Scott Hanselman

Good UX in the Wild: A comic book geek returns after twenty years away to a brave new digital world

December 12, 2011 Comment on this post [37] Posted in Musings
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UPDATE: Listen to a podcast I did on Comics and the move to Digital Comics for Fanboy Radio.

Ultimate Spider-man in the Comixology AppLike most folks my age, I grew up reading comic books. I remember the first early printings of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in the spring of 1984, long long before they were a big thing, toys, or a movie. Most of my favorite memories of "flashlight reading" (reading under the covers with a flashlight because I was supposed to be sleeping) were with early copies of X-Men or X-Factor.

But as with time, life happens, wife happens, and I moved away from my weekly visit to the comic book store.

Fast forward and over the last four years I've been reading digital books more than ever. Digital reading just totally works for me. I have one Kindle device to read on, which is convenient, but I've also (slowly) learned to trust the cloud. I realize that DRM is evil and that I'm not supposed to trust the cloud, but I do so far. Regardless, I've built up a nice little digital library of Kindle books that I've enjoyed very much.

A year or so ago I discovered that comics had made the leap to digital and I tried subscribing to Marvel Digital Comics Unlimited. It promised a reasonably priced annual plan and 10,000 comics online. Netflix for Comics. Sounds great, right? Sure, but you could only access the comics on a desktop computer. There is no access from portable devices like iPads. This is still the case a year later. What a silly limitation given the fact that a tablet device is tailor-made for comics.

Then I found Comixology. Digital comics done right, in my opinion. You buy them at reasonable prices (there's lots of 99 cents and most are under $3) and they are in your account in the cloud. The client application manages your local storage and you can always bring old comics back.

The most amazing part about Digital Comics is the "Guided View." I've told friends that they should check out comics before and they've said "meh" then I've brought out a reader and showed them how to really appreciate the art and detail with a panel by panel zoomed view and they immediately got it. "Oh, wow. THAT changes things." Here's what it looks like.

Guided View Technology inside the Comixology Reader

It's a brilliant way to make up for a relatively low resolution portable screen. It almost is like turning a standard paper comic book into a motion comic. The panels are smart and you never miss the text. It's optional, to be clear, but GuidedView is really worth checking out.

Comixology is a book reader, and as such has all the usual UX of a standard reader. Swipe forward and backward, but double-tap starts GuidedView. Embedded in the book is the correct direction to move, not only from panel to panel but also within panel. The camera always knows the optimal direction to move and ensures you can always view the text and appreciate the art. Additionally you can choose to show the whole page in full-screen either on enter, or exit of the page. The controls and interface stay completely out of your way. They aren't even visible in the tablet version. Surprisingly the GuidedView interface works extremely well even on a 3.5" phone screen.

There's Desktop, iOS, Windows Phone 7, and Android  versions of the application. It's a nice solid combination storefront and reader. It's quick organized and has a number of features that really showcase why digital comics are so clever. Of course, the experience is optimized to sell comics, but it's also optimized so that that engaged reader can continue reading.

The store interface is rich with metadata. You can view comics not only by the obvious Series, Title, and Author, but also more comic-specific things like Story Arc. Often comics have a multi-issue plot arc and just as we're used to seeing MP3s tagged with compilation metadata, these comics are as well. You can pivot from author to penciler, creator to story to story arc. It also includes collected editions which are the best "price per page" deal going.

For example, in this screenshot I'm at the end of a Compilation (many individual issues in one collected volume) and as I turn the last page I'm offered the choice to purchase and immediately continue reading the next. It's clean and seamless. Once the purchase is made, I can immediately start reading as soon as the first page is downloaded and the rest of the book streams in the background, buffered, similar to a video. I've actually burned through $20 this way reading entire story arcs of Superman and The Walking Dead.

photo 2

Ironically my new digital obsession with comics also has me visiting the local library more often, checking out collected works and large graphic novels like Compendium One of the Walking Dead:


I've always been a big reader and I devour books on my Kindle but I feel like I've rediscovered comics with the convenience of reading them on a tablet. I've found that if you read the right ones and do your research, Comics (Grpahic Novels) are as engrossing and mind-expanding as a traditional novel.

