As someone who has more books than room on my bookshelves to accommodate them, an obsessive collector of cool artifacts of things I love, and a completionist in almost all regards, I don’t think I surprise anyone by saying I love comics. But I have definitely noticed confused head quirks when I admit that when it comes to the question of physical copies versus digital versions, I prefer to read comics on my iPad.
I should preface my preference for comics on a screen by saying this: I hate reading books digitally. On a purely aesthetic level, the size, weight, and smell of a book have always been an integral part of the reading process for me, so an e-book has just never been able to command my focus the same way a physical book does. A progress bar at the bottom of my screen somehow doesn’t give me the same sense of how much is behind and ahead of me that a bookmark in real pages does, and the pagination in general in e-books has always seemed off to me. Hand me an 800 page hardcover novel and I have, with a very small margin for error, a clear idea of the scale of what I’m diving into. In an e-book, the same text seems like it could take up anywhere from 800 to 2000 pages depending on the way it’s formatted.
But the biggest reason I’ve never been able to embrace e-books with gusto is that reducing a book to a file that looks like almost all other e-books takes away an individual book’s character. Hand me an iPad or Kindle and give me a quick glance at a few pages from any two e-books, and I probably won’t be able to easily distinguish them by their author or what work they’re from. Hand me two physical books and give me a quick glance at a few pages from each, and I’m exponentially more likely to be able to not only identify them, but also get a sense of what each book is like. Handing me a physical book is handing me a whole and unique package, and while there’s something tempting about being able to carry around hundreds of texts in one relatively small device, I’d rather sacrifice the space in my bag for fewer works that retain the character of their physical forms.
So if I’m so gung-ho about preserving the character of a book by only reading the physical version of it, why am I okay with filling my iPad with comics? Because the character of a comic is so bold and evident on every page that I don’t feel like I’m losing things in the digital translation. Look at a single digital page from any comic and you’re likely to be able to tell a lot about the work, and the sense of the comic’s character you get by doing that is much more in line with what you’d get from doing the same thing with a physical copy. That makes the big con of e-books moot for me, but this isn’t the only reason I lean toward my iPad when it comes to reading comics. In fact, this con made moot takes a significant backseat to a pro of e-books being made even better when applied to digital comics: I can take hundreds of them with me in one relatively small device.
While I can get by only having a couple books on me at a time, my habit of binge reading means I’d be carrying around an awful lot of trades if I only read physical comics. And since my preference for digital comics doesn’t mean I dislike physical ones, I’ve definitely carried around trades with me before. It takes so much less time for me to burn through a whole trade than it does a whole novel that the benefit of having 5 trades’ worth of comics on my iPad is evident in and of itself, but the volume of comics I’d need to have on me when reading a series isn’t the only problem I found with trying to read the physical versions.
The durability of physical comics, or more accurately the lack of it, is the last big factor in my preference for digital ones. Most trades are an awkward size to fit into the kind of bag I carry with me everyday, and though their size is more amenable to the backpack I take when traveling, they’re often not sturdy enough to stand up to being jostled around amongst the devices and travel paraphernalia I cram into my backpack in preparation for a trip. Where a hardback novel has the heft to take sharing space with a hard-sided headphone case while getting shoved under an airplane seat, and a paperback novel is compact enough to perch in the smaller space on top of the other things in my backpack, I’ve found my trade comic books just large yet just malleable enough to take a beating every time I pack them no matter how careful I am with the bag. But an iPad full of Locke & Key means an entire flight’s worth of reading without giving up the space the physical versions would take up, or the inevitable bummer of seeing them worse for the wear when I get to my destination. So while I’d certainly never turn my nose up if offered a physical trade of a comic, I’ll opt for the digital version if given the choice. Unless the trade is signed or some kind of special, limited edition, of course. That would make it a cool artifact, and I’m still an obsessive collector, after all.