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FunBITS: The World of DRM-free Digital Comic Books

I, like many comic book fans, have sunk a lot of money into ComiXology, the industry’s unified digital comic book store. But after Amazon purchased ComiXology and removed in-app purchases (see “Explaining the ComiXology In-app Purchase Debacle,” 3 May 2014), I had a sobering thought: what happens if ComiXology were to close shop? All the comics I’ve “purchased” will be lost forever, locked behind the gates of ComiXology’s digital rights management. Fundamentally, that’s the problem with buying DRM-encumbered content: you never truly buy it — it’s more of an extended rental. If the hardware or software that’s available to read the
file becomes incompatible with the DRM, you can’t view the content. Plus, DRM flies in the face of the spirit of collecting comic books. What’s the joy of collecting something you’ll 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 for enjoying them.

Understanding the Formats — First, let’s review the main formats that digital comics come in: PDF and comic book archive.

You’re 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 comic books are typically a bit slower and clumsier than comic book archives. Also, historically, apps that read comic book archives can’t handle PDFs, and comic book archives typically offer more comic-specific metadata options.

“Comic book archive” isn’t truly a format itself; instead, it is a mix of archive and imaging 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 zipped. You may also encounter the much rarer .cbt and .cb7 comic book archives, which are compressed with tar and 7z, respectively. Most of the time, you don’t have to think about these things, as 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 likely provide the best experience. However, with the iPad reader app I’m going to recommend, the difference is negligible.

A few comics come in EPUB format, but I advise against it. It’s a poor format for comic books, and I’ve always been disappointed in the experience.

Where to Obtain DRM-free Comics — The bad news is that the big two comic book publishers, Marvel and DC, don’t currently offer DRM-free comics, so their characters and plot lines are out. The good news is that many other quality publishers are offering DRM-free editions, and by exploring them you can broaden your horizons. I’ve discovered some great new titles that I otherwise wouldn’t have bothered with.

  • Image Comics: Perhaps the biggest publisher of the bunch, Image offers a number of its newer titles and trade paperbacks in PDF, EPUB, .cbr, and .cbz formats. Single issues are priced around $3, and trade “paperbacks” (there isn’t any paper) that include 4–6 issues, are around $12. Trade paperbacks are usually the more economical choice when catching up on a series.

    But… there’s an even better deal. Image has teamed up with The Humble Bundle to offer an astounding starter kit of DRM-free comics through 13 May 2014. Pay what you want to receive East of West Vol. 1, Fatale Vol. 1, Lazarus Vol. 1, and Morning Glories Vol. 1. If you pay over the average offering, 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.

    That’s a deal no comic fan wants to pass up. The most popular title in the bundle, The Walking Dead, is the basis of the hit TV show, but you don’t want to miss the critically acclaimed sci-fi/fantasy epic Saga. I’ve recently started reading Chew, an Eisner Award-winning story about a detective who is a cibopath — someone who gets psychic impressions from whatever he eats. It’s as crazy as it sounds. I’m looking forward to diving into Fatale and Lazarus, which I’ve heard a lot of good things about.

  • DriveThru Comics: DriveThru offers watermarked PDFs (displaying your name and order number on each page) from Top Cow, Valiant, and other publishers. Issues typically cost between $0.99 and $3.99 apiece.

    The Top Cow titles you may be familiar with are Wanted, Witchblade, and The Darkness, which have been respectively adapted into a movie, a TV show, and a video game. I have yet to check any of them out, but they’re on my list.

    Valiant has a long, complex history. Founded by Marvel alumni Jim Shooter and Bob Layton in the late 1980s, Valiant made a splash with some excellent titles in the early 1990s until it was bought by video game company Acclaim Entertainment. When Acclaim went under in 2004, it took Valiant with it.

    But now Valiant and its old titles are back from the dead. A 2012 relaunch, called “The Summer of Valiant” brought back many titles that have gone on to win numerous awards. The two I’ve read are Harbinger, about a troubled teen with physic powers, and X-O Manowar, which follows a Visigoth warrior who is abducted by aliens, only to turn their greatest weapon against them. Unfortunately, DriveThru has only the first issue of each, so I’ll have to wait to catch up on both stories.

