How comics downloading was born, a Streisand effect tale with a twist

In a 2007 ComicMix article, Glenn Hauman recounts the bizarre story of "Letitia Lerner, Superman's Babysitter," a comic story by Kyle Baker with Liz Glass that was spiked by DC Comics publisher and president Paul Levitz, who ordered the whole run of Elseworlds 80 Page Giant #1 spiked. The early shipments to Europe survived, though, and went viral on the Internet. When comics fans heard there was kick-ass Kyle Baker stuff to be had online, they learned, in great hordes, to use torrent sites and to decode CBR files -- and a generation of new Internet comics downloaders was born. And even though the comic was never legally published, Baker won two Eisner awards for it and it was subsequently reprinted.

The point is that when the distribution system– and I mean the entire chain, from publishers to distributors to retailers — fails, a black market will pop up. It happened with this story. It happened when people couldn’t get copies of Captain America #25. It’s happening now with Miracleman, one of the more popular torrents out there, because it can’t be brought back into print. It’s happening in countries where legitimate versions aren’t available yet, if ever — witness fan-subbed manga and anime, or Doctor Who episodes. It’s happening more and more as publishers try to extract every last dime they can out of the existing fan base, placing themselves on the upper half of a Laffer curve.

And it’s not going to get any better. But then, it never does, once you’ve shown them that sometimes, getting a copy online is the only way you’re ever going to get to read it. Even if it’s not strictly legal.

GLENN HAUMAN: Who made comics piracy big?


  1. Why is “SHATTER” written in that font?  Don’t they use that for stereotypical “Asian” stuff?

    It’d be like if it were in Papyrus.

  2. Maybe because the font looks like a bunch of disparate pieces of glass that have just rapidly separated apart from one another forcibly in a violent manner?

    Chicago Bold just wouldn’t do it.

  3. Is there a word to describe a font that is supposed to look like the action that is taking place? A cousin to onomatopoeia prehaps?
    p.s. I think that font is called Chop Suey.
    p.p.s. Contrary to publishers opinion, CBR DL’ing got me purchasing comis again.

  4. Here’s my full story:

    I wanted to read comics because I thought they seemed pretty badass. I went to my local comic book store and picked up a few that I was interested in. Batman and Robin, Red Robin, Powergirl. Problem was, I entered half way through story arcs and couldn’t find the previous comics, or even work out which was the one I should start with.

    Being so new to the world of comics, I didn’t even know ComiXology existed (and it took a good year or so to discover it).

    What I did find quite quickly was a place where I could download the *previous* week’s comics in a single torrent. I then found all the comics I needed to make the stories make sense and downloaded them.

    As I became more into comics and started spending £20 a week, I started to get dismayed. I was buying  as many comics as I could afford, but I still wasn’t getting the entire storyline (especially during things like Blackest Night and Brightest Day series), so I turned to piracy to get the rest of the story.

    To this day, I still download those torrents every week. Most of the time I don’t read them, but they’re there, just in case I have to find some obscure reference to an issue that I didn’t know I should buy.

  5. I first saw that Letitia Lerner comic in a hardbound copy of  _Bizarro_No_1_ purchased back around 2002.  It is a very good comic — it links a bunch of random mini stories into a bigger one.

  6. I think even for a “conscientious” pirate there are two big draws to torrenting comic scans. One is to see the history of a comic. When you have series that have been around for decades across multiple titles, it can be difficult, not to mention prohibitively expensive, to “catch up,” or even to find the most important issues in a series’ history.

    The other is to keep track of current series. When Marvel and DC are both running gigantic crossovers once or twice a year, and even single characters will have storylines that branch across multiple titles it’s just ridiculous to keep track of both reading orders and the involved titles, not to mention purchasing them. With pirated CBRs you get a curated collection, in the correct order with the entire crossover. 

