The Comic Book Pirate Interviews, Part I

The iFanboy community has discussed piracy ad nauseum over the years, but one aspect of it has been woefully untouched upon: amid all our bickering about downloading, we’ve never spared a thought for uploading.

Last week, curiosity finally got the better of me. I put out a call to the scanners to tell their story. I even avoided using the word “piracy” out of some misplaced attempt at sensitivity, only to find that almost everyone who responded said, “Yeah, somebody told me you wanted to talk to us pirates?” The resulting conversations have fascinated me more than any I’ve ever had on the topic.

Below is the first of those conversations. My correspondent is a recently retired scanner prominent enough on The Scene for his handle to be familiar even to a dilettante like me. During his prime, he informed me, he was scanning sixteen to twenty books every week. We discussed how the process worked, the teamwork involved, and why he eventually left the game:

How long were you scanning?

I started in 2004 and quit this year.

Do you remember the first book(s) you ever did?

Absolutely. I won’t say what it was because I don’t want to give too much away about myself but it was a series that hadn’t been scanned at that point and it was from a small and defunct publisher.

What made you decide to start (and stop, for that matter)? I am assuming that you were downloading first and decided to “pay it forward” at a certain point, but what if anything was the tipping point?

Going back to the last question, the series I started with wasn’t very well known, but featured artists who had gone on to prominence. I was intrigued by the idea of taking something analog and making it digital. It required a lot of problem solving – testing out hardware and software, tweaking settings, and comparing different outputs. I may not have cured cancer or fed the famine-starved, but I still had a sense of accomplishment when I was done. When I was done, I felt like I could then share this publishing “gem” with others who would appreciate it. Everything snowballed from there.

As to why I quit, the “Scene” has become petty and incestuous. No one cared about “preserving” comic books in a digital form anymore. It was all about getting YOUR copy out FIRST so that you could flood the fileshares before someone else could get their version out just to acquire digital kudos from those around you. I grew wary of the “Race” and took a hard look at the current digital space. Marvel, DC, Image, Dark Horse, and even Archie have been pushing more and more digital initiatives. If digital archiving was really my goal, and not piracy, then wasn’t I fooling myself by continuing to scan and edit comics that the publishers were offering in a pure digital form? DC’s push for “day and date” releasing of all their mainline titles cemented it for me and I stepped away.

How many books would you say you’ve put online?

It’s hard for me to nail down any sort of exact number. One thing I often did was scan a book and hand off the raw images to someone else to edit. Plus, I used several different scanner identities over the years. A quick search of my files nets me at least 6,000+, but I honestly forget some of the books I’ve done or identities I’ve used. Plus adding in what I handed off to others can easily double that amount if not triple it. But as I said, I was never interested in tracking my efforts, so I don’t really know.

Did you set out to do a 16-20 each week, or was it just whatever you happened to buy?

I honestly set out to do 3 or 4 a week. But it becomes like a drug with a sense of satisfaction with the finished project. I bought toys that had a comic book bundled within just to own and scan the comic so that more people could share it and save it. I mailed away for variant covers and books no one had scanned before just to make sure they were “preserved.” I bought numerous books that I’ve never even read because I was committed to the idea of making sure they were “saved.”

What kind of time goes into an undertaking like this? Per book, per week, however you typically think about it.

Generally, it took me about 30 minutes to scan, edit, and release a book. If I was really focused and all the stars were aligned, I could knock one out in about 20 minutes.

Would you scan at night, mostly? Surreptitiously while at your day job? On Wednesday as you read? What was the routine?

I never had a chance to really do it at work because of the nature of my job (though I did try a time or two). But usually, as soon as I came home from the store, I would scan one book while reading another. I live in a town with several comic book stores and I work odd hours, so I would hit a store that had books out early, head home and cover those. Then see what still needed to be done and hit another one to pick up more books before going to work. Then finally, I’d hit one other store on Thursday to cover anything else it looked like wasn’t going to be covered. This also gave me a chance to talk to different store owners and different groups of customers.

