There is an underground movement on the web to scan and archive every page of comics that have ever been published. The movement sprang out of the spotty nature of back issues, and the publishers’ inability or unwillingness to re-print their back catalog.

I say inability, because in a large number of the cases, the original press plates are gone. There are comic books that can never be reprinted, they only evidence of their existence exists on aging non-archival quality paper.

The scanners tried to claim that they were doing the comics industry a favor by keeping old works from being completely lost and forgotten, but there was always a bit of wink-wink, nudge-nudge when the weekly scan collections of the new books would drop. Sure, some of what you are doing is helpful, but scanning and distributing the scans of brand new work is pretty sketchy.

It became outright piracy when Marvel and DC launched digital archives of their current comic catalogs a year or so back. The big two also trudged out their lawyers and sent cease and desist letters to several of the more public scan groups.

The result was good and bad. Sure, you’ve made it much harder for the average joe jackass to read your new books without paying, but you’ve also made it harder for him to read those millions of pages of books printed in the 20th century.

I believe that it is not piracy if the original owner of an intellectual property is unwilling or unable to distribute that property. The group doing the distributing can’t make money from said property, but they can keep it alive and available to the public. If the original owner ever decides to exercise his ownership rights again, then the public distribution must cease.

A perfect example of this is Alan Moore’s MIRACLEMAN. Probably the most important series ever published in comics (WATCHMEN happened because of this book), this was Moore’s first attempt at the deconstruction of a Golden Era hero into something post-modern. The result is gut-wrenchingly beautiful, and something everyone should read. Hell, after Moore was done with the book he passed it off to a young unknown – Neil Gaiman.

The problem is that because of lazy English publishers, sleazy American publishers and a murky copyright past for the character, the book is trapped in limbo. A few years back they actually printed up a new run of trades for Moore’s first arc. They were kept in a warehouse for a year while lawyers went round and round. Ultimately, the whole print run was burned.

The only way for people to read MIRACLEMAN today is because of the work of the comic scanning groups. I laud them for keeping works like this available to subsequent generations, but I also damn them for distributing scans of current work.

The whole point of comic books is, as Alan Moore puts it, “To be able to walk into a shop with a pocket full of change, and walk out with a slice of culture.” Shell out those few bucks for the new monthlies. It keeps people fed, it keeps the working coming, and it makes the publishers more inclined to make their back catalog available again.

But, until they do, go download MIRACLEMAN.