Fine In-App, Awful in Browser

The updated Comixology logo, as seen in the recently-redesigned app.

screenshot: io9/Gizmodo

Since Amazon acquired Comixology in 2014, its larger relationship with the storefront—which, for those years, has remained the premiere hub for buying and reading digital comics—has been relatively hands off. The ability to sign in with your Amazon account aside, the two storefronts have largely stayed separate. A new update this week changes that… for the considerable worse.

Kicking off with this week’s wave of comic releases midweek, Amazon has radically overhauled the experience of using the biggest digital comics storefront in the industry. Changes to the Comixology app have been largely unobtrusive, aside from the full merger of Amazon and Comixology accounts. The updated Comixology app now promises faster downloads of comics to your library, better search filtering, and new navigation features that, by and large, bring the experience of reading comics on the Comixology app in line with the experience of reading them on Amazon’s Kindle library apps—alongside the fact that you can read Comixology purchases in the Kindle app, and previous Kindle purchases vice versa. Comixology’s “Guided View”—a somewhat dynamic, panel-by-panel reading experience—returns, along with basic pinch-to-zoom for closer reading. Older releases and digital collections of classic comics can look a little crusty zoomed all the way in, but newly released comics look great with this functionality; I tested it out on this week’s Nightwing #89and Bruno Redondo and Adriano Lucas’ Dick Grayson still looks as glorious as ever zoomed all the way in.

An example of maximum zoom in the Comixology android app, featuring Nightwing #89.

An example of maximum zoom in the Comixology android app, featuring Nightwing #89.
screenshot: Bruno Redondo, Adriano Lucas, and Wes Abbott/DC Comics

The most radical changes—and biggest failures—come in the browser experience. As of this week, Comixology’s original native website now re-directs you to Amazon Kindle Comics storefront, a page on Amazon’s own site. Although featuring Comixology iconography, it is for all intents and purposes similar to many other in-site storefronts on Amazon—and clumsily awkward to find from the homepage of the site, nestled under “Books > Comics & Graphic Novels” without a direct link. Purchasing comics is now identical to purchasing pretty much anything else on Amazon, and as digital purchases you have all the benefits of things like synced page tracking, so you can pick up in-app where you left off on a browser.

Which you’ll probably want to do, because reading comics in Amazon’s Kindle Cloud Reader is a major pain in the ass. The old Comixology browser reader was functionally quite basic, but Kindle Cloud Reader—designed more for reading digital books than a primarily visual medium like comics—lacks even those basic functions. Whereas before readers could choose between navigating through a comic by page by page or by a double spread at a time, now the latter is forced on you in Kindle Cloud Reader. This perhaps would be fine if there was a general zoom in function like Comixology used to have, but KCR lacks that as well: there’s an approximation of the old Guided view that lets you zoom in on an individual panel, activated by a double clicking a single panel. But it’s unintuitive to navigate, progressed by scrolling with the mouse wheel or using the directions on a keyboard, and it’s just ugly to boot on most pages, not filling the entire view of the page.

That inability to zoom outside of this is most keenly felt on larger double-spread pages, which KCR completely butchers. Sandwiched between massive black bars to maintain the vertical ratio, there’s no way to zoom in on these pages outside of double clicking for the panel-by-panel approximation, but that’s not going to work for every double-spread piece of art in a comic book, where such formats may not be traditionally sliced ​​up into panels. It just means you’re left squinting at a book instead of being able to admire the artwork, and the fact that Amazon thought the way to treat comics was to just give them the same (already kind of bad!) treatment as books in its browser reader feels, putting it diplomatically, disrespectful for the visual nature of the medium.

This is ridiculous.  It looks ridiculous!

This is ridiculous. It looks ridiculous!
screenshot: io9/Gizmodo, Nightwing #89 art by Bruno Redondo, Adriano Lucas, and Wes Abbott

Issues with the browser experience of Comixology and the loss of function extend beyond the transition to Kindle Cloud Reader. Accessing previously purchased issues is likewise as clunky as reading them—comics purchases are now tucked away within your Amazon account dropdown, under the “Manage Your Content and Devices” tab, hidden away alongside other eBook and audio book purchases. Unlike the filtering options in the Comixology app, you’ve got no choice of being able to see purchases you previously made on Comixology bundled with comics you may have purchased directly for Kindle, and sorting books by series becomes unwieldy with large collections. Instead of giving each individual series in your collection its own page to store individual issues, sorting by title simply lists them in a huge block. If you try to search for individual issues through Amazon’s storefront, it can be a buggy experience as well. I searched for Nightwing #89 knowing I had already purchased it and downloaded it in my library, but its page on Amazon just gave me the option to purchase it again, despite also acknowledging that I already had—with the only option to go and read that issue from its landing page accessible through attempting to purchase it again and being given an error.

The storefront gets even worse for international users, who can no longer subscribe to an ongoing title—ensuring they get every issue automatically purchased and added to their library with each release—an abrupt change Amazon signaled would simply see users’ ongoing subscriptions to a series canceled with the overhaul’s arrival this week, leaving them to manually keep up with ongoing series. The ability to subscribe is now only a feature available to US audiences, with little clarity as to whether or not the long-running feature will be made available again beyond those borders—and readers outside of the US who remain logged into their Amazon accounts can ‘t visit the US storefront without it breaking:

Image for article titled Amazon's Comixology Overhaul Is Here, and It Sucks

screenshot: io9/Gizmodo

While I’m sure Amazon sees benefits for itself in bringing comics readers more directly to its storefront, from a user experience, it’s hard to say what’s been gained by this overhaul. Turning the Comixology app into the Kindle App, But For Comics just means you now have a mobile reading experience with all the strengths and flaws of the prior Kindle experience for comics, and nothing particularly gained along the way, and even basic, previously accessible features now missing with no sign of returning. The browser experience is now a significant step-back, both for reading and buying comics—at best a clunky way to push more people to reading on other devices, and at worse the mockery of work that made Comixology the premiere digital comics reading experience for the best part of a decade.

There’s been severe backlash from users and comics creatives alike—the latter in particular angry for, as Polygon reports, changes to publishing options for smaller options by transitioning to the eBook-focused Kindle Direct Publishing program, which puts more work on comics creators while granting them fewer royalties in comparison to Comixology’s previous submissions process. And with creators and readers alike left unsatisfied, it’s clear Amazon and Comixology have a lot of work left to do to make the overhaul work. Whether or not they will remain to be seen—io9 reached out to Comixology for comment on the reaction to the redesign’s launch, as well as on whether or not missing features previously available would return, and did not receive a response by the time of publication . So, for now, the internet’s biggest home for legally acquiring and reading comics has taken a more than a few steps back, with little sign of improvement in the near future.

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