Is this something you did independently, or were you a part of a group? I am fascinated by how the group dynamic works. Is there a set schedule for who scans what? Is there a pecking order? A concerted effort to make sure every book is covered? How many scanners would you say there are in a group at a given time? How does someone get accepted into the group?

Well, there’s a whole handbag right there. First off, I was in a couple of different groups. Some groups are set in maintaining an order of who scans what based on things like seniority or skill. Some groups don’t care and just band together to help each other out and share. At one time, there was a real effort to completely cover all comics that came out (and we succeeded a few times). But now, it seems like it’s more of a virtual pissing contest to see who can get out as many books as possible as quickly as possible. The groups often hurl insults and try to sabotage other groups. Most groups have 3-6 super dedicated scanners and editors who cover the majority of their “0-Day” releases, while various others drift in and out working on the periphery or on back issues. There’s a lot of ego involved in the “Scene” and new scanners often get chewed up and spit out. If they manage to stick around long enough, they move up when someone gets burnt out and quits.

Have you ever gotten comics you wouldn’t normally buy just to scan them in?

Hundred, if not thousands, as I mentioned earlier. Though, I often found myself enjoying many of them that I otherwise wouldn’t have tried.

How do you respond to critics who say scanning hurts the industry and the people who work in it?

Going around to different shops and talking to different collectors really made me feel like it only hurts the industry when the industry is hurting itself. One store regular lamented that comics come out every month because they come out every month. Not every month does a writer feel like they have a great story to tell. Instead, they have a deadline. When people feel that way, I think scanning does have an impact. Yet, even as a scanner I was also a collector. I read almost everything I could and often went to buy copies of books I read online because I decided I wanted to own a copy. Like anything else, I feel it can have pros and cons.

I also wanted to read my comics on my computer, laptop, ereader, phone, etc… Now that the companies are moving that way, I’m buying a lot of digital books legitimately and downloading less.

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 discussed the concept with a few creators at conventions, sure. Most of them seemed either unconcerned or ambivalent. A few were militant anti-piracy, but they were also higher up the ladder in the company and wore hats outside of creative. A few actually reached out to the scanner community and thanked us for sharing their work with more eyes. One company president said that piracy added to print sales. But of course, another said every download was a dollar stolen, so you have to take everything in stride.

piracy!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?

As I said earlier, yeah, it’s a major part of why I quit. As for the community, there are a few Robin Hood types who vow to never surrender and a few anarchists who get off on the idea of “sticking it to the man.” For the most part however, scanners are print enthusiasts who see a digital release from the publishers as some sort of “DVD+Digital Copy” solution that just won’t catch on. It seems odd to me how many of them make a digital product, but feel like an official digital release is sub-par. In the end though, I think more scanners will drop off as official digital releases become more commonplace (a few notable ones already have). If more publishers would release comics in un-DRM’ed CBZ/CBR or EPub formats, scanning would all but cease.

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?

Honestly, I don’t know that much about how they (we) have been represented. I know that some magazines like Wired or websites like Bleeding Cool tend to get 90% of the details wrong in anything I read, but I haven’t gone out of my way to read more than a handful of articles. I guess the one thing I can say is that most “pirates” (we call them leechers) tend to download everything they can because it’s available. If the entire system were to disappear tomorrow, they wouldn’t miss the majority of what they have downloaded because they wouldn’t have bought it in the first place if they even get around to reading it. They simply get it because they can and they often want to turn around and share it because they have it. Scanners, on the other hand, buy books they do like even if it’s already scanned and they have no intention of scanning it again because they are collectors at heart. I think there’s a serious level of fandom (or fanboy-ism if you prefer) in many of them.


  1. Expose? La de da, Mr. New York Times over here 🙂

    No this was really great Jim. I learned a lot more about this area of the comic industry, or underground side I should say, that I never knew before. This guy/gal certainly knew it wasn’t the right thing to do but he/she makes a pretty good argument in my mind on why it had to be done. With the companies going into digital comics I’m sure it is a dying art and you won’t see it at all in the future.

