Adventures in Procrastination: An Incomprehensive Guide to Free Comics Online
As the digital revolution proceeds, comic book publishers have seemingly approached the Internet with caution. While their brethren in the music industry have been almost forced to recognize the potential of online distribution and promotion, comics have generally resisted the abandonment of pulp and ink.
I can understand the fondness for hard copies and fears of piracy, but can't imagine it's anything more than a matter of time before there is an iTunes equivalent for comic books. Now that Marvel Comics has made much of their back catalog available online for $5/month (without downloading privileges), we seem to be approaching that moment. PullboxOnline.com, for example, now offers titles from several smaller publishers for $.99/issue (also see EyeMelt.com).
While sales of digital copies are in their infancy, a number of publishers have turned to online comics as a promotional tool. They generally allow readers to peruse a selection of their catalog to spur further interest. This is a welcome development in a crowded marketplace, allowing readers to make a trial run of sorts before buying further issues or collected editions. Even ignoring the proliferation of webcomics, there are a number of publishers now sharing a selection of free and legal full-length issues online.
Antarctic Press - A smaller comics company, they publish several upstart titles you might not find on the rack at your local shop. Some fun concepts to sample, including a manga adaptation of the Wizard of Oz (!).
Sample titles available: Pirates vs. Ninjas, Legacy, Oz: The Manga, MetaDocs
Dark Horse - Dark Horse has nipped at the heels of DC and Marvel for 20+ years, reinventing itself multiple times and finding a niche as a publisher of both original and licensed material. They handle properties like Star Wars and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but they keep my attention with quality books like The Goon, Hellboy, Empowered, Fear Agent, and The Umbrella Academy. Their free online offerings are available via Myspace, which both makes them innovative and makes their available comics a little difficult to navigate. Many are introductions to the characters, and there's also some one-off material.
Sample titles available: Empowered, The Goon, Fear Agent, Umbrella Academy
Drunk Duck - Not a publisher, but a site that hosts numerous comics by various publishers and creators. Because it's a bit scattershot, finding what you want can be difficult. Once a comic is selected, for example, the reading applet often goes directly to the last (and thus, most recent) page rather than the first. Somewhat of a hassle until you realize what's going on. Some good stuff there, including Fred Van Lente's The Weapon, Van Lente and Andrew Foley's Cowboys and Aliens, and D.J. Coffman's Hero by Night.
Sample titles available: Cowboys and Aliens, Hero by Night, The Weapon, I Was Kidnapped by Lesbian Pirates from Outer Space
Flashback Universe - Somewhat unique among the entries here, the Flashback Universe site publishes digital comics strictly for online consumption. It's essentially a DIY outfit, with folks who love classic comics collaborating to create books with their own original characters. Readers might notice similarities between their new creations and classic superhero archetypes, but that's hardly unusual. It's certainly an outlet for trying new things without strict editorial constraints. Note that viewing their comics does require a quick and easy software installation.
Sample titles available: The Last Angel, The League of Monsters, Saturn Knight
Golden Age Comics Downloads - An absolute gold mine of comics from the 1930s-1950s, this site permits free downloads of numerous classic and obscure titles. You'll find superhero, horror, romance, war, westerns, mystery, and whatever else among their selection. After all, the period they cover was one in which comics reached their early peak before facing substantial declines. The site does require registration before allowing downloads and caps daily use, but neither seems to be problematic. Highlights include the early adventures of Captain Marvel, Black Terror, the first Daredevil, Green Lama, and Ghost Rider back when he rode a horse rather than a flaming motorcycle. A nice slice of Americana, even if the website is based in the UK.
Sample titles available: Black Terror, The Blue Beetle, Buck Rogers, Captain Marvel Adventures, Charlie Chan, Fighting Yank, Plastic Man
Image Comics - Competing with Dark Horse for the bronze behind Marvel and DC, Image has developed into a terrific imprint. Their catalog features numerous creator-owned comics, some of which are among the best being produced today. Matt Fraction's Casanova is a great read, and Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie's Phonogram should appeal to music fans. Free offerings include the first issue of many titles published under their banner.
Sample titles available: Casanova, Phonogram, Fell, Invincible, Girls, The Walking Dead
Marvel Comics - My superhero publisher of choice, Marvel has been publishing characters with international recognition for more than a half-century. Spider-Man, the Hulk, the X-Men, the Fantastic Four, Daredevil, Silver Surfer, and countless other icons have graced the pages of their funnybooks. The first major comics publisher to offer an online subscription service, Marvel provides free issues of 250 comics for online viewing. That number is primarily made up of books from their all-ages Marvel Adventures and Marvel Age lines, meaning you'll have to pay the subscription fee to see the material for teen and adult readers. They do, however, offer Marvel Adventures: The Avengers #9, one of my favorite fun comics from 2007. You might recognize a character from the C&T banner...
Sample titles available: Avengers and Power Pack Assemble!, Marvel Adventures: The Avengers, Marvel Age Spider-Man, Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane
Sample titles available: Fred the Clown, Headsmen, Wahoo Morris, Ballad of Little Monster
Oni Press - Founded about a decade ago, Oni boasts an eclectic line of comics and some big successes for a smaller publisher. Whether spy thrillers, action, manga, or surreal stories of a beloved slacker, they have something for just about everybody. Greg Rucka's espionage title Queen & Country has long been successful, and his more recent Whiteout is being adapted for the big screen starring Kate Beckinsale. Bryan Lee O'Malley's Scott Pilgrim series has been a smashing success, as its fans go ape as each successive volume is released. FYI, their free issues are downloads requiring the installation of free software available on the site.
Sample titles available: Leading Man, Scott Pilgrim, Queen & Country, Whiteout
Top Shelf Productions - While not generally a publisher of floppy ol' comic books per se, indie Top Shelf has made available works from a number of their creators that aren't necessarily part of an ongoing series, etc. They are, however, among the top creators in the industry who don't necessarily draw dude in tights and capes. Another brand that boasts considerable diversity in its offerings, their free material is worth browsing to see what suits your taste.
Sample titles available: Matt Kindt's Super Spy, Gabriel Frizzera's Heavy Metal Heart, Dean Haspiel's Little By Small
WOWIO - Another site requiring registration, WOWIO has a broad selection of printed materials including comic books. There's a nice mix of the old and the new here, with some current books mixed in with fare from throughout the last 50 years. There are issues of the classic 1960s Star Trek comics, the brief run of Southern Knights stories from the 1980s, parody book X-Farce, issues of Alan Moore's Supreme series, and even Joe Ollman's recent graphic novel This Will All End in Tears. The only catch appears to be that non-anonymous registration is required, and downloads are limited to three per day. Unlike other sites listed here, WOWIO downloads are in .pdf format.
Sample titles available: Adolescent Radioactive Black Belt Hamsters, Beowulf, Oz: The Manga, Sixgun Samurai, Supreme, Star Trek, Southern Knights, X-Files
While surely far from a comprehensive list, those are at least some of the prominent places online to read free full-length comics. If I forgot your favorite, feel free to say so in the comments. Enjoy the funnybooks!