It’s impossible to ignore the fact that monthly comics are failing fast. There are a hundred different reasons for that, but one of the most obvious is also one of the most simple – and one of the hardest to fight.
Comics are no longer impulse buys – at 3-4$, they’re expensive as hell, and what’s more, a single issue isn’t a full story, or half a story, or even reallyt a single chapter of a story. Most are exposition-filled action scenes, it often seems. You have to go to a special store, often driving 20+ miles, to spend an obscene amount of money on a fraction of a store.
High printing costs and shipping costs and travel times can all be removed by making comics a force on e-readers and the iPad. Comics can become affordable for kids again. Women, frequently reporting a hostile vibe at some comics shops, can pick up comics regularly (I suspect DC’s underrated MINX line, for example, would have fared significantly better digitally).
With that in mind and a shiny new iPad in hand – thank you, Chrimbus! – I thought I’d explore the company-specific iPad apps that are must-haves for any comics fans. So, here you have your (very brief) reviews of the following apps: Marvel, DC, Boom!, Image and IDW.
Marvel is the most often-mentioned comics app. A number of ‘Best Free iPad Apps’ lists tag Marvel as a must-download: consequently, Marvel was the first one I downloaded and tried. Once the initial excitement wore off, however, I realized that the list must have been made by non-comics fans, because Marvel’s offering was disappointing at best.
Marvel’s interface is, I would learn, fairly basic. It has three options: the first, ‘My Comics’, is where any downloaded issues will appear; the second is the Store, where you buy comics; the final is settings, which is where you’ll log into and manage your Comixology account. With the exception of IDW, all the other companies I talk about here use the same basic format.
In the Store, you have four tabs: Featured, New, Popular and Free. These are pretty self-explanatory. The Featured tab is valuable largely for the fact that it highlights sales – if random issues of the Fanatastic Four are on sale for a day, that’s where you’ll hear about it. New contains the newest downloads, Popular the most frequent downloads, and Free… well, seriously, this isn’t really rocket science.
The system is simple, intuitive, and moves quickly, even on the basic 3G connection. What struck me, however, when I first logged on, were the prices.
Marvel has made little to no allowances for the idea that digital comics have no printing or distribution costs. 3.99$ is a fairly common price for single, 22-page issues. 2.99$ also exists, though 1.99$ seems to be the most common (unfortunately, some 1.99$ comics are extra-short, making the pricing nearly criminal). 0.99$ is reserved for periodic sales highlighting the first few issues of popular recent runs – Hickman’s Fantastic Four, Carey’s X-Men, etc… – but is not something you’ll see commonly.
More than anything else, pricing kills the Marvel model here. The print issues are already overpriced, but charging the same price for digital models is foolhardy. They don’t offer collections at a discounted rate, and they don’t represent their other imprints – no Marvel MAX, no Icon. That means no Criminal, no Incognito, no Punishers MAX – not at all. Together, these things make Marvel’s app an inessential download.
The first 48 issues of Ed Brubaker’s now-legendary ongoing Captain America are available, as is his cult hit (as well as Swierzynski’s follower-up) Immortal Iron Fist. The overrated-but-still-fantastic Captain Britain and MI:13 is on here in completion, and Kurt Busiek’s Marvel classic Marvels is available – as long as you’re willing to pay double what you should, as each issue is split in half.
Marvel’s main competitor does a slightly better job. They offer far, far more free comics – most notably, they offer a free download of the first issue of all their major ‘event’ comics, everything from Brightest Day to Crisis on Infinite Earths, but they slack off significantly on the books themselves – while the original Crisis has 12 issues available, Final Crisis has only a single issue and Brightest Day only a handful, while Blackest Night is listed as a 79-part event – a moneygrabbing scheme 100% guaranteed to frustrate and alienate any casual reader even mildly curious about the book.
They have the exact same format, though their ‘Browse’ function is a little more robust, as it does include in Imprint search, allowing you to see DC, Vertigo, Wildstorm and Zuda. The DC search is essentially the same as Marvel’s – though with a more consistent 1.99$ price point – though its choice of runs are inconsistent at best.
Wildstorm is tolerable, offering . Vertigo, unfortunately, is a massive letdown, offering a genuinely random selection of 5 issues of 4 series (American Splendor V2 #4, 100 Bullets #5, Swamp Thing #27 and 28, and Preacher #7 at time of writing). Rather than a complete run on vital titles like Watchmen or Sandman, or cheap issues of underperforming titles like Air or Crossing Midnight, their Vertigo store is utterly incomplete.
The real star of DC’s iPad app is the Zuda imprint, however. The Zuda lines has more than 50 issues of 12 different Zuda books with across the board 0.99$ pricing, though they also offer free downloads of the first issue of each book. You can check out hits like Bayou or lesser-known titles like Black Cherry Bombshells.
DC seems to have a better idea than Marvel of how to use the digital medium to get its titles out there. Marvel did a better job of getting its major titles out there – while DC has all of Morrison’s run on Batman for sale, it has none of Batman & Robin or The Return of Bruce Wayne, and the selection of Detective Comics and Action Comics is embarrassing – so they probably make more fast cash, but DC has a stronger long-term plan, offering a wide variety of titles starring both major and minor characters from every imprint.