  2. Very interesting read Jim. It will be interesting to see if the others that responded to you have similar answers.

  3. Fascinating. I can’t wait until the other parts and conversations break. I think it’s amazing that scanners have effectively digitalized every single comic that the big publishing companies have put out, and with intense pride (it seems) in the quality of their work. It’s funny to think that DC and Marvel are saying, “it can’t be done” when these independent people have already gone and done it. In fact, their day and date releases are seemingly superior to the ones officially done as these have only hours to turn their work around whereas Comixology has days and days to get the job done.

    I think though, that if the industry really embraced the idea of non-DRM files, then the piracy would subside. A big problem a lot of people have is that if DC and Marvel went belly-up then what would happen to the files that the reader “purchased”? But if you’ve got the files right there, sitting on your desktop, then you can then actually “own” them. The publishers need to do either a subscription model like Marvel Unlimited (but on tablets -_-), or have a real non-DRM distribution service to really move into the digital age. Printing costs are large when needing to make more copies whereas a digital copy is free to reproduce – that’s just the future.

  4. Really interesting article Jim. I’m pretty surprised at a lot of his answers.

  5. Great article! Very interesting and a bit surprising answers.

  6. Great stuff, really fascinating.

    One question:

    * One aspect of the scanning process I am curious about: How destructive is it to the book? Do you have to sacrifice the book to get a “perfect” scan?

    And one topic for group discussion:

    * Regarding scans decreasing as “official” digital copies become more available, do we have any reason to think that the file sharing will decrease at all? Or now that the barrier to sharing is lowered (no physical scan, just pure software re-packaging), will there be more torrents out there?

    • I wonder about that too, they probably remove the staples at least right?

      iTunes shows that if an easily accesible legal digital copy is available a lot of people will buy it to avoid the hassle of finding torrents or direct download links and assured official quality.

      The only problem is the official versions are often subpar to the pirated at this point in time (with some notable exceptions like Double Feature Comics etc.). Convenience, quality, eReader usability the pirated ones win alas. Until companies put serious R&D muscle into their digital services it will continue.

    • Flan, The iTunes example is good.

      Now, if you go search for music torrents, you can find almost anything you are looking for. So the availability of DRM-free downloadable legal versions of music for purchase doesn’t stop the torrents, but maybe they become less relevant, since the pay-for-download model is now sufficiently profitable? I wonder what the RIAA thinks of that?

    • “Regarding scans decreasing as “official” digital copies become more available, do we have any reason to think that the file sharing will decrease at all? Or now that the barrier to sharing is lowered (no physical scan, just pure software re-packaging), will there be more torrents out there?”

      It seems like almost every comic is already being scanned. Making a DRM-free version can’t really increase the number of torrents because it’s already near 100 %, especially where the big two are concerned. I mean you could end up with a scanned copy of Action Comics #5 and a digital copy of Action Comics #5, but it’s hard to see how that would increase piracy. At most it could decrease the amount of time that it takes for those torrents to get out, but according to this article, that could be as little as 30 minutes after it hits the shelves, so, again, the degree to which a digital version could affect piracy seems small.

      That said, the degree to which piracy could be curbed is another unknown. The number of torrents is not really an indicator since one torrent can represent thousands of people pirating the files or dozens. Even the number of people downloading a specific torrent isn’t a great indicator (if the number was available). The only real way to gauge a digital copy’s effect is by the sales of the digital file and if there is a corresponding change in print sales. With digital files already so prevalent and easily acquired, it seems like the solution would be for publishers to release their own files that are as open and easy to use as what the pirates have. Like Anville points out, in the music industry, selling DRM-free files didn’t end piracy, but it did create a situation where people could pay for the same type of files they had been pirating, and some people, at least, did pay.

    • As a study I compared Animal Man #1 pirate to Animal Man#1 bought and the only difference was the bought version had some bullshit black bar discolouring down the middle of every page, while the pirate didn’t. I don’t really know why that would happen but it was very strange… People just don’t download one thing pirated, they download everything that way, so changing the model of availibility may not change anything at all, for them. The only thing that might change is by educating why it’s so destructive to the medium, but it’d be hard to make people care.

  7. Utterly fascinating article, glad iFanboy isn’t simply ignoring the issue like so many in the industry seem to be doing.

    Can’t wait for Part II!

