The Best Way to Read Your Digital Comics

Tablet with Captain America comic cover leaning on a tree stump
Comic shops, now where ever you are. Photo: Stephen R Clark

The days are getting shorter, September is almost upon us, and you’re still behind on your summer reading. Our free time is suddenly much more precious, so tablets are a great way of bringing a virtual library with us everywhere we go. Comics, graphic novels, and manga can be consumed at the speed of pressing a wake button. So, how do you know what’s the best way to read your favorite stories? GeekDad has your guide.

Hardware

Some GeekMoms and GeekDads still prefer to read digital comics on laptop. But let’s face it, there’s nothing since invention of paper itself that has been so ideally suited for reading comics than the tablet.

While the iPad is a flagship device that marries one of the biggest screens with some of the best hardware, it’s also one of the most expensive. Still, if you have an iPad in your house, you’ll be hard-pressed to find something better. Even a first-generation iPad (stuck way back on iOS 5) can run the Marvel Digital Comics app and let you access your library.

Not every house has a tablet, or if it does, it may not be the best for reading comics. A low-resolution 7” budget tablet does the job, but makes reading full-page comics nearly impossible. They also tend towards cheaper screens that don’t work well in anything but a dark room. With only a few weeks left of nice weather, get outside and do some reading in that fresh air you’re mom is always talking about.

Tablet computer held inside
The ideal size for cargo short pockets, 8″ tablets are perfect for the summer. Photo Stephen R Clark

In my experience, there’s no better tablet than a high-resolution 8” screen. It fits the perfect middle ground of portability and visibility. The screen is significantly smaller than a comic book or trade paperback (more on that in a minute), but is larger than a standard manga or many graphic novels.

The most interesting hardware is coming out at the 8” form factor right now, as opposed to 7” or 10”. Most budget 7” tablets have low resolution, making the small print on a small screen almost impossible to read. Tablets with 10” screens and above often start at $500 and quickly go up from there.

My personal preference for digital comics is the LG G Pad X 8.0, available exclusively through T-Mobile. It can be bought outright for $240 USD (or $240 CDN on select plans through Rogers in Canada where it’s sold as the even more convoluted name, LG G Pad III 8.0). It has a mid-range Snapdragon 615 processor, 2 GB of RAM, 802.11ac, LTE and Android 6.0.1 Marshmallow.

What really sets the tablet apart is the screen. The 1920×1200 resolution makes pixels imperceptible on the 8.0” screen so small print is highly legible. The colours are super bright so reading outside in the summer sun causes little issue. iPads have a 4:3 display and most budget tablets have a 16:9. Both result in more than 10% of the screen filled with black. The 16:10 aspect ratio on the LG G Pad X 8.0 nearly matches that of standard comics and trade paperbacks. As a result, it displays comics with more than 95% of the screen filled with superhero entertainment.

One very unique display feature to also make note of is the Reader Mode. If you read before bed, you might avoid tablets because you know that blue or short-wavelength light can disrupt normal sleeping patterns. A dedicated button on the right side of the tablet applies a sepia filter to the screen to minimize the effect of reading before bed.

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Software

There’s a lot of great apps and storefronts out there to find digital comics. This is by no means an exhaustive list so please add your favorites in the comments below). These are the apps most commonly used by me, other GeekDads and GeekMoms, and just about all the comic book geeks I could find.

ComiXology

If you only have one digital comics app, this is it. ComiXology is the grandaddy storefront with publications from Marvel, DC, Image, and Dark Horse. There are even a respectable collection of anglicised Manga from distributors like Viz and Kodanosha Comics. Beyond that, you’ll find dozens and dozens of other publishers with countless titles. The app is available on a wide variety of devices, from iOS and Android to Kindle Fire and even Windows tablets.

Digital comics are typically more portable than any other media you own. At least as portable as music, and far more than digital movies or TV shows. The vast majority of comic distributors use ComiXology to sell their virtual wares. Dedicated apps like those from Marvel and DC focus your collection, but really are using a rebranded ComiXology storefront. This is also great for Marvel readers who can cash in their free digital copy from their print comics, then read it in either the Marvel or ComiXology app.

