What Apple’s iPad Could Mean for Indie Comics

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Far and away one of the greatest perks of my day job is the healthy amount of face time it affords me with the hottest new gadgets. And In terms of pure, unadulterated buzz, no piece of consumer electronics in recent memory has come anywhere near the iPad—well, at least not since Apple’s last major product launch.

Like the iPhone before it, the new tablet marks a rare intersection between office work and the extracurricular for me (see also: PCMag’s coverage of last year’s San Diego Comic Con). Late last week I penned a piece about my experiences with the device, having fiddled around with it for the better part of the day.

The piece, which went live last night, largely focused on the iPad’s capabilities as a comics reading device, a task assigned to me in light of my status as the staff’s resident sequential art expert (an equally impressive and dubious title given the fact that I am the senior editor of one of the cornerstones of modern American geekdom).

I will confess that I spent a rather large portion of the piece offering context for the initiated, explaining to outsiders the concept of “infinite canvas,” as described by Scott McCloud (who, incidentally, was kind enough to discuss his thoughts on the device in the lead up to the iPad’s release).

Ultimately, the use of the term was, perhaps, something of a plea, on my part. While there’s certainly a lot to be excited about with regards to the current crop of iPad comics apps by companies like Comixology and iVerse (who both have their own self-branded apps as well as ones developed alongside companies like Marvel, IDW, and Archie), the future of sequential art on the iPad—if there is indeed one—will likely lie in the ability for artists and publishers to craft works designed specifically to play toward the device’s strengths.

While Marvel was arguably the first comics publisher to fully embrace the device, having released its app in time for the launch of the iPad section of Apple’s App Store, it’s hard to imagine that the company’s immediate digital game plan extends well beyond the repurposing of old print issues. Marvel, after all, has a vast back catalog to draw upon, and if their current roster of titles is any indication, the company has no problem relying upon past successes for continued financial gain.

And who can blame them, really? There’s a lot to be said for several decades worth of steady cashflow with relatively little exertion. This isn’t meant as a knock on the individual arts and writers, many of whom have taken the publisher’s existing franchises in a number of interesting and often times thought provoking directions—it’s just that Marvel is a big company (one now owned by a giant corporation), and as such, risk taking is likely not atop its list of priorities.

The company certainly deserves kudos for having jumped on the iPad bandwagon so quickly—and for having leant its name to a truly terrific app (DRM concerns aside, for the moment). Marvel’s investment in the device so early on will almost certainly go a ways toward ensuring some success amongst early adopting comics fans—I’ve even heard it whispered in some circles that Marvel’s contribution may, in fact, be the iPad’s first “killer app,” as they say in the business.

But even this early in the game, the iPad is more calculated than risk. Marvel witnessed the runaway success of the iPhone before it, and surely wanted to know how they could get a piece of a the hottest piece of what was almost certainly the hottest contemporary piece of consumer electronics. Motion comics represented a shot at the iPhone’s ever-expanding user base. In the case of the Bendis-penned Spider-Woman, the shot payed off.

Given Apple’s track record over the past decade, the iPad seemed like a no-brainer, especially as pundits discussed the potential for a rumored Apple tablet to utterly reshape the comics industry. So Marvel teamed with Comixology, a company that had made a name for itself by producing a successful app for the iPhone.

Marvel’s chief competitor, DC, meanwhile, seems largely out of the picture, for the time being, no doubt watching the returns of the iPad from a comfortable distance (for those keeping track, Apple announced today that it had sold 500,000 of the Wi-Fi units, exceeding expectations so greatly that it has subsequently pushed international sales of the device back by a full month). To DC’s credit, the publisher introduced a fascinating initiative with Zuda, but that site wasn’t exactly a pioneer in the already-booming world of Webcomics.

That leaves, I think, innovation in the hands of the smaller presses—and even, perhaps, the self-publishers. Perhaps there’s some bias on my part as the editor of an indie comics blog, but I would argue that, more often than not, that’s where true innovation in this industry tends to originate, amongst the artists who are not constrained by the wants, desires, and politics of large corporations.

There are, however, a few important hurdles. While writing the PCMag piece, I sent a note to a number of comics publishers, asking if they had plans to enter the iPad App Store. I received a lot of nothing from my contacts at smaller publishers. Sparkplug’s Dylan Williams, however, sent me a funny, but somewhat telling note, writing, “Sadly, not us. I can barely manage a print strategy.”

At this early stage, I imagine that many independent publishers see a pretty high barrier for entry for this shiny new device. AdHouse has some books in there. As does NBM. They struck content deals with companies like Comixology and iVerse, which allow older books to be released through existing apps. Apple has announced that it will feature a comic/graphic novel section in its iBook Store, as well. Perhaps that will open up the playing field a touch—however, like iTunes before it, the store isn’t exactly open to all comers.

In recent months, Apple tightened its already vice-like grip on apps it allows to exist on its device. Who’s to say that the company won’t do the same with comics, whether due to content deemed questionable by those it has charged with vetting, or simply because a publisher it too small to register a blip on its radar?

This probably isn’t the proper forum to demand that Apple open up its ecosystem to creators—there are plenty of far more trafficked blogs already doing that (not to mention the lawyer-powered Electronic Frontier Foundation). Rather I would like to issue a plea to creators and small publishers—take a good long look at the iPad. For better and worse, it represents a large part of publishing’s future.

I’m not suggesting that print comics and comic shops are going away any time soon, of course. They’re not. I am, however, suggesting that this is the time to (to quote Mr. McCloud again) re-invent comics. And the iPad and its ilk will almost certainly serve as a primary conduit toward such innovation—if not through the App Store, through the Internet itself. Do not forget, after all, Web browsing is one of the device’s strongest suits.

There are limitations of course–Steve Jobs’s stubborn insistence on barring Flash springs to mind (though there are workarounds, like the soon-to-be-ubiquitous HTML5)—but the tools are too great to pass up. It’s portable, it’s got a brilliant screen, incorporation of multimedia is certainly a possibility, and the multi-touch/scrolling capabilities may well be a gateway to the promise of “infinite canvas.”

For the moment, the iPad is a great device for reading old, re-formatted issues of Spider-Man. But it has the potential to be so much more—a potential that’s in the hands of a lot of bright-eyed cartoonists looking to make a splash in the world of comics.

–Brian Heater

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