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.
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.
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.