I Want to Read Digital Comics. But Do Digital Comics Want Me to Read Them?

Let's get this straight: I'm talking about comic books. The sort of stories I'm looking for should be at least the length of a single issue, if not the length of an entire graphic novel. In terms of strips, one-pagers, and archives of the previous two formats, the Internet's already got me covered. I want to read full length digital comic books.

So what am I to do for digital long-form comics? Let's do a quick run-thru of the existing formats:

Torrents. I can illegally download comic books to my heart's content. The organization of the content is weird though - things tend to be grouped in either massive decades-spanning archives, an entire year's worth of comics from one publisher, or a single week's worth of output from the entire industry.

DVD Archives. Marvel Comics pioneered this format back in the early 00s. They took about 40 years worth of scans from a single character's catalog, plopped them onto a DVD set, and sold them for an extremely modest price. I've never used these before, but the marketing concept alone sounds solid.

Marvel's Digital Comics Unlimited. Aside from the hilarious DCU name, there's not much that appeals to me about Marvel's current digital purchase option. The interface is essentially the same Flash reader they've been using for the past decade. It resizes the pages to a pixelated fit-to-screen window.

Blogs and Promotional Previews. Just about every comic book publisher has put up entire issues for free on the Internet. This is great to get the flavor of a series. But the purpose of putting an entire issue up on a blog is to drive sales of the printed product.

Now that we've outlined the primary ways to read long-form digital comics, let's take a closer look at each format. First up, we've got torrents. Frankly, I strictly reserve this option for out-of-print collections and other impossible-to-find comics. I feel strongly about buying a comic if I enjoy it. Simply put, torrents are a great option but a bad solution.

The DVD archives are closest thing to a solution, but they still have their flaws. While the format gives the reader ownership of the material, their product selection is highly limited and it's grouped by character. For example, if I wanted to pay $10 for the DVD equivalent of a recent 12-issue run, I simply don't have that option. It's either 40 years of classics or nothing at all.

Marvel's DCU program is inventive - I'll give it that. But it suffers from three problems: 1. Comics must be consumed over the Internet, 2. Their comics reader makes the art look bad and it's hard to navigate, and 3. Marvel's online catalog leaves much to be desired. I like their attempt to take digital comics to a direct consumer level. But their delivery method is far from perfect.

As for blogs and promos? Well, the answer is pretty easy: it's a great marketing tool but not good if you want more online content than a single issue. While this method of distribution may slowly become the online standard in a modified way, as it exists right now, it only works for advertising.

And all this goes without even mentioning the biggest obstacle to reading and enjoying digital comics: there's no satisfying portable product to read them on!

Yeah, you can carry around a regular laptop. But that comes with its own inherent hassles. There was a time when I flirted with the notion of buying a touch-screen tablet laptop for digital comics. The aspect ratio is perfect for the single-page size. But at the time, I was getting paid to review comic books on a weekly basis using the low-quality PDFs that Marvel, DC, and other publishers send out to online reviewers. When I stopped doing those weekly reviews, my need for the tablet computer ceased.

I've heard talk of reading comics on other portable digital devices. However, the one thing that seems to be lacking from all of these non-laptop solutions is size. They're just too damn small. They might be great for webcomics and similar strips that can be read one panel at a time. But that just won't cut it for a full-sized comic book page. Like I told Neal the other night, you can't expect digital comics to have a decent distribution method until there's a decent device to read them on.

It's not like we don't have the technology to make an awesome digital comics reader. We definitely do. And I know that selling images is difficult without massive piracy, but I'm sure it can be done effectively. I know it can. But, yet, here I am, desiring digital comic books but completely dissatisfied with all the available options.

4 Responses to “I Want to Read Digital Comics. But Do Digital Comics Want Me to Read Them?”


  1. 1 Editor

    I read a while back about someone (name escapes me now) that is building a Kindle-like device, but the screen will be 8 1/2 x 11.

    That would definitely work for comic books.

  2. 2 nick marino

    i really hope it's happening. that would be the perfect hardware.

  3. 3 Idil

    Nick I totally agree with you. Im a big x men comic book fan. I was hoping the new ipad will do the job but as far as i can see the screen size is too small. I would probably need something that is at least 11.5 inches because it is not the same if its any smaller. Ive looked at tablet pc s but they are very highly priced. Have you found anything new, because Im really getting sick and tired of not being able to read these comics on a portrait tablet mode. If you dont have any new news im probably going to give into the highly priced tablet pcs :(

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  5. 4 nick marino

    sad to say that i haven't heard of any new devices that seem to be the right thing for reading comics. i know that since i wrote this post, there are tons more digital options, from iPods to PSPs to PS3s to (i guess) iPads... but nothing good! either the device is too small or it's too expensive. and in the case of the iPad, since it will lack Flash, Marvel's digital comics unlimited program won't work on it. so basically, the only qualifying devices are unstable and expensive tablet PCs. i guess netbooks are a somewhat decent new solution, but they still have that fold-up shape and function in wide instead of portrait format.

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