Are DRM-Free Digital Comics The Way of the Future?


In the last 10 days, we had a two day outage at comiXology that kept people from buying new comics or reading ones they had previously bought but not stored locally. Then, JManga went and closed up shop, deleting all purchases from users who thought they were paying money to buy comics. It reinforces a lot of what we've been saying all along: DRM-encumbered comics are not comic purchases. They're comic rentals, subject to the whim of the distributor and their servers. (See also: Electronic Arts and the new "Sim City.")

A perverse part of my brain, though, started thinking that these outages are good things in the long term. The more such outages and failures we see, the more people will wake up to the fact that the system in place today is fatally flawed, too dependent on third party servers. The more that happens, the less happy people will be. And after a few more such outages, the failing system will die.

The publishers will have, by that time, grown accustomed to that extra bit of money in their coffers from digital comics. They'll like the ease of access to the non-Wednesday Crowd. They'll want to keep digital comics out there, and they'll want that money coming in. The only solution, then, would be digital comics that are DRM-free, readable on any device and perfectly portable between them.

EDITOR: Augie's prognosticating again - Brian K Vaughan and Marcos Martin launched a series that's exactly what he's musing on here, mere hours after he sent in this week's column!

Yes, this is the model the music industry followed. And if we keep following that model, then it's only a couple of years until we'll get All You Can Eat monthly plans for comics. Pay your $10 or $20 and read as many comics as you'd like, every month.

This is highly speculative and features a couple of leaps that aren't guaranteed to happen, but it's a pleasant enough future, don't you think? I hate "renting" media. I want to own it. I prefer owing Blu-rays to streaming poorly compressed so-called "HD" films. I like buying and downloading music I can play anytime, even without a Wi-Fi connection. But I don't buy that much music. $10 a month is way more than I've ever spent on CDs. Would I listen to more music with a streaming account? Maybe. I'd definitely be more likely to sample new bands, which I don't do enough of now.

But I'd spend $20 a month for a comiXology-like service that lets me read all the comics on-line I'd want. I'm greedy and it would be a tax write-off for me, too, but I'd be there. For a low enough fee, I'd start reading a lot more comics and sampling a few of the crazier ones. And I've already read far too many comics and have access to plenty more. But the ease and simplicity of such a system for the one medium I devour more than any other? That's worth a few bucks more.


A couple of years ago, I reviewed Sean Wang's original "Runners" trade paperback. I started that column off with this:

You know what I've been missing lately? Sci-fi spaceship adventure. I miss "Star Trek" and "Babylon 5" and "Switchblade Honey" and umpteen million science fiction short stories I read growing up. I miss the creativity and the energy of high action shoot-outs in the inky blackness of space. Heck, I miss "Star Wars." And Amazon's recent sale on the "Firefly" Blu-ray set left me wanting to upgrade my copies.

I miss this genre, whatever you want to call it -- sci-fi, fantasy, space opera, I don't care.

I feel the same way today.

"Runners," I felt, hit that mark at the time, even if it was years old by the time I got to it. The second "Runners" story, "The Big Snow Job" does an even better job of it. The "Runners" clan is a gang of rogues who have banded together to take jobs transporting materials through space for people with money to burn. After the events of the first book, they're without a regular client to serve, and so live from low-paying job to low-paying job. Looking to build up their name and get in front of the right people, they take an "easy" job rescuing stolen yak from one snowy planet. Soon enough, of course, things get more complicated. Gunfights, explosions, and stabbings happen. People betray one another. An unexplored part of characters' pasts is shown and then acted upon.

While the comparisons to "Firefly" are apt, the more I think of it the more this book feels like it does for science-fiction what "Tellos" did for fantasy comics. It's an open, colorful, creative, funny, well-plotted bit of comic storytelling.

The crew from the first series returns for this one. If you've never read the original, there's nothing to worry about. I'd forgotten about many of the details from then when I sat down to read this, but Wang throws in enough exposition to catch the new reader up to speed. He doesn't clobber you over the head with, though you'll definitely know when he's using it. It's minimal and spread out thinly enough that it never gets in the way.

The immediate difference between the original series and this one is Wang's decision to go full color with this story. It adds more depth and detail than the gray tones of the original series did. The coloring stands out for all the best reasons. It doesn't hide the art. It adds depth and texture to every panel. It uses a variety of bright colors. It (sparingly) does the whole "color key" thing where the entire page is shades of one color, but can still pull it off to make things legible. It's a blast to read through and to get lost in some of the pages where your eye can't help but wander through the detail.

He even uses computer effects in a way that doesn't call attention to it negatively. As much of the book is set on a snowy planet, he blurs a little bit of the art in front of the talking character's face to indicate the crystallization of breath. There's plenty of snow blowing around, and then there are the laser shots being fired in the back-and-forth gunfights. Those feel like mostly digital constructs, but fit in well with the book. Also, those laser shows give off colorful like that it reflected where appropriate on their surroundings. Nothing feels tacked on for the sake of showing off the latest Photoshop tutorial Wang just watched on YouTube. The book still feels organic, even with the obvious computer assists.

