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Screenshot from Barrier 01

Screenshot from Barrier 01 by Brian K. Vaughan, Marcos Martin and Muntsa Vicente available at panelsyndicate.com.

Comics on the iPad

Today, I want to talk about reading comics. Not the physical copies you can purchase (where I live that actually isn’t an option, you can only get your hands on translated copies that sell for 9 CHF or more) in comic book stores, the digital ones you can purchase, “purchase” (more on that in a bit) or subscribe to. Now, that almost anybody has a tablet laying around somewhere (although Apple reported declining iPad sales yet again) digital comics really are an option up for consideration, if not for every comic you read for at least those, you don’t need on your shelves. I dug deep in this one and tried to come up with something of a guide for those of you that want to start reading digital comics. Where to get them, where to read’em, you get the picture. The apps and services tested for this article are iOS only, not because Android tablets suck but because I only own iOS devices. Most of the services and apps are also available for Android, have equal counterparts or do not care about your OS.

Comixology

You canˋt talk about digital comics without talking about Comixology. Comixology proved itself to be the major player in the market and now is almost equal to purchasing digital comics. Not that you canˋt get your comics somewhere else but all big publishers (Marvel, DC as well as Dark Horse and Image) offer their comics at Comixology, which is owned by Amazon. Comixology offers a thing called guided view, which takes you from panel to panel and offers something like a cinematic experience. I don’t like it because I like to look at every full page and dive into the details myself but you could, as a compromise, make the app show you the full pages by entry or exit to the next page. You can find its universal iOS app here. It is a pretty great service and you can find every bigger publisher in its catalog. There isn’t that much else to say about Comixology’s store, it is a store where you can get almost anything you wish for.

It does have major caveats however. For one, you canˋt purchase Comics in the app. Some time ago they decided to not support in-app purchases on iOS anymore as to avoid paying Apple their 30% cut. You can still make in app purchases on your iDevice within apps, you just have to use the ones the publishers themselves offer. Those apps are powered by Comixology and are basically the same but the Dark Horse App will only let you purchase comics from Dark Horse, Marvel’s app only from Marvel and so on. The purchases you make will be added to your Comixology account and youˋll be able to download and read them with your account in the Comixology app. But that is the smaller problem, it isnˋt much more than a little hiccup.

The bigger problem is that most comics you purchase via Comixology are not actually owned by you, although you pay the same amount of Dollars if you were to purchase them physically. From their Terms of Use:

the Company [Comixology] grants you a limited, non-exclusive, non-transferable, non-sublicensable, revocable license to access the Digital Content for your personal, non-commercial use. Such license does not confer on you any ownership interest in such Digital Content. Words such as “purchase” or “sale” (and similar terms, including all tenses), as applied to Digital Content (including any Digital Content the Company makes available for free), refer to the grant to you of a limited license as described herein.

There you have it. Comixology is great, as long as you don`t actually want to own the things you shell out money for. I mean, let us be honest, that would be crazy, right, to pay for something and then actually own it?! And now, in all seriousness, it isn’t that likely that Comixology is going anywhere anytime soon, especially consideringthat it is owned by Amazon but even if the Company is going to stay: A publisher could decide to withdraw all their comics from their service and all your “purchases” would be vanishing into thin air; the license that has been gratiously granted to you can be revoked. Not to sound like a prophet of doom, the same principle applies to most digital purchases we make these days (Hello, iTunes book store or Amazon Kindle store) and we have mostly been fine. But that’s also a problem, most people tend to forget.

If you don’t care about those afformentioned issues, that’s okay and you’ll likely be very happy with Comixology. They offer a huge catalogue of comics and every major run by your favourite writer can be licensed there. The app works pretty neat, single issues will be collected in the right order and in the right series automatically and Guided view is nice, if you like that kind of thing, especially on smaller devices. The only issues you’ll face with this service on iOS will be that you can’t purchase directly in the app, but that can be circumvented by using the publisher apps. So, if that’s the case for you, stop reading here and go download Comixology’s app, I promise, you’ll be fine. For everyone else: Come and follow me down that Rabbit hole that is drm-free comics, comic book formats and iOS comic book readers.

