manga bookshelf

Going Digital: Viz Media & Square Enix

It’s the weekend of San Diego Comic Con, which for manga fans generally means a flurry of excitement over new license announcements (Sean has the lowdown over at his blog, if you haven’t been there already). The announcements that excited me most this weekend, however, were those to do with various publishers’ digital initiatives, including some pretty impressive-sounding details about Jmanga, a massive web-based project involving most of Japan’s major manga publishers, expected to launch in August.

The cry for browser-based manga portals (as opposed to device-specific mobile apps) has been loud and clear from much of the manga blogosphere, and nearly everyone can agree that providing legal digital manga on the platform most easily available to the largest number of people is the best chance publishers have of fighting against widespread piracy. Though it’ll be a while before we’ll see what Jmanga really has to offer, I thought I’d take the chance to check out a couple of newer web-based initiatives available now, from Japanese publisher Square Enix and American publisher Viz Media.

Square Enix Manga Store

One of Jmanga’s Japanese holdouts, of course, is Square Enix, who launched their own digital manga website back in December with mostly negative reviews from the manga blogging community, who felt that the prices were too high and the interface too cluttered and difficult to navigate. I’m a huge fan of many Square Enix manga, but with first volumes of older series going for $5.99 apiece, there wasn’t much impetus for checking out Square Enix’s manga store when it first launched. This week, however, a Comic-Con special offering a free volume of selected manga just for clicking “Like” on their Facebook page was enough to finally lure me in.

After doing my duty on Facebook, I clicked over to the main site to get my free manga, and encountered possibly the most maddening registration/login process I’ve dealt with in years. Though I’d apparently created an account back when they first launched (which I discovered when my chosen username was already in use), even after going through their process to recover my password, I then had to log in at least three times, on three different pages, before even getting to the page where I could actually pick out my free manga.

Once I’d chosen my volume, I then was told I had to download special software to view it, called “Keyring FLASH.” This is not a concept I’m particularly fond of, since it requires that the user always be on their own home computer in order to view the manga they’ve purchased. Even if someone has already paid for manga from Square Enix, if they are accessing the internet from a library/school/work/public computer or a shared computer where they don’t have administrator privileges, they will be unable to access what they’ve bought. The application isn’t exactly lightweight either, downloading as a 40 MB disc image for installation. By the time I’d finally managed to jump through Square Enix’s registration hoops, picked up my manga, and installed the software to view it, I was so tired of the whole thing, I decided to leave the reading for later. This was a mistake.

Picking up later, the most immediately troublesome thing about the Square Enix manga storefront, is that, from the front page, there’s no obvious way to log in to your account. In fact, it seems you have to click into the store first, not the most intuitive setup, at which point a “Log In” button finally appears. Clicking on the “Members” button on the front page, which might seem like the obvious choice, is a grave error, as it actually takes you back to the Square Enix main site, where a “Members” login button in the middle of the page leads only to confusion and chaos, as being a “Member” apparently has nothing at all to do with the manga store. Use only the “Log In” button above the navigation bar. Just trust me on this.

If you’ve managed to log in to the manga store, you’ll see a page with your “bookshelf” on it, and images of the series you’ve purchased volumes of. Clicking on the icon for the series will take you away from your bookshelf and onto the main page for that item in the store, so you must click on the icon for the volume number you want to read instead.

Once in the site’s manga viewer, there are two size choices for reading your manga. On my 1920 x 1080-resolution screen, those choices worked out to be either “way too small to read” or “twice as tall as my maximum browser window,” the latter with the option of using the mouse to pan up and down each page in order to read it all, which reverts back to the too-small size every time a page is turned, requiring a click on the toolbar to magnify the page each time. I would have taken a screen shot of this, just to display the basic layout, but an attempt to do so resulted in an angry popup informing me that a capture application had been “ditected,” [sic] turning the page blank. Even an attempt to screencap the error just generated another error, demonstrating the real purpose of the Keyring FLASH application as nothing more than clunky DRM.

