The Limitations of Digital Comics

In 2019, I bought myself a 2-in-1, 11.6″ Chromebook that I mostly use for two purposes: writing stuff (such as this post) and reading comics. I wanted a lightweight writing and reading device I could easily take on vacations or to a coffee shop. In that regard, the Chromebook has served me well. However, I often find that reading comics on it leaves something to be desired.

Thinking about it a bit, I decided this is not entirely the Chromebook’s fault. For various reasons, I’m buying and reading many comics digitally these days. While doing so is easy and often convenient, it is just not the same as owning and reading a print comic. Digital comics have unique limitations that print comics do not, and because I’m reading more things digitally, I’ve been butting up against those limitations quite a bit.

Others have already discussed some of these limitations (and I’ve discussed some of digital comics’ unique strengths). But here, I want to discuss my personal “grievances” with digital comics. These are the factors that keep me from fully embracing digital – even though I bought a device specifically to read digital comics on.

The Double-page Spread Dilemma

This double-page spread from The Sandman: Endless Nights is an incredible piece of art:

This wild spread brought to you by Bill Sienkiewicz.

It is also, however, unreadable. Or at least, it is if you’re trying to read Endless Nights on a tablet or 2-in-1 laptop. When we recently read Endless Nights for our monthly book club podcast, I found myself unable to process this double-page spread. And I’m not talking about only the art as a static image; I also did not understand the story beats laid down on these two pages. Even using comiXology’s Guided View, I felt I was missing something essential.

Of course, I was missing something essential. I was missing the roughly three to five additional square inches of “canvas” this spread was meant to be printed upon. When I later viewed the image on my desktop computer, I came away with a better understanding and more favorable opinion of it. This experience, of having to halt and putter and process double-page spreads, is one of my biggest peeves with the digital comics reading experience.

All print comic pages suffer a bit in the transition from print to digital, but double-page spreads suffer the most. These pages that are intended specifically to feel expansive, to give big moments their due and draw audiences into a story, instead do the exact opposite when viewed on small digital screens. Digital double-page spreads almost always wreck a story’s flow and push readers out of the story, because readers have to switch to Guided View or zoom in on their screen to get a full sense of the spread’s contents. And no mater how much zooming you do, viewing a spread in parts is never, ever going to be the same as viewing it as a proper whole.

Our podcast ran into this same issue again the following month, when reading the double-page spread heavy Doctor Strange: The Way of the Weird. While Chris Bachalo’s double-page spreads were less manic than Bill Sienkiewicz’s, and Guided View helped when reading them, I still wished I’d been viewing the spreads at their intended size. Which happens often, when I encounter a digital double-page spread.

Help! My Comic Is Trapped in My Computer!

Up to this point, I’ve discussed only digital comics that were originally intended to be published as print comic books. This, of course, is only one kind of digital comics. There are digital comics that function much like (or actually are) newspaper strips. There are digital comics that use vertical scrolling in place of left-to-right panel transitions. And there are digital comics that take full advantage of Scott McCloud’s “infinite canvas” concept – such as some of the comics published on xkcd and Emily Carroll’s website.

The opening “page” to Emily Carroll’s The Worthington – each door is a hyperlink to a short story.

Many of these comics use digital comics’ inherent screen- and device-based nature incredibly cleverly. They are pinnacles of comics and storytelling as an artform. However, even the most clever, most unique digital comic is still a digital comic. Which means it must be read on an electronic device, which makes me 1,000 times less likely to read it.

Because my job requires me to sit in front of a screen and write eight hours a day, five days a week (and I also write in my spare time), I tend to be “screened-out” by the time my leisure time rolls around. For this reason, I don’t watch much TV, I don’t play video games nearly as often as I used to, and I can’t for the life of me get into reading digital comics outside of comiXology. Even my comiXology reading has gone down considerably since I started working from home last year, and began taking less screen-less breaks throughout the day.

I have tried to become a webcomics reader. Last year, I even went so far as to install the WEBTOON app on my phone, thinking it would finally be the avenue that hooked me on non-comiXology digital comics. But just like traditional webcomics, I found WEBTOON wasn’t for me. I read a few comics in the app over the course of a few months, but I preferred reading print comics whenever I had them available to me. I ended up deleting WEBTOON and haven’t really looked back.

For those (like me) averse to or not able to regularly access technology, digital comics will never take in the same way that print can. What’s more, even those who have access to technology may run into issues when reading some digital comics! As I stated above, I bought a Chromebook specifically to read comiXology comics, and I still have issues with the “translation” from print to digital. (The difficulties of which are not limited to double-page spreads.) I’ve seen other digital comics readers mention that they read their comics on their televisions, which I cannot imagine doing. I don’t even own a television, currently. I can’t imagine buying one just to read comics on.