DRM

When I first started writing this post I had this section titled “The Problem” but as you can see if you’ve followed me till here, I already explained the problem: Most digital purchases do not come with your own copy of the thing purchased, they come with a license, and a revocable one at that, which grants you access to the “purchased” content but only within certain apps, services and/or websites. If they go away, so do your licenses. The major problem for me is not that you only license content, I’d be okay with that, it is that the licenser is under no contractual obligation whatsoever to provide access to the licensee for the licensed content. So basically, you give them money and hope for the best. And that’s no way to live.

The solution, luckily, isn’t that far away: You get actual files with your license and in the best case are those DRM-free files. Here is a notable omission I made from the discussion of Comixology: They do offer some DRM-Free comics and when you purchase those, you’ll be able to download them either as pdf or cbz (more on those later). You can find The drm-free section at Comixology here

A short, short excursion on comic book formats

There are three formats at the moment that are widely used: PDF, CBZ & CBR. A pdf is, I hope, known well enough so that I don’t have to dig deeper into this (although maybe I should do that sometime, it is actually a very interesting format, especially for archival purposes) just know this: from the three formats named here, pdf is the one with the most disadvantages. Pdfs can be watermarked, they can be DRM Protected and ,and this is just a personal observation, the images contained within tend to be of lower quality in most shops etc.

The other two formats are nothing else than either a zip archive of images (cbz) or a rar archive of images (cbr). In those archives you’ll either find jpegs (lossy) or pngs (lossless) and the formats really are standard zip or rar archives with custom extensions. Just try naming a .zip to .cbz and see what happens: Your standard app or whatever won’t open it but almost any comic reader will (most of them work also perfectly without changing the name).

All you need to know is this: If you can get actual files for your digital comics, try to get cbzs or cbrs and avoid pdfs when possible. The readers I will discuss further down in this article all handle both formats more than fine. If that was too short for your tastes go read this post. It’s from 2008 but still holds true for the most part.

Excursion finished.

Comic Book Subscriptions

Another possibility to get your daily digital comic fix are subscriptions. The most notable one is, of course, Marvel Unlimited. You can find the iOS app Here and the website here. It’ll set you back 9.99$ monthly or 69$ for a year. What you get for that is access to over 17000 comics (Marvel’s claim not mine) from the Marvel archives. The most recent issues you can find there are at least published 6 months before they are available for Marvel Unlimited. It is a pretty neat service if you are into Marvel Comics and want to wander through their backlog (like reading up on The complete Civil War event). It works a lot like Comixolog, it also offers some sort of panel by panel view.

Another subscription service that offers Comics is Scribd. Scribd offers Comics from a lot of publishers but has a rather small catalog of Comics, mostly because they aren’t the focus of this service. It’s main focus are books and audiobooks but if you subscribe you’ll also get some comics with that, which is pretty cool. Both apps, Scribd and Marvel Unlimited, do not offer the greatest of reading experiences that there is on the iPad, but it works and especially Marvel Unlimited comes with great value. Both apps, are as of the moment of this writing neither optimized for the iPad Pro nor do they support any iOS 9 multitasking features.

Comics you get with a subscription are obviously not, nor will they ever be in your posession but I think it’s a great alternative for those books you don’t necessarily want or need to own but would like to read and it is waaaay cheaper to subscribe to comics than to “purchase” comics you don’t actually own from Comixology. Now that I’ve ranted long enough about Comixology and their license purchases, let me tell you how you can get your actual digital comic fix drm-free.

