Three weeks ago, I was ruminating on comic book piracy when I thought– and not for the first time– “What’s in it for the people uploading these books? Has anyone ever asked them why they do it?” So I did.
The response from readers and scanners alike has been fairly overwhelming. Over the past few weeks, I have talked to people with a variety of motives and backgrounds, but with a number of commonalities. Most took an inordinate amount of pride in their scanning work. Most seemed to have a sense of community engendered by a scanning group, including the personality politics and other negatives that often go along with that. There seemed to be a compulsiveness: many had gotten books solely to scan them, and some had scanned books that they have still never even read.
The final conversation in this series (for a while, anyway) was with my only female correspondent, a retired scanner we’ll call Oracle. She talked about the practice, the process, and the price of addiction:
How long were you scanning?
I edited books over the course of three years.
Do you remember the first book you ever did?
I think almost every scanner/editor remembers their first. I do. It was not the best book to start on for a person trying to figure out Photoshop. It was a double sized issue with more than a few joins and took me 12 hours over three days to do. After all of that effort, I never actually read the issue.
What made you decide to start (and stop, for that matter)?
I got started because I wanted to help those that introduced me to comics. I didn’t grow up with comics but did know of the characters. Once Marvel Ultimate Alliance came out I was hooked. I loved the game and the characters and I wanted to learn more about my favorites. I did some searching and found some torrents with comic PDFs and grabbed them. That night I read several dozen of the Ultimate Comics books over the course of three hours. I was hooked. I had found something new to love. The more I searched, the more I made it to the right places. I made friends with the right people and eventually met up with the right scanners. They took me in and taught me the rest
What finally convinced me to stop had nothing to do with morals or digital releases from publishers. It was the realization that I had spent three years and anywhere from 1 hour to 6 hours a book and had barely read any of them. There was a point where I had actually gone over 9 months without reading a single comic but had released 200 books. At that point, I started asking myself why the hell was I doing this? It was more work than fun; more commitment than hobby. When you get to the point where you dread Wednesdays, you know it’s time to leave.
How many books would you say you’ve put online?
I released over 1000 books over the course of three years.
Did you try to do a certain number each week, or just whatever you happened to buy? Is this something you did independently, or were you a part of a group?
The answer is yes, I did try to do a certain number a week. I did what needed to be done or whatever a scanner asked me to do. The overall goal of each team is “coverage”. Each team tries to cover every release for that week regardless. That being said, you need to know how the inner workings of all of this actually function. The comic scan scene can be broken down into three main areas. Scanners, editors, and lastly, the distributors (aka the linkers and torrenters).
A person can fulfill all three roles or just one. It’s all up to them. The Scanner buys, scans, and edits the book. In many cases, the scanner won’t edit the book but will send the scanned images (aka RAWS) to an editor to work (aka Team-ups). The really dedicated scanners can potentially supply raws for 5-7 different editors on a given Wednesday.
Now who scans what and who edits what is all decided a week before Wednesday. Each organized team will have an intent list of all of the books coming out. The scanner will put their name down for a book and an editor will put their name down for a book. This allows for collaboration all across the world. The entire team knows exactly who’s buying what and who’s editing what. Scanners are the most generous lot you will find. They will buy books they normally wouldn’t because an editor wants to edit the book.
The editors will take the images and do the magic. An editor will straighten the pages, crop them, stitch together the double pagers (aka JOINS). Some teams will then work the images over (aka LEVELING). Leveling is pretty much making the whites white and then blacks black. When a comic is scanned the image is a little messed up and needs corrected. Some teams use noise reduction programs and others don’t. After all that, many editors will go page by page and fix defects. Cleaning up each page is the longest part of the process next to joins. Cleaning up spots in images or bleed through or color defects takes time and commitment and patience. Once all of that is done, a scanner tag will be added to the end and then the images are RARd up and ready for viewing.
The distributors are the link people and torrentors. Their job is to get the book out to all the different places across the net.
Now, for group dynamics, each team has its own philosophy about how an edited book should look and that’s why there are often two or three versions of the same book. Most high profile books will be covered by each team. This is one of the main reasons the teams do not get along so much. Each team thinks their version is the “right” version or that their version should be the only version. The comic scan teams feud and feud a lot. They might take shots at each other in their scanner tags and flame wars on the various release sites turn ugly quick. Even during the peaceful times it always felts a little iffy. It always felt like there was always a powder keg just waiting to be ignited. I believe most teams tolerate each other now-a-days.