    Totally agree with the scanner about the DRM CBZ CBR formats, they are far superior to the online reading methods and programs offered if you like to view comics as full pages or double page spreads on a screen. The panel by panel view is nice if you are reading on an iPhone but at home I like to see the full monty.

    Plus you don’t have to have an internet connection to read them if you are on a plane or trip. It’s the equivalent of having an iPod that could only stream music you had purchased.

    • You don’t have to read panel-by-panel. I read my digital comics full page with digital page spreads.

    • I know but on a smart phone it’s easier for me to do it panel by panel. I just have laptop and and smart phone options, haven’t read anything on iPad or similar tablets yet.

      For computers, the full comixology spreads still have that dumb drop shadow and page split in the middle of images and on the sides of pages. It would be fine if you could toggle it on of off for a ‘print view’, but you can’t. It’s totally pointless and hinders the art.

      Smart scrolling around the pages or using multitouch gestures to advance the pages (common on web browsers for years) aren’t available either. You have to click and drag the pages. Plus you have to re-zoom to fit on every single page, it resets each time you advance the page (by click the right and left arrows arg.) And it zooms to the middle of the page. :-\ So each page takes at least 2 clicks and a drag to read instead of just a swipe and a push up or down with a track pad.

      I am going to start buying Irredeemable and Incorruptible on graphicly and see if their version is better. Hopefully yes.

      Something like Simple Comic lets you set up the reading experience however you want, you can change the background plate color, read it backwards manga style, read two pages at once like an open book, a single page so you don’t ruin a reveal, the options and customization available is great.

    • Comixology comics look great on my 24in display. I use panel-by-panel on the laptop, but I prefer sitting in front of the big computer and reading them the traditional way. I don’t worry about the buttons or touch gestures; I just use the arrow buttons on the keyboard.

      I’ve never really gotten into reading comics on my phone. I probably won’t read comics on a mobile device until I get some kind of tablet. I was real sorry I missed buying a $99 HP Touchpad. It would have been great for reading comics.

    • I think I’d be more excited about digital comics if they were truly something different, and kinda were using a format of panel to panel. I’ve been thinking about some of the flash games that when you click have small timed animations and I wonder if something like that was applied to comics. Not quite a motion comic but with customisability for artists to provide a unique user interaction. It might sound a bit outside the normal format, but down to the basics I’d really like to see people breaking out of that traditional double page design. Baby steps.

  8. Great article. Honestly, I really do try to buy all my books every week but books are expensive and I’m a college student living on his own. If it weren’t for downloading I’d miss out of the fifty other books I want to buy every month.

  9. Great article, part about writing to deadlines particularly interested me as I mostly pickup trades and issues sometime after release

  10. Great interview, looking forward to seeing future parts in this series.

  11. Good on ya for making this shit happen Jimski. It’s a really great read. I had no clue what went into the comics piracy scene.

  12. This is really excellent journalism, and quite enlightening to me to read. Thanks for doing it, and to your correspondent for answering honestly.

  13. Well said.

  14. JeffR (@JeffRReid) says:

    Good stuff, Jim. For real.

  15. Great work Jim. Can’t wait for more. This guy seems like more of an old-guard guy, I’m curious about how other (possibly more recent) scanners will feel about stuff. I hope you got one of those “Sticking it to the man” guys as well to get the less sensible side of things.

  16. This was absolutely fascinating. I got my start reading comics from reading scans downloaded, but there is just something …intimate about holding the work in your hand rather than seeing it on your computer screen. Many of the books I started reading scans of now sit in trade or hardcover on my growing book shelf.

  17. Good interview! not much to add. look9ing foward to the second part

  18. I am old enough to not even know where or how to torrent illegal copies. I’m stuck with official sources, which I don’t mind as without somebody buying them there will BE no comics. However , if they were cheaper per issue I would SPEND more. When the dc app has a 59p sale I spend loads. At £1.99 for a chapter I hold off.

  19. Are the quotation marks his own or did you add them based on the tone of his responses.

  20. This was great. I’m thrilled that iFanboy published this.

  21. You should have asked him/her if he wears an eye patch.

  22. i really dont see how piracy helps comicbook companys or creators. its not like with music where u download music and it makes u go to theyr shows and buy theyr merchandice.