Daemon by Maik Hasenbank

The cover and the first page of Daemon by Maik Hasenbank available at electrocomics.

alternative stores

  • In a move that echoed a lot,lot of media attention (just search for drm-free comics) Image Comics announced some time ago to make their comics available drm-free. Image is number three in size concerning comic publishers, just behind Marvel & DC (which are a lot bigger but still) so it was a huuuuge move and a step in the right direction for them to make their comics available drm-free. It doesn’t matter where you purchase their comics, be that on their website, via their iOS app or via Comixology, you have the possibility to download the comics you purchased (note: no parentheses here) in at least drm-free pdf and cbz versions. That is awesome. And that is why most of my comic purchases these days are books published by image (that’s of course a flat out lie, if their comics wouldn’t be that great I wouldn’t purchase those comics, drm-free or not). But Image isn’t the only publisher following those ideals, there are others, some of them do offer their books also via Comixology and some do have their own stores where you can purchase those sweet, sweet image archives. What follows are notable websites where you can get drm-free comics.
  • Drive Thru Comics fancies itself to be “The First Download Comic Shop”, be that as it may (A site optimized for mobile devices wouldn’t hurt, by the way). The most notable publishers you’ll find there are IDW, Top Cow (which is an Image Imprint) and Valiant all of which also offer their comics drm-free via Comixology. The sad thing about Drive Thru Comics is that what you’ll get are mostly watermarked pdfs. There are only like 15 comics available that are in the cbz format and really drm-free. Don’t understand me wrong, getting a pdf is still better than no file at all but that doesn’t do much good if it comes at the price of image quality. I purchased The first Darkness Compendium there, which was on sale for only something like 39 bucks but the pdf I got was no more than 250 MB in size, I mean, think about that. These are almost 1200 pages and the file is that small? That says a lot about the image quality you’ll get and my assessment was clear: No, thank you. Not again.

  • Panel Syndicate is another website that offers drm-free comics. And contrary to Drive Thru, they do everything right. I mean really everything. There are at the moment 3 series available for purchase at Panel Syndicate. All three are creator owned and you can pay what you want for their comics and I advise you to give them lots of money so they can continue to do this amazing work. The site was created by Brian K. Vaughan (maybe you have heard of this little known smash-hit of his called Saga) and Marcos Martin. The Private Eye (a 10 book series finished in March 2015 and by the way only a Harvey and Eisner Award winner) and Barrier (a new series that just started), two of the series on Panel Syndicate, are written by Vaughan and penciled by Martin. The third series available is currently by issue 04 and is completely made by Albert Monteys. After you name your price, which can even be 0, you get to the download page where you can download a pdf, cbz or cbr of the comic and most of them also in localized versions. The format of all comics is optimized for digital devices, which translates to landscape mode on the iPad. I hope that the near future brings to light more sites and comics like this, those comics are not just really, really good, they are also creator owned and the money you pay is directly wired to the PayPal accounts of the creators.

  • Electrocomics is another website which offers comics directly from their creators. All comics there come free of charge (donations are possible) and in the pdf format. The comics there are more at home in the indie, alternative scene and it’s heaven if you like this kind of comics.

  • Digital Comic Museum and Comic Book + offer comics that are in the public domain (so you’ll find nothing more current there than Silver & Golden Age and also no Marvel/DC stuff). Both require you to create an account if you want to download comics (mostly in the cbz format) but that is well worth it if you want to get to know some older stuff.

  • There is also a new Website/Toolkit electricomics & Electricomics - the iOS App created by Alan Moore which looks very promising for the future. It is Open Source, Free to Use for everyone and decentralized. It just started out last September and you can read all about it here.

Comic Book Readers

Okay, so I talked a lot about where you can get your comics but what to do with all those comics? Where to store them? Worry not, I have answers. I tested four comic book readers for iPad. There are a lot more out there but I made an editorial decision and chose four which represent the good, the bad and some things in between. All apps I tested are dedicated COMIC BOOK READERS, I did not test for apps that offer to read comic book formats but within broader functionalities and I also disregarded apps that offer comic reading as part of their shop functionalities. So I hope that you’ll end up with a good overview of your options for reading all those drm-free files you just purchased.

