In talking about my experiences with physical libraries, I made a dismissive remark about the limited selection of comic books available to read in the digital library offering from various London boroughs. The COVID-19 pandemic lockdown has prevented access to real-world libraries, so what better time to examine the available selection of comic books to read on your tablet/laptop/desktop from the ebook offering, RBdigital.
RBdigital is part of Recorded Books Media, and provides ebooks, audiobooks, digital magazines and comic books via a website specific to the library you use to log in – this is used by most but not all London libraries (e.g. Westminster libraries don’t use it), as part of the London Libraries Consortium, although the extent can vary (e.g. Southwark libraries have RBdigital as part of their offering, but for ebooks, audiobooks and magazines only, not comic books). I have memberships with six London libraries, and I was able to access RBdigital via my membership with City of London libraries. It’s available to use in a web browser (the featured image with this post comes from that) but it’s also available as an app, which makes it much easier to read on your tablet.
The first and major point to make about the more than 1500 comic books available: no DC Comics at all. So none of the comic books specifically aimed at the younger audience; no Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman for all the people who’ve seen the films; no Vertigo comic books for those who want the more literary end of comic books. I don’t know what deals were made in getting books on to this platform, but it’s a colossal own goal by DC Comics, a power play from Disney to ensure dominance, or RBdigital did a terrible job negotiating a deal with DC Comics. It’s a fundamental flaw that needs to be addressed.
With that in mind, let’s talk about what’s actually available to read. There are a lot of Disney books (i.e. Disney-specific books from Disney as a publisher, not Disney-owned publishers such as Marvel, which I’ll talk about separately): a huge variety of graphic novels for their various film franchises (both Disney animations and Pixar films) and a lot of various Disney characters (Darkwing Duck, Donald Duck, Duck Tales, 20 books of various Mickey Mouse books, four Pirates of the Caribbean books [why do they exist?], Scrooge McDuck, eight volumes of Ultraheroes, nine Uncle Scrooge books and 26 books about X-Mickey, whatever the hell that is). I didn’t even know that these books were still being published, but that could be on me.
On a similar vein, there are a lot of books of recognisable franchises for younger audiences: Back to the Future books, Jem and the Holograms books, volumes 3, 5 and 6 of a Muppets comic book (let’s hope they’re all individual stories), Micronauts, 28 volumes of My Little Pony books (but I have no idea if they’re in any order), various Oz-related books (including the Skottie Young-drawn books), Plants vs Zombies, Popeye books, Powerpuff Girls, ROM books, Samurai Jack books, a whopping 61 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles books, which is pipped only by 62 Transformers books of various storylines, so good luck sorting through them.
To show that it’s not all superheroes and mainstream media properties, there are some manga titles, such as volumes 1–39 of Beserk, volumes 1–25 of Blade of the Immortal, 12 books of the Blood+/Blood-C franchise and volumes 1–48 of Oh My Goddess! – the interesting point here is that the manga series are easy to find and read in the correct order, in direct contrast to various Marvel titles that I’ll mention later.
There are also unusual choices: American Elf (books 1999 through to 2012), Barack Obama: The Comic Book, the complete Angel Catbird, The Complete Elfquest (but volume five only – why do that?), volume 26 only of Creepy Archives (why only that one?), plus the ‘should these books really be here?’ The Story of my Tits and Stuff About Sex. A special mention for Beanworld Omnibus volume 1, which I was not expecting in this selection. There are also various art books, which shouldn’t be included because they’re not comic books, but what are you going to do?
The next main selection comes from IDW and Dark Horse. IDW provides books such as Joe Hills’ The Cape, around a dozen Judge Dredd books, Locke & Key, three of the Parker books by Darwyn Cooke (which are really good if you haven’t read them), Ragnarok by Walt Simonson, two dozen Star Trek books of various vintage, Star Slammers (a favourite book of mine), plus Kurt Busiek’s Shockrockets and Superstar: As Seen On TV. Dark Horse throws a few books into the pile: some Abe Sapien books, a few Alien titles, American Gods (but volume 1 only), four BPRD books, Lobster Johnson (although volumes 5 and 6 only), Mind Mgmt (although volumes 5 and 6 only, which really annoyed me because I’d heard good things about the book so wanted to try it), Moebius Library: Inside Moebius, some Shaolin Cowboy and various Neil Gaiman books (I was particularly delighted to find A Study in Emerald, drawn by Rafael Albuquerque – I loved the short story and so was glad to be able to read the adaptation). Dark Horse also included two books that I’d been looking to read: Doctor Star and the Lost Kingdom of Tomorrow and Sherlock Frankenstein and the Legion of Evil, two spin-offs from Jeff Lemire’s excellent Black Hammer, but then fumble this opportunity to promote one of the best new series by including only volume 2 of the main Black Hammer series, which seems a ridiculous oversight. Another oversight is the lack of Hellboy books, especially as there are so many (not to mention, Usagi Yojimbo, one of my personal favourites).