My 5 year old recently discovered comics and we've used them to teach him how to read. There's lots of little kid appropriate books that are an inexpensive and highly engaging way to get kids stoked about reading.

My New Favorite Comics and Graphic Novels

Here's my favorite comics of the last year. Some of these like The Walking Dead, Invincible, Irredeemable and Chew are still continuing stories so I've used both the Comixology application as well as the local library to catch myself up and am now following them monthly. It's been so worth it.

  • The Walking Dead - The definitive Zombie book. The world has ended and the story follows a small town sheriff as he wakes up in the middle of the end of the world, having slept through the entire thing while in a coma. It's now a great TV as well.
  • Y: The Last Man - A story of Yorick Brown who becomes literally the Last Man on Earth after he survives a plague that kills every one with a Y-chromosome on the planet.
  • DMZ - A gripping story of a near-future world that explores what would happen if America, while fighting wars overseas, neglected the home front and literally lost control of Manhattan. New York itself becomes a DMZ.
  • Elephantmen - "In the year 2162, a madman named Kazushi Nikken creates giant hybrids of humans and animals - elephants, rhinos, camels, giraffes - and brainwashes them into an army of fearless killers. But the United Nations liberates the 'elephantmen' and integrates them into society."
  • Invincible - Possibly the greatest superhero comic ever. It starts largely derivative but quickly expands to an homage to every superhero story ever. A young man is the son of the world's most beloved superhero and one day he develops powers. He eventually learns the story behind his fathers powers and the story moves to other worlds.
  • Irredeemable - What happens when the greatest super hero the world has ever known finally cracks? If a Superman-type turned into the world's greatest villain and started killing millions, how could we stop him?
  • Watchmen - Possibly one of the great comics of the 80s, if not one of the greatest graphic novels ever. A complex and clever a story as any novel.
  • Chew -  "Tony Chu is a detective with a secret. A weird secret. Tony Chu is Cibopathic, which means he gets psychic impressions from whatever he eats. It also means he's a hell of a detective, as long as he doesn't mind nibbling on the corpse of a murder victim to figure out whodunit, and why." Irreverent and disgusting but always gripping.

What are you favorites comics, Dear Reader? Are you enjoying Comics' move to digital as much as I?

Sponsor: My thanks to DevExpress for sponsoring this week's ComputerZen feed. Introducing DXv2 – Welcome to the next generation of developer tools from DevExpress! Explore what’s new in the latest release.

About Scott

Scott Hanselman is a former professor, former Chief Architect in finance, now speaker, consultant, father, diabetic, and Microsoft employee. He is a failed stand-up comic, a cornrower, and a book author.

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December 12, 2011 10:27
Walking Dead rocks! Glad to know you're a fan Scott.
December 12, 2011 11:22
I'm a big fan of Alan Moore's Swamp Thing. You may remember the poorly done movie, but the book is great.
December 12, 2011 11:24
Grumble, grumble, grumble...Scott doesn't mention WP7...AGAIN!!! Just joking though I would like to point out that there is a dedicated DC Comics app on WP7 which is from the guys at Comixology. Hopefully we'll get a full app soon but then I'll have to start deciding what is more important to me, paying my rent for the month or buying the full Frank Miller collection :-)
December 12, 2011 11:50
Fun to know Scott is a comic book fan. :) The UX-stuff looks amazing, but as mentioned above, the money seems to flow easily.