How did I test?

I downloaded five comics for my test. The Private Eye Volume 1 & 2 from Panel Syndicate, Demon by Maik Hasenbank from electrocomics and The Complete Purple Zombie & The Duke of Darkness both from The Digital Comic Museum. I tested all three major formats (Cbz, pdfs, cbz) and also checked if the apps could open zips or rars of if I had to rename them. I looked at how the apps import comics, how customizable the library and the metadata as well as the reading experience were. I tested ComicFlow, Comic Zeal Comic Book Reader,YACReader & Chunky Comic Reader. I tested all those apps on an iPad Air 2 and on the iPad Pro. If I missed a major app or any major functionalities that I really should have included, let me know and I’ll check it out.

General

Four Comic reader Apps on the iPad

The four apps I tested. In the left top corner is YACReader right to it is Comic Flow and at the bottom we have Comic Zeal to the left and Chunky to the right.

Let’s start with some general observations: All apps support the iOS share sheet. If you already have your comics available on your iPad you can send them very easily to the reader of your choosing. All apps offered basic reading capabilities and all opened the three comic book specific formats without hassle. I also noticed that no app currently offers minitiaure views for fast browsing through your comic, something very handy if you want to get to some specific page.

Comic Flow

Let’s start with the bad: ComicFlow. Comic Flow (Free with 4.99 IAP, iPad only) is the only one of the testees (that’s a word right?) which I would not recommend to anyone, no matter what your needs are. First of all, it is really hard to get your comics actually into the app. You can send them via share sheet but that’s where the possibilites come to a crash landing. The only other option is to use a Web Server Comic Flow offers. Problem with that is, the web server works only as long as you have the app open, so you have to have a second device at hand, otherwise you wont be able to get your comics into Comic Flow.

At least you can get your Comics out of the app, something some of the other apps make incredibly hard to do. You just need a web browser, open the same page as you would for importing your comics and then you can download them and send them via Browser to somewhere else but again, this requires a second device or a device with slide over capabilities (Which is a workaround and fidgedy at best).

The reading experience Comic Flow offers is the worst one of all the tested apps. There is no easy way of telling where exactly you are, progress is indicated by dots at the bottom of the page but only when you slide around can you see which dot is representing which page. There are no settings available (with the exception being marking all comics read or unread), the background color is always white and you have no way of changing any Metadata related to your comics. You can sort the comics in the library by Series, Name, Date & State but Comic Flow did not show any files when I tried to sort by series (and I tested with more comics than just The Two Private Eyes Volumes, It did not recognize any series I imported). The app handled all three formats fine but was unable to handle a zip file (via the Share Sheet, I did not test this with the Web Server).

What Comic Flow has going for it is that it is dead simple. Once you have your comics in there there is not much else you can do than just read them and reading is fine by the way. I still would not recommend you use this app, all other apps offer more bang for the buck and as soon as you wish for some more advanced capabilities you’ll want to use another app. ComicFlow is iPad only and Free with a 4.99$ in app purchase. Comic Flow does at the moment support neither the iPad Pro nor iOS 9 Multitasking capabilities.

Yac Reader

YACReader (1.99$, universal) is aptly named: Yet Another Comic Reader. It also offers a free OS X app, which is nice for syncing purposes and that kind of stuff but which I did not test here. The app offers a loft of import options: iTunes Sync, Sync via its OS X counterpart, Dropbox, Google Drive, Box, One Drive and it supports also the iOS Share sheet. It supports importing multiple files at once which is very neat and it also supports Autoimport, you just tap a button and let the app do its magic. In my extremely scientific tests, YAC Reader came out as the slowest importer but it was the only one that showed a progress bar for importing and was able to import in the background. So you can read your Comics in YACReader as well as import new ones at the same time. I was unable to find an option to export your comics after they were in the app (maybe you can do that with the Mac app).

