For years (well, three years anyway), a vocal legion of comics readers has been saying that they want to own their files, and they want them DRM-free, not locked into a single app like comiXology (or Kindle, for that matter). A few weeks ago, Image Comics gave them what they wanted; now Mark Waid is doing the same with the web store on his Thrillbent digital comics site.
When Waid introduced Thrillbent last year, it was hard to see where he was going. At the beginning, it sort of looked like he had discovered webcomics—ten years after the rest of us. But while he does publish comics on the web, it’s true, Waid has turned Thrillbent into a sort of digital comics lab. In addition to running his comics on the site, he beats the pirates to the punch by offering free downloads, and he also sells them via comiXology. He keeps a blog where he discusses what worked and what didn’t, and he has already changed his mind publicly about several things.
The flagship comic on the site is Waid’s own Insufferable, a superhero story with a twist—the superhero and his sidekick have gone their separate ways, and the sidekick is a real jerk. Since Waid offers the story so many different ways, I thought I would kick the tires on all of them reading the comic in all the different formats on my iPad.
Reading the story on the web is surprisingly satisfying, because Waid has really worked to get the format right. His comic is horizontal, so it fits into a computer screen without scrolling, and the panels, images, and word balloons are large relative to the page, making it easy to read on a computer without putting your nose to the screen. He also has a nice comics reader that is easy to use—just “previous” and “next” arrows and a few other simple navigation tools. And the comic doesn’t scroll; instead, when you click the arrow the next page simply appears on the screen. This allows Waid and his artist, Peter Krause, to use some digital-comics tricks like dropping in panels or other pictorial elements one at a time or changing the focus of a single panel while keeping the rest of the scene static.
The free downloadable PDF is perfectly serviceable, but you scroll from page to page. That means you lose the nifty digital effects: The scene where four panels and a word balloon appear one at a time in the web version becomes five pages in the PDF, with a new panel appearing on each page. When you scroll, you definitely lose the sense of elapsed time that you get when the panels simply appear on the page. Still, it’s free, and the comic is still a good read.
Sadly, that is also the case with the PDF of the same chapter that I purchased from the Thrillbent store (Waid has a pay-what-you-like model for his comics; I plunked down $1.99). The image quality looks a bit better (maybe because I paid for it), and the comic is about three times longer than the free PDF, but the digital effects are still missing. It’s just a comic that scrolls.
The Thrillbent store is also a bit more of a hassle than I would like. It takes credit cards only, no PayPal, and in order to buy a comic I had to create an account and enter my credit card information. I understand they need my address to verify the credit card, but I resent being forced to hand over my phone number in order to buy a comic. The payoff for this is that once you have an account, you can download your file from the Thrillbent site to any device, which saves you the trouble of moving it via Dropbox or some physical means. However, it would be nice if they had a PayPal option.
Finally, I took a look at that same chapter of Insufferable on comiXology. This time, it was formatted like a true digital comic, with the digital effects fully in play. The panels dropped in one by one, the focus changed, and it didn’t scroll. The experience was very similar to the web browser, except now I had the comic on my iPad and could carry it around.
There was a lot of talk about DRM’ed versus DRM-free comics at the Digital and Print Comics panel at Comic-Con International in San Diego. With the downloadable PDF, you get full ownership of the file, but the comics experience is incomplete because you are simply scrolling through a set of pages—it’s like reading a print comic that has been scanned in, only a little clumsier because the digital effects require extra pages. With comiXology, you don’t own the file—just a license to read it—but the reading experience is richer. Both are valid choices; it’s really a matter of priorities.