Yesterday, comiXology announced the rollout of comiXology Unlimited, which will allow readers to read a back catalog of offerings from publishers such as Image, Boom!, Dark Horse, and IDW for a mere $6.oo a month.
Prior to this announcement, I spoke with Tia Vasiliou, an editor with comiXology, who gives us the ins and outs of how the service’s Guided View technology works and the process for making readers’ experiences engaging.
FreakSugar: Before we get into the process of how you and your digital teams create a comiXology reading experience, how did comiXology decide that this was the specific way it wanted readers to interact with the material on the platform?
Tia Vasiliou: It was really a matter of figuring out how to take a comic page and make it legible on a small mobile device without compromising the art. Comics tell a sequential story and Guided View (GV) breaks down the sequence to its individual beats adding a cinematic quality when you’re reading on a screen.
FS: Can you explain the process of taking a comic book as we generally understand it and converting it for readers on comiXology?
TV: Internally, the staff here that “authors” the Guided View are called digital editors. When the editors get the digital files from publishers, we first make sure the format and file size/quality is correct. Then the editors use a proprietary tool to draw boxes on each page and arrange them in the order we want the reader to move through the book in GV. We use boxes as that correlates to the screens on mobile devices and computers. When we finish, we go back and look at the book in GV to check that it reads well and perfect any adjustments we feel are necessary. It sounds so simple, “Oh, yeah, we read comics and draw boxes.” But it takes a lot of time and consideration to get it right. It’s rarely as simple as it sounds because very few comics are comprised of just boxes.
FS: How long does the process usually take from start to finish?
This depends entirely on the layout of the book and the legibility of the font. Some books have wide, straight gutters and big lettering so it’s a matter of putting the panels in order. A straightforward single issue can take 15-20 minutes from start to finish. Then you have more complicated books with diagonal layouts, overlapping panels, very narrow gutters, things like that. We try to avoid cutting into adjacent panels because that can get distracting to the reader but there are times it’s unavoidable. We do our best to minimize the distraction by how we decide to frame the central panel, and this can take a little extra time. Or sometimes the font is a cursive hand written 6-point font and you have to zoom in close to read it. But if you constantly zoom in and out it can interrupt the story, so you have to play around and make some decisions about what gives the best reading experience. If you can’t show the entire panel, what do you prioritize? We slow down when we’re working with these factors and although certain decisions become second nature, it can take a while to get it right. We want to make sure everything looks great, is easy to read, and preserves the creators’ work, so we tend to agonize over every pixel if we have to cut into the artwork too much.
FS: What kind of challenges do you sometimes run into in the conversion process?
TV: Some books can be tricky to set because the story beats don’t fit easily into boxes, for some of the reasons I mentioned above. A few good examples of challenges are books like Matt Fraction and Christian Ward’s ODY-C from Image, or Ales Kot and Marco Rudy’s The Winter Soldier from Marvel. They have these swirling, expansive layouts that you want to show to the viewer as a whole, but you also need to make the dialogue and artistic details legible on small mobile devices. I tend to enjoy working with these books, as it requires a deeper dive into how the story is put together in the art and layout. You have to give a lot of thought to when and how you will zoom in or slide across the page, and what that kind of transition implies in telling the story. Should you show the full page first to orient the reader or will a reveal at the end be more appropriate for this moment? Our goal is for readers to never feel like GV is not a natural part of the reading experience, and that can be a challenge when you’re trying to balance readability with showing every bit of the artwork you possibly can.
FS: What measures do you take to ensure that the readers are getting a similar, yet unique, comic book reading experience as they would if they were reading the same comic in print?
TV: We always strive to preserve the flow of the story, showing as much of the artwork as we can while making the dialogue readable on small screens, and minimize distractions. For example, if I need to zoom in on a section of a page to make a word balloon legible, I would make a box with dimensions as close to the dimensions of a phone screen as possible (note: this is not an exact science because there are so many different devices people can use), as opposed to drawing a box with dimensions that would result in wide borders on the screen. These borders would be artificial to the artwork. By making a box to fill the screen, the reader gets more of a sense of being zoomed in and understands that the artwork extends beyond this box. It’s a subtle difference but an important one to the kind of balance we have to strike.