The reading with YAC is really pleasant. You can customize the tap zones for page turning (either top/bottom or right/left)) and you can choose a background color of your liking. The background does not change automatically, you can call in a slider with which you can change the color. YAC shows you a progress bar at the bottom and indicates your progress also with numbers at the top of the page. What I didn’t like was that the whole screen, as soon as you tap anywhere turns the page. I’m what you might call an accidental tapper, so there were a lot of unintended page turns. If you want to show the options screen with your progress etc. you have to make a long press on the screen and once I got the hang of it, it was fine. YAC handled all the formats I threw at it very well but it did not recognize the series (the two Private Eye volumes) automatically but, and that is a big but: That doesn’t really matter.

This is an app for the metadata freak. It was the one with the by far most options to customize and change your metadata. Be that about the people working on this comic or the publisher or the actual content, it offers options for all those things. The library is also highly customizable and you can arrange it with folders and series. The comics can be moved with the copy, cut & paste moves (available if you swipe left on the cover of the comic).

YAC Reader

Some of the metadata fields available in YACReader.

So to summarize: YACReader is a really good app with a lot of options for customization and if metadata is really,really important to you, this is the app you should choose. It is a universal iOS app, costs 1.99$ with no in app purchases and is available in the App Store. The app did not work for me personally tough. Something never really clicked. YACReader does at the moment support neither the iPad Pro nor iOS 9 Multitasking.

Chunky

Chunky Comic Reader (Free with 3.99$ IAP, iPad only) is the third comic book reader I tested. Chunky was the app which supported by far the most options for importing comics. It supports every big cloud service as well as FTP, Calibre, Comic Streamer and Shared Folders on a local network. It supports, as well as YACReader, downloading multiple files and even has a small progress bar in your library, indicating the progress of your downloads and you can also look at all the files that are downloading and see the advance for each file. As all the other apps, it does support the Share Sheet and it was the only app that supports exporting your Comics with the share sheet. So Chunky was the clear winner for me regarding Import/Export capabilities. And in general, the more I use this app, the more I get to like it. It is very well thought out and offers a lot of options and clever features. The library is either grouped (by series or tags) or the comics are sorted alphabetically. Chunky was the only app that recognized automatically that the two Private Eye Volumes belonged together and it grouped them accordingly. You can’t fiddle much with metadata in Chunky other than changing the groups certain comics belong to. What you can change tough, which is pretty cool, is the image that gets shown in the library for each comic. If you don’t want it to be the cover, you can choose any page of the comic you wish. It handled all formats very well and knew how to handle zip files.

The reading experience Chunky offered was very pleasant and you can choose background colors between auto b/w, auto b/w-ish, “auto colour” and a fixed color. The color option was pretty close most of the time but not as spot on as the one by Comic Zeal but more on that later. Chunky has an awesome feature no other app offered: You can select an area on the screen and the app then automatically opens the share sheet where you can send the excerpt of the page anywhere. Otherwise Chunky offers all the reading settings you can wish for and also the general settings offer some highly customizable options for tweaking the app just till you have it exactly the way you want it to be.

I was really, really pleased with Chunky and it would have been my app of choice if it weren’t for the lack of iPad Pro and iOS Multitasking support as soon as this app supports the iPad Pro I’ll face the difficult task of deciding whether or not to switch apps. (More on that down below in the section “The iPad Pro”.) Chunky is a free, iPad only app with a 3.99$ in app purchase an is available at the App Store.

Comic Zeal

Comic Zeal Comic Book Reader (4.99$ with two 1.99$ IAP, Universal) was the last dedicated comic book reader in my testing. Comic Zeal supports the iOS Document Picker (as the only tested app) and a local web server for importing comics. It does not offer any exporting options. Sadly, you can only import one file at a time and as soon as you start importing a file, the whole app is blocked and you can’t do anything else, which was no problem for smaller files (up to 300MB) but Omnibuses or Compendiums with over 1.5 GB of file size took quite some time to import in which you couldn’t do anything else. The same goes for downloads by the way.

