A little while ago I used Free Comic Book Day as an excuse to craft a beginners guide to buying comics at a store. But if I'm honest, it was a little bit deceptive. If you're really just starting out with comics, if you're the sort of person who's heard your friends talking or read articles about new comics series that you want to get a hold of, if you're really just looking to test the waters of comics by reading one or two titles ...
Then you should be reading comics digitally.
Sure, there are exceptions here. Maybe you're regularly in a comic shop for gaming-related reasons. Maybe you don't have a tablet or a computer with a large screen. Maybe you're somewhat irrationally invested in reading things physically (like me), despite really not having any more room in your apartment for comic books (like me). Then you might want to look into getting physical comics.
But for everybody else who's looking to dip a toe into the crazy world of comics for the very first time, here's what you should do.
First, it's important to know your online digital comics retailers. Most comics publishers have their own digital comics outlet. Like Comicstore.Marvel.com, Image Comics, Digital.DarkHorse.com, and (perhaps the worst URL of the lot) ReadDCEntertainment.com. Most of them also sell their comics through Comixology.com, though some of don't (the most prominent being Dark Horse Comics). If you're interested in reading a digital comic that isn't on Comixology, your next stop should be the publisher's website to see if they have their own digital retail outlet.
But Comixology is still an outlet for a huge number of many comics companies — and the fewer apps and logins you need to read comics, the better the consumer experience — so I'm mostly going to be talking about Comixology's user experience in this article. But don't let that stop you from looking around, especially if what you want to read isn't on there.
Now that you have an account, it's time to buy some comics! This part's easy, and I respect you enough to let you figure it out on your own. If you're not sure where to start, check my post about physical comics buying for some recommendations.
Now that you've bought comics, you're going to want to read them. Generally, digital comics operate in a pretty locked down situation. You won't get a DRM free file, but rather access to a browser or app-based reading experience. Browsers have instant access to your whole library, but only if you have internet access. If you're using an app, you'll have to download the comics first into your device's app library before reading.
There are some exceptions to this, even with Comixology. For example, a number of publishers now offer DRM free backups of your Comixology library, in the form of .pdf or .cbz files (the latter is a format used by a number of comics reader programs). You can access those files by navigating to My Books, and then My Backups. The big exceptions to Comixology's Backups service are, well, the biggest comics companies: Marvel and DC. But if you're reading the likes of Image, IDW, Archie or Oni Press, you can download all of them to a hard drive for offline reading on a computer any time.
"What do you mean how to read digital comics? Aren't they just ... comics?"
Well, yes, but American monthly comics are an 80-year-old medium that's only recently started to adjust to the realities of digital sales. And the reality is: comics have eight decades under the belt of being printed in portrait proportions ... while screens are overwhelmingly landscape aligned.
So unless your habitual reading set up involves a screen that's taller and wider than a comic book's double page spread, you'll likely be doing a lot of zooming and scrolling, or pinching and swiping, to read a single book. At the moment, the way that Comixology and other digital outlets handle that is something called Guided View, which displays comics panel by panel rather than page by page. Guided View also comes with lots of options for how it presents a comic to you, including showing you each new page in its entirety first before zooming back in to the panels, which I highly recommend enabling in the Guided View settings.
This is because, while there are a few imprints (like Marvel's Infinite Comics) that are deliberately made to take advantage of Guided View, the art of most print comics is still created with the intention that it be read page by page. The eye tends to take in a page (or two page spread) at a glance, and so the page is still the unit of "art" in printed comics, and the finesse of a properly constructed page layout is something that artists still focus on.
This is all to say: digital comics have not yet managed to entirely recreate the experience of reading a physical comic. Regular view is often unwieldy, but Guided View can put the reader at a certain remove from the artist's intent. Me? I like to use regular view as often as possible, and Guided View out of necessity. You should try both and figure out which works best for you.
And that's it! All my advice on how to get started in the wide, untested realm of digital comics. If you're still not sure if digital comics are right for you, I suggest you take a look at this companion post about how to get started buying physical comics. And then go read some comics! They're pretty great!