When I was a boy, we used to walk uphill, barefoot and naked even, right in the snow both ways (!) on our way to the local comic shop. For decades, you really had one option for comic book reading – You pull out your 35 cents (This was never my price, but price increases in the 70’s were outrageous!) and you get your floppy comic book.
Here in the future, what with our flying cars and sentient avocados, there are a wide variety of ways to consume digital comics, either one at a time, or in full-on digital library binge sessions. As “all you can eat” services like Netflix or Spotify gain prominence, a comic book equivalent is an inevitability.
A number of apps and services can get you a boatload of comics mainlined straight to your living room, sometimes for naught but the expense of downloading an app! Here are some of my favorites:
If you want to read Marvel Comics, there is absolutely no better option, or better value, than Marvel Unlimited. For a monthly subscription of $9.99 a month, or $70 a year (circa 2016), you get access to darn near every Marvel Comic in history. For another $9.99 you can maybe purchase one trade collection from DC Comics. I’ll let you debate the finer value there.
Marvel Unlimited is basically Spotify for comics, but imagine every brand new comic is Kanye West’s “The Life of Pablo” or Beyonce’s “Lemonade.” So imagine every comic is a fantastically ambitious creative explosion? Well, sure, but also Marvel Unlimited is on about a six month delay for new comics – in other words, the new hype comes to you later, unless you’re willing to pay. So no, Marvel Unlimited won’t get you all the new releases the day they come out, but you will begin to access those books in 6 months time.
In the meantime, the patient among us have over 15,000 Marvel and Star Wars comics to choose from, and that absolutely immense library grows by 20 to 50 comics every single week. Simply put, you could spend a lifetime trying to read every comic in this service, and you’d live a gloriously comic-focused life from about Alpha Flight to Journey into Mystery.
If your question is does Marvel Unlimited have enough to read, I ask: Does a Bear lose to the Packers? Of course.
There are downsides to Marvel Unlimited – the app has a history of bugs (although it has certainly improved), and Marvel’s reader guidance isn’t on par with Comixology’s superior product. For the price, though, you won’t find even close to better value.
Ultimate Comics Consumption Tip: Subscribing to Marvel Unlimited without a plan of where to start can be awesomely intimidating. I recommend a simple Marvel reading guide for your journey.
Additionally, Marvel will frequently offer a free first month of the subscription around the same time as their new movies. Keep an eye out for these promotions as a way to try the service for yourself!
Just How “All You Can Eat” Is This?: One of those buffets with a pasta bar, omelette bar, and guy in a chef hat slicing meats. You eat so much you skip breakfast the next morning.
Comixology (Now Unlimited)
The torchbearer and most popular digital comics app and marketplace around, Comixology is THE go-to for purchasing digital comics. This is your iTunes Store of comics.
If you have an interest in reading some of the best comic books for new comics readers (for example: Rat Queens!), you can quite easily find and buy all the available issues, or trade collections, and download them to the Comixology app. The Comixology library available for purchase is always expanding, but at this point it’s an impressive feat if you find yourself seeking a series that isn’t actually available to buy.
Without question, Comixology’s greatest strength is a fluid app and panel reader technology designed exclusively for comics. This might seem like a no-brainer (reading comics should align to panels and text bubbles, of course), but no other reader technology has pulled this off as well to date.
While Comixology (now owned by Amazon) is easily the leader in digital comics, there are some downsides. For starters, Comixology is one of the least cost-effective methods of reading LOTS of comics. Digital comics on Comixology are available the same day as their print release, but they also cost exactly the same, which makes very little sense.
Likewise, with purchases on Comixology you don’t necessarily actually OWN the comic file you purchase. Certain books do allow DRM-Free backups, but this is not the case for many of the bigger publishers (looking at you Marvel & DC).
All in all, though, Comixology is a must for any new digital comics beginner, and offers plenty of free issues to get started.
Look out for the day Comixology announces a Netflix-style digital subscription – their monopoly will grow by leaps and bounds, and I may never leave my house again.
Uh, so, turns out Comixology announced Comixology Unlimited the day I planned to publish this recap! Howdy hoo! All of the above remains true, except Comixology now also offers a great entry point to books from non-Marvel, non-DC publishers like Image, Dark Horse, Boom, and IDW. For the price of a 30 Day free trial and then $5.99 a month, you can read the first volume (or occasionally two) of stories like The Walking Dead, Saga, Sex Criminals, Mind MGMT, and many more mainstays on my best comics of all time list.
Ultimate Comics Consumption Tip: Comixology frequently offers 99 cent sales on promoted comics. For example, the lead up to Marvel’s Captain America 3: Civil War featured huge discounts on Civil War and related tie-ins. If you have the patience, wait around for 99 cent sales to build your library on the cheap(er).