The quickest thing that unites all comic teams though, is when a downloader comments about the quality of a scan or says things like I prefer this teams releases to that teams releases because of x, y, and z. Even if you feel the downloader is right, when you are part of the scene, you can’t let those on the outside bash the work of those on the inside. It’s all a competition and every scanner/editor thinks they’re the best at what they do.
What kind of time goes into an undertaking like this? Per book, per week, however you typically think about it.
A book can take anywhere from 60 minutes to 4 hours depending on the amount of pages and joins. Take for instance, a book like Thor – Ages of Thunder oneshot. That book had 17 joins. A simple join can take 15 minutes. A more detailed join could take 30-60 minutes. A book like the Thor oneshot would take maybe 10 hours to do. But if you got 5 editors from your team to each do a join the team could do it all in a few hours. A simple book with white borders and no joins could take 20 minutes to edit, 15 minutes to scan. During my most productive period I was averaging eight books a week and spending probably about 30 hours of my time on them. Some weeks I’d release 15 – 22 books. Some weeks it’d only be 2-3.
Would you scan at night, mostly? What was the routine?
As an editor, I was dependent on the scanner. Usually, when I’d get home, I’d already have 3-4 books waiting on me. We never read the books until we were done with our part and in my cause, I still haven’t read 95% of the books I did.
Did you happen to work for a comic shop or publisher, or were you buying all these books every week?
None of the scanners worked at comic shops or diamond or for the publisher. They all bought their books like everyone else and rushed home to start scanning.
Do you have any kind of metrics on your end that tell you how many times your scans were downloaded?
There are no metrics. Torrent sites are flaky as are many file hosts. It’s really not about the DL numbers. It was all about beating the other team to a release.
Is there a pecking order?
Yes. Most teams have or had a leadership structure at one time.
How does someone get accepted into the group?
You get invited. Usually, a distributor spots someone releasing a comic as an “indie” (scanner not affiliated with a defined team) and recruits them if the team feels the indie has potential. Each team has their own quality standards for releasing books with the team name on it so any new comer will go through some sort of training before releasing a book with the team name on it.
90% of the books I did I could care less about.
How do you respond to critics who say scanning hurts the industry and the people who work in it?
I think of the “Don’t Copy That Floppy Commercial”. Remember, floppy copying was going to end the gaming industry and make application development non profitable back in the 80s. That argument was funny then and it’s funny now.
What kind of interactions have you had with creators, either at conventions or online? Have you ever discussed scanning with a writer or artist?
I have not, but I have known others who have actually sent the creator the scanned copy of their book before and received thanks. I’ve been approached by indie creators with web comics asking for us to include their comic in a team’s torrented release packs to generate interest.
DC, Image, and a number of other publishers have started offering day-and-date digital comics for sale. How did this affect your activity? Is it why you retired? What impact if any do you think it will have on the community?
It didn’t affect me. I was gone before it happened. Still, I feel they are making the jump about 5 years too late and the price point needs to be more in line with music sales. I think people can stomach spending $.99 on Superman #1 and it sucking than spending $2.99 on Superman #1.
As for the impact on the community, I don’t think it will affect that much because the digital releases are smaller in size than the scanned releases and then there’s always the c2c crazies (c2c = cover to cover, meaning the book includes all of the ads). Those guys are true enthusiasts.
Finally: do you feel like scanners (or file sharing in general) have been misrepresented in online debates about piracy? Do you want to set the record straight about anything?
I don’t it’s been misrepresented at all. I’ve been on this side of the piracy fence for a long time. The arguments about piracy are valid, but will never sway the pirates. The pirate’s counter points are merely idiot talking points that hold no merit. I’ve been a/with/around pirates for 20+ years. When I think of pirates I think of Alfred telling Bruce that “some men aren’t looking for anything logical, like money. They can’t be bought, bullied, reasoned or negotiated with.” The pirates are who they are. They cannot be guilt’d or moral’d out of the scene. Stealing is stealing. Everyone knows it and all of us scanners and editors knew it when we were doing it.
Justifying it was easy. Some justified it by saying it was all about reading comics on computers. Some will say they were trying to force publishers into going forward with digital releases day and date; others called it preservation or saving history digitally; for others it was about helping friends overseas get to read books they’d never have a chance to due to corrupt Customs officials. For me it was just something to do. I did what I did because I liked doing it and when I stopped liking what I was doing, I left and didn’t turn back….. queue the ending scene of The Breakfast Club…..fade to black.