Recently I've found this one: A comic-book version of Phillip K Dick's
'Do Androids dream of electric sheep' (the famous book that was the basis for blade runner). (Volume 1 of 6)

December 12, 2011 12:04
Don't forget Sandman from your list.
December 12, 2011 15:07
I can't seem to find the WP7 version. Too bad, I was looking forward to it.
December 12, 2011 15:30
Great - the Internet ate my comment.
These are great:
Astro City
Hellboy and BPRD
Usagi Yojimbo
December 12, 2011 15:33
Oh - and Powers is pretty good: a police procedural in a superhero world. Seems to be on hiatus now.

(The looping animated gif on this post is really annoying - thank ghod ESC will stop GIF animations)
December 12, 2011 15:41
Check out Bryan Talbot's recent graphic novels; Alice in Sunderland on storytelling and the two Grandville books, plus the classics - One Bad Rat, Luther Arkwright, Heart of Empire. Great writer and artist (old friend too).
December 12, 2011 16:35
@Filip, the WP7 app is DC Comics only right now and I'm not sure when/if that will ever chang, though I don't mind as 90% of my comic book spending has gone to DC Comics in my lifetime. Here a link to it on the marketplace:

As for recommendations, anything Geoff Johns has done is worth a look.
December 12, 2011 17:33
I love the Comixology app. I was never a comic book reader as a kid but I've gotten into the new DC universe stuff almost entirely due to this app.

I don't however like the guided view, I'd rather see the whole page. On the iPad app that's ok, you can turn it off, but that option doesn't exist in the Android version. My phone has a big enough screen to handle the whole page but they won't let me :( Disappointing.

You can however spend way too much without noticing. A friend of mine went through £200 ($300) as he ripped his way through old series he enjoyed as a kid.
December 12, 2011 18:00
I love Comixology, too.

But for me, nothing beats CDisplay for Windows. You just use the mouse wheel, and comics on a 24" monitor look stunning.

I had already suggested you "Joe the Barbarian" by Grant Morrison (interesting take on diabetes), now I'll add some other (DC) classics:

- Kingdom Come (Waid/Ross)
- All-Star Superman (Morrison/Quietly)
- Sandman (Neil Gaiman)
- Batman: The Dark Knight Returns (Miller)
- Batman: Year One (Miller/Mazzuchelli)
- Batman: The Long Halloween (Sale/Loeb)
- Batman: Dark Victory (Sale/Loeb)

December 12, 2011 18:07
Though I didn't read this digitally (though I could have), I read the "Blackest Night" series from DC and found it utterly UNNERVING to not know which comic to read next in the story arc (it expanded just about 15 individual series). The fact that this service will compile the story arc into a set reading schedule makes it more than worth the money.
Do a google search for "blackest night reading list" and you will find the interwebs inundated with forums and articles that tell you 10 different ways to read this thing. Local comic book stores are just as confused by the disjointed story arc, and I commonly find that comic book stores are treated as commodity franchises and not comic book expert hangouts (thank you B&N for that one).
December 12, 2011 18:13
Dark Horse Comics ( have an iOS reader app that does this as well. They have a bunch of digital comics including Mass Effect (my favorite), Star Wars, Firefly/Serenity, and more. They have a few free comics available too.
December 12, 2011 18:13
Dark Horse Digital has spoken the occult spells to capture my attention. Their own apps are as good as Comixology's. I'm not sure if they paid to rebrand said or if they have good in house programmers. I do know that they default to a Guided View and seem to put a good amount of work into framing the "shots" as you pan from panel to panel.

I've been buying so many Dark Horse comics because they have licenses to a lot of franchises that I care about in other media (such as Mass Effect and The Guild).
December 12, 2011 18:19
The Walking Dead rocks, especially when you can crank through 50 issues in a sitting via the Compendium.

I love Garth Ennis' Preacher series which wrapped up a number of years ago.

I liked Warren Ellis' books Planetary and The Authority. He's a twisted dude, and I dig that.

I second (or third) previous commenters' choices of Kingdom Come and Sandman.
December 12, 2011 19:38
Comixology is a direct link between Kirkman's wallet and wallet =)
December 12, 2011 19:47
Jennifer Blood - Suburban housewife killing mob bosses at night.