In the end, I came away feeling blind, exhausted, technologically frustrated, and pretty sure that Square Enix believes I am a thief, none of which gave me much inspiration to continue on. I possibly wanted to die, definitely wanted to get that software off my computer, and ultimately did not read the free volume of manga I’d gone through so much to obtain. I doubt very much I’ll be using their manga store again, and I’m afraid I can’t recommend it.

Vizmanga.com

After my experience with Square Enix, the idea of trying to navigate yet another online manga portal was difficult to stomach, but Viz Manga’s new initiative, Vizmanga.com, was a bit too enticing to ignore. Working in sync with Viz’s mobile apps, Vizmanga.com offers the opportunity to buy volumes of digital manga via any one of its available portals, and then read those volumes using any of them, with the user’s purchased manga always available for download on any supported device.

I already had an account through Viz’s iPad app, so I was able to log in on the website (from the front page, natch) using that pre-existing account. From there, though, I immediately feared another Square Enix nightmare. Though my account name was definitely correct, and I’d logged in successfully, on the page where the manga I’d purchased previously on the iPad should have appeared, I simply received a message letting me know I hadn’t yet purchased any.

My heart sank. I grasped around for any kind of help, and at first all I could find was a “Feedback” button on the left-hand side. I sent off a quick message using that button, but since it appeared to be intended for general customer feedback kind rather than support, I didn’t expect (nor did I receive) a response. Then I clicked around to this page, linked from the storefront’s “Buy it once, read it anywhere” image. At the bottom of that page was an e-mail address for the app’s technical support, so I sent off an e-mail to that address as well. After doing that, I received a response very quickly from Viz’s VP of Digital Publishing, Brian Piech, directly addressing my problem (no automated help desk response here), confirming what I’d said already and asking for a few more details. And though it took the better part of a day to fix whatever was wrong with my account, I received frequent updates on the situation from Brian, who stayed on the case with Viz’s engineers until the issue was resolved. Similarly, an inquiry about a pricing error in Viz’s iPad app, sent to the same address, elicited an immediate response from Digital Marketing Director, Candice Uyloan, who apologized for the problem and e-mailed me back within an hour to let me know it had been fixed.

Though encountering technical difficulty with something newly launched is not particularly rare in the digital world, in my experience, swift, attentive tech support is, and I can’t possibly praise Viz’s digital team enough for the way they addressed my problems. My one complaint is that the app support e-mail address should be more clearly visible, ideally from any page on the site, but at least on the site’s front page.

Now, finally to the manga! Though Viz wasn’t giving away any manga, they’ve put everything on sale for 40% off until the end of the month, which gave me a great excuse to finally pick up the first double-sized edition of Mitsuru Adachi’s Cross Game, which I haven’t yet purchased in print, but has been loudly recommended by all of my favorite critics. After making the purchase on my iPad and calling up Cross Game from my “My Manga” page on Vizmanga.com (which I’ve only had to log into once, by the way, over the past three days), there was no special software to download, just a clean, easy-to-navigate viewer that loads quickly on the page. The fact that this viewer comes without any built-in accusations of piracy is definitely a bonus.

Though Viz’s default page size is larger than Square Enix’s, there is no tool built-in at all for enlarging the page, which is its only downside (See note at the end of the paragraph for correction on this). Both DMP’s eManga and Yen Press’ Yen Plus web viewers do a better job with viewing size than Square Enix or Viz. Fortunately, Viz’s standard size is fairly readable on my 1920 x 1080-resolution desktop monitor. My 1280 x 800-resolution laptop screen fares slightly less well, simply because the reader is taller than my maximum browser size, requiring me to scroll to see the full page, though of course this is at least consistent, page-to-page. Unlike Viz’s i0S apps, a two-page spread is the only reading option, which makes good sense on increasingly-dominant widescreen monitors, but may require horizontal scrolling on older CRTs or smaller netbooks. Edited to add: I’ve been informed by a commenter than if you hover over the top of the manga you will see an option to make the manga full-screen, and it appears to be true! I suggest that it might be a good idea to make this more obvious, since my curser never had occasion to hover there on its own, and this is not indicated anywhere on the page.