It did not automatically detect the series, unlike Chunky, but it is entirely possible to do that by hand. As far as metadata goes you can change the name of any comic and you can tag your collection. The library has two different views a standard, horizontal view and a so called slider view. This slider view is quite important for organizing your comics and the slider is a pretty clever way for batch organization. The slider is, as it is called, a slider and you can slide comics into it by swiping to the right on one of the comics in the libary. The slider holds as many items as wished. Those items can then be organized and moved. Your comics can either be in the library, belong to a series or be part of a divider. The comics in a divider (be that singles or series) can be hidden or shown, which you can change with one simple tap. Quite handy if, for example, you want to keep your read comics in the app but don’t want to see them all the time, you just put them in a divider. Doing so requires only to swipe all read comics in the slider, long pressing on the slider and creating a divider called read.

Comic Zeal handled all the different Comic Book Formats fine, it has a highly customizable interface, be that the library or the reading view. It changes background colors, just as Chunky does, either automatically (black, white & color) or you can adopt the color of the app. The automatic color background was absolutely perfect, comics with bigger margins really poured to the edge of the screen and were a pleasure to look at.

Comic Zeal is the only app here tested that supports iOS 9 Multitasking features and the iPad Pro at the moment of this writing. I’ll have more to say about the iPad Pro in a moment but it was really great to see an app that supports those features. I mean it may not be extremely useful most of the time to read comics in split view, but if you have to reference them for work or whatever (jeeealous) it is handy. But what is really great is the iPad Pro support, I mean if you have all those wonderful retina pixels, what a waste would it be to not use them for your comics.

Comic Zeal

Comic Zeal in Split view with Safari opened next to it. The Comic is Universe (Issue 04) by Albert Monteys available at panelsyndicate.com.

Comic Zeal is 4.99$, offers two in app purchases for 1.99$ each, it is an universal iOS app and you can get it at the App Store. I settled for Comic Zeal as the app for my comics, at least for now, because it offers all the features I need and more and it is truly optimized for the bigger screen that is the iPad Pro. As soon as Chunky adds iPad Pro support tough, I’ll have to reevaluate my situation.

Conclusion

I want to finish this article with a note that has me really excited: The iPad Pro is an incredible device for reading digital comics. You can finally, finally read comics in their original size on a glorious screen with more pixels than you’d ever wish for. And believe me it is really glorious. Don’t believe me?! Look:

Comics on iPad Pro

Two screenshots in proportion. On the left from the iPad Pro and on the right from the iPad Air 2. Screenshots are from The Private Eye Vol.1 by Brian K. Vaughan, Marcos Martin and Muntsa Vicente available at panelsyndicate.com.

Only thing is, that for really taking advantage of the pixles and stuff you need apps that correspond with your needs. Of the four apps I tested was only one optimized for the bigger screen and that is also why I reccomend, if you are the owner of an iPad Pro, you use Comic Zeal. There are two other apps I found with iPad Pro support, iComics - The Comic Reader for iPad and iPhone (1.99$, Universal) & ComicGlass [ComicReader] (2.99$, Universal) but they do both not offer the same functionality as Comic Zeal does and I did not have the time yet to take them through their paces. In the meantime, I am looking forward for updates to Chunky and YACReader, so that we can se what they can do on the iPad Pro.

If you do not own a iPad Pro I recommend you look at either YACReader (if you want or need a lot of metadata), Chunky or Comic Zeal. You really can’t do anything wrong with either of those apps.

So, thank you for reading. If I missed a great reader or a wonderful ressource for reading comics, let me know. And for those that are just getting started, I hope you got some overview here as where to start and what apps to use. Feel free to share this article and let other people know about it.