Way back in 2000, cartoonist turned comics theorist Scott McCloud discussed infinite canvas in his book Reinventing Comics. The concept, simply put, is that electronic mediums afford artists an infinite space on which to create their work. Cartoonists should, therefore, take advantage of this new found freedom. Of course, old media companies don't operate that way, and for the past decade or so, the quest has revolved around finding the most ideal way to repurpose existing comics formats for new devices. The clunky interaction and relative lack of portability made PCs less than ideal methods for this consumption. On the flip side, smartphones are just too small for anything but a panel-by-panel reading. Devoted e-readers, meanwhile, didn't do much better, thanks to slow rendering grayscale e-ink screens.
The iPad hit the sweet spot, with its portable form factor and large, vivid display. The charge was led by Comixology, through its devoted app and market and apps designed for the industry's largest publishers, Marvel and DC. Reading comics on a device was finally easy enough to convince many physical media devotees make the leap to the digital realm. There are still some roadblocks, however: for one thing, there's that whole $500 starting price. If your primary objective in picking up a tablet is reading comics, that's certainly enough to dissuade all but the richiest of riches.
Now that roadblock seems be coming down as well, thanks to the likes of Amazon and Barnes & Noble. Granted, $199 and $249 isn't exactly chump change, but it certainly seems a bit more realistic. Both tablets are shipping with built-in comics readers, taking advantage of their crisp color screens. They'll also both be getting the Comixology app at or soon after their ship dates.
So, how are Kindle Fire and Nook Tablet when it comes to reading comics? In a word: good. The Fire borrows a page from Comixology's playbook, offering up the ability to read the thing panel by panel -- a feature, Comixology has pointed out, that is also handy for those who haven't quite mastered the art of reading comics. We're told those people are, in fact, out there. The app is lacking in some features, like pinch to zoom, but overall does a perfectly serviceable job handling sequential art, and will likely move a lot of product for DC, thanks to the licensing deal struck between the two companies.
The Nook has some great built-in features in its proprietary comics reader, including good zoom functionality, and a small preview pane that allows you to graphically flip through pages of a book as you're reading. Those occupying the arachnid side of the Superman / Spider-man debate will no doubt be pumped about the deal that Barnes & Noble and Marvel have struck.
Both tablets are a great size / weight for reading, and while their built-in readers aren't quite perfect yet, the hardware and price points coupled with Comixology's sequential art-tailored app and stocked market will make both of these killer devices for comics fans looking to ditch the single issues. As far as deciding between the two readers, that will likely come down to price (the Nook Tablet is $50 more), hardware (the Nook is a bit more souped up in a number of respects) and, most importantly, where you stand on the Marvel (Nook) / DC (Kindle) divide.