All 4 issues of Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One is essential, as is the complete All-Star Superman. Anyone with even a little curiosity should check out the Zuda section and sample their more interesting titles. A huge chunk of Warren Ellis’ classic Planetary is also available, including the supersized (and super fantastic) Planetary/Batman issue.
BOOM! is a relatively new publisher, but they made a splash in a big way when Mark Waid joined them as Editor in Chief. Shortly after that, Waid started publishing Irredeemable and Incorruptible, two fantastic super-hero books that got a lot of attention from the comic book press. BOOM! has more to offer than that, however.
On the downside, BOOM! doesn’t appear to offer its BOOM! Kids comics digitally, a line largely comprised of its collaborations with Disney-Pixar. In fact, their Imprint section is completely empty. Some of their licensed books are missing, as well as their collections of original graphic novels, reprints and one-shots.
(Update: While BOOM! publishes the Disney * Pixar comics, they are offered digitally by Disney themselves on their own comics app. Want to see Mark Waid do Pixar? Download the Disney Digicomics app!)
Mark Waid’s two core books for the company – Incorruptible and Irredeemable – are both available on here in near-completion, only two months behind, while Waid’s lesser-known but still enjoyable Potter’s Field is also complete. Recent high-profile mini-series’ Unthinkable and Hexed are also here in completion.
While Image uses the same general format as Marvel, DC and BOOM!, they have a few additional features. They get their books up quickly and reliably, but it’s more than that: Image is the only company to offer trades of major titles. For 4.99$, you can download the first or second Invincible trades. For 9.99$ each, you can get the first 11 collections of The Walking Dead. Offering bigger, packaged downloads at a discount is an interesting strategy for digital downloads, and I’d be very interested to know the sales figures for these.
Image’s Imprints feature is also extremely complete, offering a full range of books from Image, Shadowline, Sky Bound and Top Cow, including most of their major hits like The Walking Dead. Image offers a wide variety of books at the standard price in a number of genres. If you’re looking to get into digital comics, Image has the unmissable download.
This one’s obvious: The Walking Dead. Invincible. Chew. Up to date and at competitive prices. Go and be merry.
IDW is the only major company here to use a different format for their comics. Their app is no more convenient than the others, but it DOES appear to be significantly slower to load images and new pages – and, unfortunately, to download books. It’s far from bad, but it is a noticeable slowdown, something that hurts it in the long run.
They offer an understandably eclectic selection of books, from their well-known licensed materials like Ghostbusters and Machete to smaller-scale projects like Kill Shakespeare (which sells at 0.99$ apiece and offers the first two issues for free). IDW is not a company that offers something for everyone – while the other four companies offer a wide variety of material, IDW has an extremely limited selection.
If IDW can fix up a few small glitches and offer a slightly wider variety of materials, they will jump to the top of the class. As-is, they have the best price model of any of the other companies here, but lack the content to truly capitalize on the advantage.
Check out some of Alan Martin’s Tank Girl – there are a pair of quirky TG minis available for 0.99$ an issue. John Rogers, the fantastic Blue Beetle scribe, is working on a Dungeons & Dragons mini-series – the first two issues are solid, and the books are only a month behind on here. Like the TNT show Leverage? This is that, but with, uh, dungeons. And presumably some dragons. Similarly, Peter David’s recent IDW Fallen Angel series is available on here in completion, again at 99 cents apiece.
Image is the clear winner when it comes to quality digital comics. They have fair prices, they sell discounted digital ‘trades’ for improved buying. They update frequently, they have most of their recent, major books well-represented. In short, Image does just about everything right. With slightly lower prices, they could become a genuine powerhouse. As-is, however, Image is still a top tier digital provider.
1.99$ is too much in general for an average sized digital comic, at least in my humble opinion. The ideal price is 0.99$ – something IDW manages to accomplish for many comics – which puts comics in the realm of a genuine impulse buy. At 0.99$, I find myself buying anything I find even mildly interesting, trying new books from new companies and buying entire runs on a whim.
Of course, comics fans on iPad don’t need to stop there. Apps like Comics +, Cloud Nine Comix, Comics and Digital Comics offer things from each major comics company, as well as true independents like Tom Stillwell’s worthwhile Honor Brigade. It’s worth downloading as many apps as you can, since they’re all free and offer a wider variety of materials.
Digital comics aren’t the end-all be-all, of course, and they aren’t a panacea to the ills that plague the comics industry. There are a million problems with them, ranging from availability – how many people have the necessary tablet computers? – to issue of ownership regarding digital content. They don’t do anything to help keep comic shops alive, and they offer a limited selection.
But for now at least, they’re a temporary solution – a very good one – to a very serious problem. Digital comics can reach people print comics simply can’t, and at prices that beat the tar out of their print counterparts. I can’t say this is necessarily the wave of the future, but it has potential to become much more than it is now.