In today’s blog post I’m fulfilling a special request made by my friends (and fellow troublemakers) Susie and Angie. They’ve asked me to post instructions for reading downloadable digital comics. It’s difficult to refuse requests from friends such as these, not just because they keep me laughing but also because they know where some of the proverbial bodies are buried (and they’ve sometimes helped to dig the holes). Ladies, just for you…

The easiest way by far to read digital comics is to read them online directly. Comic Book Plus (under another name) was the first (and at one time only) website that offered Golden Age comic books. They’ve since expanded their purview to include “dime novel” magazines, fanzines, and newspaper comic strips. They’ve even begun to offer vintage U.S. Government educational pamphlets; the ones from the World War II years are especially fun.

You’d just pick your category (such as “Comic Books”) from the top of the page, peruse the offerings and, after you’ve drilled down through the publisher and book title pages to select a particular issue, you’re able to read it, page by page, right there on the site. There’s no registration required just to read comics online but you do get some other benefits if you register a user name on the site, among them the ability to rate the books and download them as well.

Before we get into the nitty gritty of downloading digital comics, we should make a couple of short side trips to discuss a few related questions and concerns. The first is one which I’m asked pretty frequently: how do you know which characters appear in which comic books? One way is to look them up online; numerous websites specialize in providing complete bibliographies for various comic book characters. Another easy way is to download a copy of the free Keltner Index, which is essentially the official “bible” of The Big Blog o’Fun. To say that I use the Kelter Index daily might be a bit of an exaggeration, but not by much. Keltner’s guide is indexed six ways to Sunday, providing lists of characters, titles, and publishers with page references. For each comic book we’re given the total number of pages, the date of publication (as it appears on the cover or indicia; the comic usually hit the stands a month or two before the printed date), a list of the characters/stories/features inside, and the length of each story. Want to know how many Skyman stories were published during the Golden Age? Give me three or four minutes with the Keltner Index and I’ll be delighted to tell you.

While we’re on the subject of Keltner, his index covers all of the major Golden Age comics with an emphasis on superheroes. You’ll find a lot of comics mentioned in Keltner that you won’t find on sites like Comic Book Plus and The Digital Comic Museum – particularly comics published by the companies which later became DC and Marvel. Sorry, kids, there’s no Batman or Captain America for free. All of the stuff on those sites are in the public domain, meaning that no one owns the copyright to these books. (Note the difference between copyright, trademark, and owning the rights to a character. For example, Captain Marvel’s Golden Age appearances are in the public domain [meaning that the stories themselves aren’t copyrighted] — you can download and read those great old Fawcett books for free. But you can’t draw and publish your own books using the character, because DC owns the rights to him. Nor are the newer Captain Marvel adventures [1970’s and later] available as they’re protected under copyright law. Further muddying the waters, DC now has to call the character “Shazam” on the title’s covers because Marvel owns the trademark to the name “Captain Marvel”.)

Getting back to the point, only public domain books and characters appear on those two websites. Thus you won’t find everything in the Keltner Index available on the public domain sites. It is possible to find a lot of non-public domain comics on the Interrant, but downloading them is not something I’m going to recommend.

There’s a bit of technical information you should know about digital comics which is not strictly necessary, but which can be helpful later (I’ll elaborate shortly). You’ll notice that most digital comic files end in one of two extensions: .cbr and .cbz. Digital comics files are just collections of the scanned pages, usually in .jpg format, which are numbered sequentially and then bundled into .zip or .rar files. Then the file is renamed: if it’s a .zip file the extension is changed to .cbz, and if it’s a .rar file, it’s changed to .cbr. So a digital comic book is just a .zip or .rar archive of the book’s images with the file’s extension renamed.

It’s important to know this for two reasons. First, you’ll frequently download a comic file which still ends in .zip or .rar. Don’t unpack it! Somebody just forgot to rename the file extension. Simply rename the file’s extension yourself and you’ll be good to go. Second, you’ll (very rarely) come across a file in which the pages are in the wrong order. Since you now know the technical details of how digital comic files work, you can unpack the file and renumber the pages in the right sequence, then repack the correctly numbered pages.

Of course in order to read your digital comics you’ll need some software. When you do a Web search for “digital comic reader” you’ll discover there’s a plethora of choices, each with its own features, advantages, and drawbacks. If you’d like a bare-bones functional program which lets you read digital comics (without optional other bells and whistles, such as tools to sort comics by categories or to mark them as “read/unread”), I recommend CDisplay Ex. It lets you open and read comics. If you stop in the middle of a book and exit the program, it will remember the page where you left off. It will also remember the last twenty or so books that you’ve read (which is a HUGELY beneficial feature for me; as a comics blogger I tend to jump around a lot between issues, titles, and publishers). You can also copy covers and pages to your Windows Clipboard and then paste them into a graphics editor for cropping and saving; this is how I post pages to this blog as well as post covers/panels to my Facebook page.

There may be comic reader apps available for smartphones and tablets but you’re on your own for those (being as I don’t use them). A Web/app search will turn up anything that might be available for your particular gizmo.

Given the choice of reading comics online or downloading them, I prefer downloading. If my ISP isn’t available I still have my books available to me, plus I have the option to read them either on my desktop machine or on one of my (non-‘Net connected) laptops.

Let’s wrap up this post with some recommended comics for the friends I mentioned in the first paragraph. I know Angie likes owls (in fact, that’s how this post came to be written in a roundabout way), so here are the collected stories of The Owl in two volumes:

The Owl Collection, Part One
The Owl Collection, Part Two

Susie likes bats. I’m sorry, kid, but you’re out of luck: Batman’s not in the public domain and I wasn’t able to scare up any other Golden Age characters that shared a bat motif. But I’m familiar with your twisted tastes, and (at the risk of sounding like Rocket J. Squirrel) here’s something I know you’ll like:

Fantomah Archive, Part One
Fantomah Archive, Part Two

Have fun! — Steve

Copyright 2014, Steven A. Lopez. All rights reserved.

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