By Glen Weldon
I mean, eventually it will. The device that Apple is announcing today (for the cavebound: You know that thing Yeoman Rand used to carry around on the bridge? Matched her Starfleet-issue go-go boots? Yeah. Pretty much that.) has got a lot of things to single-handedly save first.
I haven't been following the hype, and even I've read speculation that The New Flatness will save, in no particular order: Book publishing, newspapers, magazines, music, textbooks, games and the music industry. Also: The Whales, the Children, the Tiger, The Cheerleader/World, Energy, Ferris, and The Last Dance for Me.
So yeah, once it's got all that sorted, it's gonna save the comics industry. No, really; for months the comics press has teemed with forward-looking headlines both bold ("Apple Tablet Will Restore Comic Books to Former Glory") and coy ("Could Apple's iSlate Tablet Be a Digital Game-Changer?")
After the jump: I don't know, could it?
Amazon's Kindle does okay with black-and-white comics, and several full-color comics-reading applications are already available for the iPhone.
But ever since the tablet rumors started, members of the comic book cognescenti have been eager to dismiss those advances as half-measures. Take Chicago Sun-Times reporter Andy Ihnatko, who has become something of a one-man-band on the subject of the Apple Tablet's rumored potential; the tune he's been singing to the comics blogosphere sounds an awful lot like, "The Apple Tablet Will Save Comics (Radio Edit)."
Ihnatko's premise, echoed by Popular Mechanics and a host of other tech/comics/geek outlets, is that a device capable of reproducing the full-sized, full-color comic book page has the potential to "make the market for comic books that much broader and that much more relevant."
Black-and-white just doesn't cut it (goes this reasoning) and the iPhone's small screen forces comics apps to artificially pan-and-scan the page in a way that seems artificial and runs counter to the creators' intent.
While I doubt that the tablet will significantly broaden the existing comics market (it'll take more than an $800 electronic device to make people who don't read comics embrace the form), I see what he's saying about the appeal of a big screen.
I haven't tried the Kindle, but I've given several of the iPhone comics apps a try, and Ihnatko's not wrong about how clunky and counter-intuitive they feel, especially if you're used to the full comic book page, where panel layout is as central to mood and storytelling as editing is to film.
Last fall, interviewed for an article titled "Rumored Apple Tablet May Be Digital Comics' Future" (see what I mean?) on the comic news site Newsarama.com, Ihnatko made a solid case:
"I really believe the tablet is absolutely necessary to move comics into the digital realm," said Ihnatko, who thinks the tablet will probably be somewhere around 3" x 5" or 5" x 7", offering a more preferable size for comic reading. "Publishers trying to go digital, in most cases, have missed the point up until now. They just don't know how to deal with taking a story designed to fill up an entire page and trying to make it work on a smaller iPhone screen or smaller handheld screen. What they do is they tend to force the path that the reader takes throughout the comic book."
The comics news website Bleeding Cool recently asked some of the folks behind the leading iPhone comics apps what they were expecting from Apple's rumored device. It's a long piece (actually a series of four articles) but their takes are interesting.
iTunes or App Store?
As to what to expect in terms of content, various sites have been sniffing around. Gizmodo blogger Joel Johnson notes that Apple apparently hasn't approached the major comics publishers Marvel and DC like its reportedly approached some other, non-funnybook publishers.
But that may not be a big deal. As Johnson mentions, even if Apple doesn't add a comics category to the tablet's official iTunes store, it'll still be possible for comics publishers to use an app to bring all that comics has to offer -- from fights in tights to existential plights -- to your touchscreen.
What if it Saves Comics Only to Kill Them?
Earlier this month, in another article loaded with high hopes and Ihnatko quotes, Newsarama writer Vaneta Rogers made some bold predictions about how the tablet will be shiny and keen and cure rickets and smell of jasmine, but also took some time to address the question of how digital distribution via tablet stands to threaten the direct market (read: comic book stores.)
In all the recent talk about comics on the Apple Tablet, comic shop owners have been comparatively quiet. It's easy to see why: If the tablet does prove to be a "game changer", the game that'll be changed the most is the one your local comics shop is playing.
Leaving the Tablet's expected high price point aside, how much the local comics shop actually gets hit by digital comics distribution will depend on how many current comic book fans consider themselves readers, rather than collectors.
Take me for instance: I don't bag, board or slab my comics - I pile them and stuff them. Once I've read them, they're just periodicals to me; I harbor no illusions that they'll ever be worth more than I paid for them, so I stuff them under the bed, into the closet, into drawers. When the closets get full and the bed starts to rise off the floor, I foist the ones I know I'll never read again on to hospitals, literacy programs - anyone who'll take 'em.
Which is to say: Now that I think about it, and quite to my surprise, I'm a prime candidate for the Apple tablet. If there's a lot of us out there - those who nervously eye the towering pile of comics by their bed and can't help imagining themselves in twenty years' time blinking into the camera lights on an episode of Hoarders - the device being announced today may, in fact, change the proverbial game.