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The Funnies Aren’t So Fun Online

E-comics suggest the limitations of Web publishing.

For the past two years or so I’ve been subscribing to a daily comics e-mail from The service gives me a choice of comics from more than 100 strips and editorial cartoons, and it’s just $11.95 a year. Although it’s true that I can get the comics for free on the Web, it’s worth $11.95 a year for me to get the comics directly by e-mail.

I got into the comics in college–we had a communal copy of the Boston Globe in our dorm, and every morning I would read through all the comics on the page. When my wife and I got married, the morning comics became an important part of our daily routine.

But in the late 1990s, the Globe’s comics page went through a series of redesigns. First the paper shrank all the comics so that more could fit on one page. Then they shrank the page, presumably to save money. Eventually my wife and I realized that we weren’t getting a lot of pleasure from the page anymore, and we decided to let our subscription to the Globe lapse–after all, we could get the news online.

There’s been a real explosion in Web comics in recent years. Uclick has more than 100 features and editorial cartoons drawn from national syndication. But there are literally thousands of comics that are distributed solely on the Web–the pictorial equivalent of blogging.

Unfortunately, this new comics system is far from perfect. For starters, the comics don’t look as good on my computer screen as they did in print–they aren’t presented at a very high resolution. The screen just isn’t as good a medium for distribution as paper is. Perhaps the new iPhone will fix this, with its 200-dots-per-inch screen, but I’m not holding my breath.

A bigger disappointment is that getting the comics on a Web page has changed reading comics from a communal activity done with my wife and family around the breakfast table to a solitary activity that I do in front of the computer screen. Some days I will actually walk away from breakfast to “check my mail”–and read the comics.

Yet another problem is selection: there’s too much, and it’s not edited. Back when I was reading the comics page, I got a selection of the comics I liked and some others I didn’t care about. But every now and then one of the ones that I didn’t care about would catch my eye, and sooner or later I would get hooked. Today, I get the comics that I care about by e-mail, and I ignore the rest. If I ever decide to go looking for something new, I’m quickly overwhelmed by the selection.

Back when I was a graduate student at the MIT Media Lab, we used to theorize about the “newspaper of the future” and the problems that it might have. One of the ideas floated for the comics was that people would have high-resolution color printers in their homes, and the daily comics would be printed every day. Well, I’ve got the printer, the computer, and the information, but I don’t have the software to make this all work. Perhaps more important, I don’t have some intelligent agent that’s automatically building a selection of comics for me that’s both interesting and relevant and that keeps me open to new possibilities.

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