Send In The Comics

There are a handful of media types that seem to be struggling mightily to find their proper mobile form. Intuitively, we know that formats like radio, podcasting, short-form video, and even books and magazines should map well against the portability of mobile and the enlarging, lush palette of the smart phone screen. Watching each of these media experiment with different modes of delivery and presentation is one of the unique joys of being involved in the early stages of a new technology.

In the early years of film, this sort of experimentation went on at Thomas Edison's makeshift Black Maria movie studio in New Jersey. A decade before television became the defining post-WWII medium, CBS maintained an experimental TV broadcast schedule and lab in New York, where veteran entertainers tried to understand what kinds of information and entertainment really worked best here.

The Internet was among the first technologies that made the experimental stage very public. Watching companies and their new media ideas rise and fall was itself part of the drama of the new medium. In mobile, where the mobile Web and applications lower the barriers to entry, we are seeing a similar process work out. Sure, companies are throwing some serious money at mobile now, but in 20 years we will look back at these efforts as antediluvian. Just as no one imagined Google in 1995, the true forms of mobile media likely have not revealed themselves yet.



It is true that every new medium requires its own discrete forms of content. Throwing the Web, or TV or gaming as we know it, at phones, and expecting users to respond, is a necessary but doomed approach. When you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail. But it is just as true that emerging platforms also tend to reach back historically to retrieve even older formats to try on the new technology. Interestingly, when TV did blossom in the late 40s and early 50's, one of its most popular formats, comedy variety, revived the conceits of vaudeville.

For entirely selfish reasons, I am rooting for the comics to enjoy a renaissance on mobile. The static but sequential art of the classic comic strip or the more modern graphic novel seems to be naturally suited to a smart phone, and companies like UClick and Genus are playing with the format across apps and Web. In many cases a single frame of comic art on an iPhone or G1 is as large or larger than it appears in its original printed format.

As we have already seen with high recall and click-through rates on mobile ads, the mobile screen focuses attention in a way that a larger, more cluttered screen does not. When I look at Will Eisner's "A Contract with God" on Genus's Kamikaze mobile player, I am zeroing in on the line work in a new way. Jeff Smith's "Bone" series of graphic novels are being sold an issue at a time in the App Store, and they demonstrate how entertaining a frame-by-frame flip-through can be. Smith often has his characters talk at each other across the frame. Flipping frame to frame heightens the sequencing effect of a strip and even the surprise of the punch line more effectively than its usual presentation in a newspaper or even online. The comics exercise an economy of storytelling that seems perfect for the needs of the mobile medium.

On the mobile Web, UClick has a repository of its many licenses at, from "Doonesbury" to classic "Krazy Kat." This comics portal demonstrates unwittingly why the application format may work best for mobile comics. Every strip in the library is a bit different, and getting the frames to fill the screen is a frustrating exercise in zooming, pinching and swiping. Too often the zoomed art is poorly resolved, which ruins the real impact of the line art filling the screen. Wisely, UClick is launching a ton of comics apps where the experience is much better, but we still wait for a flexible reader that can pull in diverse kinds of art. I want my Chester Gould "Dick Tracy" and Windsor McKay "Dreams of a Rarebit Fiend" available in a single pipeline of great comics I can enjoy and share anywhere.

Arguably, the most artfully designed graphic novels do not shoehorn well into the phone format, because the artists use the entire page rather than traditional frames to communicate. Genus is trying to split the difference in a reader that can present the full page and then zoom into key sections. Other developers are using the Ken Burns pan-and-zoom effect to bring us through a graphic novel. DC Comics translated the entire 12-issue "Watchmen" comics into "motion comics" that rejiggered the frames for mobile animation and added voice narration. I found them captivating, if not a real replacement for the original experience.

Ultimately, we want to see whether the audience and the medium can support comics made expressly for mobile. The frame-by-frame presentation, the multimedia layers, and the timing a mobile platform allows arguably could inspire a different kind of strip. A mobile comic might not be a strip at all. It could be a continuous linear flow that the artist adds to each day or week. Obviously, the one-panel comic is perfect for mobile, but why not add sound and a touch of animation? One company, Ringtales, has been doing this for The New Yorker cartoon for a while.

As I started by saying, my interest in promoting mobile comics is entirely selfish. I am a shameless devotee of the art (note my email address) because I think marrying art and language is uniquely powerful. That is precisely why I think mobile marketers miss a tremendous opportunity to learn from the format. If mobile ad creatives want to understand what is possible on handsets in terms of leveraging art, the frame, timing, story arc, etc., they could do worse than to study the comic strip as it evolves here.

Why is a "landing page" a "landing page?" Shouldn't it be a launch pad to a story arc that makes best use of the display, the screen resolution, the user focus of the mobile experience? Why would you want to have your audience lean back to watch a clip, when they could lean in to interact with a visual story? Are photographs really the best way to convey information or involve the user in all cases?

There may well be an art of mobile storytelling available to marketers, and the odds are that experiments like mobile comics will scout that territory more effectively than simply waiting for the mobile banner ad to evolve.

4 comments about "Send In The Comics ".
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  1. Thom Kennon from Free Radicals, July 9, 2009 at 7:17 p.m.

    A sweet, fresh & insightful take re the ever-lurching early direction of the next medium that could... Love the look-back analogies to other early media esp. TV which mobile, arguably, could resemble even more than the tethered Web when the emerging channel dust starts to settle 20 years in. I'm waiting, looking - now searching - for Schmoshkapop!

  2. John Freeman from downthetubes, July 10, 2009 at 4:45 a.m.

    Good piece - mobile comics are still finding their feet and would do well not to simply regurgitate material created originally for the printed page: not only is adapting old work time consuming, it doesn't always work unless you have access to layered art files and can more lettering etc., as has been done with the Heroes mobile comic NBC commissioned. In countries where access to PCs is limited but mobiles are in abundance, there's a huge potential market for comics on mobile devices.

  3. Ellen Davis from Your Social Reputation, July 10, 2009 at 3:08 p.m.

    I love this piece - thanks for writing. There is an upcoming app for the iPhone from VentureDNA called "ToonsWare" which are editorial cartoons seen in over 700 newspapers across the country from notable artists syndicated through Tribune Media Services. We agree with your assessment on "the one-panel comic is perfect for mobile" statement as we are doing the PR for this app and love how they have created a showcase for editorial cartoons that can be shared with others via email and be something more than just viewed - they can spark debate based on today's political and social issues. We hope that comics and cartoons do succeed on mobile devices as well! We'd also like to have you check out ToonsWare in the App store (soon to be released under review right now). In the meantime, you can see the video demo for ToonsWare at and read about the cartoonists, which include award winning, Pulitzer prize talent!

  4. Kurt Johansen from Johansen International, July 15, 2009 at 12:24 a.m.

    Hi Steve, I'd love for a comic panels to become part of any app. I own Belvedere, a pesky pooch comic panel created by former Disney artist George Crenshaw in the 60's. Belvedere at its peak featured in over 300 newspapers in over 17 countries. Today I send out Belvedere to around 7 countries. I would love anyone to contact me about creating Belvedere in to a phone app. I have around 5000 original Belvedere cartoon panels as well as 20 years Belvedere proofsheets. George Crenshaw passed away in his 90's recently but his best cartoon series Belvedere endures. You can get a glimpse of Belvedere at Cheers Kurt Johansen -

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