  7.      Out of print collections are so expensive. Like others have said, it’s just about impossible to keep up without all the back histories of characters. Plus, when you go physical, you’re often tracking down individual issues. I wish everyone would make collections of issues available. So you can buy a graphic novels worth at a time. 
         I’d buy the out of print Jodorowsky/Moebius Incal collection if I could afford it. Surely it wouldn’t cost that much to keep some things perpetually available digitally. But as we’ve all seen with the ebook market, content holders aren’t likely to charge anything resembling what a digital version costs. They price them all nearly the same as their physical counterparts.Now, back to learning French so I can read what versions of awesome Francophone comics I can find.

  8. From what I can remember, CBR was a manga thing. US comics are a latecomer to the scene. It was manga that made the comic downloading scene big, long before western comics got in on it.

    The way I see it, most people have an entertainment budget: they will spend that budget (and then a bit more) on entertainment. Beyond that, they will pirate, or go without.

    This piracy does not damage the entertainment industry as a whole, since it doesn’t replace money that would have been flowing into the system: but it does change which parts of that industry get that money. Those parts that offer added extras to legitimate consumers will tend to get the money. Those parts that add nothing, and instead punish legitimate consumers, will tend not to: heavy DRM encourages piracy.

    1. Good call: I stand corrected. Fixing, because if I re-read that after my morning coffee it will annoy the crud of me.

  9. It’s happening more and more as publishers try to extract every last dime they can out of the existing fan base, placing themselves on the upper half of a Laffer curve.

    Please don’t cite the Laffer Curve as if it were a real thing and as if Arthur Laffer were a real economist.

  10. Besides issues the publisher doesn’t want you to have, just missing issues are a real problem. Say you’re reading an awesome Mike Mignola 5 issue mini-series and the comic store sells out of #4 (didn’t even get enough copies for normal pull customers). Well you’re just screwed.

    Maybe there’s another comic store in town, but the odds they’ll have any specific non-DC or non-Marvel is often pretty low. And if you order single issues online you not only get reamed for the single issue comic price but the shipping as well, and will it even get there before you get #5 (in this case, probably yes, but…)?

    That’s generally where a quick visit to the internet gets you set up. And thus it begins.

  11. How many people would buy digital only, no DRM original indie comics? Assuming, of course, the subject matter was appealing to your interests. At what price? $2 US an issue?

  12. Not to spoil anything, but the secret to ‘decoding’ CBR files is to rename it back to a RAR and then extract the JPGs it contains.

    1. I believe you may be missing the point of the CBR files… there is specific software for displaying them that makes it easier to read the comics than simply browsing a bunch of JPEGs with image-viewing software (unless you have a very large screen where you can comfortably view the entire page at life-size or bigger). Plus it makes it easier to organize your collection – you only need one file per issue.

      I don’t actually read comic books or manga regularly (either on the computer or IRL), but I’m familiar with the concept of the software and have looked at a few over the years :)

  13. This comic (or Paul Levitz) is no more responsible for comics being torrented widely than Gone With the Wind is responsible for the popularity of the VCR; it’s a cute story, but there were comics being shared via the internet (along with porn) years before most people knew that the internet existed.

  14. I’ve been a Kyle Baker fan since I bought “Cowboy Wally” in my first-year of college, way back in the pre-downloading age of 1988 [amazing fact: unlike the college in the small town I grew up in, the college I went to had no internet, and I left the CompSci program after the first semester. Now I’m a programmer. Plus ca la change, et alia].


    I found Letita Learner in Bizarro, and it’s an awesome story. Considering all the crap that publishers put out, they sure picked the wrong comic to pulp. But I guess we should be all grateful Levitz bit that tiger that fed him on its tail….

  15. I find this happens all the time with anime and manga. Did you like that DVD that your friend had in their collection? If you can find it on ebay it’s selling for $100 since it was only in print a year before the company folded. Want to get the 20-volume-plus manga that goes with your favorite anime, but was published 5 years before the anime was licensed, half by one publisher, and half by another? The internet is your friend.

    Even classic shows like Outlaw Star, Trigun, etc. are getting hard to find; unless you have friends with substantial collections who are willing to share…

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