Lost in (pirate) Comicdom

In the last few days I’ve been idle here because, beside being sick, I discovered another geek paradise. The Napster of comics.

On the internet you can really find whatever you want, if you know where to look. The problem is always about finding it. In my case I was frustrated because it’s more than a year that I keep waiting to read “Avenger disassembled” (one of the lastest Marvel crossovers). I own every single issue to this day (published over here, not the originals), “House of M” is starting and I’m still stuck to a year ago. This because I miss two issues of Thor right at the beginning of the story arc and decided to wait till I was able to get them. I’m quite picky about these things. The problem is that the crossover was published on a not so popular comic book series, over here, and I was never able to find the copies in a normal newsstand, nor from a specialized shop since they sold out and the publisher still hasn’t decided to reprint them. One year and I still have holes in the plot.

So I decided to look on the internet to see if I was able to find a place where I could read the issues I was missing and maybe even find a correct “reading order” so that I could read the whole crossover linearly. I KNEW that there was somewhere a super-organized place archiving meticulously all that was being published. It happens for everything that is vaguely part of the geek world, games, manga, anime, movies, music, pr0n. You would be amazed about how some of these places are organized through a bunch of complicated .cvs lists, directory structures, CRC checks and so on. Beside the moral and legal implications of their questionable activities, the dedication and care of the internet pirates is amazing. They create museums and encyclopedias. So often you find things you have been looking for years without success. It’s really not so much about getting stuff illegally to avoid paying it, but more about an *opportunity* to experience things that you wouldn’t have otherwise. It’s similar to the feeling I was having as a kid when I was riding on my bike for two hours during the summer to reach a city nearby and pass another couple of hours in a book shop finding sci-fi and fantasy books (Van Vogt, E. E. Doc Smith, Heinlein, Moorcock and, of course, Lovecraft were some of my favourite authors). A discovery, a world disclosed. The money is just the opportunity but the world you are interested about is elsewhere. The money is a barrier between you and that world. We aren’t interested in the money, or to spend. The consumer mentality isn’t the one of those who have interests and passions, but in the one of those who rise barriers in the culture. We are naturally meant to share experiences and to communicate. If I draw a comic I would ideally like it to be read by as many people as possible, and not have an high cost so that only a small group has access to it. This is the mentality of the internet pirates.

Of course it doesn’t work. It’s a silly utopia. If I’m an author I need my stories to sell or I wouldn’t able to get what I need to continue to create them. If the pirates distribute my stories freely they steal my work and kill what I do. They kill me and my possibility to continue to communicate. It’s kind of obvious that this model is wicked because it gets legitimation from a system that inhibits the original purposes. I’m here to communicate, but the only way to communicate is to create a barrier around what I do, so that only a limited number of people can have access to it. It sucks! I know it’s inacceptable and I know that this world was designed by an idiot. But things work like that and our very reality is based on compromises.

The internet, as in other cases, brings up some basic contradictions of our real world. It happened with the music. You cannot stop people to hear and enjoy the music. It’s a *perverse idea* to pretend to transform the music into a commercial product. The music is meant to be heard by the largest number of people. The music shatters paradigms, it shatters barriers, overthrows governments, it changes the world. You cannot confine it. You cannot create borders, lines of separation, barriers. The music is meant to cross them. It’s its very nature. Nothing does that better than music. An artist ought to know this, but at the same time he cannot comply with his principles and the principles of what he does, because our real world imposes a value, a price on everything. A quantification of everything. A silly idea of the private property, even if everyone was born on this world and should have the right to walk everywhere.

These are all contradictions and we are all victims in a way or another. Our practical compromises want everyone to conform and comply, with the contradictions and everything. There aren’t real answers. But we know that we all have inclinations that aren’t exactly going in the same direction this world is. And so we’ll keep dragging behind us those contradictions. We ought to love our world, even if it sucks.

So I was looking for those two numbers of Thor. It’s wasn’t a problem of money. If I read something I want to sit on my armchair, not in front of the PC. Reading doesn’t work on a computer. It’s a year that I try to find those two friggin numbers but they are sold out and it looked like that I had to start reading without the beginning of the story. So I started to dig the internet to see if I was able to locate one of those corners where you can find everything you ever desired. And I found it.

This time it’s not about hidden chat channels, newsgroups or torrent sites. The pirate comicdom lives through a program called Direct Connect. Here some linear instructions to step into this wonderful geek paradise who can offer more than you ever desired.

You can get the latest version of the client from here. The installation and configuration is rather straightforward. This type of peer2peer is based on themed hubs/chatrooms where the users share their hard-disk directories. The most important step is to find the right hub and be able to access it.

These hubs usually have three requirements that you have to satisfy if you want to enter them and stay. The first is about sharing a minimum amount of content before you join the room. It can go from zero to 15 Gigabytes, so the real problem is about having already something to share before you can become a cog of this machine. The second requirement is about sharing content appropriate for the hub. So if you share 5Gb of pr0n and the room is about sharing music you risk to be kicked out as soon as someone spots you. The third requirement is the simpler one and is just about opening enough upload slots on your client. The more hubs you join at the same time the more slots you have to open, which is not recommended since one hub has more than enough stuff to keep you occupied for months. You can increase the number of slot from the “file” – “setting” – “sharing” screen.

