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Making the Digital Jump With Viz Manga

by Carlo Santos,
Editor's Note: The original version of this article reviewed a pre-release Nook that was received from Viz in late December 2011. However, the software on this unit contained some page-formatting issues, including incorrect (left-to-right) reading direction and mismatched double-page spreads. These issues have since been fixed, and Viz has provided a review unit with the updated software on it. The article has been updated to reflect this change. We appreciate your patience and apologize for the confusion.

"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:

Left: iPad menu screen (Viz Manga app). Right: Nook 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:

Double-page spread from iPad edition of Shonen Jump Alpha, Issue 0.

Double-page spread from Nook edition of Bleach, Vol. 50.

Be warned, however, that going into landscape mode also shrinks the artwork—not such a problem on the big, dinner-tray-sized iPad, but on the Nook this comes out to about the size of a 3 1/2 x 5 inch photo. That's less than half the size of what it's meant to be on paper, and definitely doesn't do justice to the art. Since this also reduces the text size, reading in landscape mode on the Nook isn't recommended, although you can get away with it more easily on the iPad.

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.

Left: Nook quick-search bar for individual pages. Right: Table of Contents.

Aside from manipulating individual pages, it's also possible to move quickly through any given manga volume. On the Nook, tapping an open page brings up a quick-search bar on the bottom, with thumbnails of each page for reference. Just like on the full-size pages, everything is arranged from right to left, with specific page numbers listed. For even greater convenience, tapping on the "content" button also brings up a Table of Contents that will instantly take you to the start of any chapter.

Slider bar for Viz Manga iPad app.

By comparison, Viz's own page-browsing system isn't nearly as sophisticated—it's a simple slider bar that runs right-to-left, but without page thumbnails, so good luck finding that big action scene you wanted to drool over, or the chapter break where you left off. In fact, both the iPad and web versions of the Viz Manga viewer lack any built-in chapter breaks, resulting in the inconvenient scenario where, if I wanted to read the latest Bleach chapter in Shonen Jump Alpha, I would have to look up the contents page, find the page number where Bleach is located, and then move the slider bar around until I actually hit that page number.

This is the Internet age, people! If I want to read Bleach, I should be able to tap on the Table of Contents page where it says Bleach, and then it takes me there right away! Since a lot of fans follow the magazine for certain series, the digital version ought to make it a lot easier for readers to jump straight to their series of choice, instead of having to hunt-and-peck for page numbers.

But now that we're on the subject of Shonen Jump Alpha, there are many positives as well. Like the heroes within its pages, the magazine's digital makeover has achieved a new power level—it's gone Super Saiyan, revealed its Bankai, opened up the final chakra gate, and all sorts of other cheesy metaphors. Instead of monthly releases, each issue now comes out weekly, just like its Japanese counterpart. And after a dramatic "catch-up" push—all the in-between volumes of One Piece, Naruto, and Bleach are available digitally through Viz's online store—the magazine is more-or-less synchronized with the latest Japanese releases of Shonen Jump, albeit a couple of weeks behind. (However, here's the big elephant-in-the-room question: Where is the catch-up material for the other series running in the magazine?)

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.

So here's the big takeaway on Viz Manga's digital initiative: if you have an iPad or Nook, you're set. Everyone else, you'd better decide how badly you want an iPad or a Nook Color/Tablet, or be happy with using a web browser, or ... (my personal strategy) whine and moan until an Android app comes out. After playing with the hardware, the iPad is more or less the "natural home" of Viz's paperless manga catalog—big enough to show off the art in all its glory, and the only platform aside from the the web where you can access Shonen Jump Alpha. The Nook works as a lower-cost but less luxurious option, where you can still enjoy all the $5 digital manga volumes that Viz has to offer, albeit on a scaled-down screen.

Still, if you were to ask me what the simplest, most elegant manga-reading interface is? I'd say STOP! ... and turn to the back of the book.

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