Comic Zeal for iPad: Detailed Review

From the first time I saw the Marvel app for iPad reviewed, I knew that reading comic books had never looked better or more intuitive on an electronic device. Reading on the iPhone screen is similar, but certainly too small. Reading on my laptop seemed to work well, but it was definitely uncomfortable trying to hold my laptop open like a book. Enter: the iPad.

The large and vibrant screen showcases the colours of the comic books beautifully, making it the perfect medium for this purpose. Reading with the Marvel app is simple and elegant – I love it. But it does have its drawbacks. I have a number of comic books in CBR and CBZ formats on my computer, from old classics to independent fan-created graphic novels, all of which could surely benefit from such a fantastic reading environment. I couldn’t do it with the Marvel or IDW (similar) applications because they are limited to purchases in their own in-app stores. So I went on the hunt. I found a free app called CloudReader and began using that, and while its reading experience is well done, the file/comic book navigation and cataloging is terrible. It’s a simple list with no covers, no title parsing, and no folders – not very useful if you have a number of comic books you wish to read and keep on the device. And thus, my search continued.

I looked for reviews and eventually came upon a Gizmodo review comparing Comic Zeal for iPad ($7.99) and Comic Reader Mobi ($15). Not only is Comic Reader Mobi more money than I’m willing to spend on a comic book reader, but their entire website is done in Flash. How clueless can you get?

I visited the Comic Zeal website and found a beautifully designed site that showcased their iPhone version of the app wonderfully. This must be it, I thought, who could make such a nicely designed site and iPhone app and fall short on the iPad version, probably the best physical device made for their market? And so I went to the iTunes app store and paid for and downloaded the latest release at the time – version 4.0.5.

Note: the review is now updated to reflect some great new changes in v4.0.13


Comic Zeal provides two options for transferring your comic books to your iPad. The first uses the built in file transfer within iTunes and is by far the best method of sending over your comic books. I highly recommend using it for all your comic book transfers. I also tried out the wireless Comic Zeal sync app and found it to be useful in very specific situations, but overall I was unimpressed. It uses a seemingly intuitive and simple drag-and-drop mechanism for converting and sending comic books to your iPad, but appearances are deceiving.

User Interface for Comic Zeal Sync

My first reaction was to drop my comic books where it clearly states “Drop files here”. I then set the Series and Issue names and target device and I’m all set. The problem is that processing begins as soon as I drop the comics in the app, meaning I need to set the series and issue names first. The UI indicates no order (with numbers or arrows) for how to do things and if there were an implied order, then it would be telling me to drop the images first, then set the series and issues names because I naturally process the app from top to bottom.

My only remaining complaint with the main window is that the target device dropdown does not remain consistent across restarts of the application. This caused me to accidentally convert some comic books to the “All devices” resolution of 1024 pixels which is not suitable for the iPad since most of the speech bubbles become difficult to read. I’m not sure why this “All devices” format is even there considering it is even smaller than the target resolution for iPhone which is 1546 pixels (with iPad at 2048 pixels).

Synchronization Agent: SyncDocs

The sync feature uses what I assume to be a third party plugin entitled SyncDocs. I would like it to be well hidden. I think the user should click the Sync button and an indicator should appear that it is waiting to begin syncing with iPad/iPhone. Instead, it launches a separate window with a list of all the files that you have converted and an array of buttons that are surely confusing to most users. Why not hide this window and manage it all through visual indicators in the main window’s interface? It also binds itself to a common port (8080) by default. This conflicts with XBMC or Boxee, which could be running on your Mac or on another computer on your network. This means Comic Zeal Sync might fail to work if you’ve got one of those media centre apps running on your computer (or a proxy app using 8080, which is also common). It also means that when your iPad or iPhone scans your network for devices, it finds XBMC and Boxee servers, which might be confusing to some users. These last few points are not problems, per se, but they made the sync app seem a little rough around the edges.

But, enough about syncing and set-up. Let’s get to the app itself!

First Impression

Comic Zeal Plain BackgroundThe first time the application is opened you’re presented with this plain textured background with nothing on it. It’s empty, with not even a gloss or brand applied to it. Right off the bat, my thought was, “well what exactly do I do?” I expected to find an iBooks style interface with my comic book collection on shelves or in boxes (like real-life comic filing boxes as the iPhone app video walk through on their website shows). Instead I’m given nothing. I’m disappointed that this application doesn’t present something fun, like a closet with shelves full of comic book boxes with sharpie-marked comic book titles and the comics themselves popping out from within. I am certainly hoping for something more engaging for two reasons. First, I consider $7.99 a slightly high price for this application and because of my perception of the price I expect a high quality user interface. Just about every application I’ve paid for was purchased due to their impressive UIs. Second, and this is something I will mention again later, the iPhone app and their website are really nicely designed – I wanted to be just as impressed with the iPad version of ComicZeal. Considering these are the first few releases for iPad, I’m willing to forgive the lack of such an engaging user interface, although I am still hoping a redesign will be provided eventually.

