June 29, 2012

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Digging into Digital: Comic Rocket Webcomic Reader

It's been a little while since I discussed something that related to the digital comics world directly, but after several days of using the new webcomic reader Comic Rocket, I wanted to bring attention to this excellent new addition to my reading experience, and, if you are of a similar mind, yours as well.

Since I started reading webcomics seriously a few years ago, I've used an RSS reader in order to keep track of them.  It worked well enough, and has the advantage of keeping everything in one place.  It also means that, thanks to the ever-fun world of syncing accounts, I can read off my netbook, Android, and even iPad without worrying about keeping tabs on my place.

Sounds great, right?  Well, while that works fine for newspaper-style strips, such as Panel Patter favorite Bug or even slightly oversized ones like Dinosaur Comics, not all webcomics fit this format.  Stuck in a reader is not the best way to read Awesome Hospital, and I know that I often kept falling behind on any comic that wasn't easily read on my RSS reader, which is a real problem since many readers cut off after so many posts.

In addition, not all comics have RSS feeds for various reasons, and I generally just dropped those off my reading list.  Or there are others, such as Delilah Dirk, that are multiple pages per update, which is hella awkward for an RSS.

There's also one other problem with RSS readers--they don't drive traffic to the site of the comic.  Some solve this problem by using bookmarks and visiting directly, but I admit, that's too much work on my end for very little payoff.  Still, it was in the back of my mind.

While these problems are all minor, they do exist--until now.  Thanks to Comic Rocket, all three of the problems I mentioned above are addressed in a manner that is customer (and comic creator) friendly, from all that I've been able to see.

Comic Rocket is a webcomics index site, differing from an RSS reader in that it doesn't pull information from the page--instead, it takes you to the author's page, within a frame that provides many of the functions of an RSS reader--even surpassing them, in all but one area.  That means that when you read a webcomic via Comic Rocket, you're driving traffic right to the site of the comic itself, helping their numbers and making it easier for them to get paid via ads (if the site has them).

At first, using Comic Rocket can be a bit intimidating, but once you get the hang of things, it works very easily.  (They badly need a FAQ or guide to help new users, but right now, questions are quickly answered on Twitter, even if you aren't following them.)  You can login using Facebook or create your own login (I am Panelpatter, of course), and then tweak your settings.  Reading habits can be public or private, your choice.  Frames can be eliminated if you need to, and if you were already using the bookmarks system, it looks like you can add them in from a link.  (Not having any, I am not sure if this works.)

Once your account is set up, you can enter the name of your favorite webcomics.  This is where the system initially looks bad--it defaults to page 1, which means if you've been reading the last 700 pages of My Cardboard Life, your initial reaction is probably "oh, crap!"  Fortunately, clicking on the archive link will allow you to take you to the last page you read, which you can then bookmark with a click.  Wherever your bookmark is, Comic Rocket will start you off there when you next return to the series.  (The bookmark moves every time you move to the next page.)

You do need to be careful to use Comic Rocket's navigation in order to keep the bookmarks working properly, but I absolutely love this feature.  It meant that I could easily go back to where I left off with Battlepug and also means that if I get busy, like I do sometimes during certain times of the year, I know that I won't miss any pages or forget where I was.

Each comic has an information page, which is editable, and an optional content guide.  If you can't find the comic you are looking for, you can add it manually, which I tried (and appear to have done successfully) with  Sparkshooter.  There is also a way to link the site to your Twitter and Facebook, but I'm not really interested in doing that at this time.  (If anyone tries this, please feel free to talk about the experience in the comments.)

One of the neat things is that not only are all your comics listed on your comics page, they're sorted by "pages to read" and "no new pages yet", keeping things neat and tidy, just like I do on my RSS.  (It also means you can easily thin out dead webcomics.)  I also like, though I haven't tried, the suggested comics yet--Lord knows I have enough to read.  A sidebar also talks webcomic/digital comic news for the curious.

The only downside I can see in this system is there is no mobile site, probably because of the frames.  Reading this in frame on my phone would not be fun.  (However, for the bigger webcomics I never used my phone anyway.)  For those who read on a tablet, I had no issue reading via Safari on the iPad, and when I moved back to my netbook and refreshed my comics page, it had kept track of what I read a moment ago on the tablet.  There also appears to be no way to alphabetize the webcomics yet, but that's a minor quibble that, if it were never addressed, wouldn't bother me that much.  I'm quite capable of scrolling.

All in all, I think that Comic Rocket is a brilliant idea that's a win-win for both reader and creator, and is far superior to RSS for reading webcomics.  There are some things that might be an issue for some readers, and I wonder how, if the traffic money goes to the creators, Comic Rocket itself is going to sustain itself.  This could be a good idea that goes away or goes to a pay system for use.  I don't plan to move all my webcomic reading over to Comic Rocket, but going forward, this is where all my oversized and new webomics are going to be read from.

Comic Rocket gets my personal recommendation as a great addition to the webcomics world, without writing a single line of dialogue or drawing a pencil across a page.  Why not give it a try and see what you think, then let me know in the comments?