Finally, we come to Marvel, the largest selection but perhaps the most difficult to navigate. The available books also indicate the relative date of entry of the books – you can get various volumes of the ‘All-New’ titles starting from 2015, including volumes 1–7 of All-New X-Men, volumes 1–3 of All-New Avengers and volumes 1–4 of All-New Wolverine. There is a strong showing for Spider-Man, as appropriate for the de-facto Marvel mascot, including 40 books of various vintage, from classic through to Spider-Verse and Worldwide and some Miles Morales and Spider-Gwen thrown in as well. The Avengers are provided in bulk, including Masterworks, volumes 1–5 of the Avengers and volumes 1–4 of New Avengers by Brian Michael Bendis, volumes 1–6 of the Avengers/volumes 1–4 of Avengers: Time Runs Out and volumes 1–5 of New Avengers by Jonathan Hickman, and the first two books of Jason Aaron’s run.
Another smart choice is the first six volumes of Black Panther by Ta-Nehisi Coates, as well as four volumes that compile the excellent Priest run on Black Panther. Black Widow is supported by the books by Mark Waid/Chris Samnee and Nathan Edmondson/Phil Noto. All the Captain America books by Ed Brubaker and Rick Remender are provided, but trying to read the stories in order is really difficult because of the constant renumbering of volumes – I don’t think a novice would be able to navigate these books, even with the ‘View all in series’ button. This also applies to a lesser degree with the various Captain Marvel books, which have to contend with two separate volumes of books written by Kelly Sue DeConnick. You can read some Daredevil books by Frank Miller, Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Waid, but there are only a few volumes of each, which seems a wasted opportunity. Contrast this with the ‘Prelude’ books for seemingly all the MCU films – why?
The success of Deadpool as a character and the film means that there are lots of his books (five volumes of the Posehn/Duggan run, seven volumes of the World’s Greatest incarnation, seven volumes of Cable/Deadpool, five volumes of ‘Deadpool Classic’, and a variety of ‘Deadpool V …’ books), whereas Doctor Strange gets only four volumes of the Jason Aaron run and Doctor Strange: The Oath, and Iron Man is found in only four books (a Masterworks, Armor Wars, Demon in a Bottle, and Extremis). Thor is represented as the original as well as the Jane Foster incarnation, but suffers from lack of distinguishing the different versions and the confusing titles (it should be much easier to read the Jane Foster stories, especially as they will be the source for the next Thor film).
In addition to the All-New X-Men titles, there are some albeit limited choices for New Mutants (Classic volume 1, volumes 2–4 of the Zeb Wells run, and New Mutants/X-Force: Demon Bear) and the X-Men (half a dozen Uncanny X-Men Masterworks, plus separate books for Dark Phoenix and Days of Future Past, some recent volumes of X-Men: Blue and X-Men: Gold, then a strange mix of volumes, including Mutant Genesis, Phoenix Endsong, Schism, Messiah Complex and Second Coming), which is only going to confuse any new readers who might want to try the books after seeing the films. Wolverine comes in the Chris Claremont/Frank Miller original, a few volumes of Old Man Logan and Wolverine: Weapon X, which seems like slim pickings, especially when you consider that there are various crossover books (Civil War I and II, Secret Invasion, Original Sin, Secret Wars [although only the original 1984 series and the Bendis book, not the recent Hickman book]) that won’t mean anything to fans of a character who has appeared in nine movies with the same actor.
The selection of which character and which representative volume seems downright odd at times: the only Moon Knight book is the admittedly excellent Warren Ellis/Declan Shalvey series; only the first volume of The Vision by Tom King; the first volume of Patsy Walker AKA Hellcat; the only Punisher books are the two volumes from the Becky Cloonan run; the only Silver Surfer is the first volume alone by Dan Slott and Mike Allred; the only Hulk book is the first volume of The Totally Awesome Hulk; there is only the first volume of Black Bolt by Saladin Ahmed and Christian Ward; and rather bizarrely only the first two volumes of Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, which seems like a crazy omission. Yes, the selection includes volumes 1–7 of Ms. Marvel, volumes 1–4 of Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur, and seven volumes of Runaways, which counterbalance some of this, but it’s not good enough.
I was originally dismissive of the digital library offering without doing the research; now that I’ve gone through what is available, I can be more authoritative in my dismissal. There is a wide selection that will keep the novice entertained for a while, but heaven forbid if they try to read a story as a whole, or try to find a book using the extremely basic and incomplete search function. The selection of books available seems bizarre at best, but the lack of DC books is a wasted opportunity (and would anger the DC fanboys). I was able to read some books I had been meaning to try (I tried reading some Transformers by James Roberts, on the recommendation of Paul O’Brien and Al Kennedy of House To Astonish, but couldn’t get through it – I could tell it was well written but it didn’t mean anything to me) and some books I really wanted to read (the updated version of The Comic Book History of Comics, by Fred Van Lente and Ryan Dunlavey, to complement the hard copy I have of the original series), but it’s not going to be a resource that I will use very much unless there is a major overhaul.