To find a good hub and start this journey you go to this site. Here you can search for the public hubs available. In this case we are looking for comics so you type “comics” in the search field on the right and press the button. The list you’ll get is a good place to start, but remember that you need to meet the requirements. Here I’m on a ISDN connection, which is barely better than a modem. If I was able to lurk and get enough stuff to meet those requirements I think everyone can.

The best hub for sharing comics seems to be megaman.gotdns.com – if you cannot connect at all it means it is down (it was yesterday for a full day). If you can connect but cannot manage to enter it, the error message should give you enough hints about why you cannot get in (not enough slots open, not sharing enough content). The requirements for this hub are 5Gb of comics or “cartoons”. You can then read in the detail the rules when you join.

If you don’t have those 5Gb you could find other rooms who have lower requirements. Another very good one is comicshack.no-ip.info which wants you to share 2Gb. And the one with the smaller requirements I could find is thewatchtower.no-ip.info:1411 – which requires only 1Gb but that is also much smaller. The idea is that you start to grind the treadmill so that you can get access to the better hubs. At the beginning I didn’t have enough “on topic” content, but you can easily gain some time by sharing other stuff and hope you don’t get reported. I know it worked for me :) Other options could be about getting initial content from torrents or newsgroups.

When you are in the hub you can start browsing the legendary library of Alexandria. Whatever has been published is probably available in a way or another. Old, new, it doesn’t matter. You can find everything, it’s amazing. If you know already what you are looking for you can just use the search function. For example if you want the issue 80 of Thor (one of the two I needed) you just type “Thor 80” in the search box. The client will start looking for all the users in the hubs where you are connected with that issue. The great majority of the files are in a .cpr format. This is something like a faked format, you can manually change the extension of these files to .rar or .zip and unpack them. Or use a particular program. Inside there are just simple .jpg files. In my case I just unpack them somewhere else and use an old version of ACDSee. An issue of 24 pages is usually around 10Mb or so. Quite agile even with a not so fast connection.

When you have the list of the files you can order it by size so that you can see what’s the more popular format and get it. Sometimes the scans have a variable quality but in general they are decent. Another good idea is to check the “slot” field on the list. If the first number is not zero it means that the user has an upload slot available, so you can start the download right away. No waiting queues. Since the sharing happens between just two users the download speeds are good.

While you download a file it is possible that the user disconnects or that you lose the connection, but the program allows you to resume the downloads. To do this you just need to go in the “download queue” window, click on the file in the queue and “search for alternate”. This system will check the CRC of the file, so even if the results have different names you can be sure it’s the same file. If the previous download was interrupted you can take it here from another user and the program will automatically resume the download on the same file. Quite simple.

The other way to find the files is about clicking on one of the users in the chat and “get file list”, this will download the full directory list with everything he is sharing at the moment and here you can start to explore and get some suggestions. Like entering a library and starting to browse what is exposed.

And a whole world discloses in front of you :) Things that I would never be able to find over here. Past issues of Astro City, the first issues of Grendel, Dave Sim’s Cerebus, Jeff Smith’s Bone, the first mini of Longshot drawn by Arthur Adams that I lost so many years ago, the delicious Alan Moore’s “Lost Girls”, De Matteis superb (and unfortunate) “Seeker Into the Mystery” mini, Warren Ellis’ “Transmetropolitan”, Rising Stars, Grant Morrison’s “Kill Your Boyfriend” (I bought and lost this one TWICE. One lost to school friend and another to a.. uhm, girl. I simply love that comics, it inspired my adolescence) and, yes, even those two issues of Thor that I was desperately looking for a year. Finally I can start reading the crossover and I was even able to pull a complete reading list order from an user who had all of it organized :)

See, it’s all stuff that I thought I had lost forever, or that I had no hope to find. Things that aren’t being translated over here and that I don’t have the opportunity to read. Tomorrow I’m going again to a specialized shop to get some other things that I had ordered. I am not going to stop reading comics because I found a well with no end on the internet. In fact this has lighted my interest again. I think I’ll never download things that I can buy because a scan on a monitor just cannot compete with really reading. In fact it could happen that I go buy something that I initially discovered online and that I want in my hands.

Another example is the DC universe that here has been published randomly. Now I can finally dig those absurd crossovers like “Crisis on Infinite Earths”. I had never thought that I would have the possibility to read it. Here I discovered crazy reading orders that group more than 700 issues. From the original crossover to Identity Crisis and Infinite Crisis. These comics don’t arrive here and for sure I would have never had the possibility to read them and all those tie-ins. Money or not, it just wouldn’t have happened.

I don’t know how many of those “pirates” that share up to 500Gb of stuff are avid comics readers, but I suspect a lot. I suspect they are some of the most passionate fans that Marvel and DC have and that still buy real comics on real paper. Of course this is always dangerous. I was thinking about why Marvel or DC don’t support these kinds of archives directly, offering themselves directly high quality versions of those comics, for example as a service with an accessible monthly fee as it happens for mmorpgs. This wouldn’t become a way to make a lot of money, but it surely would extend the reading public and would also give more life to old comics that are still worth reading but that everyone ignores. The archive is bottomless, it’s sad that all that stuff doesn’t get read anymore.

I guess this doesn’t happen because nothing stops a pirate to take even that material and made it available to everyone else for free. That would be a real piracy. Not anymore about sharing a passion and let people read things that would be ignored or forgotten otherwise, but just stealing to avoid to pay even a small fee. Again the ideals don’t work really well and we are left to lurk in the illegality to nourish a passion.

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