“Stop! You’re reading the wrong way!” These words are a familiar mantra to English-speaking manga readers, and for a generation of fans, the journey into Japanese comics always began by opening up to the “back of the book.” But those words may soon fade into ancient ritual as the hobby reaches a turning point in commerce and technology. Tablet screens have emerged as a fancy new way to read books, and some manga publishers are jumping aboard the digital bandwagon, hoping to find the right balance of cost and convenience for readers. In North America, Viz Media and Yen Press are leading the way with manga apps tailored for the iPad, as well as offering a selection of titles on Barnes and Noble’s Nook reader. Fans who enjoy the chapter-by-chapter experience of manga magazines can also pick those up in digital form.
But are these technological innovations living up to the hype? Well, who better to answer that than a seasoned manga reader who also loves playing with new tech toys? That’s how I ended up with an iPad and a Nook in my hands, courtesy of Viz Media, to see if touchscreen manga was ready to take the place of paper and ink. (And then returning the hardware to them after I’d had my fun—hey, those things are expensive, and it’s only fair.)
First, let’s compare the size of these devices to a standard manga volume. The iPad, with its 9.7-inch screen, is very much a two-handed dinner tray—yet because of its wide bezel, the actual display area is only marginally bigger than your average dead-tree manga. And comparing the image quality, an iPad manga page pretty much matches the printed page line for line; the clarity is about as sharp as you could ask for.
Left: Printed edition of Naruto Vol. 54. Right: iPad edition of Shonen Jump Alpha.
The Nook Color, on the other hand, is geared toward paperback novel readers, so while its 7-inch screen size is more convenient to hold, it doesn’t quite do justice to manga art. The entire device itself is slightly smaller than a printed volume, so when you factor in the bezels and compare page for page:
Left: Printed edition of Naruto Vol. 54. Right: Nook Color menu and sample page of Naruto Vol. 54.
There’s a definite “shrink factor” for manga on a Nook, and heaven help you if you plan to read Bakuman. on this.
Which isn’t to say that the Nook display is necessarily bad! It’s simply not as good as what the iPad is capable of. If you want to see an e-reader that truly fails at displaying manga, try reading anything on an early-generation Kindle with the grayscale “electronic ink” screens—those things were awful. Clearly, gorilla-glass LCD displays are the best surface as far as displaying manga electronically, and the Nook’s 1024 x 600 resolution works just fine, assuming you’re not trying to read anything too textually or artistically intense. When it comes to robustness and sheer luxury, though, the iPad’s size clearly wins—it’s big enough to accommodate the magazine pages of Jump, and more importantly, able to handle the larger print size of the Viz Signature line where rich, detailed art is often a selling point. Sure, you can get Children of the Sea for Nook, but knowing how much the display is going to shrink that down … would you want to?
Both devices also boast backlit displays, which can be a blessing as well as a curse. If the brightness is turned up all the way, the iPad and Nook both enter the realm of the superlative—there’s not a sheet of paper in the world (or at least, within the publishing industry) that can match up to the pure white of an LCD screen. But after getting all excited about the power of backlight and trying a little bedtime reading, I eventually discovered the downside: the level of contrast between a fully-lit screen and a darkened room will cause eyestrain. Remember when tablets and e-readers first started coming out, and everyone was arguing about whether screen glare was going to hurt your eyes or not? Well, now I can speak from personal experience. Best to follow the public service announcements and enjoy reading your tablet in a well-lit room.
As manga makes the leap from paper to screen, the mechanics of reading also becomes a very different process. To start off, you choose what you want to read from a menu screen:
On the iPad, accessing the menu is done by tapping on the Viz Manga app (assuming you’ve already downloaded it). On the Nook, its built-in “Library” interface serves as the shelf space for manga, along with any other book purchases. In both cases, each manga volume is represented by an icon depicting the cover image—a simple enough solution, but one that could benefit from some improvements. Yes, I can see that it’s Naruto or Death Note, but at that reduced size, the volume number can be hard to spot, and if you don’t remember exactly what the cover image for Vol. 35 or something looks like, there could be a lot of hunting and pecking involved. Yet this could all be solved by simply including a line of text stating the title and volume number under each icon.
After tapping on the icon to open up your manga of choice, the actual business of reading is pretty simple. In Viz‘s iPad app, everything is is formatted right-to-left, just like “in real life.” Thus, to go to the next page, you swipe your finger to the right, as if turning a physical manga page. (There’s a reason the review column is called “Right Turn Only.”) On the Nook, the same principle applies: swipe your finger to the right, and the next page appears, moving in direction that manga readers are intuitively familiar with.
In terms of page-turning performance, however, the Nook lags behind the iPad slightly. Viz‘s iPad app slides to the next page almost instantly, but on the Nook, there’s a bit of a “tug” when scrolling over. This split-second delay can be chalked up to the Nook Color having slightly less processing power than the iPad, although the higher-spec Nook Tablet—which matches the iPad’s 1 GHz processor speed—pretty much eliminates that little tug.
Aside from the basic function of turning pages to read manga, both electronic readers have various features that add to the experience. If you should run into a double-page spread, just turn the device on its side and the pages will automatically re-orient themselves:
On both devices, readers can also zoom into any manga page by using the now-familiar “pinch-zoom” motion (place two fingertips on the screen and move them together or apart). Be warned, however, that digitized manga pages are not really meant for zoomed-in viewing—the jaggy edges and artifacts start to become evident, and on an aesthetic level, you don’t get to experience the flow of the entire page layout.
However, serious enthusiasts who were expecting the new Stateside Shonen Jump to be exactly like the Japanese edition may be disappointed by the slim pickings. Naturally, the magazine covers the “Big Three” of Naruto, One Piece, and Bleach, and offers an eclectic second-tier mix of Nura: Rise of the Yokai Clan, Bakuman., and Toriko. But that’s it—six current series, plus an interview with Masashi Kishimoto in the back of Issue 1. No contests, no giveaways, no special features, no one-shots or “rising star” series … basically, Bakuman.‘s portrayal of Shonen Jump as a test bed for up-and coming artists is all but scrubbed away in the American version. “You only ever get to see a tiny fraction of everything that comes out in Japan,” the experts say, and in a way, Shonen Jump Alpha is a microcosm of that.