Tuesday, June 9, 2009

How I did it by Victor Frankenstein, or Reading Scanlated Manga for Beginners

Yes, that's another pop culture reference - this time from the best movie Mel Brooks ever made.

What I'm going to talk about today is the direct result of a conversation with some distant in-laws (shout out to y'uns). After finding out that they had doings in the paper comics/manga community, the inevitable question (that I had never anticipated) came about: How do you read fan scanlated manga, anyway?

So let's talk about sources and methods. I'll address manga first, then anime.

So you've heard about this great manga from somebody. It's not commercially available translated where you are, so your only option is to read it on your computer. What to do, and how to do it?

Well, you don't go to Wikipedia, which does a great job of telling you everything about the manga (or anime) including the entire plot and all the themes. It also doesn't say anything about any non-commercial scanlation/fansubbing efforts. If you're actually looking forward to reading/watching it and making your own decisions, stay away from Wikipedia!

Obtaining the Drug

First, you have to get hold of the manga. The best single place to find out who did what and where you might be able to find it is Mangaupdates.com. The releases page shows you what has come out today, and there's a handy search box in the upper right of every page that will accept titles, authors, and scanlation group names.

If your manga has been scanlated by somebody some time, it will show up as a search result. If you then click through on the title, you get a brief synopsis of the manga, usually with a picture of the cover of one volume. In the middle left column there's a show all scanlated volumes link that will take you to a list. This is good for mangas that have been out for a while and may have been partially scanlated by one group then dropped and picked up by another group(s). You can then click through to the group names to find out how to get their files. If you're really lucky, there will be a DL link at the far right of a line for a chapter or volume. Click there and it may well take you to the file you desire, or to a torrent file for it.

Manga scanlations are available via a wide variety of distribution methods. Some groups use direct downloads from sites like Mediafire or Rapidshare. Some groups prefer to use bittorrent as a primary distribution method. Many have bots serving content on their IRC channels. There are plenty of tutorials out there about how to IRC and how to bittorrent, so I'm not going to get into that here.

So let's suppose that the group doesn't have the chapters you want up on IRC anymore, or that they have disbanded and taken their IRC bots with them. Fear not - the internet is a big place, and there is almost certainly somebody somewhere distributing the files you want.

First, stop by a bittorrent search engine like Mininova or BTjunkie and put in your title. You might find that the manga you want also had an anime done of it, so you'll have to browse through some files. Manga are, as you might guess, vastly smaller files than a TV episode, so look for small file sizes and .zip or .rar filetypes.

No luck with torrents? Fret not - there's always #lurk. Stop by gotlurk.net and put your title in. They don't have everything, but you can rest assured that if they don't have it, it's definitely obscure.

Another nice thing about #lurk is that they have an entire server loaded with raws (untranslated manga). So if you want to know what the original looked like, or you want to check a translation, it's a good place to stop by for that as well.

But how, he asked rhetorically, is one who can neither get on IRC nor download torrents supposed to get a manga fix? Answer: Direct Download (DDL) websites. Mangadownload.net, Mangatraders.com, StopTazmo.com and anime-eden.com all have large lists of downloadble manga. All require that you open a free account to be able to download, which generally also gets you a forum ID on the discussion forums, where lots of manga and anime talk happens. There are a lot of these DDL websites out there, and there's only one universal rule: scanlators work for free. We do it because we enjoy manga, and we want to share it with you. If anybody ever wants you to pay for a fan scanlation, get it somewhere else.

My only real complaint with the (non-Tazmo) DDL websites is that many of them mangle or replace the original filenames of the manga files, making it harder to do file management of a big manga. But it's not that big a deal.

OK, so let's assume you've found the files you want, by whatever means. You now want to read the manga you've downloaded. It is, as I've explained before, usually in a .zip or .rar file. Compressed in this file is usually a folder or set of folders containing picture files like .jpg or .png files.

Consuming the Drug

Because Manga and comics are visual, you need a lot of display space to be able to read them on a computer screen. Believe it or not, display size isn't all that important; it's pixel count that matters. Most manga pages are scanned at about 1000 pixels down. This is generally sufficient to get all the goodness out of the art without making excessively large files. In order for you to see all the goodness without having to scroll, you need to have at least 1000 pixels down available on your monitor. 1024x768 or 1280x720 (720 video) are not really sufficient - you lose too much detail and the text is hard to read. 1280x1024 is good. 1920x1080 (1080 video) is also fine, but you'll have a lot of space left over on the sides. If you're still using a CRT (picture tube) monitor, you'll want to crank the refresh rate up as high as it will go, because flicker is deadly. To be honest, I couldn't read manga very well with a CRT monitor. I much prefer LCDs for this sort of use.

Now for the good news: You need almost no computing power at all. Grandma's Pentium Pro will do fine displaying manga as long as the video card and monitor are up to snuff.

If you have a Windows computer, you can just double-click on a .zip file and browse within it. But viewing the files sequentially is difficult - Windows hides the work, but what happens when you double-click a file in a .zip is that windows unpacks it somewhere in a temp folder and then starts Windows Fax and Picture viewer to display the file. You can't use the back and forward buttons in the viewer this way. It's much better to unpack the whole zip file and then browse it with picture viewer if you want to go this route. The downside is that you now have two copies of the manga chapter you're reading - one compressed, one unpacked. It's wasteful and can become a bookkeeping problem.

