Digital comics: Just download it

The digital comics scene is still evolving, with lots of complications; over at Comics Alliance, David Brothers samples all five of the different ways you can buy Marvel comics digitally, none of which is fully compatible with the other, and none of which is fully satisfactory.

The one thing that all the modes of buying Marvel comics have in common is that they are basically rentals; the Marvel DCU service is available only as long as you keep up your subscription, and even the comiXology and Chrome comics could disappear if the provider disappears. There's another way of selling digital comics that none of the big publishers will touch: Downloadable, non-copy-protected PDFs (or CBZs or CBRs, which are like PDFs in that they are portable). I just sampled two different sites that sell comics this way, a single-artist site and a digital storefront, and despite a few hiccups in the latter, the experiences were remarkably similar.

The first was the Agreeable Comics store, which is a very simple storefront that sells just one thing: comics by Kevin Church and his collaborators. Buying a comic there was amazingly easy—I didn't have to set up an account or remember one more password. I chose a comic (I went with the ironic choice, a short horror comic called Copy Protection), clicked the link, and was taken to a PayPal page, where I entered my password and authorized the sale. I was immediately sent two e-mails, one with a receipt, the other with a link to download the comic. That was it. No profile to create, no username, no social networking. I just went to a web store and bought a comic.

(And ten points to Kevin for pointing out on the catalog page that the comic was available on the web for free. That's mighty consumer-friendly.)

That worked so well that I decided to check out DriveThruComics, a much larger and more varied site that also sells comics as DRM-free PDFs; their offerings include comics from 2000AD, Top Cow, and Udon as well as Phil Foglio's adult comic XXXenophile. I loaded up a comic into my cart (Zoey Zeta and the Army of Mean), but when I went to pay, I was told to set up an account.

This is, in my opinion, a major annoyance, and if I were just shopping for myself, I might have moved on. I just want to buy a comic, not embark on a new enterprise or subscribe to their newsletter (the default option, although it's easy enough to uncheck the box). But in the spirit of public service, I went ahead and created an account.

And encountered one of my biggest frustrations with online commerce:

"Your E-Mail Address already exists in our records - please log in with the e-mail address or create an account with a different address."

Apparently, sometime in the distant past, I was poking around on the internet and set up an account on the site. I have no memory of this, and I certainly don't know what the password was, and I don't think this is unique. Attention spans on the internet are short; why can't internet merchants understand this?

Fortunately, I have a couple of e-mails so I created a new account and paid for the comic in my cart via PayPal, just as smoothly as on Kevin's site.

The account system does provide one advantage: If for some reason I accidentally delete a PDF, I can re-download it using the information in my account. This is nice, but I have been working on computers for over 30 years now and I have yet to accidentally delete a PDF. I would like to see a site that offers both options, guest purchasing and setting up an account. Buying a 99-cent comic shouldn't be a big deal; it's an impulse buy.

That said, DriveThruComics has a decent enough interface, with plenty of helpful information for new users, and they have some comics that are a bit hard to find elsewhere. Their "hottest items" list suggests that it caters to fans of Phil Foglio, porn, and Phil Foglio's porn. (The login process requires you to declare both that you are over 13 (to participate) and over 18 (to see the adult stuff), but it's not like they are checking ID or anything.) Now that I have an account, assuming I can remember my login details, I'd go there again.

To me, the Agreeable Comics store was the most, well, agreeable way to buy comics. It's digital (convenience!), doesn't require me to fork over an email or other personal information (privacy!), and it's inexpensive. The comics are PDFs, so I can read them on my computer or iPad, and I believe there are PDF readers for the iPhone, Android, and Kindle, although I'm not sure why anyone would bother. And I get to keep them forever, because the middleman stepped aside once the sale was over.

Unfortunately, the comics market is about much more than simply buying comics; like comics shops, the digital distributors want to build a following and sell you extra stuff, so they take your name, send you e-mails, and make you look at a flashing banner of featured comics every time you want to read the comics you already own. Simpler may be better for the consumer, but it doesn't sell as many comics, or feed as many middlemen, so it's in nobody's best interests (except the consumer's) to make it happen.

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