    • I knew a guy who downloaded the scans of the monthlies but would later buy the hardcovers, because he liked the way the hardcovers looked but didn’t want to wait that long to read the stories. I imagine there are people who use the scans as a sampler and then if they like it purchase the trades or whatever. So I think it can lead to a real purchase.

    • @azrael1981 it’s exactly like that! i downloaded the first arcs of transmetropolitan, walking dead, y: the last man and geoff johns run on jsa; to see if i liked them and subsequently ended up buying the entire runs in trade! also, on few occasions i’ve done what @glennsim mentioned, wherein i’ve downloaded monthlies and then bought the trades! ultimately, i feel that the pirates are seriously damaging the business, but on the contrary; i guess i’m testament to the fact they can have positive effects on the business?

  23. I admit that i download comic book torrents, but only because we have no comic book shops here in the part of the Philippines where im at. I love reading comics but even when it goes digital. I dont have the money to buy the Ipod, Ipad or heck buy a digital comic itself legally. Mainly because the exchange rate is stupendous. If i buy from e-bay and even when the comic is cheap the delivery charge from international to local is 3 times the price of the comic book itself.I know it illegal but when your 15 and have no job its the only way i can read comics.

  24. I discovered comic books through comic book torrents. I’m a weekly customer to my comic book shop now, and I only read print. Comic book torrents made me a comicbook fan and buyer. I discovered wonderfull writers and artist like Grant Morrison, Frank Quietly, Geoff Johns, Jim Lee, Greg Rucka,.. which I NEVER heard of before. I buy a lot of stuff on Amazon too.

    I use comic book torrents to decide whether or not I will buy a series. For example: I downloaded Action Comics 890 because I wasn’t sure if this Paul Cornell was any good, but I was interested in a Lex Luthor-series. I liked it, bought a copy and now have every single comic Paul Cornell has written since.

    So comic book piracy made me a loyal customer.

  25. I do feel that piracy is a major factor that killed the industry, a few of my friends stopped buying print bcos they said why bother when theres no more resale value to your comics and besides, u can download them for free.

    • How has it killed the industry. The industry still exists. The industry tanked in the 90s before this type of piracy existed. There is no factual proof that supports this. The downturn in sales could be caused by any and all of the following: piracy, the economy, the increased price point, or an aging customer.

      Your friends stopped buying because of decreased resale value? There is no way a comic’s value is based on the amount of it being available digital. Seriously, who actually buys comics because they are banking on its value increasing? That’s a business model the underpants gnomes would employ. Phase 1, buy comics books, Phase 2 ……., Phase 3, PROFIT!

  26. This was a great article. Publishers should read this article just to understand the motives of piracy. I don’t think that the publishers understand the motives and make decisions based on fear.

  27. Some of the first torrents I ever saw were comics preservation torrents. Tons of old and rare books cataloged by year. And to be honest I’m glad they exist.

  28. No offense but the fact that it’s a scanner who’s recently quit but won’t give out his alias sounds too convenient Jim. I call your bluff.

    • I have the alias. I’m just not giving it to you. I quickly learned the first time I put out the call that nobody wants to go on the record when they think The Man is going to come get them afterwards.

    • Sure thing. And the fact that it’s on my web browser makes it true. 16 years of being online (from usenet to firefox) have made my cynical so you’ll have to forgive me if I don’t believe you.

      This is why anonymous tips and interviews aren’t permissible in the court of law. No one can tell for sure if it’s true or if someone is full of crap.

    • *correction: me, not my

    • Maybe they want to avoid the man, but I think it’s more to not cause issues amongst the current scanners. It’s all kinda like fight club. First thing about scanning is don’t talk about scanning. No one wants to be identified as the NARC.

    • It’s a friggin alias. And the scanner is obviously done. So… WHO CARES?!

      Logically? No one. An alias means nothing, the interviewee said it himself.

      At the end of the day all of this should just be taken with a grain of salt, unless revealed in spectacular fashion like with Christopher ‘moot’ Poole on CNN (in regards to 4chan).