Still in search of my comic books, I immediately looked to the bottom to see if there was a tab bar that I could navigate the app with, as nearly all iPhone/iPad apps have, but there was no such option. To the bottom right I found controls for viewing comics, including buttons for taking a picture, rotation lock, some sort of eject option (WTF?) and back and forward page buttons.

Comic Zeal Navigation

There are a few problems with this:

  1. If I don’t have a comic book open, the buttons are useless, so why are those options even there? They simply serve to confuse me at this point.
  2. Why do I need a rotation lock button when the iPad has a hardware option for this?
  3. What the hell am I going to be ejecting from my iPad with that eject button?
  4. Why do I need page turning buttons if the iPad has gestures for this? These buttons are not quite as unnecessary as the others since many people have expressed their preference for buttons over gestures for such things – I just don’t happen to agree with that sentiment.

On a more positive note, having the screen capture button could be useful. Many are unaware of the ability to take a screen capture by pressing the home and power buttons simultaneously and others may have simply forgot about the inherent OS level functionality. Although I rarely feel the need to store a picture of anything from a comic book, I’m sure more invested readers do at some point or another.

The progress bar is also very handy. Although Comic Zeal’s plain slider control implementation isn’t as pretty as Marvel’s thumbnail bar, the thumbnails in Marvel’s app are not differentiable anyway. In other words, I bet nobody can tell the difference from one page to another while using the Marvel app’s thumbnail bar, so in that regard it doesn’t provide any additional functionality over Comic Zeal’s slider. There are still a couple downsides to using a slider over thumbnails. First, thumbnails make it pretty clear what the control does. Comic Zeal’s slider could initially be perceived as a zoom or pan slider or some sort of volume control – perhaps for those who like to listen to music while reading their comic books. Second is something I discovered only after quite a bit of reading. When you’re looking for a particular page, you often know approximately where it is in the book in relative terms – “I think the page I’m looking for is about three pages from the end.” This provides a big bonus for thumbnails, as they allow direct page-by-page indication of where you are from the beginning and end.

Marvel for iPad Thumbnail Progress Bar

Marvel for iPad Thumbnail Progress Bar


Now that I’ve examined the middle and bottom of the screen, my gaze drifts upward to the only remaining UI elements that I can interact with, and I discover the tab bar on top. I read a review somewhere (that I can no longer find) that described the reasoning behind the top-positioning of the tab bar as being due to the bottom of the screen being hard to reach while reading. This reasoning makes no sense to me.

  1. If that’s true, then why are all the controls that are provided specifically to manage your reading on the bottom? (No, seriously… I’d like to know.)
  2. This belief should not be considered more important than consistency. Nearly every other application available on the app store has tabs on the bottom and iPhone, iPod Touch and now iPad users are accustomed to it. Having tabs on the top is downright confusing. But I digress.
Comic Zeal Box View

Severely width-limited viewing area. Background is useless!

Having discovered the tab bar, finding my comics was then simple. I tap on Collection and up pops my comic books. Not in a full screen grid or list as I was expecting (the background is still plain and doing absolutely nothing for me). The comic books show up in one of those scrollable pop-up widgets that are found throughout iPad apps. Thus my area from which to view my comic book collection is limited to a vertical strip taking up less than half of the screen. I have nothing against these iPad UI widgets, but I feel like they have their place, and this particular use for it seems wrong. Why not take advantage of the entirely unused screen real-estate and show the collection there? One does not need to see an individual comic book and their collection simultaneously except when heading to the next comic book in a series. Thus, I suggest converting the collection pop-up into a series pop-up, showing only the series within the box that is currently being read. They could even have it show the top of your comic book box at about a 45ยบ angle, with the next comic book in the series showing and the previous books flipped down – as if you were flipping through a box of comics. I believe this suggested implementation represents an excellent combination of user friendliness and powerful features.