The best feature of all this, of course, is that my purchased manga is available for me to read on every digital device I own—my iPad, iPhone, and computer—allowing me to read it however I want. My device of choice will probably remain my iPad, which is more ideally suited to reading comics than either of my other devices, thanks to its size, screen resolution, touch screen, and rotating interface (see my earlier review for more details), but cross-platform availability is a boon for fans without iOS devices, and does remove some of the pinch from Viz’s regular pricing for those of us with multiple points of access. That said, I do hope that Viz might be able to see their way toward lowering those prices on a permanent basis, should the new web platform really take off.

All-in-all, Vizmanga.com appears to provide a well-supported, well-designed platform for digital manga, and an answer to many manga fans’ most earnest digital requests. Recommended.

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Comments

  1. Thanks for the thorough report. Square Enix sounds like a mess, so I’m glad I never tried it!

    I hope we’ll soon hear what you thought of Cross Game, too! :)

    • Honestly, if I hadn’t already mentally committed to writing an article about it, I don’t think I would have gone past the registration at Square Enix. It was that maddening, all the way through.

  2. Maybe Square-Enix should just stick to video games? xD

  3. Unfortunately Vizmanga.com is restricted to viewers in America. I won’t be able to enjoy it.

    Square Enix is region locked too, but I’m not sorry for that. Hopefully Jmanga will be available in Europe too. I really don’t undersand the logic of restricting online services based on one’s geographical location. Credits cards and paypal work globally so payment can’t be the problem.

    • I think generally that kind of thing comes down to licensing, which is usually contracted by region. Viz, for instance, may have obtained rights to distribute manga in one country, while a completely different publisher has rights in another, and when you throw in digital rights, that muddies the water a lot. If Viz is selling digital manga in a country where another publisher has print rights, it would be fair to suggest that those sales could easily cut in to what the print publisher for that region was expecting to sell. And though digital rights are usually contracted separately from print rights, Viz would not automatically have digital rights outside of anything they’ve specifically contracted for, and I would think they’d have trouble getting them for other countries, or at least it would not be easy. So it’s complicated, and requires much negotiation and so on.

      The word on Jmanga is that it will eventually be worldwide, which makes sense, since it’s coming from the original rights holders, who can do whatever they want with it, presumably.

      I’m not sure why Square Enix has restricted their site, but it may be that they’ve already sold digital rights to those series to others outside of the US.

  4. Thank you for wading through all that for our benefit! (Well, yours too, but you know what I mean.)

    I have neither iPad, nor iPhone, I loathe Apple for it’s consistently anti-LGBT policies in regard to apps and comics and have no intention of giving a company so obviously fascist my money, so until companies care that not everyone has one proprietary system, I refuse to even spend a second, much less a cent on any of these attempts. Like e-readers, I have no interest in getting one system for this thing and another for that thing over there, and am waiting until digital solutions are my best solution, rather than one of several possible solutions.

    I’m glad to see Viz is getting some of the issues, and I have no doubt that much of this will smooth out as time goes on. Until then, I’m sticking with print.

  5. I didn’t get quite so far with the Square Enix site; after making an account, logging in, and downloading the darned software, I opened up the manga only to have it crash my browser. Twice. I haven’t had the energy to try it again.

    VIZ’s site is much better. I have the same problem with my maximum browser size, but you can make the manga full-screen, so that problem was solved.

    • You can?? I didn’t see that option at all. What browser are you using?

    • Thanks for pointing out that we can make the manga full screen! It really makes reading so much easier. Though I agree with Melinda that Viz should make this more obvious – hovering at the top of the page is not something I do naturally.

  6. Ugh!!! Melissa I should have read your post. first >__<

    • Oooooh, did you try to use the Square Enix store?

      • I did… and after jumping thru hoops.. I got the free manga.. and yes it is free.. but size makes it annoying to read..I didn’t ask to read cellphone size on the computer. Also the quality of the manga is pretty low. Feels like looking at mang via kindle or other units not an ipad. Probably got spoiled by the ipad.. but yah.. very disappointing. I stopped reading the manga and I will just wait for the print instead.

  7. I only like the actually HARD copy because I feel like I “own” it. When its Digital, I feel like I am not reading my own copy and it doesnt FEEL right to read by a website. Hard copies forever!