    • I know this Scanner so Jims source is spot on(No bluff) and as to why Jim the wouldnt give his sources name …….what planet are you on think about it

    • I’m not going to let one of my writers make stuff up and post it as fact. If they did, I’d stop working with them. It’s real, and the accusation is silly. If we haven’t earned your trust by now, we’re certainly not going to.

  29. About two years ago I tried to get STEAM the scanner to record a segment for my radio show “too much information” he wouldn’t do it but he did write me an essay answer and I used a text to voice program – you can hear the whole comic book pirate segment here:
    I’m glad I finally have somewhere to post this – I like how it turned out, it starts with Jeff Lemire and goes all the way to Steam

  30. Very interesting, Jim, thanks for writing this. Any more is welcome.

    I find in particularly interesting that there is an element of OCD to this. They are often compelled to do it to “preserve” the title, and wind up with thousands of books. By the same token, it’s amazing that people will download a ton of material an never even read it, just because it is there.

    • Not so much comics but I know a bunch of people that download a ton of music and never listen to it. Friend of mine is big into live shows but admits he hardly ever listens to them just keeps saying “I’ll listen to them one day” I’m sure the same happens for comics, their “stack” piles up just like most of ours do just on a bigger scale.

    • It’s the nature of “free”. Even when it’s actually legal (here it’s not though), it tends to stockpile. You get it because it exists, and then forget about it. Actually paying for an item compels you to consume, because you don’t want to feel you’ve wasted it, but when it’s free you put in nothing so there’s no impetus pushing you.

  31. Yes, add my praise to Jim Mroczkowski and iFanboy – this article was really interesting! Plus this topic is one I’ve been curious about for some time but keep forgetting to investigate due to adult-onset amnesia, so thank you, Jim, for putting it right in front of me. I can’t wait to read further installments.

    What amazes me is that these pirates are working so diligently on something that earns them no money, or even real-world cred. Music piracy is one thing – it’s super easy to upload songs, and so many people listen to music – but with comics, you have to futz around with scanners and staples and 20-30 minutes per issue… and most of the pirates’ real life friends probably don’t even read comics, so it’s tough to brag about off-line… this really is an OCD thing! We need to be thinking about sending all these pirates to therapy and perhaps administering medication.

  32. I think that if comic book publishers pushed out drm free .cbr/.cbz versions of their books at .99 cents each the pirate problem would almost disappear.

    They are in the best position to put it out there first. Back in the day I downloaded all my mp3’s but now I much rather get them through Amazon. 1. it’s faster than digging around sites for the songs I want 2. I feel better about it 3. I trust the source

  33. Thread’s a bit dated but I just wanted to drop a couple pennies. I never read comics. I didn’t know shit about comics until about a year ago. I was browsing a torrent site and saw that there was a comic that I could download hidden amongst all the movies and music and shit. I had no idea what it was, I didn’t look it up, I just downloaded it. It was called Preacher. Within 12 days, I had on my shelf every trade of Preacher. Then the same thing happened with Y: The Last Man. 100 Bullets. Fables. Transmetropolitan. I would download the entire series, totally pirated, and then purchase the entire comic run because I loved the stories. I was lucky in my selection, because I had nobody to guide me and recommend things, it was before I discovered iFanboy. Then I downloaded Watchmen. Then I did some research and purchased Absolute Watchmen. Then I purchased every other Absolute Edition that exists. It’s a habit. Now, the way I read comics, isn’t like how most others read comics. I’ve never been inside a comic store because I don’t know of any nearby to where I live. I have in digital form pretty much every major critically acclaimed comic book and series, and I have purchased them all usually from Amazon. Anyway, the point is that piracy didn’t destroy the world. It introduced me to comics, and kept me coming back for more. If I couldn’t discover new ones online to download, I wouldn’t have read past Preacher. Now my shelves are about to crack under the weight of several hundred trade paperbacks and Absolutes. I don’t know if everybody else would do the same as I did, but the comic industry was definitely helped (for my small part in it) because of piracy. Every book I have digital, I have in print. There, that’s it. Do with me what you will.