The Stela comics app

Stela is a new comics app for smartphones (iOS-only at the time of this writing), but it works nothing like, say, Comic Chameleon (which presents existing webcomics with a phone-adapted navigation) or Comixology (which presents comics you’d find in stores as digital products, with a phone-adapted navigation when not running on a tablet). Rather, once you use it it becomes clear Stela’s purpose is to publish comics that embrace the 5 centimeters (that’s about 2 inches, for the metrically-challenged) width of today’s smartphone screens1.

These are comics that are native to that world: the panels are only as wide as the screen (nary a vertical gutter in sight) and can only extend vertically, but they can do so as much as desired because they are read by vertical scrolling. A panel may not necessarily fit on a screen (at least on an iPhone 5/5S/SE; I haven’t checked on the larger models)! An iPhone 5 screenful is a common size, but most of these comics have widely varying panels sizes, and anyway have conversations for instance that extend over multiple screenfuls: they don’t follow a pattern of identically-sized pages. The result is a very fluid flow and a reading experience that is meant to be fast.

The essence of most iPhone apps since the beginning, as best seen for instance with Twitter clients, is of a (potentially long) scrolling list of items (our friend the UITableView), with more or less drilldown or navigation between these lists. Stela is the comics embodiment of that2, and it’s very addictive.

The comics are updated chapter by chapter (which make for checkpoints as well); the economic model is that the first chapter of each story is free, and you can get a subscription (using Apple’s in-app subscription system) to read after that. It is a single subscription global to the app, not per-series, so it works a bit like an anthology series. Comics are always loaded from the network, which bothers me a little: there is no way to preload while on WiFi to avoid eating into your phone data allotment, and no way to read at all if you are off the network. iPod Touches exist, you know.

The comics themselves are of good quality, and I enjoyed the series I read, though many are still developing their story (eagerly waiting for the next chapter of Crystal Fighters for instance) and it’s a bit early to tell how they will turn out.

Either way, whether you’re from my usual audience of iOS app developers, and/or involved in comics, or neither, check it out, you’re bound to find some interesting lessons in this experiment in comics and app design.

~ Reactions ~

Over at Fleen, Gary Tyrrell cautions that, since it’s subscription-based, your access to the content will only last as long as you keep paying for it (I specifically allowed him to quote from this post as much as he wanted). It’s absolutely worth noting; maybe I’ve just become blasé to such things.


  1. The app works natively on iPad, but the comics are just scaled up, which makes for funnily huge lettering.
  2. For instance, images are loaded dynamically and present a spinner if you scroll too fast before they have had time to load, as is traditional in iPhone apps: prioritize the flow, even if that means betraying some implementation realities.

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