    I guess Digital is great for those who really need room. But what if your computer broke? Or your Ipad? What if one day you lose it all? Enough of my rant.

    Ty for the article :)

    • Thanks for reading!

    • Well, not everyone is a collector. I used to be, and at one time owned over a thousand volumes of manga, first piled up around my bookshelf (since it was way more than could fit on the tiny thing), then packed away in boxes in the closet. But eventually I was honest with myself about the fact that I am probably never going to read any of them again because there is always so much new material that I never have time to reread, even my favoritest favorites. So I sold them all, and since then I sell/give away everything as soon as I finish reading it, or if I read scans, I delete them when I’m finished (I don’t want my hard drive to be cluttered any more than I want my house to be). So for me, having a physical copy is not a good thing, it just makes it harder to get rid of once I’m done.

  8. For Vizmanga.com, I assume you have to be connected to the internet to read your purchases? This is always an issue for me, since I don’t have a high speed internet connection at home. But at 40% off, I’m going to give it a try on my 3G service and see what happens.

    Thanks for being the guinea pig and reporting the info!

    • Yes, you do have to be connected. That’s definitely an advantage to the iOS version, which actually downloads the volumes to your device.

      I’d love to know whether this ended up working for you!

      • Ok – signed up last night and made my first purchase (Kekkaishi vol. 1 – a series I have been wanting to try). Sign up and purchase are super easy, and I really like Viz’s website. Using my 3G DSL, I waited about 15 minutes for the volume to load before getting sleepy and going to bed. So I didn’t get to read anything, and I do not know how long the delay between clicking on my purchase and being able to start reading will take. BUT this probably means that the volume will load completely so that there will be no lag time when I turn the page. This is a plus. So it’s probably doable, with patience and forethought. But maybe more patience and forethought than I actualy possess.

        Basically – complements to Viz. I have no real complaints about their site. My complaint is with the lack of high speed internet access to those of us who live in the rural areas of this country….

  9. I cant read my free manga I have downloaded the KeyrringAgent and it doesnt work, I only get a blank page. Even if I click READ it gives a blank page.

  10. The Square Enix manga store’s layers and layers of DRM are completely ridiculous.

    Especially now that there’s a feature in Firefox 7 that makes it easy to download the original JPG files from any e-book viewed in Flash format. Not a hack, just a regular feature. Go to Firefox – Web Developer – Web Console, and you can see the “source” code of any Flash viewer, including the URL of all images (i.e. the pages) displayed in the Flash viewer.

    For science’s sake, I actually created an account with the Square Enix store, purchased a copy of Soul Eater #2 (which took me a good 15 minutes and what felt like 50-or-so steps because of the Click-n-Buy nonsense), and opened it up to read using the Keyring Flash reader that they made me install.

    I could have downloaded and saved any page within that book with the click of a single button. Like so:

    http://s1095.photobucket.com/albums/i465/oops_oops1/?action=view&current=179.jpg

    So despite all of that frustrating DRM that they made me wade through, they still haven’t prevented me from pirating the book if I wanted to. And to be fair I’m very tempted to just go through and download the entire book onto my HD, because I paid $5.99 for it, and I feel like I should be able to keep a copy of the darn thing, you know? (I’m not actually unscrupulous enough to share it with anybody else, though! I just want to keep a copy of the book that I paid for.)

    MEANWHILE, the same trick that I used to download pages from Soul Eater #2 actually DOES NOT WORK on either Viz Manga or JComi. I tested both sites. The reason is that both Viz and JComi have configured their Flash viewers to access encrypted image URL codes. So despite being able to see the “source code” of their flash viewers, I still can’t access or steal any images from their websites.

    The moral of this story: Viz and JComi have prevented me from pirating their books WITHOUT giving me a frustrating customer experience. Square Enix has a security vulnerability that allows me to easily download and keep my copy of Soul Eater #2 DESPITE all of the layers of “security” that they piled onto it, which only resulted in giving me a frustrating customer experience.

    I’m not making this comment to gloat or anything, just to point out the obvious. Squeenix: your security sucks. Why don’t you use the same encryption method that Viz and JComi use? Because that WOULD actually protect your product from thieves without driving away potential customers in droves.

