Phobos by Jason Brubaker is a new premium comic on the mobile comics platform Macroverse, a platform whose unique selling point is the fact that instead of scrolling the reader taps to progress in their comics reading. Phobos follows the humorous and horrifying misadventures of a mad scientist and his wacky assistants in a vampire’s castle, a premise perfectly suited to the Halloween season. But what is this Macroverse thing anyway, and how well does Phobos suit this format?
October 6, 2020
The first two episodes of Phobos are free to read while everything after that is paywalled, so there isn’t a lot of comics content to review. The art is slick, a sharp, high-contrast and grainy grayscale that reminds me of The Nightmare Before Christmas or The Corpse Bride. Phobos is a story that Brubaker has been working on self-publishing for many years now, and it’s clear he’s polished it to the highest level possible. I’m not quite sure what’s happening from the first two episodes, but the quality of the art alone is enough to keep me intrigued and reading. It successfully taps into my nostalgia for funny-spooky things. The jokes so far have landed pretty well.
However, the tap-to-progress “TapStory” format does not do this art justice.
Phobos was adapted from a traditional print comic for the mobile format, not created specifically for it, so not every panel fits perfectly. There are quite a few panels that are wider than a standard phone screen and take multiple taps to the right to progress through, but there are no options to swipe back and forth and take in the panel more seamlessly (as on the Shonen Jump mobile app, for example), or to turn the phone sideways to view the whole panel at once (as some Webtoons do for more horizontal panels.)
The tapping format, therefore, is more restrictive and gives the reader less control of their own reading experience. Sure, tapping might require more intent than scrolling down until the end of an episode, but readers can control their scrolling speed, while tapping without any kind of haptic feedback or a slight animation felt more disconnected to me than scrolling through a Webtoon at my own pace.
A legitimately interesting technique implemented is the way a background is held for multiple screens while a smaller panel is superimposed on top of it and the contents of that smaller panel change. This reminded me of indie animated music videos more than anything else, but it was a pleasant surprise. A friend I discussed this with told me the Team Fortress 2 comics also did something similar to this in 2012, but this is the first time I’ve seen it used in a mobile-first digital comic.
Tapping through the other offerings on this platform, as well as looking at its overall aesthetic and copy choices, I got a vague feeling that not only was I not the target audience for this, no woman was involved in the creation of anything related to Macroverse (founded by Eben Matthews and Adam Martin). Unlike Webtoon and Tapas, where both the reader and creator bases skew female, I could only find one comic with credited female creators (Hex 11, by Kelly Sue Milano and Lisa Weber). Which is… different, I guess! I don’t know if I’m comfortable calling this #thefutureofcomics like their Twitter bio says, though.
Also the Macroverse logo is obviously ripping off the Webtoon logo. Like. Come on, guys.
Phobos seems pretty fun so far, but I question the decision to paywall everything after only two short episodes. Even Tapas’s exclusive comics generally have at least five free episodes to fully hook readers before making them spend money for more. Overall, this app feels somewhat hostile to me as a mobile comics reader, and also a woman. Nothing about it is to my taste, but perhaps it will be to yours.