Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Comic Relief

With the current popularity of devices like the Kindle, Nook, iPad and a host of others, reading has become popular again. eBooks are even getting lauded on the NY Times bestseller list. Excluding the black and white readers (which are becoming fewer and less popular) these new eReaders are especially great at displaying a particular type of document — the comic book. The size, orientation, color as well as the text bubbles are well suited to the eReader and, with the help of some specialized software, are fun to read.

Some of the major houses like DC, Marvel and now Dark Horse have released their own software for purchasing and/or reading their publications, and there is also ComicsXology, an online bookstore for comics of all kinds, including those already mentioned.

Initially, and still in some use, comics were released in .CBR or .CBZ format. These formats are simply RAR or ZIP files, respectively. Inside, the comic book pages are a set of sequential JPG images. You could then view them in a comic book reader app that could parse the file into its individual pages and then allow the user to flip through them like a book. I did a quick search and found that there are quite a few apps out there that can read these types of files. Here is a quick summary:

Pros: Linux, Mac and Windows
Cons: Old (2008), perhaps no longer supported or developed. Couldn't get it to start. Java error. Ooops.

Comical (free)
Pros: Linux, Mac and Windows. Contextual menu pops up for control. Basic. Simple. No frills.
Cons: Old (2006), perhaps no longer supported or developed. Won't resize to fit your screen. Full-size is deeper than screen depth. Space bar to advance, no key to go previous. No other command key equivalents.

ComicBookLover ($24.95)
Pros: Mac, iPod, iPad. Nice iTunes-like interface, with Preview-like fullscreen controls. Fit comic to window. iTunes-like tagging of comics. Bookmarks, magnifier. smart guides, the works. Library window to organize your collection. Uses cache for speed. Hardware control for Apple Remote (Not available in demo?).
Cons: Price! With the number of other options, I'm afraid this won't top my list, unless I am looking at one of the mobile versions. Silly spacebar, shift-spacebar (or CMD right and left arrow) for next/previous. Plain ol' arrow keys, anyone?

RadicalCodex ($10)
Pros: Linux, Mac and Windows. Reasonable price. Yay, arrow keys work! Set image as desktop background. Full-featured toolbar, bookmarks. Organizer window.
Cons: No drag and drop supported for app icon. Full-screen advance doesn't appear to work, at least on the comic I tried. Sticks on the second page. No contextual menu. No Preferences available. Won't display as spread on first page. Full-screen should auto-fit to window. Not as slick as CBL.


Simple Comic (donation-ware)
Pros: Simple and it just works. Full-screen, full-size. Thumbnail Exposé page selection (cool), layout and order selection, arrow key control, magnifying glass. For individual full screen reading, it's perfect.
Cons: No way to organize your comics. Simple Comic will resize your window if it can fit the whole image on the screen, so if you want to keep your window a certain size, good luck.

Xee (donation-ware)
Pros: Full-featured image viewer, not specifically designed for comics. Handles large collections of images with aplomb. Good image info on the bottom.
Cons: No support for spreads. (not-so) Automatic-zoom does not appear to work correctly when resizing the window, only when selecting the command. Slideshow toolbar commands don't appear to work.

For slickest implementation, ComicBookLover is for you, for best bargain, Simple Comic is the choice. Also keep in mind that several graphic apps can also read these files, like GraphicConverter, so you might already have an app that might work in a pinch but might not have all the features you want.

With all the "green" talk going on, there are obvious benefits to digital comics. You can carry a bunch of them without taking up much space, you won't tear, smudge or otherwise deface them. So if you like to own or collect them, it's a great way to enjoy them while keeping your investment safe. With lots of non-copyrighted comics as well as sample issues out there, it'll keep you happy without breaking the bank and give you an option to explore the past in comics as well as take a look at the new kids on the block (so to speak).

On the other hand, you may have to pay twice if you're a collector, once for the printed copy, once for the digital copy. And no matter how good it looks on screen, the real thing is usually nicer (which can be said about many things). The colors are bursting off the page and the panels are bigger (unless you are looking on a laptop or desktop, perhaps). And you can see the whole page full-size with no eye-strain.

Where can you find comics? And more importantly, FREE comics? Well, there are several sources, starting with ComicsXology, the source of the mobile app I mentioned earlier. They have a website where you can obtain sample issues sometimes series for free. Make sure to checkout Box 13,  based on the old-time radio show starring Alan Ladd.

Here are several links to free comic sites. Your mileage may vary. Some comics may have mature themes.

Digital Comic Museum (registration required)