Robot reviews: Alexander Street Press' digital comics archive

Earlier this week I interviewed Gary Groth of Fantagraphics and Greg Urquhart of Alexander Street Press about the latter's Underground and Independent Comics, Comix and Graphic Novels archive and its inclusion of The Comics Journal.

The folks at Alexander Street Press were kind enough to give me a trial subscription to the archive so I could see what it contains and get a feel for how it works. Here's what I found.

The archive boasts an impressive collection of hard-to-find comics from the 1960s and '70s. If you ever wanted to read Amputee Love (and I know I have) or Captain Guts but haven't had much luck tracking them down, you'll find this archive to be of great value. There's also a complete run of the Arcade anthology, a complete run of Cerebus, Bizarre Sex and yes, Cherry Poptart, as well as work by Eddie Campbell, the Hernandez brothers, Peter Bagge, Harvey Pekar and more.

Of course, for many the ability to peruse the entire run of The Comics Journal -- special editions included -- is a major attraction. What's nice is the searchable feature where you can type a name, like Howard Chaykin, and get a list of every issue he appears in. Clicking on the link takes you directly to the article, too, which is a nice feature. You can't search by author however, so if I wanted to, say, read everything by R. Fiore or Bart Beaty, I'd have try searching by title or subject only.

The rest of the archive is browseable by title, publisher, genre, authors, characters and more. The advanced search function is pretty extensive, letting you search by title, artist, story nationality, character species and so forth. You can also make "playlists" -- grouping various works together based on a theme, like "underground women" or "Jewish comics," to name two given examples.

Obviously the pages are direct scans. For the most part the quality is high, although it does vary depending upon the work. Some of the old Journal issues in particular can be difficult to read (although there is a zoom feature to help with those matters).

My biggest complaint is more of a general formatting one, in that these comics weren't designed to be read on a computer. Hence, a good deal of zooming and scrolling is involved to appreciate these comics fully, which is not necessarily my preferred method of reading. What's more, you can only view one page at a time, which can ruin the effect of a decent double-page spread.

Unfortunately, this archive was designed with PCs in mind and, thus, doesn't work as well on mobile devices like the iPad. I initially thought the iPad's format would make viewing the pages easier, but it didn't. If anything it turned out to be more cumbersome and awkward, and the iPad's browser seemed to have trouble loading some of the images.

Despite those gripes, the breadth of material alone makes the archive an incredibly valuable resource. The cost is quite high ($12,500–$50,000 for an  outright purchase with additional annual access fees or $800–$4300 for an annual subscription) and not every school, library or university will be able to afford it. However, if your local educational institution does have that financial ability, try your best to convince them to purchase a subscription.

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