A friend of mine has been urging me to read comics on the iPad for a while now, but for some reason I’ve resisted. As a long-time comics fan, I actually enjoy paper as an interface for the medium: It lets the art be linear and nonlinear simultaneously; you can engage with pages and panels as whole graphic compositions or as individual elements, without the pre-ordained constraints of some UI designer hemming you in. Could the subtle, multilayered graphic complexity of Watchmen come across as richly if it were visible only through the if/then, and/or/not keyholes of an average touchscreen interface?
But when I saw that Chris Ware, the acclaimed Chicago artist behind Jimmy Corrigan, The Smartest Kid on Earth, had created an iPad-only comic for McSweeney’s, I figured I’d better check it out. Ware’s fractally meticulous layouts (or, as McSweeney’s affectionately and not-incorrectly calls them, “constipated”) have always pushed the boundaries of graphic storytelling to the limit–reading his pages is often more like deciphering a beautiful-but-alien city map than scanning the standard Z-shaped visual progression of most comic books–so if anyone was likely to create an iPad-native comics experience that really took advantage of the touch screen, it was Ware.
My hunch was right. Ware’s short story, “Touch Sensitive” (co-created with game studio Spaces of Play), is about as perfect a tablet-comic visual experience as I could imagine. No irritating UI tutorials necessary: like “The Final Hours of Portal 2,” Ware’s app strikes a perfect balance between intuitive interaction–when in doubt, swipe from right to left–and pleasing digressions and change-ups, like when a series of pinched, postage-stamp-sized panels opens up into a gorgeous full-screen image that spills past the right edge of the frame, inviting you to pan through it cinematically. In fact, the iPad might be an even better medium for Ware’s storytelling style than paper, because it provides just the slightest hint of movie-like forward momentum through his compositions without disturbing their essential, challengingly nonlinear style.
That said, “Touch Sensitive” is vintage Ware in terms of content: Quietly desperate urban lonely hearts circle the emotional drain before an out-of-left-field shift in time and space lurches the plot sideways. It ain’t everyone’s cup of tea, to be sure. But anyone who cares about the future of comics storytelling on interactive devices would do well to check it out.