FunBITS: The World of DRM-Free Digital Comics
Like many comic book fans, I have invested a lot of money in ComiXology, the industry’s unified digital comic store. But after Amazon bought ComiXology and removed in-app purchases (see “Explaining ComiXology’s In-App Purchases Debacle,” May 3, 2014), I had a sobering thought: what if ComiXology closed his doors ? All the comics I “bought” will be lost forever, locked behind the doors of ComiXology’s digital rights management. Basically, that’s the problem with buying DRM-encumbered content: you never really buy it – it’s more of an extended rental. If the hardware or software available to read the
file becomes incompatible with DRM, you cannot view the contents. Additionally, DRM goes against the spirit of comic book collection. What is the joy of collecting something that you will never own?
Fortunately, a few progressive publishers are leading the way in offering digital comics that you can own, and the iPad has the perfect app to enjoy it.
Understanding the formats – First, let’s review the main formats of digital comics: PDF and comic book archive.
You are probably already familiar with PDF, Portable Document Format, which was originally created by Adobe but is now an international standard. It has the advantage of being readable just about anywhere, but PDF comics are generally a bit slower and clunkier than comic book archives. Additionally, historically, applications that read comic book archives cannot handle PDF files, and comic book archives typically offer more comic book-specific metadata options.
“Comic book archive” is not really a format in itself; instead, it’s a mix of archival and imagery formats. The name of the “format” indicates the form of compression used to create the file, and it is the filename extension for the file. For example, .cbr is compressed with RAR and .cbz is compressed. You may also come across the much rarer .cbt and .cb7 comic archives, which are compressed with tar and 7z respectively. Most of the time you don’t have to think about these things because the reader app will handle the details.
If you have a choice between PDF and a comic book archive, I suggest the latter, as it will probably provide the best experience. However, with the iPad reading app that I’m going to recommend, the difference is negligible.
Some comics are in EPUB format, but I recommend against it. It’s a bad format for comics, and I’ve always been disappointed with the experience.
Where to get DRM-free comics – The bad news is that the two big comic book publishers, Marvel and DC, don’t currently offer DRM-free comics, so their characters and storylines have been released. The good news is that there are plenty of other great publishers that offer DRM-free editions, and by exploring them you can broaden your horizons. I discovered some great new titles that I wouldn’t have bothered with otherwise.
- Picture comics: Perhaps the largest publisher of the group, Image offers a number of its most recent titles and paperbacks in PDF, EPUB, .cbr, and .cbz formats. Single issues cost around $ 3, and commercial “paperbacks” (there is no paper) that include 4 to 6 issues, cost around $ 12. Commercial paperbacks are generally the most economical choice for catching up with a series.
But… there is even better. Image has teamed up with The Humble Bundle to deliver an incredible DRM-Free Comic Starter Kit through May 13, 2014. Pay What You Wanna Receive East of West Vol. 1, Fatal Vol. 1, Lazare Vol. 1, and Morning Glories Vol. 1. If you pay more than the average deal, you also get Saga Vol. 1 and 2, Revival Vol. 1, Chew Vol. 1, The Manhattan Projects Vol. 1, and Invincible Vol. 1. Pay $ 15 or more and you get The Walking Dead Vol. 1 and Vol. 20.
It’s a deal no comic book fan wants to pass up. The most popular title in the bundle, The Walking Dead, is the basis for the hit TV show, but you don’t want to miss out on the epic, critically-acclaimed sci-fi / fantasy saga. I recently started reading Chew, an Eisner Award winning story about a cibopathic detective – someone who gets psychic impressions from everything he eats. It’s as crazy as it sounds. I can’t wait to dive into Widowmaker and Lazarus, which I’ve heard a lot of good things about.
- Comics at the wheel: DriveThru offers watermarked PDFs (showing your name and order number on every page) from Top Cow, Valiant, and other publishers. Problems typically cost between $ 0.99 and $ 3.99 each.
Top Cow titles you may be familiar with are Wanted, Witchblade, and The Darkness, which have been adapted into a movie, TV show, and video game, respectively. I haven’t checked out any of them yet, but they’re on my list.
Valiant has a long and complex history. Founded by Marvel alumni Jim Shooter and Bob Layton in the late 1980s, Valiant caused a stir with excellent titles in the early 1990s until it was acquired by video game company Acclaim Entertainment. When Acclaim went bankrupt in 2004, Valiant took it with it.