The Boys - In a world where super-heroes are less noble than in traditional comics, the world needs a group to oversee them and keep them in line.

I'm also enjoying some of the New 52 from DC. Justice League, Action, Superman, and Resurrection Man in particular.

I've been reading comics since I was old enough to read and collecting them for about 35 years. I don't like the transition to digital. I like to feel the paper in my hands. I like to be able to sell them when I'm done. I even like to be able to frame them and hang them on the wall (Camelot 3000). I can't do any of those things with digital.
December 12, 2011 21:47
Love that your sharing good UX examples, I'm always looking for them. If you find any that are more complex than this or dropbox please share! I'm working in the public safety sector and I can't seem to move away from the data grid or table and tabs centered world. There is just too much data too many fields, and all new UX revolution stuff just seems to be Dropbox and Twitter, doesn't help me. I want an example of a very complex\large system done with a UX that’s new\not boring. Maybe this whole new UX\new devices world is just a flashy consumer joy ride (not that there is anything wrong with that) wish it could come to the enterprise too though.
December 12, 2011 22:11
Well, I don't read a lot of physical comics any more, but I do read web comics.

One of my recommendations is Girl Genius by Phil and Kaja Foglio. It started out as a print comic and converted to a web comic after 12 or so issues.

In addition to the webcomic, they also have 10 collection volumes, sold directly from the publisher, Airship Entertainment or as PDF files from Drive Thru Comics (which doesn't have Vol 10 yet, whoops).

It'd be nice if they were on Comixology too, but I couldn't locate them. I guess it's not too much of a surprise, since the comic is pretty much and Mom & Pop type company, even though Phil and Kaja are likely known for their previous work (both have done card graphics for Magic: The Gathering, and a lot of other things).
December 12, 2011 22:34
I have been trying to get into the digital comics, via my android device (soon to be replaced for a 4" inch small tablet/big rump phone) and it always tell me "your country is invalid"

So i resorted to use a proxy, buy the things and read them in ComickRack (those that aren't drm'ed to death) or through the Marvel digital app for android and their free comics.

I am lusting after a kindle (a fire and a Normal e-reader one) but alas, money is tight these days. maybe later.
December 12, 2011 23:22
Wow... that brings back some memories.

When moving to my new place about two years ago, I opened up a dusty box in the attic and found a stack of my old favorite comic books. In it I found the original 4 Ninja Turtles graphic novels; the ones, like you said, long before the got popular, when they all had red sashes and they cussed a lot and Michelangelo always tried to peek at the girl in the shower. ;)

I too was a huge fan of the X-men. It was always my favorite. Phoenix's story especially.

Then life/wife happened to me too, and I've admittedly been away from good comic books... though I recently enjoyed the Walking Dead compendium and revisiting the Watchmen - to my surprise my wife is fanatical about both.

As always, Scott, you are a man of good taste.

I'll check out some of those you recommended (Y, and DMZ sound excellent)... when I trust the cloud more. :)
December 13, 2011 2:57
I started reading comics through Comixology this fall, and I really dig the guided view. I've spent more money on comics in the past few months than I have over the past few years combined.

However, is anyone else worried about the licensing model? When you buy a comic through Comixology, you are buying a license to view it (as opposed to buying a pdf file that is yours forever). Furthermore, the comic you "purchased" could become unavailable down the road if the licensing agreement changes between Comixology and the various publishers.
December 13, 2011 3:09
Daniel - That sucks, but it's similar to the Kindle.
December 13, 2011 3:37
One of my recent favorite graphic novels is the Scalped series. Not sure if those are available digitally as I'm one of those luddites who prefer the paper versions. Cheaper if you drop them in the bath :). In the same vein, the Criminal series by Ed Brubaker is worth a look although I haven't bought the more recent books as I thought the series went a bit weaker over time.

