Note that for the purposes of this guide, we're going to stick to locally-stored digital comics, as opposed to the online subscription models. Major publishers like Marvel and DC now have their own online readers and libraries, but that doesn't give you a lot of freedom — you're stuck to whatever their libraries offer, and you can only use their comic book reader. By storing your comics locally on your computer, whether in PDF format or the popular CBR and CBZ comic book formats, you can curate your own collection, read it with a number of different programs on any device, and keep all your comics constrained to one collection, not a bunch. That's not to say there aren't other great digital readrs out there — previously mentioned Graphic.ly and Comics for Android come to mind as great digital stores — but this method is, in this Editor's opinion, the best way to go digital with your comics.
Why Go Digital?
As you read through this guide, you may think that it sounds like a lot of work, especially if you already have a pretty good physical comic book collection going. Here's why going digital is a good idea, though:
- You can bring your entire collection with you: The biggest reason to go digital is the same reason you don't still carry that old discman around with you to listen to music. You can pack tons and tons of comic books on your laptop, smartphone, or tablet, and take them with you wherever you go — no worrying about ruining your pristine books, or lugging around heavy trade paperbacks.
- You can easily read old or out of print issues: Sure, the first few issues of Spider-Man have been reprinted about a hundred times, but if you want to dig into some more obscure or less popular issues, they might be a little harder to find (no one's going to reprint the Clone Saga, guys). It's a lot easier to get your hands on old, rare, expensive or out of print books digitally than it is to track down the physical issues. You'll get a chance to read stories you might otherwise never had read, which is really great.
- It's cheaper: Even if you aren't getting them for free, you'll still end up paying a lot less for digital comics. Not only do the older physical issues get pretty expensive, but it just plain costs more to buy them on paper — namely because you're paying for the paper. Why pay $US3 for one issue when you can get 250 issues for $US15?
- It's just a better reading experience: Many will argue with me on this one, but it can be a lot more comfortable to read these comics on, say, a tablet than on paper. Sure, there's something to be said for going to the comic book store every Wednesday and cracking a new issue open. But if you're reading them digitally, you don't have to worry about spilling food on them, ripping them by accident, and frankly the glare of today's glossy comic book paper is just plain annoying. Plus it's much easier to prop your laptop or iPad up when you're sitting on a couch than it is a comic book.
For the record, I don't mean by any of this that you should ditch paper comics altogether. I understand that for many fans, nothing beats the feel of paper, the accumulation of a big collection, and the pride of having gotten that issue "way back when it first came out". I think both paper and digital comics are great, and have their time and place — and while I have pretty much switched to digital entirely, I in no way think everyone else "should". I do think maintaining a digital collection, whether replacing or on top of your existing collection, is a great idea.
To go digital, you'll need three things: A source of comic books, a good method of organisation, and something to read them on. Here' I'll detail some of the best solutions I've found for all three to help you jump start your digital collection. Photo by S. Diddy.
Where to Get Digital Comics
Digital is still a budding format for comic books, so you're likely going to be scraping bits and pieces of your collection from all over the place (which, frankly, isn't unlike real comic book collecting). Here are some of the best places you can grab yourself some digital comics:
Straight From the Publishers
While most major publishers have switched to their online subscription models, many offer free versions of some comics in CBR, CBZ, or PDF formats. Often you'll only get promotional or #1 issues for free, though many independent publishers will release full runs and mini-series' as digital downloads, whether for free or at a small price. This page is a little outdated in some areas, but has a lot of great resources for both major and independent publishers that have released comics online, both for Flash or proprietary readers and the ones we'll discuss below. It won't be your main source of anything, but it's still worth perusing (and it may turn you on to some new titles). I'd also recommend searching around for digital-friendly web comic publishers like Dog Star Comics, Eyemelt, Modern Tales, and Graphic Smash. Again, it'll be a lot of independent publishers, but you may find some pretty good stuff buried in there!
Amazon, eBay and Other Online Stores
Scan Your Own
The most versatile (and also most time-consuming) of the methods is to scan your own collection in yourself. Depending on the type of scanner you have, you might be surprised at how quickly it goes. We won't go into too much detail on how to do it here, but if you're familiar with the CBR or CBZ formats, you probably already get the gist of how it works. CBR and CBZ, the most popular comic book formats, are just RAR and ZIP archives (respectively) that hold scanned comic book pages in sequential, JPEG format. Just scan your comic page by page, make sure the files are in the correct numerical order, stuff them in a zip file and rename it CBZ. The comic readers we list below will read it just fine. eHow's got a few little tutorials that can point you in the right direction, too.
