Comixology has just rolled out Version 4.0 of its digital comics app, and it’s safe to say readers aren’t happy with the update. Social media has become flooded with complaints about the revamped interface, the loss of crucial features and, in some cases, users discovering portions of their library have gone missing. This supposed “upgrade” is a huge step backwards for Comixology and the digital comics market as a whole.
Why is Comixology 4.0 so reviled, and what motivated the company to issue such sweeping changes in the first place? Comixology’s parent company Amazon seems to be the culprit here.
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Comixology’s History With Amazon
The current Comixology controversy is essentially the end result of the company being acquired by Amazon in 2014. Up till now, Comixology had existed as a largely independent entity under the Amazon umbrella. Users had the option to link their Comixology and Amazon accounts (thereby enabling comics purchased on Amazon’s Kindle Store to transfer over to Comixology), but for the most part the reading experience didn’t fundamentally change compared to the pre-Amazon days.
The same can’t be said with the new update. In recent months, Comixology had been teasing an upgraded app and website that would be more fundamentally linked to the Amazon ecosystem. Earlier in February, a Comixology email announced to subscribers, “We are excited to announce that the team-up with Amazon is launching soon. Upon launch, comixology.com will redirect to the comics shopping experience on Amazon and the updated Comixology app will launch.”
It’s easy enough to understand Amazon’s rationale here. For the past seven years, they’ve been supporting two separate digital comics storefronts in Comixology and Kindle Comics. Why not simplify things and save money by consolidating the two services into one? A sensible plan, but Amazon’s first mistake seems to have been prioritizing its Kindle ecosystem over that of Comixology.
Why Comixology 4.0 Is a Huge Downgrade
Despite Comixology’s promise that “the best digital comics reading experience isn’t going anywhere,” the new incarnation is a downgrade in pretty much every respect. Users accustomed to reading their Comixology libraries on a desktop have been hit especially hard by the update. The Comixology website itself is gone now, replaced by a dedicated storefront within Amazon.com. Here’s a taste of what users are greeted to when they login now:
This interface isn’t unattractive, but it’s not particularly helpful in terms of directing users to specific areas of the site. In fact, the new site is so preoccupied with showcasing the latest and greatest Comixology Unlimited titles that it gives absolutely zero indication of how to access and read the books in your library. Once you figure out you have to hop over to the Kindle Cloud Reader, that’s when the real problems begin.
It quickly becomes clear that the Kindle reader was designed for prose books first and comics not at all. All the basic functions of the original Comixology reader, like zooming and Guided View, are gone now. The reader is completely incapable of handling double-page spreads, instead merely cramming both pages into one cramped, portrait-oriented display. Fandom’s Amy Dallen pointed out just how badly this can ruin the reading experience when it comes to artists like Batwoman‘s J.H. Williams III who specialize in double-page spreads and the widescreen format:
This is a disaster. Comixology’s reader is going away, so as of next week here are my options to read comics on desktop. There is no two-page view. There is no zoom. I have not altered these pictures aside from markup.
Witness the work of the great J. H. Williams III. pic.twitter.com/8rFzaOSO16
— Amy Dallen (@enthusiamy) February 12, 2022
Compared to the relatively straightforward and presentable interface of the Comixology website, this cloud reader is an exercise in frustration. As Dallen illustrates above, some comics are simply unreadable in this interface.
The good news is that the actual Comixology app on iOS and Android hasn’t been quite so badly affected by the update. The actual, tactile experience of reading comics in the app remains similar to previous versions, with features like zooming and Guided View still intact. At least, that is, for books originally purchased through Comixology. Some users have reported that comics ported over from the Kindle store are still missing that functionality.
And even if the reading experience has mostly survived intact, the app itself has taken a big hit. For one thing, it’s noticeably slower and more prone to loading than before, and many users have noted individual books take up significantly more storage space now. The Kindle-inspired interface has become more convoluted, not to mention missing some of the organization features readers are accustomed to by now. The greater level of library customization and organization promised by Comixology has yet to materialize.
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Reading comics through the Comixology app is still a far better experience than relying on the website/cloud reader. But what about users who either physically can’t or don’t want to use a tablet rather than a computer monitor? And don’t forget that iOS users are still tethered to the website regardless. This update hasn’t addressed what many would consider to be the greatest flaw of Comixology – the fact that you can’t actually make purchases directly through the iOS app. Much like how Apple and Epic Games have been feuding over Fortnite, Amazon flatly refuses to allow Apple a cut of their digital comics sales. That means more hurdles for the end user.
This doesn’t even get into the myriad other problems that have been reported in recent days, whether it’s the numerous users who are suddenly missing significant portions of their libraries or the fact that it’s apparently no longer possible for users outside of the US to subscribe to titles. Using Comixology is now a demonstrably worse experience in just about every way.
Comixology’s Failure Is Bad For Everyone
This disastrous rollout wouldn’t be quite as concerning if there were more direct alternatives to Comixology in the comics industry. But when it comes to apps that include just about all major publishers and allow users to directly purchase books rather than pay monthly subscription fees, Comixology is essentially the only game in town.
Worse, it’s not as though users have the option to simply pack up their libraries and move to a different service regardless. Just like Kindle books, most Comixology titles are restricted by DRM and can’t be accessed outside that ecosystem. Moving to a different service means leaving all those purchases behind.
The appeal of Comixology and other digital comics services has always been convenience. There’s a lot to be said for having access to an entire library of comics at the press of a button, not to mention not having to deal with the hassle of storing hundreds or thousands of physical comics. Once that convenience is taken out of the equation, what incentive do readers have to keep reading digitally? Digital comics are generally priced the same as their physical counterparts, so it’s not as if cost is a factor.
With all the new headaches introduced in this update, it’s enough to wonder how many comic book readers will become fed up and pivot to buying physical comics instead. Or worse, how many will start downloading pirated versions of Comixology books? Piracy has long been a thorn in the side of the comics industry, and the best way to combat it is to offer would-be downloaders a superior product. Comixology 4.0 is not that product.
Given how heavily Comixology dominates the digital comics marketplace, there’s reason to be concerned about how this update will affect the industry as a whole. According to an in-depth analysis from ICv2’s Milton Griepp and Comichron’s John Jackson Miller, digital comics sales were “turbocharged” in 2020, accounting for a far greater percentage of industry revenue than in previous years.
The pandemic hasn’t been kind to comic shops, but it has led to a new influx of digital comics readers. How many of those new readers will be turned away by Comixology’s clunky, confusing new interface? How many publishers and creators will see a loss in revenue as a result? What will 2022’s industry breakdown look like as a result of Comixology 4.0?
Even actor Patton Oswalt has joined the chorus of voices criticizing Comixology 4.0, begging the company to “just switch it back” on Twitter.
Guys, just switch it back. You can do it. C’mon. Switch it back and no hard feelings. https://t.co/kcWNBzU0A5
— Patton Oswalt (@pattonoswalt) February 18, 2022
It’s probably too much to hope that Amazon will simply hit a reset button and restore the pre-4.0 version of Comixology. As a massive company for whom digital comics is a small drop in the bucket, Amazon may simply be satisfied that it’s no longer maintaining two comics marketplaces. But we can hope that the seemingly universal backlash to the new app will influence the company to make changes and rebuild the Comixology interface from the ground up. Barring that, maybe a new company will emerge to do what Comixology no longer can.
Jesse is a mild-mannered staff writer for IGN. Allow him to lend a machete to your intellectual thicket by following @jschedeen on Twitter.