Digital Fanboy is our exploration into digital media. How we use it, how it uses us, and how to get a better handle on everything. I hope that by breaking this down into small tastes I can help you understand what the present and future hold for us, just as I exorcise my own demons in this area. Come, take the red pill…
This is a subject that I love and fear in equal parts. I expect you have some excitement about digital media in your life, and you may have a bit of confusion as well. In these introductory episodes, I’m going to try to break down the basics of digital media, more bite sized than an overwhelming feast. Currently, this is a trilogy:
Episode 1 – Your Digital Destiny – Benefits and additional features we get from electronic media. The terms we hear and what they mean. That’s this episode!
Episode 2 – Locking the Barn Door – How digital media works, and how it fails. What DRM means and how it creates opportunity and complicates “ownership” of digital works. There’s a little Rebels V. Empire here that you can try at home.
Episode 3 – Dystopian Utopia – How digital media “ownership” breaks, the fragility of your digital library, and what still needs to be done to fix that. We’ll talk about the problems happening today, what’s likely to happen tomorrow, and what you and media providers can do to protect your new digital library.
And yes, we’ll be talking about digital comics.
Of course like all modern trilogies, there’s the potential for sequels. If you have questions or if there are new developments in this area, Digital Fanboy is the friend who will either explain it or tell you you’re better off not knowing. Sometimes the blue pill is tasty too.
Enough preparation. That red pill is digesting nicely now. Let’s get to it.
Eating Digital Media
You’re already a consumer. You’re doing it right now, on this very page. Digital information served up on your screen for your consumption. We eat digital media every day, and we think very little about what that means.
Your devices serve up information on a regular basis. Mail, web pages, stock reports, weather, all delivered to you fresh and tasty. Beyond that you’ve likely got an amazing amount of music, videos, and even books and magazines in your pocket.
Digital media devices currently on my desk
You’re listening to music on your MP3 player, or more likely these days on your phone. You may be streaming music and video from companies like Netflix, Pandora and Spotify. If you’re a comics reader, you’ve either wondered about those Marvel Digital comics, or you’re actively downloading and reading them on your tablet or computer. You’re already living in the digital media future.
It’s a cool place, this future
When you say Digital Media, most people think music and videos. But we’re all fanboys here and we know that the term extends to books and comics too. You can’t pick up an Image, DC or Marvel comic without being reminded that you could also be reading this issue on your tablet or computer. We’ll get back to comics, but first let’s talk about the more mature media of the two, the digital book.
Amazon was not the first to produce digital readers, but it arguably took the idea and developed it to make it commercially viable and successful. They did this by thinking past just having a screen that would flip pages like a regular book. They capitalized on extending the reading experience, and they’re still leading the way with innovations and improvements.
I love my Amazon Kindle Paperwhite. It has an insanely long battery life due to the e-ink screen which only uses power when it changes pages, or when the led back light is on. It weighs 12oz with a leather cover in place. Mine currently has 420 books stored. That means that when I travel, I can carry along the equivalent of 200 lbs of paperback books. I’m never at a loss for something to read.
That’s pretty cool, but there’s so much more. When reading I can look up dictionary definitions of words I don’t know, growing my vocabulary. I can mark interesting passages for personal use, or to share with everyone who bought the same book though Amazon. Similarly I can read the shared highlights of everyone who has read the book. If I use multiple devices to read the same book, like moving from my PaperWhite to my Smart Phone, the new device can automatically take me to the last page I’ve read.
That is magical.
The list goes on and on. The success of this product is not the reproduction of a book, it’s the extension of what you can do with a book.
Introduction to Digital Comics
Now Comics are not as far along as books in the feature innovations, but they’re coming along.
There are basically three ways to read digital comics. First, on your computer, providing you’ve got a tall enough monitor to read a comic without squinting. Second, and preferable, on an iPad or Android based tablet device. As for the third, it’s really important to state that comic reading on your phone is possible, but unlikely to be a pleasant experience.
Without an integrated device like the Kindle, comic reading depends on three methods to display the pages. The first and most basic are web pages. They’re also the least functional and most likely to screw up. The second is embedded software; a reader in a web page, much like you see YouTube videos embedded in web pages. These typically add a bit more functionality. And finally, apps. Apple OSX (iPads and iPhones) and Android apps are special readers that provide the most full reading experience to date.
There’s also the potential that you’ll get some comics in Adobe PDF, or Portable Document Format. (Or is that Portable Document Format format?) PDF provides a relatively simple reading experience, slightly clumsy, but the Adobe Reader or equivalent is on virtually every modern computer and smartphone. We’ll get back to PDF in later episodes.
Comic Readers have two or three modes for reading comics. The first is just a full page display, which is pretty cool, and feels much like reading a regular comic.
That is until you reach a double-page spread. The two pages displayed horizontally actually shrink everything to half-sized.
Of course most tablets will auto-rotate the content and resize it if you turn it 90 degrees.
Double page, rotated
Depending on the comic, and the number of double-page spreads, you may end up twisting your tablet back and forth, looking like you’re driving drunk on the Information Superhighway.
A second viewing method here is to pinch and zoom, which is basically moving your fingers on a touch screen to make the images larger or smaller on your screen. Again, a relatively natural method unless you find that the navigation takes you “out of the story.” It does feel like you’re chasing the page around the screen, and I find it annoying.
The last viewing method isn’t available in every comic as it requires the publisher to do some extra mapping work. Part of the creation of the digital comic involves automatic navigation, basically guiding the reader through the work. Pages contain additional information about the size and positions of their panels, the order in which they should be displayed, and how to zoom in or out as the user taps the screen.
Auto Panel Navigation
There are a lot of bonuses to this automatic navigation. First, in complex layouts it assures you that you’re reading the panels and word balloons in the proper order. The larger display of artwork can give us insights into the work of better artists, or expose the flaws in other artist’s work.
And for those of us for whom reading glasses are often a necessity, you may be able to leave them off given the larger text.
However, auto panel navigation does make for a very tunnel-vision reading experience. You may find that you miss seeing the style of the larger page layout, the forest from the trees that this kind of close-up experience will avoid or diminish.
Digital comics are still a mystery for most, including the people that sell them. We really don’t know how popular they are. Most comics companies aren’t releasing the numbers of digital comics sold. Marvel provides download codes for the digital versions of most of their books, and charges a premium price for the paper version whether you redeem that code or not.
Your Library in the Fragile Cloud
Like digital books, digital comics make for a good traveling companion, and your digital library makes them easier to find than routing about in your long boxes. Again, the place you buy your comics is the same place you download them to your device. It requires an internet connection for the transaction because you can’t store them on your computer or home server. It’s unfortunately even more convoluted for comics, there’s a lot of opportunity for the companies to design a clearer purchase and retrieval process. But we can give them a few more years to catch up. And we can hope they want to catch up.
Your relationship with your cloud library is your personal login to the various digital comics stores. This should give you access to your purchases on an on-demand basis. But the comics downloaded to your device are basically locked-in there, you’re dependent on that specific device to read them. And the ugly truth is that without a connection to the cloud, at least every few days, your digital comics can turn into something dead. Not really yours to read no matter how much you’ve paid for them.
But we’ll talk more about that in the next episode.
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July 26, 2014