    • I can’t possibly tell you how much I love this comment. Thanks for checking this out and reporting to us all!

      • Why thank you! :)

        I have to confess, I did give in to the temptation and downloaded the entirety of Soul Eater #2 on to my hard-drive. Once I had it on my own computer, though, I was able to read it much more easily and comfortably than I could on the Square Enix website. Like you, I had a lot of trouble with the Squeenix online reading interface. My only two viewing options were either “too small to read the text” or “way too large for my monitor.”

        Once I had downloaded the book to my computer, however, I suddenly opened up a whole world of much, much superior reading options. I could read the pages using plain old Windows Picture Viewer, I could convert the entire thing into a PDF or CBR file and read it that way, or I could put it on my iPad.

        Which I ended up doing. I converted the book into a PDF, put it on my iPad, and read it that way.

        These are options that I wish Square Enix had made available to me from the get-go. Maybe not letting me download the book as images or as a PDF – I mean, I can certainly see the concerns about potential for piracy that way – but at the very least I would have preferred an app that would allow me to read my purchase on an iOS device, tablet PC, or other e-reader. Because that’s always a better reading experience than a flash-based browser interface.

        But now I have my PDF and I am happy. All in all, $5.99 well spent. In the name of science.

      • The cherry on top of the fail sundae happened today:

        My debit card was declined while I was attempting to buy groceries. I called my bank to see what was up, and they informed me that a suspicious charge had triggered a fraud alert on my card, which resulting in a preemptive freezing of my bank account.

        What was the suspicious charge?

        The 5.99 charge from Click-n-Buy.

        Yup, Click-n-Buy caused a fraud alert on my bank account and cause me the extra inconvenience of having my bank account frozen for a day. It took me half an hour and three transfers through the bank’s phone tree to get the matter cleared up and unfreeze my account.

        It’s like the Square Enix website kept finding ways to inconvenience me even when I was done being their customer!!! (Then again, this may have been some form of karmic vengeance for me downloading the book that I wasn’t supposed to be able to download. Oops.)

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Trackbacks

  1. [...] Of the assortment of shoujo, shounen, and seinen series available on the site, the two-volume Backstage Prince by Kanoko Sakurakoji—whose smutty supernatural series Black Bird is currently being published by VIZ—caught my eye, and being both short and something I didn’t already own in print, seemed like the perfect vehicle through which to test out the VIZmanga interface. (For Melinda Beasi’s thorough report on both the VIZ and Square Enix online initiatives, click here.) [...]

  2. [...] does the Square Enix manga site stack up against the newly launched Vizmanga.com? Melinda Beasi is on the [...]

  3. [...] too highly and be too suspicious of the American user (such as treating them like criminals, as the Square Enix site does) to make the site truly [...]

  4. [...] It almost seems like piling on to mention that the site design is terrible, with no obvious pointers to the things one might want to do—starting with the lack of a "login" button on the home page. Again, I thought it was just me, but Melinda Beasi, who is far more knowledgeable about the intricacies of web design than I am, also had a terrible time navigating it; her review is worth checking out just for her description of how Square Enix made her feel like a criminal. [...]

  5. [...] horrible DRM (i.e. proprietary manga readers that you need admin privileges to install), check out this comment at Manga Bookshelf from someone who figured out that Square Enix’s online manga site, with its many layers of [...]

  6. [...] service. That portal met with resounding criticism from manga bloggers such as Brigid Alverson and Melinda Beasi, who found the registration process, pricing, and browser interface clumsy. I’m guessing that [...]

  7. [...] at the Manga Bookshelf, Melinda takes both Viz Media’s manga site and Square Enix’s (which I didn’t have [...]

  8. [...] at the Manga Bookshelf, Melinda takes both Viz Media’s manga site and Square Enix’s (which I didn’t have [...]

  9. [...] alun perin kesällä 2010, ja palvelu avattiin saman vuoden joulukuussa. Sitä on kuitenkin moitittu hankalaksi [...]

  10. […] service in 2010, but it was strangled by poor design and excessive DRM, as chronicled here and here. The account required five separate registration steps, with multiple passwords, and users had to […]



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