But now Valiant and his old titles are back from the dead. A relaunch in 2012, titled “The Summer of Valiant” brought home many titles that won numerous awards. The two I’ve read are Harbinger, about a struggling teenager with physical powers, and XO Manowar, who follows a Visigoth warrior kidnapped by aliens, only to then turn their greatest weapon against them. Unfortunately, DriveThru only has the first issue of each, so I’m going to have to wait to catch up on both stories.
2000 AD: A longtime British weekly, 2000 AD is the home of Judge Dredd, a post-apocalyptic lawyer who serves as judge, jury and executioner. The character has been adapted into two films: a horrific Sylvester Stallone vehicle in 1995, and the much better “Dredd” in 2012 which has become a cult classic.
Being a new 2000 AD reader can be overwhelming, thanks in part to its subculture and slang, as well as its huge catalog. The numbers are called progs and megs, and readers are affectionately referred to as Earthlets by 2000 AD editor Tharg the Mighty. I am still trying to master the language.
Writer and designer Craig Grannell updated me on the regular ‘jump on’ progs, designed for new and outdated readers, so if you’re not sure where to start try the most recent one, prog 1874. , which costs £ 2.45.
2000 AD offers editions in .cbz and PDF formats. I had a hard time buying my first because my bank did not accept the fees. Maybe it’s because 2000 AD is a UK publication. Another credit card worked.
There are many other small publishers that offer DRM-free comics. Fortunately, the developer of my favorite comic book viewer can point you more …
How to read comics without DRM – Lots of apps on all platforms can read PDF files and comic book archives, but my favorite is the free Chunky Reader for iPad. Here are a few reasons:
- It’s free, though there’s an in-app purchase of $ 2.99 to unlock additional features.
- It’s fast. It quickly renders PDF, .cbz, and .cbr files.
- It looks awesome and has some great page transition animations in it.
- It improves low resolution comics and can fix contrast and tint issues.
- It has parental controls.
- It supports a wide range of cloud services: Transporter, Dropbox, Google Drive, OneDrive, Bitcasa, Box, Pogoplug, Copy and Mediafire. It can even upload comics directly from your Image Comics account.
But my favorite feature of Chunky Reader is the ability to cut part of a page and share it. I haven’t seen another reader capable of doing this, and it’s perfect for any time I stumble upon something funny that I want to share with a friend or on Twitter.
If you buy the Pro upgrade for $ 2.99, you have the option to upload comics from a local shared folder, FTP or SFTP servers, or even an in-app web server. . But really, if you like Chunky Reader, you should still buy the upgrade to support developer Michael Ferenduros. I did, because I hope Chunky Reader will stick around for a long time.
And here’s a little cloud storage tip for comic book lovers. You might be tempted to keep your comics on Dropbox, but that will quickly drain your 2GB of free space. However, I got a free 50GB Box space during a promotion a few years ago that I never used, so this is where I put my comics (even now they offer a generous 10 GB for free). I have configured a Hazel action that automatically moves .cbz or .cbr files from my Downloads folder to my Box folder.
Finally, you might be saying to yourself, “Hey Josh, you missed my favorite DRM-free comic editor! OK, I probably did, but there’s a list on the Chunky Reader homepage. If you have a favorite that we missed, let us know in the comments.
Support the little guys – Like many comic book fans, I feel betrayed by ComiXology. But ultimately, it’s a business, and its executives felt that selling to Amazon was the right thing to do. As comic book fans, our problem is that we put our money into a locked down system that could disappear overnight and take our collections with it.
But also, as I love the comics, I’m less and less enthralled with what comes out of the big publishers – Marvel in particular. Over the years, they’ve turned to mega-event crossovers with absurd storylines that are increasingly difficult to follow. Even Andy Ihnatko, in a recent episode of The Ihnatko Almanac podcast, confessed that he was losing interest in comics for this and other reasons.
Discovering titles from publishers like Image and Valiant was a breath of fresh air. Their stories have fresh ideas, fully developed characters, and cohesive plots, and don’t offend my intelligence. Not only that, but these guys trust me, the reader, enough to let me own a digital copy of a comic. For these reasons, I am delighted to donate my money to these companies.
That doesn’t mean I stopped reading Marvel, thanks to Marvel Unlimited, which gives me access to their extensive back catalog for a flat annual fee. (Marvel has some great new titles as well, with Matt Fraction’s awesome title Hawkeye as an example). But my interest in “buying” unique shows that could disappear at any time waned. At least with a subscription service, both parties are honest about the terms of ownership.