The unique qualities of GV also support this effort. Some readers have noted that GV encourages them to spend more time looking at the art rather than just reading through the dialogue, that it highlighted for them how the story is told through the artwork in comics. It’s also a great way to avoid spoilers if you are the kind of reader whose eye tends to dart around the page, and there are many comics that are actually more fun to read when you have the dramatic reveals GV can give (Wytches by Scott Snyder and Jock from Image, for example). Readers who are new to comics can particularly benefit from GV because it can help teach them how to read comics if they find the visuals of the medium a little overwhelming compared to prose. We’ve even heard from comic fans who have visual impairments that make reading very difficult, but GV helps them by making the text bigger while preserving the experience of reading the comics.
FS: As a digital editor for comiXology, how do you get to flex your creative muscles?
TV: Our job is more about flexing our analytical muscles than our creative ones. The creative work has already been done by the writers, artists, colorists, letterers, and designers of the books. We are very conscientious about being the best stewards of the creators’ work we’re handling. Having said that, all of the digital editors have art backgrounds (I’m the only one who isn’t an artist, but I was an art historian), which is important for our job because we all know how to think like artists. We have to understand how they’re putting together the story with the art and dialogue so we can break it down. So you need editors who can understand sequential storytelling on a very granular level. It’s rarely a one-size-fits-all formula when it comes to how to set GV. We run into at least ten exceptions a day for every “rule” we make and it takes creative analysis of the comic to figure out how to adhere to the intention of our guidelines with the particular exception we have in front of us. The intention of the guidelines is, in every instance, to re-tell the story that the creators have told in the cinematic format of GV.
FS: Does comiXology have any user-interface changes coming down the pike that you can tease?
TV: Nothing to announce today, but we’re always working to make things better. Stay tuned.
In the end lots of talented folks at comiXology have dedicated hours to really make Guided View the best digital reading experiences anywhere, so I hope learning a little bit about GV makes people curious to give it a try. Thanks for giving me a chance to talk about it!
ComiXology Unlimited is now available for purchase, with the company offering a 30-day free trial.
From the official press release about comiXology Unlimited:
ComiXology, Amazon’s premier digital comic shopping & reading platform, today introduced comiXology Unlimited — the best way to explore the amazing world of comics, graphic novels and manga at an unbelievable price. For just $5.99 a month customers can explore selections from thousands of incredible titles, like The Walking Dead, Attack on Titan, Hellboy, Adventure Time, Peanuts, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Lumberjanes, Saga, The Umbrella Academy, Outcast, Transformers with more on the way. ComiXology Unlimited is available today on the comiXology app for Fire Tablet, Android, iOS and on the web at comixology.com. Start your free 30-day trial at comixology.com/unlimited.
“We’re in a new golden age of storytelling with more incredible comics, graphic novels and manga than ever before,” said comiXology’s CEO and Co-Founder David Steinberger. “ComiXology Unlimited is fantastic portal to tons of great comics at a ridiculously great price. Get in there and start exploring.”
With comiXology Unlimited it’s never been easier for readers to explore the world of comics. The only subscription service to feature books from Image Comics and Dark Horse Comics, comiXology Unlimited also includes great titles from IDW Publishing, BOOM! Studios, Dynamite Entertainment, Kodansha Comics, Oni Press, Valiant Entertainment, Archie Comics, Fantagraphics Books, Humanoids, Action Lab Entertainment, Aspen Comics, Zenescope Entertainment and more. ComiXology Unlimited debuts today in the U.S. and will expand to other regions in the future.
ComiXology Unlimited features include:
Unlimited reading, on any device: Access thousands of digital comics, graphic novels and manga including best sellers like The Walking Dead, Attack on Titan, Hellboy, Adventure Time, Peanuts, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Lumberjanes, Saga, The Umbrella Academy, Outcast, and Transformers. Enjoy offline reading using the comiXology app on Fire Tablet, Android, iOS, or streaming on the web at comixology.com.
Exceptional Content: Whether you’re into sci-fi or slice-of-life, comiXology Unlimited offers the widest subscription selection of digital comics in the world. With an immense catalog and cinematic Guided View reading experience, the comic you want is always at your fingertips.
Free one-month trial: Not sure if you’re up for binging on comics? Enjoy the first month free and explore our expansive digital library.