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Review: Comics, a digital comic reader and store for the iPhone

One thing that comics can’t easily achieve in paper form is the idea of a panned shot. You either have the whole two-page spread of the hero pulling out his weapon to kill the villain, or you do a reveal on the next page and leave the reader in suspense. This is an area where I think Comics, and its use of comiXology formatted issues, really shines. Each panel is specially formatted for the iPhone screen for maximum dramatic effect — turning the comic experience into something more of an awesome slideshow than a page turner. However, Comics does go beyond just the reading, as it’s also a place to buy your digital issues and locate stores around the city to buy paperback issues.
Managing Comics
The Comics UI is a simple, tabbed interface, and buying comics is pretty much a one-touch affair. You’ll still be asked for your iTunes password, though, so don’t worry about accidentally buying any content you didn’t really want. Comic downloads take about a minute or two, and since there’s no desktop sync of any sort, you’ll have to rely on your iPhone to access all of your content.
As far as pricing goes, this is one of those occasions where the digital copies really are cheaper than the paper ones. Most comics in the app cost $0.99, and the pricier ones cap out at $1.99. Considering that most of the series that are available only have five or six issues out, the $0.99 price point seems pretty fair. I would be interested to see some sort of bundling of series in the future, though. It’d be the digital equivalent of a trade paperback without all the hassle — well, at least that’s how I’m imagining it. However, if there aren’t any digital bundles available, you can always use the comic store locator within the app to see if a local brick and mortar shop has any deals.
Once downloaded, you can sort your comics by title, creator, publisher, or genre. Unlike most apps, however, you have to enter a special section of the app to manage them — you can’t just swipe and delete from the main menu. The only thing I haven’t figured out is how the app handles re-downloads. While you can specify the maximum amount of space the app is allowed to use, what happens to all of the comics you end up deleting? There isn’t any sort of marker to show you what you’ve bought, and the Comixology account that you create to use the app doesn’t show any of your purchase info either. If Comics is to succeed as a comic reader and library, it definitely has to be clearer about where your content goes when it’s not on the device, as well as how to access it again.
Reading Comics
What Comics really gets right is the experience of reading a comic book. Just like most reader apps, you can tap on the right or left side to turn the page, pinch to zoom in, or tap the middle of the screen to bring up options. The default formatting on most panels is letter-boxed, but you can also set the app to show you the whole page. Check out this quick little video demo made in a dark room somewhere in Canada:
As you can see there, the transitions from each panel are very smooth, and I love the way you can actually see bits of the page as you zoom from panel to panel. The auto rotation might annoy some people, but that’s why the pinch to zoom function is there. Choice is good. On the whole, the Comics app ran beautifully on my 3GS, but I encountered a few hiccups on my 2G. I’m not sure if it was a download error, but sometimes entire panels of the comic would appear grey and completely unreadable. A re-download of the comic and the liberation of a bit of RAM did the trick, though.
I really think the panel-by-panel letter-boxing is a brilliant idea that really brings the comics to life, but I can’t help but feel a little limited by the current Comixology catalogue. There are currently around 100 issues divided amongst 39 titles, but publishers like Marvel and DC are nowhere to be found (Image Comics was the biggest one I knew of — but I’m not a huge comic buff).
I’m hoping it’s just a matter of time until the catalogue becomes more varied (or they offer a desktop sync), but I haven’t really seen all that much growth in the weeks since the launch of the app. However, at a mere $0.99, the Comics app is a pretty safe bet. If you’re a comics fan you’ll likely find something amongst the free comic samplings to whet your appetite, and if nothing more comes out that you’d like to buy, you’re only out one dollar for your troubles.

You can find Comics by Iconology for $0.99 on the App Store.

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