Marvel Unlimited

In the Netflix era of all-you-can-eat content, Marvel Unlimited was the first to give you access to their entire back catalogue for a monthly fee. $9.99 per month (or as little as $69/yr) lets you read every comic they have digitized going back through decades of material. Some of those epic series you’ve heard about but never read are available. Civil War, The Infinity Gauntlet, Secret Invasion and many more events are here, as well as classic issues introducing your favourites from Captain America to Squirrel Girl. It’s not the perfect alternative to buying your weekly comics as new issues don’t show up on Marvel Unlimited for at least six months. Even so, there’s enough here to keep you reading.

Available on iOS and Android, The app only lets you download a dozen comics at a time. It supports syncing your reading position, so putting down a comic on your tablet should mean that you can pick it up on your cell phone in the same place. In my experience, this feature didn’t work very well nor did remembering which issue you last read.

Comixology Unlimited promotion showing several comic titles

ComiXology Unlimited

ComiXology also launched an unlimited service. At only $5.99 it’s considerably cheaper than the $9.99 for Marvel but you only get the first or first few issues of a series. However, because of ComiXology’s huge library there are many more publishers who will let you sample their wares. If you buy a lot of #1s in search of a new series to follow, the subscription would be worth it as you can “borrow” up to 50 titles at a time.

There are some notable issues with the service. Right now it’s only available in the US. While there are a lot of publishers represented, Marvel and DC aren’t involved. While “thousands” of titles are available, the titles can change month to month. If you have friends who work on comics with the involved publishers, you may have already heard that ComiXology launched the service without any clear public royalty-sharing structure. In theory the model encourages exploration (and sales) of new titles but the lack of warning before launch upset a lot of artists.

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Crunchyroll Manga

If you read on a tablet, you have to try manga. Even a budget 7” tablet has a screen large enough to view full-page manga.

Crunchyroll started life as a streaming service for fansubbed anime. They went legit and started a royalty-sharing subscription service specializing in first-run subtitled anime simulcast straight from Japan. If you already pay the $6.95 per month ($59.95 annual) subscription then you also get access to a wealth of manga through their iOS and Android app.30

Many of the manga series match those available on the anime service, so there’s some premium titles like Attack on Titan, ReLIFE, and Orange. There are free issues if you don’t have a premium subscription but when packaged together with first-run anime, the Crunchyroll subscription is worth it.

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Manga Rock

There are still a lot of series that haven’t made it across the pond. Fansubbing in anime isn’t a big as it once was, but the manga equivalent “scanlations” (from translating scanned manga) is as strong as ever. One of the best aggregator apps pulling from a variety of sites in several languages is on the iTunes App Store and Kindle Fire as Manga Rock, and on Google Play for Android as Manga Rock – World Version. Both will pull non-licensed content from sites like Manga Fox and Botato.

The content is technically in a legal grey zone (which is why it tends to disappear from apps stores from time to time). The police won’t come breaking down your door for illegal acquisition of manga, but any time you download licensed content for free then you discourage publishers from translating manga and bringing high quality entertainment to our shores.

There’s also a lot of stealing content from one host to another. Talk to three different people about the modern state of scanlations and you’ll get four different opinions. Even so, if you want to see what’s fresh and new from around the world then Manga Rock is a good way to find it.

Reading digital comics is a very personal experience. What hardware do you use? Your phone? A laptop? Where do you get your comics, and what software do you use? Share your best configuration for comics-on-the-go in the comments below.

(Edit August 30, 2016 8:30PM EST: Removed reference that ComiXology can be downloaded to first-gen iPads after a sharp-eyed reader found that it was no longer possible. The Marvel digital comic app will still work.)

Stephen is a UX Specialist, Technical Advisor, Gadget Guru, and a lifelong movie geek. Living in Toronto, Ontario, Canada he has two young kids who each watched Episode IV within minutes of coming home from the hospital.