The Journey To Digital Comics: US Comics Apps
The first step in the journey to digital comics was to figure out what kind of hardware device to use. I concluded at the time that either the Transformer Prime or the iPad were the best choices available (the first one for its ideal aspect ratio and superior resolution, and the second one for its better use as a general tablet device). Since then, the New iPad (or iPad 3 if you read this 2 years in the future… thank you Apple) was released with a new fantastic display that makes it the best reading tablet on the market, so you may want to look into this one as well.
The second step is to find out what channels are available to get your american comics fix.
The Elephant in the Room
Before we get to the real stuff, let me rant a bit on the subject everyone knows about: piracy. Like any other media, comic books are pretty easy to find on torrent websites or newsgroups, and it’s handy to download that stuff for free. You can then use an app like FileBrowser or even Dropbox to get the files on your tablet, and use any of the pretty decent comicbook viewers, like Bookman, to read them.
But where I really don’t care one way or the other when it comes to movies and TV, the comics medium is much more special to me and I refuse to go through illegal means. First, pretty much none of the comics authors are nearly as wealthy as a movie actor or director – at least not the kind of actor or director whose movies you would steal. Second, it’s not like the comic industry has ever been doing well. Third, I just really want to give my money to those guys. I even purposedly avoid buying comics through iOS’s in-app purchases to make sure as much of my money as possible goes to the authors (skipping Apple’s 30% tax).
The Big Ones
When it comes to american comics, the one app that’s slowly taking over the whole market is Comixology‘s Comics app, available on iOS, Android and Kindle Fire at the time of this writing. You can also read comics in any Flash-friendly browser.
It’s got a very decent catalog, and it’s constantly expanding with back issues. A few indie publishers have deals with them, along with the big ones, including DC, Marvel and Image. DC even uses Comixology as their official digital store.
One of the cool things is that those publishers came to their senses relatively quickly and now offer “same day digital” books, where new issues are available in digital format at the same time they are available in your friendly neighbourhood comic store.
Prices for new issues are between $2 and $4 (which ranges from “Ok” to “Kinda expensive”), but those prices fall down to $1 to $3 for older issues. They also have very frequent sales – not all of which would be of interest to you, of course, but it’s still a welcome policy.
Dark Horse decided to not go the Comixology way like the other big guys. It could have been a disaster – sometimes if you want something done right, it’s best not to do it yourself, especially if that’s not your core business – but it turned out ok.
Their online store is decent, and has a nice feature where you can search directly for “bundles” (the rough equivalent of a TPB). Prices are similar to those on Comixology, and the catalog seems well furnished (at least they have all the series I follow). As far as I can tell, they also got on board with the “same day digital” idea, which is good.
Their apps (iOS and Android at the moment) get the job done, but are not as smooth as Comixology’s. For example, you can’t start reading a comic while it’s downloading, and the navigation is sometimes a bit weird.
I really wanted Graphicly to succeed in the market: it’s obviously run by people who love comics, and they advocate open, standardized formats that put the reader in control. But this kind of philosophy is a sure way to alienate publishers, and it’s a miracle to me that they still got, among others, Marvel or Image on board somehow, even if it’s only for a small percentage of their catalog (Marvel currently has 125 series on Graphicly and Image 111, compared to respectively 525 and 336 on Comixology).
So even though you could buy some mainstream comics on Graphicly, I’d have a hard time recommending it – you would have to split your collection between there and over at Comixology eventually, and, as we’ll see shortly, it’s better to not go through intermediaries.
Still, Graphicly has some value because they have the biggest indie comics catalog.
edit 2012/05/04: Graphicly stopped being a digital store.
The Fine Print
At this point, you would think everything’s wonderful: those apps are way more convenient than piracy, comics are available as soon as possible and everywhere (as far as I can tell – I’m in Canada), the prices are a bit high but not outrageous, you can read your books on a lot of different devices, and most of the stuff you want to buy is available to begin with (something that would seem like “yeah, duh”, but is still not obvious to the movie and TV people)… they even get a few more things right, like giving away for free the first issue of many critically acclaimed series. But it’s not all roses, sadly.
First, you don’t really own your books – they’re more licensed to you than anything else. They’re stored in a somewhat obfuscated manner on your device, or in your web-browser’s cache, and that means you can never get to the files in case you want a personal backup, or just want to read them in a different comic reader whose interface you prefer. Not that this was ever a real problem so far, but it sure is bugging me.
Second, because we’re dealing with cloud storage, usual questions like “what happens to my purchases if Comixology or Graphicly goes bankrupt?” will pop up in your head every now and then. My only solution to that problem is to cut the middle man and, as much as possible, buy your comics from the source. This means buying Marvel comics from their own digital store, DC comics from Comixology (which is their official digital store) and so on. Sadly, it means pushing guys like Graphicly out of the game (except for indie comics), but at least your money and purchase records are stored with the guys you really got your stuff from, and that’s your best chance of not getting screwed in a few years.
Third, whatever app you choose to buy a comic through will be the app you need to read it with – as if you had to use a different music player depending on where you bought a song. It’s another non-problem – as long as all readers have a decent interface and rendering engine – but it’s also slightly annoying.
The Marvel Problem
It should be noted that Marvel is its own little world of problems at the moment. Early on, their digital strategy was quite confusing. Some of those problems disappeared – I can’t seem to find comics priced differently across apps anymore – but some remain:
As far as I know, Marvel is the only publisher that uses Comixology software with their own database. Both DC and IDW apps are Comixology based, and comics bought through their store are also available in the main Comixology app (and vice versa). Not so much with Marvel, where the 2 apps are completely separate.
The Marvel Unlimited Subscription sounds like a good deal: for a flat monthly fee you can read as many comics as you want. You may not get the full Marvel catalog or all the new hot releases, but it’s very interesting if you want to read all the famous golden and silver age story arcs from a few decades ago. The problem is that the Marvel Unlimited Subscription is not available on mobile devices. Yes, you read that right: the only sensible way to read a digital comic is not acceptable when it comes to reading a shitload of comics. And Marvel will not quite tell you in a straight way: instead they just mention, in small print, that it “requires Flash & internet-connected PC or Mac”. You have to guess that this excludes tablets and phones… or you do like me: get the subscription, realize after 30 seconds that it doesn’t work in their own fucking app, and ask for a refund. Marvel, you are fucked up.
A summary of all of the above is that I read my Marvel comics on the Marvel app, my Dark Horse comics on the Dark Horse app, and everything else on Comixology. And when I need to buy something, I avoid the in-app purchases and Apple’s 30% tax, and go instead to the app’s web store in Safari.
In the next step we’ll deal with reading digital mangas, and then move on to the pros and cons and whether digital comics are right for you.