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Digital comics: Welcome to the club

As comics become more mainstream, digital platforms trade mystique for accessibility.

Josh Miller/CNET
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Mark Mann

You know the stereotype: Comic book stores are full of unkempt white guys, staring creepily if anyone different walks in.

Though there are plenty of women creating and reading comics, the exaggerated picture we get from comedies like "The Big Bang Theory" and "The Simpsons" does have some truth to it: Men have largely dominated comics culture, and fans often resist perceived outsiders. Successful comics creator Noelle Stevenson once posted a cartoon about being treated as if she didn't belong in comics shops, saying, "I've had it with the self-appointed gatekeepers in comics."

Even a friendly comics shop or fan group can be intimidating. With digital comics -- bought online to read on tablets, laptops and phones -- you cut straight to the goodies, no cultural induction required. You don't have to deal with anyone's opinion on whether you should be reading something you love. And now that both smartphones and superhero stories are everywhere, digital platforms are throwing the gate wide open for more kinds of readers to wander in.

Keys to the candy store

If you've ever felt like the world of comics was someone else's clubhouse, the instant access of digital shopping is pretty empowering. As a kid, I read like a scavenger, grabbing from a drugstore rack here, a friend's shelf there, with no idea how to find more of the same. With digital comics, you can buy story arcs from start to finish, sign up to get new issues as they come out and find other work by an artist or writer. It's not that those things weren't possible before, but now it just takes a few clicks or taps, while you're still in your pajamas.

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Comixology, a leading digital comics store, sells digital titles from publishers such as DC Comics and Marvel, Dark Horse and Image. Many publishers sell from their own websites as well. There are subscription services like Marvel Unlimited and e-book library Scribd that let you download comics temporarily, and more unusual sites like Tapastic, where you can sponsor artists who post their work for free. Plus, there's a bevy of apps to help you read and organize comics that aren't tied to a single platform (often scanned and uploaded by fans).

Traditional comics are laid out for full-page impact, so they're awkward to read on a small screen: Do you keep zooming in and out between text and art, or look at one section at a time? Digital platforms and apps take different approaches to displaying comics on mobile devices, some emphasizing flexible control, others aiming to minimize reader adjustments. Google Play Books adopted vertical scrolling in landscape, which is supposed to help you appreciate page composition; Tapastic points out vertical scrolling is familiar from reading Web pages and chat messages. Scribd will zoom in on the spot you double-tap. Amazon's Panel View for Kindle expands one panel at a time and grays out the rest.

Comixology's Guided View technology moves you through panels or key areas chosen by human editors. Co-founder and CEO David Steinberger says it was designed to preserve rhythm and readability on a smartphone and gives a "cinematic" feel on a tablet. I find it works well for tired eyes and smaller screens -- especially if you're focused on words more than art and don't mind giving up control of where you're looking. (I once got a random zoom on The Thing's rear end. My eyes weren't so tired after that!)

There are lots of DRM-free comics, but for DC and Marvel you'll mostly need to commit to a platform. And once you've sunk money in, it's hard to move elsewhere. So it's best to try several apps using free samples to decide what works for you.

For a new reader falling down this rabbit hole, picking a comics source will narrow things down, but you still have to choose where to start digging among decades' worth of interlocking series. There are plenty of recommended-reading lists, but where do you go next?

Searching for satisfaction

Comixology's Steinberger says one drawback of exploring comics on your own is you miss out on personalized recommendations -- finding titles in tune with your tastes. "That's the kind of thing that a comic book store can provide, if it's welcoming."

Josh Miller/CNET

Steinberger says providing similar personalization in a digital store is an important goal for him. Meanwhile, the company responds to requests on social-media channels such as Tumblr, known for its younger demographic and lively fan communities. Where as a kid I would never have dreamed of asking questions of the guys behind my local comics shop counter -- probably because they never said a word to me either -- today's readers can take for granted the chance to interact with comics providers online.

Amazon, which bought Comixology in 2014, now lets readers purchase from Comixology with an Amazon account, which is convenient for casual shoppers. An FAQ says merging Comixology and Amazon accounts will bring unspecified future benefits from "Amazon resources." Potentially that could include Amazon's system of recommending new items based on past purchases, making the experience more personal.

"I'm excited by being able to continue to expand who we can put a book in front of," Steinberger says. "And it's our job to make sure it's the right book, or let you self-select very quickly."

Comics are also very popular on the Google Play Books platform, according to Senior Product Manager Greg Hartrell, but readers had trouble finding what they wanted there, too. To meet that need, Play Books last November released its first comics-specific update, linking books in series for easier shopping, adding a curated comics section in the store and tweaking how the app displays comics on mobile devices.

Google wants to reach new readers who spend a lot of time on their phones and tablets, Hartrell says, and envisions using search to encourage "serendipitous discovery." Bearing out that view of the future, Tapastic Editor in Chief Michael Son said most of his service's readers, very young and demographically evenly split male and female, now prefer being served selections via a mobile app.

While e-book platforms like Kindle, Play Books and iBooks already listed comics as a genre of book, like fantasy or cooking, Amazon's and Google's updates made their comics sections more likely to pull in casual readers. Both stores sort comics and graphic novels by subgenres that go beyond superheroes to include nonfiction, media tie-ins, manga (an Asian genre popular among younger female readers) and genre-bending works like "Hyperbole and a Half" (based on the Web comic that got everyone saying, "CLEAN ALL THE THINGS!") Some of these visual works appeal to people who don't know the Silver Age from the Silver Surfer.

More technology, more choices

Not only do online platforms bring in a diverse reader base, digital stores have more freedom to sell diverse comics. Because the stores don't have to buy and store physical copies to resell, they can afford to "stock" titles less likely to appeal to mass audiences. For readers hungry to see their cultures, sexualities or another aspect of themselves represented more often and more authentically, digital publishing holds a lot of promise. "We get a bunch of books that never even make it into print," Steinberger says. "If it's professional and we think there's somebody out there who'll like it, we'll get it up onto the platform."

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James Martin/CNET

Going digital is shaping new comics at the most basic level, too. Digital comics creators may fit their art to screen proportions or vertical strips. Artists and writers design for panel-viewing apps by making sure each chunk of the page works on its own, so you're not left trying to remember who got Hulk so mad or what everyone's looking at up in the sky -- and they can use limited views to control pacing and create suspenseful reveals. Going further, formats such as Madefire's Motion Books combine writing, animation and even sound. None of that invalidates the traditional art form, of course, but there's always evolution.

Swipe into the future

Digital comics haven't killed off print; estimates suggest their growth in the last few years hasn't hurt print sales. In fact, it may be helping. "We have a lot of evidence that when people are new to comics altogether with Comixology, they become print buyers as well," Steinberger says.

As more aspects of "geek culture" become mainstream-popular -- like Star Wars and video games -- some fans feel threatened by the stampede through their clubhouse. But when the Internet's wealth of movie GIFs, cosplay pictures and fanfic attracts new readers, or e-book platforms encourage casual browsing, the future of digital and print comics gets that much healthier -- even if for some people it's less of a lifelong passion and more just another form of entertainment on their phones.

After all, what's more modern and familiar than communicating via a couple of short lines of text and a picture? The next generation of readers may want comics apps that work more like Snapchat. The long, branching history of comics keeps growing, climbing onto new technologies and out through gates.

This story appears in the summer 2016 edition of CNET Magazine. For other magazine stories, click here.