I, of course, don't do it this way. I use the right tool for the job: CDisplay.

Why use CDisplay? Well, it's just better than anything else I've tried. It's free (as in beer), it uses all the display space on your screen automatically, it can be configured to display two-page spreads (very important with some manga) and it can be told to display them from right to left, so the page flips are correct.

Another really cool feature of CDisplay: it reads .zip and .rar files. Yup, no unpacking of anything is required. You just download the .zip or .rar file, right-click and choose open with CDisplay.

The only things that confuse CDisplay are 1) files created on Macintosh with their filesystem extensions included, and 2) .zip or .rar files containing more .zip or .rar files. The nested files are easy: just unpack the parent file so that the child files appear in their original folder structure, then start reading the child files (usually one chapter each) with CDisplay. If the files are sequentially named, CDisplay is smart enough to open the next file in order if you tell it to.

The mac files are easy too. Just unpack and view the folder containing the image files unpacked. You can delete the mac folder structure and repack if you like, and CDisplay will then be able to open it.

Starting CDisplay

CDisplay is so simple that it's deceptive. Open it without a file selected and you get nothing but a blank, gray screen. That's because CDisplay uses every last pixel to display your comics/manga. Fear not: everything you care about is a right-click away.

Configuring CDisplay for Manga Viewing

The modes you have to turn on (from the Configure screens) are 'Display Two Pages' and 'Supress for Double Pages' on the image sizing options tab, and 'Japanese mode' on the Program Settings tab. Japanese mode puts the new page on the left, instead of the right, so the manga page turns work correctly. I don't generally use the auto fitting options on the image sizing tab because my monitor is usually big enough, and if it's not, it's too small in the left-right axis and I'd rather scroll than shrink the picture in that direction.

Now you just right click and choose 'Load Files' Browse to your manga, select and choose 'open' in the usual way. To advance a page, press the space bar or page down. Page up to go back a page. Home is first page, and end is last page. If you're navigating forward through 50-100 pages, Shift-P (or right click/page movement control/go to page - slider) pops up the navigation slider, which will get you where you want to go quickly even if you're not sure at what page it was you stopped.

Of course, if you didn't load another manga since you shut down last night, you can open CDisplay and use the 'Resume Reading' option, which picks up exactly where you left off when you shut down CDisplay last.

The only other trick to using CDisplay isn't really an application problem. Many scanlations don't have page numbers on the outside corners of the page, which makes it sometimes hard to tell which is the binding side of the page, and which is the edge. You care because a lot of manga is drawn across two page spreads, or depends on a mood foreshadowing at the left edge of the left page before the flip which then colors the whole next page, or even the two page spread.

You're missing some compositional detail with a lot of manga if you can't tell where the middle versus the edge of the spread is. Accordingly, if you know where the middle and the outside of the spread are, you want to bump the spacebar twice to get to the next two-page spread.

Sometimes there are page numbers down there. That makes it easy. When I edit my own scanlations, I very carefully leave them for this exact reason. Even if there aren't page numbers, there may be plate or drawing numbers in teeny-tiny print in the middle of the art on one edge. That's the inside (binding) side, believe it or not.

Sometimes, though, you may start on a chapter, get four pages in, and realize you've got it backward, then go back to the start and reread the chapter to see what compositional cues you missed. Oh well, it's worth what you paid for it, right?

...Which leads me to the sticky issue of copyright. Manga are copyrighted works that are generally published for profit. Simply distributing a manga as published is a violation of copyright. It can be argued that a scanlation is, as a derivative work, still subject to the publisher's copyright. As a rule, nobody in the business seems to care about electronic distribution of a manga outside of Japan unless somebody has bought distribution rights to the manga in your market. Further, copyright enforcement centers around economic gain at the creators/rights owners expense, which is emphatically not happening with free fan scanlations. Publishers seem to realize this and limit their copyright enforcement to cease-and-desist letters or DMCA takedown notices.

Now for the key point: possessing a scanlated manga is not (currently) a crime, nor is it a violation of copyright (and no, these are not the same thing). Distributing it at no gain to yourself may, or may not be a crime or violation of copyright depending on the way the wind is blowing legally in your locale right now.

Of course, if you enjoy a manga, you should consider rewarding the mangaka's work. Buy the hardcopy - mangakas make most of their money from tankobon sales. "But wait," I can imagine you saying, "the manga isn't published in English, or I'd be reading it that way!" I'll let you in on a secret: mangakas aren't well paid from foreign distribution, if they're paid at all. If you want to reward the artist, buy the Japanese tanks. Sasuga books, YesAsia, and Amazon are common sources.

Reading manga electronically is a great way to check out a lot of manga without having to hunt them down in a bookstore. It also enables one to discover mangas that were never translated into English commercially. Enjoy.


Sphinx said...

Great post, as always!

Akira said...

Time for a new post now, Seinen!