Comics On Handhelds
This piece was originally written for the 11th Seoul International Cartoon & Animation Festival.
My experiments with screen-based comics began during my undergraduate years in Montreal, where I read a Wired magazine comic by Scott McCloud that discussed the potential for comics to go digital. This led me to McCloud’s then-current book Reinventing Comics and his already extensive website. A read of Reinventing Comics, a few experimental comix of my own, and a graduate degree later, I received an email from Will Simmons at Clickwheel asking if I was interested in publishing my comics to iPods. I was, despite never having seen a color iPod at that point. Will assured me that my comics looked gorgeous on the small screens, but only when I got ahold of one a few months later did I realize the full potential of handheld digital comics.
It's not surprising that comics joined music and video on handhelds. It was inevitable, given the ubiquity of these devices, the revitalization of the comics medium, and the growing interest in webcomics. And though I have no statistics to support this, I suspect that a healthy slice of the net-savvy, handheld-using demographic is also enthusiastic and supportive of comics, be they digital or printed on paper.
Unlike music and video, comics don't suffer from the need to reduce file size (and thus quality) in order to get them onto handhelds. Quite the contrary; quality is enhanced. It's actually satisfying holding a digital comic in your hand, especially compared to hunching over a monitor attempting to read the small or blurry type that often plagues webcomics. The high resolution of an iPod screen ensures that tiny handwriting is legible, and makes the colors crisper than most laptop screens. Due to the typographic nature of comics, I believe that the quality of other handheld screens will need to meet the standard set by the iPod in order to adequately display comics.
An appealing direction for small-screen comics would be the incorporation of artist-controlled transitions from one panel to the next. Currently, comics can only be viewed on an iPod using its standard photo-viewing interface. The typical transition is a straight cut, which is fine, and the user has the option to select others such as "cube" or "swirl", which are gimmicky and do not enhance reading. Consider, however, the simple gliding panel-to-panel movements used in Daniel Merlin Goodbrey's flash-based Tarquin Engine, which, as an example of an infinite canvas with multi-directional reading possibilities, seems ideally suited for viewing comics on a tiny screen. As touch-screen handhelds become the norm, readers may simply be able to finger tap the next panel in a sequence and see it zoom into focus on the screen.
A crucial step I'd like to see for small-screen comics is a simple way for readers to subscribe to their favorite comic and have it download automatically to their handheld. Accessibility and ease of use will be essential in maintaining the momentum of small-screen comics.