Tablets, led by the iPad, have the potential to shake up the comic book industry even more than eBook readers have begun to change the world of prose books. Large, mobile colour screens are perfect for reading comics. They’ve got a portability that desktop and laptop PCs can’t match and, of course, they show off the source material in a way that small black?and-white Kindle screens can’t.

The original iPad started the revolution, and the Retina display on both the third- and fourth-generation models provided dramatically improved image quality. Larger Android tablets such as Google’s Nexus 10 have joined the party. And tablets running Windows 8 offer some distinct size advantages of their own.

When the iPad was first released, we found it to be an excellent (albeit imperfect) comic book reader. A few hardware and software upgrades later, it’s a lot harder to spot imperfections. The only problem we have is that we’re now buying several comics a week, with a growing credit card bill to prove it.

Single-issue comics

Comixology’s comics look great on the iPad 3

There are a few different options when it comes to reading comics on your tablet, and in some ways they parallel the choices – and the pros and cons – that comic readers face in the printed comic market.

Traditionally, comics were published monthly in small, flimsy issues: that’s what we remember purchasing from our local newsagent as a kid. To this day, the major comics publishers still produce these issues – but they cost £2 or £3 now instead of the 20 pence we (okay, our parents) paid for our first comics.

The best source for these single-issue comics is a company called Comixology, which makes an app called Comics for iOS (free, bit.ly/YE4iZH), as well as Windows 8 and Android. (You can also buy and read comics directly on its website.) Comixology is also the company behind the official Marvel (free, bit.ly/13jnKzJ) and DC Comics (free, bit.ly/13iNHAt) apps, which are just relabelled versions of the Comics app.

The Comics app (in all its forms) provides a storefront that’s inspired by iTunes and the App Store, with a showcase for featured comics, as well as lists of new and popular items. You can purchase a comic within the app, or read comics you’ve purchased via Comixology’s website (comixology.com).

One of the best things about Comixology’s approach is that the company keeps track of all your purchases, regardless of where you made them. If you buy them on the web, you can read them on an iPad. If you buy them on a Nexus 10, you can read them on the web. Just as your Amazon Kindle eBook purchases are available across any device with a Kindle app, all your Comixology purchases are available for download and redownload at any time from any device running the Comics app and viewable on the web.

Reading comics using the Comics app is pretty straightforward, as well. Once you open an issue, you can spread your fingers to zoom in and pinch to zoom out. Swiping to the left brings up the next page, and swiping right takes you back. In portrait orientation, the iPad’s screen is just big enough to make reading a pleasant experience. We equivocate here because some comics seem a bit too small when fit to the iPad’s screen size, while others don’t. It’s not much of a hardship to zoom in a little and pan around, but it’s nicer when you don’t have to.

Comixology’s app also has a guided view, which moves you through the comic panel by panel as you tap. This view is necessary on the iPhone as its screen is too small to comfortably view a full comic page. On the iPad, though, the feature is superfluous.

While Comixology has risen to become the industry’s dominant provider of digital comics, not everyone’s on board. If you’re a fan of Dark Horse Comics, you’ll need to use the Dark Horse app (free, bit.ly/16GVj1e) to buy and read comics. We’ve used this to buy several issues of the Buffy Season 9 comic, and have experienced numerous download and purchase failures. The reading experience also fails to match up with the Comics app – it’s just not as smooth. But for now, that app is the only digital source for Dark Horse comics.

Trade paperbacks

These days, lots of comic book readers aren’t just readers of the flimsy monthly instalments. A long time ago, comics publishers realised that many readers preferred to buy longer, more expensive trade-paperback editions of comics. (Some of these are self-contained ‘graphic novels’, while others are collections of several issues of a monthly comic.)

We now see that trend mirrored in the world of digital comics. You can buy many of these trade-paperback-style collections, sometimes at a discount over buying the individual issues, via Comixology. But they’re also available where other books are sold: on Apple’s iBookstore, Amazon’s Kindle Store, the Google Play bookstore, and Barnes & Noble’s Nook Store.

It’s nice to see publishers trying to reach casual comics readers via mainstream bookstores, but the reading experience is better in Comixology’s Comics app, which was purpose-built for reading comics. It’s easier to pan, zoom, and navigate through a comic using the Comics app than it is to use Kindle or iBooks apps, but the gap is narrowing.

Comics look fantastic on the iPad’s Retina display

Netflix for comics

Marvel Comics offers a unique approach to reading digital comics: a subscription service called Marvel Digital Comics Unlimited. Originally launched in 2007 on the desktop (and requiring Adobe Flash), it’s now compatible with the iPad. There’s no app – everything works within a web browser – but there are still some bugs to work out.

For $10 (£6.60) per month or $60 (£39.70) a year, Marvel DCU is like Netflix for (Marvel) comics. Like Netflix streaming, you won’t find hot new releases, but there’s unlimited access to more than 10,000 individual comics. If you just want to read through back issues of classic Marvel comics, and don’t really care about what’s happened in the past couple of years, it’s an interesting option. The subscription doesn’t give you access to read those issues in the iOS app, though.