Comic Chameleon (iPhone App Review)

Comic ChameleonThough Comic Chameleon isn’t the first iPhone app devoted to web comics, it bills itself as the first one made with the comics creators’ permission, and to share revenue with them instead of stealing their audience. That’s an admirable goal, and I was excited about this project. Unfortunately, so far it’s just not worthwhile. It’s telling that I put this review off for a while, always telling myself that I should use the app more before writing about it. I’ve finally accepted that I’m just not going to use it much more, because it doesn’t offer me a good comic reading experience.

Looking at individual comic pages isn’t a bad experience. I mean, the comic is there on the screen. You can read it just like you would in a web browser, and swipe to move through the archives. It does let you view alt text, which is something that is otherwise inconsistent on the Safari app. But if you want to read the news posts and comments that go along with the posts, see the jokey titles that each episode of Dinosaur Comics gets, or otherwise see more than the comic, this app will not match the web site experience.

The big innovation in Comic Chameleon is that it lets you browse panel by panel instead of scrolling and zooming manually. This is an impressive achievement, as I’m sure it took the creators a long time to mark each panel (sometimes with creative choices when the divisions aren’t clear). I use this feature sometimes, but usually prefer not to. The layout of a comic is important, and these comics were designed to be viewed one page at a time. You could make a comic designed to be viewed panel by panel, but these ones weren’t. If the page doesn’t fit on the iPhone screen, I prefer to zoom and scroll myself. At least that keeps my relationship with the page intact. The knowledge that I’m the one looking at a piece at a time allows me to appreciate the page as a single unit in the end. Yes, that usually requires one hand to hold the phone and another to pinch and zoom, so the app’s system is better if I’m holding something in one hand and want to scroll through comics with only one hand free. But that’s maybe too specific a niche for this app to target.

A webcomics app should do more than just let you browse through comics, though. As a way to keep up with your favorite works, Comic Chameleon fails. The main screen is a scrolling list of every comic supported by the app. There’s no way to make a list of favorites or hide the ones you don’t want to read. It also doesn’t track what you’ve read in each comic, so you have to open up a comic to find out if it’s been updated. If the comic tells a story, and you are more than one update behind, then too bad! You’ll start at the most recent one and have to scroll backwards through possible spoilers to manually find the right point. (Yes, you could also find the sub-screen that lists all comics by date, but do you really remember the exact date you last checked in on the comic?)

Comic Chameleon arguably works as a hub to check out comics you might not have heard of before, but honestly, I have no need for that. I don’t have enough time to check out all the recommendations I already get. What I want is a simple way to find out which comics I like have updates, and to see those updates in order. Right now, a basic RSS reader works a lot better than this dedicated app.

So far, the only comic that has been interesting to follow through this app is A Softer World. The comics are short enough to be readable on my phone in landscape mode, there is no plot so I don’t have to worry about reading backwards until I have caught up, and since the website only has new news posts every few weeks, I don’t feel like I’m missing anything. Also, it comes alphabetically at the start of the list, so it’s not a pain to get to. No other comic can replicate those benefits, though.

It feels churlish to complain about a free app, especially since the ads go towards people who deserve the money. But it makes comics harder to follow, not easier. I’m still hopeful about this concept in general. It’s always been difficult for webcomics to find revenue streams, and inexpensive apps sound like a perfect fit for them. In fact, I don’t even count Comic Chameleon out yet. It could easily add subscription features in the future. It seems that all the work for version 1.0 went into setting up the technical features, including the (significant) effort of a protocol to let it see full comic histories and panel breakdowns. Right now, though, it has the building blocks but no useful UI. I worry that as it is, the app just won’t bring in enough ad revenue to keep them working on it. If they do, I’ll definitely follow up with a new review. For the time being, though, keep reading your favorite webcomics on RSS and websites, and find other ways to support them.

Grade (version 1.0): C-

 
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