That said, the guided view mentioned above looks like it'd be almost worth trying a digital version of some of my favorites.
December 13, 2011 12:39
Don't forget to mention manga! You can always read manga on-line legitimately through services like JManga, Viz Manga and Sigikki.

Very few companies seem to offer PDF download of their comics. Most are just viewed directly from their app or website. The only company I’m aware of that do offer PDF downloads are GEN Manga.
December 14, 2011 2:28
@Ben Rethmeier
I recently discovered
Has some nice UI demo for Health scenario.
December 14, 2011 6:28
Comics, where to start? :-)

Transmetropolitan - Warren Ellis. Journalism in a dystopian, but wondrous, future.

Lucifer - Mike Carey. An idea that sprung out of The Sandman, Lucifer as a character is wonderfully fleshed out as a near-omnipotent being who got tired of playing the game of Good and Evil and decided to strike out on his own.

Days Missing and Days Missing: Kestus - Phil Hester. Time travel that drops you into some of history's (and pre-history's) most pivotal moments.

In fact, most anything by Mike Carey, Brian Bendis, Alan Moore, Warren Ellis.

Enjoy :-)
December 14, 2011 6:48
I found this when I got my Kindle Fire...first search was for the Age of of my favorite story arcs.
December 14, 2011 8:02
Maybe it's just me but part of the fun was having the actual comic in my hand. No technology will replace that feeling. Plus unlike real comic books, virtual ones won't be worth squat lol.
December 14, 2011 11:15
Actually anything from Warren Ellis is a must read in the comics world. As far as I can see, snarkiness, originality and hope quite intermingles in his comics, no matter what the setting is: medieval or postcyberpunk or modern times...

Global Frequency, RED and Desolation Jones are the first names I can recommend, except Transmet of course if you are a comic book reader you have to read it. (I've yet to see any comic topple its great throne in my mind.)
December 16, 2011 20:08
Hey Scott, I asked a question on SO about how one would go about implementing something like guided view technology for other comics. Because I am a manga fan and generally reading from right to left trips people up a bit when starting out, I thought it would be a good idea. However I don't know where to get started on something like this. Any ideas on getting started on something like this?
December 19, 2011 16:06
The "Guided View" feature is awesome. For me, it definitely makes a difference from "digital comics = crap" to "digital comics = gimme more".

Unfortunately, the rest of the comixology web site is terribly designed. I mean... let's suppose that you want to follow a certain comic book that comes out every month. Does comixology alert you when the new comic is out? Nope. Does comixology offer you a quick link to buy the next number in the series? Nope. Actually they make it as cumbersome as possible to follow comic series. What a shame!
December 19, 2011 22:26
Ooooh, is this my chance to chip away at the air of smug superiority iPad owners tend to bring to any discussion about tablets? I'm a Marvel Unlimited subscriber, and I have no problem running their Flash-based reader on my Android tablet... =D ;)

To that end, I'm really digging on Deadpool.
April 24, 2012 20:43
I keep trying guided view in Comixology, but I just don't enjoy the experience. I find it distracting and usually after a few panels I turn it off. I just miss being able to see the whole page at a glance. I also find since I read quickly that the experience feels a little off.

I was planning on embracing the digital model, but I figured it would be more like music. You buy the file and you choose where, when, and how you want to view it. I don't like buying a license I can't backup locally that is locked into a single app. Also I just can't bring myself to pay more for digital than I pay for physical comics. Maybe one day I will make the jump, but not with the current model or prices.
April 25, 2012 3:05

If you could add a list of comics you have used for your kids that would be great.

April 25, 2012 3:20
Andrew - We've used Peanuts (Charlie Brown), Super Hero Squad, Spiderman (the early ones in the 80s with fewer guns), Ghostopolis, and Super Friends.

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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed herein are my own personal opinions and do not represent my employer's view in any way.