Digital screens are infinite canvasses, but they are still restrictive. They restrict readers to reading comics when and where a screen is available – or when and where the reader is comfortable using a screen-laden device. A friend of mine and I sometimes “joke” that we get our best comics reading done on the toilet. But you can bet I’ve never taken my Chromebook to the bathroom with me, and I’m certainly not about to install a television in there anytime soon.

The Personal Digital Touch

As I’m writing this, I’m about two days out from moving all my possessions, including my comic books, into a new house. The house is larger than the apartment I’ve been living in, and I should have room to shelve all my comics for the first time in … ever, I think? Even when I lived with my parents as a child, I stored many of my comics in shoeboxes under my bed. I’m nearly as excited to be able to look at and access all my comics as my wife is to plant a permanent garden and buy a dog. Which is to say, I’m pretty excited. If you haven’t already noticed (*waves hands wildly at comics blog*), my comics mean a lot to me.

See if you can figure out how many totes are full of comics.

My digital comics, however, will continue to reside in their same location – on my hard drives and Amazon’s web servers. This is both their boon and their curse. If I added my digital comics to the five totes of physical comic books sitting in my apartment living room, there would likely be at least two more totes to move. I am happy to not be moving those two extra totes. But at the same time, looking through my digital comics library does not make me smile in the same way that even just placing physical comics in plastic totes makes me smile. I have an emotional connection with physical comics that I do not have with digital comics. And I think it’s so much easier to both find and share that emotional connection with others via physical comics, rather than digital.

Let’s pull each of the verbs in that previous sentence, “find” and “share,” out and examine them separately, because both affect readers’ experience with comics. One of the posts I’ve been meaning to put together for this blog is an examination of comics I found in unique places and circumstances, and how that affects what those comics mean to me. I have a copy of Justice League of America 200 that I found on a family vacation in Nashville, and that years later, George PĂ©rez signed for me at a comic convention I attended with my dad. My friend Cal, who I met studying in Australia, convinced me Hitman was worth a try. So when I had a chance to get Cal a signed copy of one of my favorite Hitman issues, I did so. I think of that whenever I re-read the issue.

I do not have that same connection with almost any of my digital comics. The ones that come close are those I’ve received as gifts and those we’ve discussed on Waiting on the Trade. Absent that connection, digital comics lose some of the power of their print brethren. I’m not going to remember where I was when Mauraders went on sale on comiXology and I clicked “Buy.” I will certainly remember the story, but I won’t remember the actual purchase like I do for so many of my print comics.

Given that, “tracking down” and reading digital comics can sometimes feel like a hollow approximation of the real thing. This feeling is not helped by the fact that, while searching for digital comics is often more convenient, browsing comics at a real store or convention is one of my favorite things. In addition to viewing all the colorful spines and covers, I like to look at what other people are looking at, and I like to talk with retailers, especially, about what’s popular or what they’re reading. For example, when I purchased the third volume of Witch Hat Atelier, the person working my local comic shop’s register complimented my taste and recommended some other manga. ComiXology has recommendations on lock, but it has yet to pat me on the back for buying good comics.

I love the act of finding comics and conversing with those who also enjoy finding comics. The stories surrounding my purchases are often as meaningful as the books themselves. I don’t think any digital purchase will ever carry the same weight.

At the same time, I enjoy sharing comics. Digital comics actually make this easier, as I can send my friends a link to an enjoyable webcomic or buy them their own copy of a book on comiXology (assuming they have a suitable device to read it on). It is definitely more convenient, and often cheaper, to “share” comics digitally.

However, as a person who has both sent and received comics as gifts, I know it is more impactful to share a physical comic than a digital one. When I receive a physical book from a friend or loved one, I prioritize reading that book. I think of the person I received the book from when I hold the book. And I especially value books that include handwritten notes on the inside cover, explaining why the sender sent the book.

Whenever I send a gift via comiXology, I always wonder whether I should have instead sent it physically, because I know physical books mean more to me and are more likely to make me fall in love with a story. And I want my friends to get the most out of the stories I send them, rather than have to zoom in on double-page spreads (provided they even have a good device to read digital comics on).

Limits, Love, … and Heavy Lifting

There are lots of reasons to love digital comics, both as a medium and a technological advance. When I’m flying, I love the ability to pack twenty to thirty comic collections within the space of just one Chromebook. When I’m looking to find something cool that comics have not yet done, digital comics are often leading the way. And when I’m searching for a specific comic that I can’t find locally, I still marvel at the ability to fire up the internet and often download that comic with the press of a few keys and the click of a button.

However, for the reasons I mentioned above, I’ll never be able to fully make the transition from print to digital comics. I simply can’t bring myself to tie my comics reading to an electronic device, especially a device that is not always optimal for reading the comics I am most interested in. Which is too bad, as being willing to offload more of my physical comics would save me a lot of heavy lifting later this week.

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