The widget overlay is the first part of the collection navigation that really strikes me as being ‘off’. I want to clarify before continuing that I believe the comic book collection mechanisms in Comic Zeal to be a brilliant extension of a real-life comic book collection, with the use of boxes and sleeves. Despite this, the graphics used to represent these ideas are lacking, leading to a feeling of lower quality than I had anticipated. More detail on this topic in the following few paragraphs.

Viewing My Collection

Blur around edges and off-putting shadows

I can sort my comics into their respective boxes and the covers are immediately grabbed from the first pages and shown right there as thumbnails. When I navigate within a box, the covers of all the comics show up within. It looks pretty slick apart from a collection of odd graphical issues. For some reason the comic books (and boxes as seen to the left) have a really ugly blocky-grey drop shadow. I suggest using a proper alpha channel smooth drop shadow, as long as its not the current Word 2000 style drop shadow – it’s ugly. The second graphical issue is that when using large icons, the boxes appear to be low quality with blur around the handles, and stripes that are not very sharp – these need to be cleaned up around the edges a bit.

There is also a very subtle problem with the background of the collection’s toolbar (and other similar widgets throughout the app). Take a close look and you will see the Apple provided black transparent background being covered by a custom black gradient background. It leaves a feeling of inconsistency with other applications for iPad and that there is something ‘off’ (although it’s hard to tell without taking a close look). I think this might have just been overlooked when transferring from the iPhone version. I hope it can be removed as the buttons appearing directly on top of the Apple provided widget is considerably nicer looking

In terms of view options, you can have small covers to the left with titles and ‘reading status’ on the right and you can also have a grid view, with two, three or four covers per row. The problem with this view is that I don’t see any indication of reading status or numbering. Because of this I can’t tell which comic is the next one in sequence while reading through a series. This is a bit annoying. I was in fact wrong about this. Bitolithic uses a clever mechanism for showing which comics have already been read – a plastic sleeve! All comic books which have been read are placed within a sheath, just like we do with our print comic books. It’s a fantastic idea, however its implementation isn’t quite worthy of the praise. I didn’t notice this feature until it was pointed out to me on their website, at which point I looked closer on my iPad and found that the covers of those within plastic sheaths are slightly faded. I think this problem could be remedied by giving the plastic sleeve a more glossy look – it needs to be clear to the user that these comics appear different from those that have not yet been read, otherwise the feature is not useful.

Comic Zeal Box View

Box View

Comic Zeal Box View Small

Small Box View

Comic Zeal Cover View

Cover View

Tap on any comic book and it loads immediately in behind, with seemingly no load time at all. Cool. For some reason my collection is still hovering above the comic, which is a bit irritating, although I suppose could be useful if you accidentally tapped on the wrong one (I never did). I await the usual 3-5 seconds for the controls (bottom buttons and tab bar) to disappear so I can focus in on reading, just like it works in iBooks and while watching movies. It doesn’t happen. I wait a little longer, bupkis. I finally notice the little upward pointing arrow in the right hand upper corner of the screen and tap it. Controls disappear as I was expecting them to do automatically. Odd, but manageable. You can also tap anywhere in the middle of the screen for the controls to disappear, which feels a little more natural. With version 4.0.13 tapping on a comic book in the collection now results in the comic book appearing full screen and the interface disappearing automatically. Perfect!!


Comic Zeal Full Comic View

Background on sides is distracting

Reading the comics themselves is generally pleasing with a few minor quirks. First is that textured background I mentioned before. Since the aspect ratio of most comic books is slightly skinnier than the screen, there is space on both the left and right side of the screen where the comic book does not take up. In movies and the Marvel app, this is filled in with black; it’s easy on the eyes and provides a sort-of smooth transition into the black frame of the iPad. Comic Zeal sticks with its plain textured background, making it brighter on the eyes in dark rooms and simply put, not a very nice border for reading.

This has since been fixed! In version 4.0.8 the ability to change the background has been added and I was able to change it to black to make it easier on the eyes in dark rooms and for better consistency. Even better, the magic background feature auto-detects the background of the comic and sets it accordingly. It works very well resulting in me leaving that mode on at all times. Additionally, the zoom lock feature added in 4.0.13 means you rarely need to look at the background anyway!

My next quirk is in page-turning. I can slide my finger across and it slides smooth until the left side of the comic reaches the left side of the screen. At this point it suddenly stops and then appears to do a really fast slide off screen before revealing the following page. It’s slightly awkward looking and inconsistent with iBooks (real-feeling page turning) and other readers that slide the pages across. While I like iBooks page turn animation, I don’t think Comic Zeal could pull it off since you’re often zooming in and out and panning up and down – detecting a page turn would be rather difficult amidst all these other gestures. A smooth slide across could work, though it might feel less authentic. I think the smooth slide might be the better option as it would feel like it fits in better with other iPad applications, though I’m not entirely sold on it either. Perhaps I’ll have more to say on this after further time is spent reading in Comic Zeal.

