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Marvel at the opportunity

When The Literary Platform found out that I love old comics and illustrated books, they asked me to write a column commenting on Marvel’s iPad application . I thought instead of just reading my ruminations, you might like to know what hardcore collectors, retailers and the creatives who actually write and draw comics have to say. So I borrowed an iPad, downloaded the Marvel app and a bundle of comics, and headed over to the Bristol Comic Expo on 22 May.

The iPad is very sleek and so is Marvel’s app (comiXology). There’s a great opportunity here to reinvigorate the comic format. The My Comics screen displays the covers in a flip-file across the top of the interface and within a few screen taps, you can be reading a colourful, hi res reproduction of Wolverine, Iron Man, the Fantastic Four or one of the hundreds of other comics, which are £1.19 each. It’s like the iPhone app but because the iPad is only a little smaller than a comic, you don’t really need to use a panel-by-panel method to read the comic iPhone-style, you can enjoy entire pages the old fashioned way. It’s bright, glossy and feels expensive, and you might find yourself avoiding getting fingerprints on it, handling it with similar sensitivity to how you might hold a first printing of Wolverine issue one. Even though said comic came out in 1982, there’s a newness about it on screen. The panels have clean, white backgrounds, not the creamy yellow of ageing newsprint. Better still, Wolverine comes as a free sample, whereas an original copy costs more than most can afford.

Access to the stories without the cost attracts my fellow journalist and comic fan Cavan Scott to the iPad. He drifted away from comics when they started appearing in more expensive glossy editions. Now with a wife and children, he still wants to read comics, but not hoard them. “I’ve got a lifestyle where the most important thing isn’t my collection of The Amazing Spiderman. I’ve got to buy clothes for my daughters, and toys,” he says. “I want my house to look a little bit grown up. I don’t want stuff crammed into every corner, and I think the iPad is going to give you the chance to do that – still keep up with your childhood stuff, but you haven’t got to have it on display. It’s all just there on your hard disk so you’ve got it if you want it.”

Every comic fan fears a world without print, but the app could ironically end up supporting paper comics and graphic novels. Marvel’s movies have put superheroes back into the mainstream and today’s pre-teens do identify with Spiderman, the X-men and Iron Man. Casual comic reading online may help the industry emerge from the niche it’s been slipping further and further into since the mid-80s.

‘Denerdify’ is a favourite word of Dave Finn of comic retailer Incognito. “It will introduce people that are computer savvy to the world of comics, who wouldn’t necessarily go into a comic shop to pick up a comic, but they will very likely download one, which will then get them thinking, ‘Oh, I’ll buy a paper one.’ It desensitises the public to the nerdity of superheroes,” he says. “That will knock-on and improve sales through comic stores and improve back issue sales. Not everyone is going to have everything electronic; people will pick up a physical item, so I think it’s very good.”

While Dave was gleefully checking out a digital trailer for the Black Widow Saga, Tony Lee came over. He writes Dr Who comics, and his graphic novel version of Pride and Prejudice with Zombies hit the top of the New York Times’ paperback list recently. He thinks perhaps it would be better if instead of separate apps by each publisher, the industry might benefit from one app that encompasses Marvel, DC and the rest.

Soon he started talking about how he’d work if he were writing comics for the iPad, immediately pointing out that there are no double-page spreads in the Marvel app, even if you rotate the device to landscape aspect. However one-page-at-a-time viewing does have its benefits. “If you look at comics now you have a two-page scene, and the right to left page turn is where the surprise comes in,” he says. “With this app, that becomes a thing of the past, because every single page is a surprise. Every page turn can be a cliff-hanger, whereas in a comic you can’t do that, and I think that is one of the nicest things about it because when you’re writing a 22-page story, you’re hampered by the fact that only 11 of those pages can really lead into a surprise.”

Artist Dave Kendall and writer Mike Carey are also considering the potential. Ideas like atmospheric music and walls that crawl with moving textures seem great enhancements to a horror comic. The question is how far you go with it before it shifts into a cheesy medium in the no-man’s land between print and animation. Augmentation is a huge opportunity, but if the iconic charm of comics is to survive it will need to be handled with sufficient craft and subtlety.

The hero-god, Chris Claremont, originator of some of the greatest X-men stories ever, was signing at the show, but didn’t sign my iPad. He liked seeing Wolverine issue one (which he wrote back in the day), but is circumspect on the consumer’s behalf. “If I go out and download Wolverine onto the iPad, it’s not mine, it’s a licensed look at a property that can be withdrawn by a third party, whether it’s Apple or Marvel or anybody else. It seems like a very fungible line if I have a whole bunch of Marvel products in Apple, and then for some reason Apple gets pissed off at Disney. Suppose they just say, ‘We’re not going to carry Marvel product anymore, screw you.’ But I’ve bought all this stuff, what happens to it? I’ve seen sillier things happen,” he says.

For Claremont, the opportunity is there but there’s still a long way to go. “I’m very impressed,” he says. “It’s just like looking at a very good plane in 1912 and trying to imagine flying across the Atlantic. It’s the first step but in five or ten years it could be something completely different.”

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