BitTorrent As always, we don't condone piracy, but we know some of you like to live life on the edge, or believe that if you own the comic already (whether in physical or PDF format) that downloading them in the more readable CBR or CBZ format isn't unethical. If you can cobble together an RSS feed, you don't even have to do a lot of work—you can just get the latest issues as soon as they're released online, too. You already know how to use BitTorrent, so we won't go into it too deeply here — just remember (as always), don't be an arsehole, support the industry, and don't blame us if big brother comes knocking at your door for stealing Jughead's Time Police.
How to Organise Your Collection
I'm a stickler for organisation, so I like to make sure my collection has a unified file naming convention and is well sorted for easy access. When your comics come from all over the place, this can be tough. While some programs will let you assign metadata to your comic files, just like iTunes does with your music, my preferred method is just organising them myself in folders.
To do so, I make use of this automator workflow in OS X (though you can achieve the same thing in Windows with previously mentioned Ant Renamer). These will rename your files in batches, making them all follow the same file name convention, while keeping them sequential. You'll have to make sure each batch is at least in the right order before you run it through, which shouldn't be too hard — your batches will probably be determined by where you got the comics, what volume the issues belong to, and so on.
As a quick example, let's say I have three batches of X-Men comics, each from different locations — say, one from a small DVD collection, one from a DVD collection from a different publisher, and one that I scanned myself. They'll have different file naming conventions from each other, but will be the same within each batch (more or less). So, I'd grab my first DVD collection, select all the files, and run it through my renaming program of choice so it fits my standard: Title (Volume) number (e.g. Uncanny X-Men (Volume 1) 123.cbz). How you set it up is up to you, but the file renaming programs themselves should be pretty self-explanatory.
Reading Your Comics
If you're just reading PDF files, your usual PDF reader will probably suffice, but there are quite a few digital comic readers out there that have not only extra comic book-specific features, but can read the popular CBR and CBZ files. Here are a few options for each platform. This list isn't all-inclusive, but should give you a good starting point to finding the right one for you.
Simple Readers: If you're looking for something simple and fast, that will just open your comics and let you go to town, Comical is a good choice on Windows. It's available for Linux too, but you may have to build from source, however, so if you aren't comfortable with that, I'd recommend Comix, which is similar in features but available in Ubuntu's repositories. Comical is also available for OS X, but I'd recommend the very similar but Mac-native FFView. All these readers are designed to be lightweight, so they don't have a ton of features (in fact, most of them can't read PDF files, so you'll either need to use a regular old PDF reader or go with one of the library options below), but they all have some nice view options available. They can each rotate pages 90 degrees (so you can hold your laptop like a book), and fit the page to your window however you want.
Comic Book Libraries: If you're looking for something that will not only read your comics but help you organise them, there are some great options out there for both Windows and Mac. Windows users should check out previously mentioned ComicRack, which organises your CBZ and CBR files into a library from which you can read them. It has limited support for PDF files out of the box, but with a simple extension can take them like a pro. You can create playlist-like reading lists, tag your comics with metadata, and even share your library over the network. Mac users should check out the very similar ComicBookLover. It can't share files, but it does have a really cool feature that rotates your comics automatically by using your laptop's built-in accelerometer to tell how you're holding your laptop. So, if you want to hold it like a book and view your comics in high-res, you don't have to lift a finger. Both of these are great options for both reading and managing your collections.
Mobile Readers: iOS users should definitely check out ComicZeal, which comes in both a cheap iPhone version and a more expensive universal iPhone/iPad version. The more expensive version is $9.99, but honestly, it's some of the best money I've spent in the App Store. Reading on a tablet is the way digital comics were meant to be done, and ComicZeal does it like a champ. Not only can you swipe through comics, zoom, and rotate them, but it will even auto-organise by series and let you adjust the brightness from right inside the app. It also supports PDF as well as CBR and CBZ, which is great. If you really don't want to spend the money, CloudReaders is a more than adequate alternative.
As far as Android goes, Perfect Viewer is probably the best around. It has a great bookshelf function that helps you see the comics on your phone, the ability to bookmark pages, cache the next and previous pages for faster performance, and a few other cool features. Everything else on Android is a little quirky, so I wouldn't recommend much else out there right now.
Hopefully this guide has given you some inspiration on where to get started, as the scene isn't quite as huge as, say, digital movies or music—but it's getting there. Of course, many of you have probably been reading digital comics for awhile, so if you have, feel free to share your advice in the comments.