Just How “All You Can Eat” Is This?: The restaurant claims to offer bottomless fries, and you get two baskets free, but then your waiter never comes back to your table – like, no, honestly, I think his shift ended and he left – and then when someone finally comes to your table they say that you’ll have to order something else if you want more fries. But you’re totally stuffed anyway, it’s just the principle of the thing.
When I was in high school, I discovered that through my local library I could get access to just about any music I wanted and the feeling was like Christmas every day of the year.
Despite what the Pawnee Parks & Rec department might tell you, libraries are AWESOME, and Hoopla Digital is the finest approximation of digital local libraries that I’ve seen.
In addition to all the library staples (movies, music, books without pictures like anybody is even interested in that), Hoopla Digital offers a pretty stellar comic book collection.
For example, Hoopla Digital is the closest online service to a DC Unlimited you’ll find, with all sorts of New 52 collections and Vertigo all-time greats.
Much like your library, you need a library card to set up an account (and for your library to participate in Hoopla’s program), and you’ll be able to check out comics for a certain length of time.
Ultimate Comics Consumption Tip: If you’ve never read it, Hoopla now contains the entirety of Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon’s Preacher. I highly recommend the whole series as AMC’s Preacher takes off on the small screen.
Just How “All You Can Eat” Is This?: You’re looking in the back of your fridge, and pull out a container you forgot about. Turns out the container is completely filled to the brim with baked macaroni and cheese and you’re so excited you eat until you fall asleep in the living room at 8 p.m.
In theory, Scribd Unlimited is actually about the closest approximation of a “Netflix” or “Spotify” of comics. For a $9.99 per month subscription, you get full access to Scribd’s digital library of books, and yes, comics. The app is easy to use, offers plenty of offline comics reading (great for travel and commutes), and if you’re looking to dive into Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or a great graphic novel like Jeff Lemire’s Essex County, Scribd is a great way to do it.
So why in the name of J. Jonah Jameson hasn’t this caught on with comics fans everywhere?
Part of the issue is the comics library. While Scribd has a nice solid collection of Marvel, Top Shelf, IDW and Valiant Comics (to name a few), DC Comics, Image, and Dark Horse are noticeably absent from the offering. Likewise, Scribd’s Marvel selection is generous, but not AS generous as Marvel Unlimited’s, most noticeably lacking Marvel’s more recent comics. This is an understandable turn off for readers looking to get into the Marvel Universe.
Personally, I was also not too impressed with Scribd’s app for comic book reading. It lacks the dedicated sensibility of Comixology, and seems clearly designed for those non-pictoral sequences of events the literate among us so snobbishly prefer.
All that said, Scribd is an interesting option and player in the digital comics space. If Scribd was able to crack the licensing arrangements for more top publishers, they would quite suddenly be closer to the true “All you can eat” comic book service everyone craves.
Ultimate Comics Consumption Tip: Scribd frequently offers a free month or two weeks to new subscribers. Take advantage of these weeks to get to know the service, and to read as much Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles as humanly possible.
Just How “All You Can Eat” Is This?: Your friend finds a KFC buffet across the street from a… classier establishment across the street and insists you try it. It’s ok, and I mean, who doesn’t like boneless chicken strips, but you can see the finer buffet right out the window and it looks so much nicer. You leave kind of wanting a snack, and maybe some fruit.
DRM-Free Digital Comics
A common thread among all these “all you can eat” buffet platforms – whether we’re talking comics, music, or movies – is that you don’t actually own the content you enjoy. Even with Comixology, where you pay by the issue, you don’t necessarily own all of your comics!
So long as these services keep on keepin’ on, this may not really matter, and it cuts down on storage, but if you want to actually OWN your comics, well, it’s time to make sure you’re purchasing DRM-Free comics.
(Well, that or supporting your Local Comic Shop and filling your garage with shoeboxes full of comics until your wife finally cracks and throws them all out, doesn’t even host a garage sale or anything, just straight up tosses them in the trash, I mean I had the entire Snyder and Capullo Batman run in there…)
The most sensible source for DRM-Free comics that I use?
Ultimate Comics Consumption Tip: Every Christmas season, Image Comics launches a $0.99 cent issue sale on just about their entire library. It’s one of my absolute favorite ways to catch up on Image books, and you can easily purchase .CBR, .CBZ, or .PDF files DRM-Free from the Image Comics store. Nothing says Christmas like Rat Queens or Sex Criminals on your tablet of choice.
Just How “All You Can Eat” Is This?: You go to a restaurant like a regular person, and you order a specific meal, and then you pay for it and eat as much of it as you want. Like a regular person.
There you have it. A guide to getting started with digital comics. Have any other services or approaches you prefer? How are you reading your comics these days? Do what feels right to you in the comments.