  • 2000 AD: A long-running British weekly, 2000 AD is the home of Judge Dredd, a post-apocalyptic lawman who is judge, jury, and executioner. The character was adapted into two movies: a dreadful Sylvester Stallone vehicle in 1995, and the much, much better “Dredd” in 2012 that 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 enormous back catalog. Issues are called progs and megs, and readers are lovingly referred to as Earthlets by 2000 AD’s editor Tharg the Mighty. I’m still getting a handle on the language.

    Writer and designer Craig Grannell clued me in to regular “jump on” progs, designed with new and lapsed readers in mind, so if you’re unsure where to start try the most recent, prog 1874, which retails for £2.45.

    2000 AD offers issues in .cbz and PDF formats. I had trouble buying my first, because my bank wouldn’t accept the charge. Possibly this is because 2000 AD is a British publication. A different credit card worked.

There are many, many more small publishers that offer DRM-free comic books. Fortunately, the developer of my favorite comic viewer can point you to more…

How to Read DRM-free Comics — Numerous apps on all platforms can read PDFs and comic book archives, but my favorite is the free Chunky Reader for iPad. Here are some reasons why:

  • It’s free, though there is a $2.99 in-app purchase to unlock some extra features.
  • It’s fast. It snappily renders PDF, .cbz, and .cbr files.
  • It looks awesome, and has some great page transition animations.
  • It upscales lower-resolution comics and can fix contrast and tint issues.
  • It features parental controls.
  • It supports a huge array of cloud services: Transporter, Dropbox, Google Drive, OneDrive, Bitcasa, Box, Pogoplug, Copy, and Mediafire. It can even load comics directly from your Image Comics account.

But my favorite Chunky Reader feature is the capability to clip a portion of a page and share it. I haven’t seen another reader that can do that, and it’s perfect for whenever I stumble across something amusing that I want to share with a friend or on Twitter.

If you purchase the $2.99 Pro Upgrade, you gain the capability to load comics from a local shared folder, FTP or SFTP servers, or even a Web server built into the app. But really, if you like Chunky Reader, you should buy the upgrade anyway to support developer Michael Ferenduros. I did, because I hope Chunky Reader stays around for a long time.

And here’s a little cloud storage tip for you comic lovers. You may be tempted to keep your comics on Dropbox, but that will quickly clog up your 2 GB of free space. However, I got a free 50 GB of space from Box during a promotion a few years ago that I’ve never used, so that’s where I’m stashing my comics (even now, they offer a generous 10 GB for free). I’ve set up a Hazel action that automatically moves .cbz or .cbr files from my Downloads folder to my Box folder.

Finally, you may be saying, “Hey Josh, you missed my favorite publisher of DRM-free comic books!” OK, I probably did, but there’s a list on the Chunky Reader home page. If you have a favorite that we’ve missed, let us know in the comments.

Support the Little Guys — I, like many comic fans, feel betrayed by ComiXology. But ultimately, it’s a business, and its leaders felt that selling to Amazon was the right thing to do. As comic fans, it’s our problem that we invested our money in a locked-up system that could vanish overnight and take our collections with it.

But moreover, while I love comics, I’m increasingly less enthralled with what’s coming out of the big publishers — Marvel in particular. Over the years, they’ve shifted toward mega-event crossovers with nonsensical plots that are increasingly harder to follow. Even Andy Ihnatko, in a recent episode of The Ihnatko Almanac podcast, confessed that he’s losing interest in comics for that and other reasons.

Discovering the titles coming out of publishers like Image and Valiant has been a breath of fresh air. Their stories have fresh ideas, fully developed characters, and coherent plot lines, and don’t insult my intelligence. Not only that, but these guys trust me, the reader, enough to let me own a digital copy of a comic. For those reasons, I’m excited to give these companies my money.

That’s not to say that I’ve stopped reading Marvel, thanks to Marvel Unlimited, which gives me access to their extensive back catalog for a flat annual fee. (Marvel also has some good new titles, with Matt Fraction’s superb Hawkeye title as an example). But my interest in “buying” single issues that could vanish at any time has faded. At least with a subscription service, both parties are honest about the terms of ownership.

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