high-resolution display.

The Tarquin Engine

The first of the creator-centric readers we’ll be looking at is the Tarquin Engine, a Flash-based reader developed by Daniel Merlin Goodbrey, and available, for a fee, to anyone who wants to use it. This reader serves a very different function from the other readers discussed so far, however—it is not designed to ease the reading of print-formatted comics, offers no DRM, and is devoid of any branding efforts. Rather, it is specifically a tool for creators looking to explore more experimental layouts, including infinite canvas works, horizontal-scrollers, and branching narratives, while keeping reader navigation relatively simple and free of manual scrolling.

Navigation in this reader is unlike in any other reader—since it’s intended to handle branching storylines, one-click advancement is impossible, since readers need to be allowed to choose between multiple paths. Instead, navigation is mouse-based, with the mouse pointer turning into navigation arrows that indicate each possible path along the comic. It can be a little confusing at first, but is fairly easy once you’ve spent a few minutes playing with it.

The most impressive examples of The Tarquin Engine at work can be seen in Goodbrey’s own comics, such as Externality or Don’t Shoot the Chronopath. Note that zooming out from an individual panel to view the full page layout, before zooming back in to where you left off is also easy—just click the space around the panels to zoom out, then click on the panel you want to zoom back to.  Other creators have used the reader effectively for much simpler purposes, though, such as the story Birdseed, by Austin Kleon.

Image display is a little trickier. Since the reader is flash based, and integrates a fair amount of dynamic image resizing, it really works best with vector artwork. Scanned artwork often doesn’t look it’s best in this reader, scanned text especially tending to look a bit ragged. (See S.J. Roberts’ Hot Lunch: The Psychadelic Transubstantiation or Nicholas Ivan Ladendorf’s Puppet in Chief: The Media Trix for example.) This may simply be a matter of needing different levels of resolution for different panels, but still, most of the creators using the Tarquin Engine to translate print comics to the web haven’t quite succeeded at keeping the image quality as high as it could be.

Also, unlike the more mainstream readers, The Tarquin Engine is not well suited to very long comics, due to a lack of clear pagination. In other comics readers, even where there is no bookmarking function, it’s a simple matter to note the page you’ve left off on in your reading and get back there later. This functionality could be effectively mimicked; since the software supports external hyperlinks, chapters could be separated into multiple instances of the reader, on unique web pages. The result would be very similar to Brendan Cahill’s presentation of his Flash-based comic, Outside the Box, except with integrated navigation for reaching the next chapter, rather than requiring the “next” button. And this would work just fine, so long as chapters were consistently relatively short. But this method adds yet another step to the process of preparing comics for presentation with the software. Not to mention that that this approach loses the appeal of capturing a large quantity of material with a self-contained application the way more traditional readers do.

In short, the Tarquin Engine offers some very interesting possibilities for formal experimentation; indeed it effectively handles navigational scenarios impossible in any other reader. And while I do hope that the existence of the tool might inspire more creators to explore multi-linear narratives, where traditional comics are concerned, this reader doesn’t achieve anything that can’t be done more easily, for both creators and readers, using other tools. For this reason, it will likely remain a fringe application, brought out almost exclusively for those projects that truly require it.

The Good

  • Enables branching or non-linear narratives
  • No fixed page dimensions
  • Highly customizable to the requirements of individual stories
  • Available to comics creators in the general public

The Bad

  • Not well suited to long batches of content
  • Scanned images often appear distorted (possibly due to user error)

The So-So

  • Navigation is effective, but not immediately intuitive
  • Excellent tool for formalist experimentation, but would be a little overcomplicated for more traditional comics

Infinite Canvas

Like the Tarquin Engine, Markus Mueller’s Flash-based Infinite Canvas application is designed specifically to empower creators interested in exploring dynamic layouts and infinite canvases. It seems to be capable of handling branching narratives, but is primarily suited to sprawling infinite canvases. Indeed, for handling infinite canvases or side scrolling comics, it is the most elegant option of all the readers examined for this article. (As a caveat, I should mention that one of my own comics was created and is displayed using this application.)

Navigation is simple and intuitive—in addition to basic forward and back arrows, Infinite Canvas is the only reader surveyed that allows readers to advance simply by clicking anywhere on the comic. Tym Godek’s Two Confessions shows the effectiveness of this navigation at its simplest in a brief side-scrolling comic. But, as demonstrated by Derek Badman’s Maroon Part 43, no matter how a comic’s layout twists and turns around the infinite canvas (even allowing diagonals, rotations, and fades), the reader never needs to adjust their approach to navigation—a single click will always take them to the next panel.

This reader could effectively be used for displaying print-formatted comics as well, easily mimicking the panel-to-panel transition mode of Marvel’s Smart Panels. There’s no obvious option for zooming out to view full page art, however, making it somewhat less suited to the purpose than those readers designed with more traditional comics in mind. Also, like the Tarquin Engine, Infinite Canvas would require multiple linked instances of the application in order to present longer comics that would require multiple sittings to read. Ultimately, this is another reader designed to address fairly specific needs; it does what it’s designed to do beautifully, but is not the ideal solution for most comics.

The Good

  • No fixed page dimensions
  • Enables easy reading of large, infinite canvas comics
  • Simple click-to-advance navigation
  • Customizable to the requirements of individual stories

The Bad

  • Not well suited to long batches of content

The So-So

  • Available to comics creators in the general public, but only for Mac OS. (Finished comics will operate on any operating system.)
  • Enables branching narratives, but branch points are not always clear
  • Excellent tool for formalist experimentation, but would be a little overcomplicated for more traditional comics

The Final Tally

Marvel brings up the rear, due primarily to excessive bloat. The Tarquin Engine and Infinite Canvas offer inspired solutions for specific concerns, but can’t adequately handle stories of any real length.

Zuda offers the best display options, but is hobbled by glitchy navigation. In the long run, though, Zuda’s may actually hold the most promise. It is still labeled as a Beta run—if they really do put in the work of fixing the navigational glitches, and make an effort to push full screen as the primary viewing mode, they may just produce an excellent comics reader application, one that pairs usable functionality with superior image display and readability. But potential is not the same as achievement, which leaves…

ComicMix’s application may not be the most inspired entry into the comics reader marketplace, but it is simple and intuitive, and offers a very comfortable reading experience, making it the winner for the day.