I was playing this week with a new comics reader that’s still in beta. They’ve got most of the functionality in place, but are still making tweaks and improvements so I don’t feel comfortable doing a formal review of it yet. But in playing with it, I think I’ve already decided that -- regardless of its merits and through no real fault of its creators -- it’s not the tool for me.
The idea of a good comics reader is a tricky one. There are a number of hurdles that need to be overcome which require a combination of skills not easy to come by in a small group, and much harder to come by in a single individual. And the result is going to be tailored to the broadest possible viewing audience, which will almost certainly not include me.
The first problem they face is a straightforward technological one: the comic reader needs to be able to read and recognize when a new comic is posted. Given the wide array of methodologies and schedules that webcomic creators use, this is no easy task. Essentially a computer has to periodically download the home page, compare that to the previously downloaded home page and, if they’re different, provide the appropriate links within the context of the comic reader.
Because the second problem is that you don’t want to step on a webcomic creator’s potential revenue stream. As I noted a little while back, scrubbing the site and presenting just people’s comics is at best immoral. At the very least, you would need to present the site to the readers in its entirety so the creator gains whatever ad revenue is possible and readers see all the appropriate links to the webcomic store and whatever other options are available. Even then, I’ve seen some creators complain with how their work is presented within the context of a comic reader.
But then there are issues of usability, marketing, generating a revenue stream independent of the webcomics themselves, sociability... Not an easy set of considerations for a small group, as I said. And even if you get past/through all of those issues, then you still have to make sure your reader works in multiple versions of multiple browsers. Increasingly, that includes ones used on smart phones.
None of which is to say that this can’t be done, just that it’s difficult to pull off well.
There are two big benefits I see to a specialized comics reader. First is the auto-bookmarking; that you can just click through a long-form comic from the very beginning, one strip at a time, and whenever you get up from your computer, it remembers the last installment you read. For long-lived comics with an ongoing story like Vattu or Bad Machinery, this can be incredibly useful for catching up. Particularly if you use multiple computers.
The second big benefit is the social aspect. If you can see what other users are reading, it makes it easier to discover new works you might like. Seeing that your friend who reads Gem of Atlantis also reads The Adventures of Shan Shan might mean you like either or both of them, too.
The issue I have with specialized comics readers, generally, is that they tend to over-think the presentation, particularly when it comes to regular updates. My RSS reader provides a simple text list of the latest comics by date. When I click the title, it displays the contents and marks it as read. From there, I can easily click on the next title to read its contents.
Is it necessarily the best option? No. Some comics only present a thumbnail in their the RSS feed and I still have to click through to the website anyway. Sometimes the creator changes their feed location (usually inadvertently) and I simply stop receiving updates. Not to mention the difficulty in going back to read long-running comics, or the inability to really socialize them.
To some degree, how you choose to keep up with your favorite webcomics or find new ones to enjoy is a matter of personal taste. Given the variety of types of comics I read and the variety of devices I wind up using to read them, Google’s RSS reader works well for me. But I keep checking in on other developments with other RSS readers and more specialized webcomics readers in order to see if something else comes along to suit my needs better. That’s another side benefit of webcomics -- because they’re inherently tied to current technology, there are constantly improved ways of reading and interacting with them!