I’m a huge proponent of all things digital, not only as a creative who loves the immediacy of the format (this blog is an example), but from a proponent of minimalism and simplicity (or, I just don’t like carrying a bunch of shit around with me). However, there is one medium where (so far), the digital revolution has not been kind:

Comic books.

After the IndieGoGo campaign for Whiz!Bam!Pow!, I decided that I would teach myself to design and produce apps, both for getting W!B!P! out into the world, and to explore the story possibilities this new medium offers. As W!B!P! is wholly influenced by my passion for comic books, one of the first things I did was download the comic book readers from both DC and Marvel (as well as Comixology and Graphic.ly). The W!B!P! comic will be available as a download, true – but if the current way (at least on an iPhone/Touch – I haven’t tried it on an iPad) comics are represented in the digital format is the best the “Big Two” can do, I’m appalled, and you may consider this post my apology to you for putting you through the trauma of reading digital comics.

Taken from the DC Comics reader on my iPod Touch. And no, it doesn't look much better in horizontal orientation.

This isn’t reading comic books. It’s barely reading. It’s more like a guided movie with dialogue balloons.

This is Crisis on Infinite Earths #1 from 1984 (85?). George Perez’s art is not meant to be seen in this format. I get that. And hell, back then, digital comics weren’t even on the brain, let alone radar.  But I’ve checked out a few others on the app (like the recent Blackest Night by Geoff Johns and Ivan Reis) and it’s the same format. And, in spite of Superman instructing me on how to read the comics (and Iron Man on the Marvel app), I’m stil not impressed.

There are really two issues at war here: form and format. The current digital comics format (again, I haven’t tried an iPad, though from what I’ve seen, it is fairly close to the full-page experience) is, simply put, horrendous.

It’s a classic example of cramming a form into a new format. It doesn’t work. It’s like cramming characters into a predetermined plot, or expecting people to watch a two hour film on their computer. Doesn’t work.

And then there’s pricing. DC Comics recently made a big deal of their “Day and Date” release of Batman Beyond #1 in both digital and print formats simultaneously. For the same price.

Waitaminute. Two completely different experiences for the same price (quality of the comic book notwithstanding)? One gives you a tactile experience and the ability to flip and scan the pages as you see fit, while the other drags you along as in the above example? It’s not the same experience – hell, it’s not even the same form. It’s having your cake and trying to stuff the whole thing in your mouth at once.

Fortunately, Archie Comics came along shortly thereafter with their own day and date plan – but cognizant of the fact that the experience is not the same, and therefore charging a lower price:

“It really reflects the fact that you don’t leave with the book in hand,” he said. “It’s not a stand-alone product. Even though the book itself is created as a stand-alone product, and you’re carrying it around on the device, when you have the comic book in hand, it’s a different sort of experience. So we recognize the fact that, digitally, it’s going to be a little less money.”

Thank you!  But it needs to go further.

Bitching is all well and good, but it’s useless without putting a few ideas out there on how to do digital comics right. So here’s a few ideas that I’m going to be exploring, and I hope others find useful:

• We have an opportunity to explore not only a new format and delivery system, but a new form. Don’t squander it.

Pricing as a Gateway Drug. The days of 10 cent comics and even $1.50 comics are over – in print. I would lower the prices of digital downloads drastically. If comics companies want new eyes, the best way is to go ahead and cram the comics into a different format (trade paperbacks are just another example of this), but for a significantly lower price for single issues as a gateway drug for the physical medium. 50 cent comics, 25 cent comics – in digital form – should be the norm.  Use the digital format as a way to hook readers who don’t want to fork over the $2.99 or $3.99 for the physical copy.  Give a little – potentially get a lot.  It’s all about access – and comics are notoriously (especially in this post-spinner rack era) hard to access for the general population.

It’s not the perceived dorkiness of the comic book community that turns people off to the medium (and still relegate it to red-headed step-child status) – it’s the lack of access. And we’re in an age of access, not ownership. Very distinct difference there.

• On that same token, comic books were ahead of their time. They were escapist entertainment ideally suited for the “hustle bustle” digital lifestyle we have today. Fun adventures for low cost. Let’s get back to that. Maybe make comics exclusively for digital that are the “done-in-one” style that someone can read on the subway and have a good time – and not have to worry about being completely lost. Comic storylines have gotten too complex and “important” for their own good. I’m pointing my finger at you, Lost and 24, for creating an environment where accessibility is a premium. Should be the other way ’round.

Pricing for Comic Fans. Look at the iTunes Store for an example. Season Passes of your favorite TV shows. Merge the trade paperback with the TV season and give season passes for those who want their favorite series. Every time a new issue is made available, it will download to their device. When I lived in Ohio, away from a good comic shop, I would have loved something like this – even though the format isn’t to my liking.  In order for this to work, the format has to be drastically altered. The digital reading experience is completely unpleasant, though unfortunately, I don’t have an answer there.

The only answer I’ve got is the same across all creative fields: make a good product, deliver it in a functional and aesthetically pleasing way, and price it accordingly. Don’t try to replicate experiences that simply can’t be replicated – be bold and explore something new.