Wang's art is a notch better from his original outing, too. Some of that is just his comfort with his character designs, I'm sure, but there's also a part that's experience and practice, same as anyone else. His characters look more assured and confident. They look finished, in that way a creator settles into his creation after having had some time with them. That makes the art pop even more. Once again, Wang doesn't pull any punches on the page, staging scenes with attention paid to background details as much as the eye-popping action in the foreground. There are some intricate pages in here that will make you want to stop to soak up all the detail.

If there's a big weakness of the book, it's that there's not another issue starting next month. I don't mean that in a fawning way, either. There's so much potential material presented in this book, but it feels like very little of it is fully acted upon. It's good to have characters that are better than two-dimensional, but it turns out there's a lot of potential in them that doesn't get explored in a single 120 page story. Wang does a good job in applying Chekhov's Gun Law to this book, carefully setting up everything that will be paid off later.

Yet it feels like there's more in the book than is explicitly referenced. It would be tough to fit it all in, particularly with as large a cast as this book has, but it is frustrating that there are things you might see in the story that aren't a part of the immediate story, if you know what I mean. It's mostly with the relationships between the cast members, which is the kind of stuff you set up now to pay off in future stories more organically if you have a monthly series to feed and keep watered. Right now, "Runners" is two graphic novels, nearly ten years apart. Maybe production will ramp up and we'll see more? I hope so.

(Vague notions of spoilers in this paragraph:) Part of that feeling has to come from the fact that, ultimately, nothing changes between the first and last pages of the book. It's more of a sci-fi sit-com, where the rest button gets hit and any chance of progress for the characters goes away to keep the episodic nature of the series alive. It's a fun romp, but it ultimately leads nowhere. I'd like to see greater change for the characters and their situation, even if that change is rolled back somehow in the next story.

If you're looking for a space opera type of book with great cartooning, a good sense of humor, and a slight inkling of that good old "Firefly" charm, "Runners" turns out to be the book for you. It will be self-published soon. See the next section for details.

You can order "Runners: The Big Snow Job" through its Kickstarter campaign right now. Yes, the entire thing is up on its website, which you can read for free a page at a time. But the print edition is right now only available on Kickstarter, in a campaign that's already surpassed its goal and will be fully funded officially next week, March 28th. You get the PDF for just $7, or the printed book at the $20 level. I read it from the PDF, which looks great on my screen. I can only hope that the printed editions of the book won't soak up the colors too badly.

It's great to see projects like this come to life by circumventing a system that doesn't help them all that much. There are lots of potentially low-selling projects that see print today thanks to this "alternative" funding method. And, I think, there are some projects that succeed because of the profile they achieve for being a Kickstarter project. It's a much better hook for marketing than "I have a book you can pre-order next month for release in a few months assuming enough of you do pre-order it and the publisher doesn't find it cheaper to just cancel the orders."


  • I watched "The Princess Diaries 2" with my daughter this weekend because, well, she's a girl who's into that kind of stuff. We saw two different movies, though. Whereas she saw the story of a princess (Anne Hathaway) becoming a queen, being forced to marry a random guy (Callum Blue), and falling in love with a boy (Chris Pine) whose evil uncle (John Rhys-Davies) was plotting against her while one ambassador (Stan Lee) makes uncouth remarks to the Queen, I saw Catwoman being betrothed to Zod while falling in love with Captain Kirk whose evil uncle is Gimli the Dwarf, while Stan Lee played an uncouth ambassador in a Disney movie. Now that's a movie worth watching!
  • Rich Woodall and Craig Rousseau's "Kyrra" webcomic hit its third issue this week. It's 99 cents for ten pages, and always worth it. We're getting to the origin story now, and the art and coloring (from Lawrence Basso) is just as beautiful as the first three issues.
  • New this week from Image is "Five Ghosts: The Haunting of Fabian Gray," by Frank J. Barbiere and Chris Mooneyham. It's the story of a man who goes on secret missions while channeling the powers of five ghosts: an archer, a wizard, a detective (Sherlock Holmes), a samurai, and a vampire. It's a pulpy throwback book with art that might remind you of Mike Grell combined with a little Gene Colan, some Al Williamson-inked comic strips, and a bit of Mike Mignola thrown in. It doesn't lack for action bits or moody shadowy dramatic moments, and could prove to be a lot of fun. Let's see where it goes from here, but it's definitely worth a flip through on the stands this week. The book, by the way, is another product of the Kickstarter era of comics.
  • OK, one more Kickstarter link: the campaign for Steven Sanders' "Symbiosis" will be ending on Thursday. This is his Creative Commons-licensed art book that encourages its readership to use the materials to tell more stories. Great high concept from a great artist. It's already funded, but there are some nice stretch goals yet to be unlocked.
  • This is a much better use of open source than what I once outlined in Pipeline more than a decade ago. Back in May 2000, as I was writing on my Linux box of the time, I wrote two columns (part one, part two) about what an open source comic book might be like. In particular, I love this prescient quote: "Imagine what would happen if the Siegel family forked the Superman code." That damn near happened. Heck, DC started forking Superman away from any references to his earliest issues on their own. Ask Superboy about that, too.
  • I'm shocked that the Comic Book Public License never took off. Shocked. (Not at all.)

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