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Ten years ago (give or take a few), webcomics were taking maximum advantage of the new comics distribution opportunities afforded by the web, while Marvel, DC, Dark Horse and all the others completely missed the boat. The only decent comics reading experience, in the early days of the web, came from small, scrappy artists and entrepreneurs. The big companies gave us nothing. What happened as a result? A few huge successes, plus a thousand earnest, often talented creators with dayjobs, have come to define the webcomics scene. The entrenched players stayed away, so new voices had a chance to thrive.

On my iPad, the best comics reading experience, bar none, is not from small, scrappy innovators. It’s from the big companies, via Comixology’s apps (the “Comics” one, which includes DC and a lot of other familiar publishers, and the “Marvel” one, which is exactly the same application, but limited in content to Marvel comics only). The deal is this: you buy “issues” of printed comic books, which have been repurposed and re-engineered to be read more easily on the device. Comixology has done a better job than most in the re-engineering department, with intuitive navigation, a “guided view” that puts other comics readers to shame, and a smart and savvy editorial vibe.

I know that hardcore comics fans have been complaining that the releases are not up to date, are not the same ones that you see in the comic book stores on any given week. And that is true. The comic books you buy in these apps are pretty old, for the most part. I don’t think that that matters to the new, casual reader that these apps are targeting. It doesn’t even matter all that much to me. For example, I know that the Grant Morrison Batman stories I’m buying are a few years out of date. But I skipped them when they came out, and have been interested in reading them all along. I would have bought a trade paperback, but I’m buying them this way instead. A casual reader presumably hasn’t read any of this stuff at all, so it’s all new to him/her.

What does matter to casual readers, though, is that it’s kind of confusing to have all these older periodicals for sale, as “issues,” without a sense of the context in which they were released — especially since there are enormous gaps in the archives. So, for example, if you navigate to “Batman” in the Comixology app, you find issues 404 – 407 (comprising Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One storyline), followed by issue 608 – 619 (Hush), then starting up again with # 655 (the beginning of Grant Morrison’s current run on the character). A casual reader would have been far better served by the option to buy something named “Batman: Year One by Frank Miller” — and would have actually been more excited to do so, I’m guessing, than by being presented with a random-looking set of issue numbers (why would I start with #404, again, hunh?) that have to be explained within the descriptive text as being part of a major storyline by a major talent.

I think this ties into the complaints from hardcore fans about non-up-to-datedness. Nobody expects collections (or trade paperbacks, in the print world) to be up to date. “Issues,” on the other hand, feel like they should be running on a regular schedule. If you’re going to stick to that metaphor, the 24-page serialized chunk, then it needs to feel like it’s coming at me on a regular basis, in an ongoing way, with a storyline that is constantly advancing. It needs to be a serial. Cherry-picking the best of the past, while an awesome strategy for providing great material for people to read, isn’t really compatible with the periodical feeling that buying these in “issues” engenders. This is further compounded by the fact that there’s so much crossover information in contemporary comics; when the “issue” of Batman that was released this week references a Superman story arc as though it is happening right now — but the “issue” of Superman that was released this week comes from two years later, or two years earlier, in comic book continuity — well, my friends, that’s just confusing.

The point I want to underline, though, is that the big publishers, and the old-school properties, are where all the action is in the iPad digital comics scene. Webcomic entrepreneurs have been as clumsy in taking advantage of this new platform, have seemed (to this observer, anyway) to be as stuck in their ways, as entrenched and established and slow-moving, as print comics publishers were back in the early days of webcomics. That’s something I never would have expected. That’s leapfrog.

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