Wired manga: The case of the pixelated PDF

I gave up my subscription to Wired a couple of years ago, when I realized I didn’t even understand the titles of the articles. But this month, they have a treat for manga fans and a special treat for the curious-but-intimidated: How Manga Conquered the U.S., a ten-page manga, which is available for download from their website (it’s a 1.9 MB PDF). If you like your history presented by short-skirted schoolgirls, this is the comic for you! Seriously, the manga itself is very good, but Wired‘s awkward presentation really gets in the way.

The manga was written by Jason Thompson, whose knowledge of manga is literally encyclopedic: A former manga editor himself, he is the author of Manga: The Complete Guide, which covers literally every manga translated into English. Jason does a nice job of showing both the big picture and the interesting little details. His script includes cameos of well known personalities in the industry, examples of manga conventions, and even an interview with a blacked-out scanlator.

You can tell the Wired people were really taking this seriously, because they went to Japan and hired a professional manga-ka. Atsuhisa Okura has clearly mastered the medium and all its peculiarities: Not just the large-eyed lasses, but the various styles, the use of caricature, and the creative paneling that make manga so dynamic. His art is sure and fluid, and it really keeps the eye moving across the page. Okura is the artist for Moe USA, which is an English-language manga published in Japan for American audiences, which sort of summarizes right there what’s going on in the manga world these days.

Wired chose to go with the Japanese convention of having the comic read right to left, which is fine, but they did a clumsy job of translating that to the web. Most manga written originally in English go left-to-right, although Seven Seas has bucked that trend. Experienced manga readers are comfortable reading either way, and when you’re holding a book, it’s obvious which way the pages go. On the web, not so much.

When you open Wired‘s PDF, the first thing you see is a big “STOP! You’re reading the wrong way!” It’s the same image that’s on the “first” page of all unflipped manga, but in a PDF file, it’s a bit disorienting. Even worse, whoever put this on the web decided that the comic should read from bottom to top, so page 1 is on the bottom of the file. Now, I’m reading this on my 15-inch MacBook Pro, so half a page fits comfortably on my screen. That means I have to scroll down to read each page, then scroll up a couple of times to get to the top of the next page, then scroll down to read… Can you say “annoying interface,” boys and girls? It only makes things worse that the page borders are not well marked; a thicker line would have let me know when to stop scrolling.

Also, the reproduction quality is horrible. I guess that’s the sacrifice you have to make to compress a ten-page comic to 1.9 MB, but I’m a little surprised that the Wired folks, who after all are computer geeks, didn’t do a better job with the web presentation. It’s frustrating, because I know exactly how much better it could be—someone sent me a much larger PDF, with better resolution and top-to-bottom scrolling, and it was great.

So, to summarize: The manga itself is awesome, but the interface really gets in the way. It doesn’t really work as a free sample, because the interface is so frustrating. And that’s a shame, because this comic deserves better.

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