Pinch zooming works flawlessly. Although I expected double tapping to zoom in to the frame, it instead revealed the tab bar and controls again, despite there being a button for this in the upper right corner. Why do we need two methods of bringing that up? In the preferences there is an option to enable double-tap zooming rather than bringing up the controls – I think this should be enabled by default. The odd thing about double tap zooming is that it appears to not zoom in to anything in particular. It would be nice if it could approximately detect a panel and zoom into that or, if tapping on a speech bubble, zoom the bubble alone (without zooming the rest of the page).

Tapping on the “Collection” button in the tab bar to see my comic collection again doesn’t seem to work the first time. I always have to tap it twice. When it does come up, it takes me back to the root of the navigation every time rather than showing me where I was. If I want to get to the next comic book in the series, I must bring up the tab bar, double tap the Collection button, find the series again, tap on it, then find where I was in the list (which is hard if you are in any type of covers view). Not very intuitive.

Both of these bugs have been fixed in 4.0.8. Double tap no longer required, and it automatically shows wherever I left off in the hierarchy of my comic book organization.


When it comes to comic book collection management, Bitolithic has the right idea with a poor implementation. They know how people want to navigate their comics, but they haven’t yet made the best use of the iPad’s screen real-estate. People take pride in their comic book collections and since comic book covers are illustrious and normally more vibrant than regular book covers, showing them off should be a huge benefit of this application.

When it comes to reading, this app is the best of all I have tried hands-down. Although page turning isn’t quite as smooth feeling as others, the zoom lock feature, magic background and extremely fast load and page turn times make it near-perfect for reading.

The company has shown with its iPhone apps and very nicely designed websites that it knows how to design. It has shown from its iPhone and iPad apps that it knows how people want to read comics on their mobile devices. I’m now awaiting the trifecta that would combine those two huge benefits with a powerful and beautiful comic book collection management system. I’m looking forward to further updates to this application that set the standard for presentation of comic book collections on the iPad.

If you’re a comic book lover that has downloaded your comic books from a variety of sources (or plan to do so in the future) and you would love to put them on your iPad – as you should – then definitely download this application. If you don’t own any electronic comic books and would like to start getting into new series, perhaps the Marvel or IDW app is best for you, as you can set up subscriptions to automatically purchase and download new comic books.


  • Shows the makings of a really powerful interface for organizing comics
  • One of the few ‘reader’ apps on the App store that actually focuses on Comics and not general purpose reading (like PDFs, etc.)
  • The developer(s) are very keen on updating the app – this is something that is very important to me
  • Opening a comic book is instantaneous
  • Zooming and panning is as responsive as doing so on pictures in the Photos app
  • Has its own Wifi Syncing application AND supports syncing wired through iTunes
  • Magic background colour feature is truly magic – I really really like it.
  • The newly added (v4.0.13) zoom lock feature feels natural and makes reading a fantastic experience
  • Saves your exact position in a comic book when existing the app so you can get right back to it upon launch


  • Comic book collection is presented in a half-screen widget as opposed to using the entire screen to show it off. The background remains unused with a default plain background, which unfortunately is the same background used in the collection viewing widget.
  • Controls appear even when they’re not needed/useful. These same controls probably don’t need to exist at all, except perhaps the progress bar slider
  • The tab bar is on the top unlike almost every other application for the device and the device’s siblings
  • Some UI elements appear to be lower quality than I’d like to see. These include boxes, which have blurry edges and shadows which are clunky and don’t feel natural.
  • The majority of views for comic books in the collection make it impossible to see your progress in the series
  • The plastic sleeve effect used to indicate comics which have already been read is not noticeable enough to be useful
  • After selecting a comic to read, it appears in behind with the collection still remaining on top Fixed in v4.0.13
  • The background should probably be black while viewing comics to blend in nicer with the black border on the iPad and for consistency with other applications. (Like while watching videos on the device) Fixed in v4.0.8 with the option to select your background colour.
  • Clicking on Collections while viewing a comic book requires two taps and takes you back to the root of the collection rather than where you left off. This means you have to navigate the hierarchy again just to find where you were in a series. Fixed in v4.0.8

[Note: this article has been updated to include new findings with v4.0.13]

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