If you've ever wondered why comic books don't have a digital distribution and management platform the way music, movies, or books do, you're not alone. The good news is that one software company and one man--perhaps clad in an identity-concealing spandex costume--are here to save the day with LongBox.

LongBox can show double-page spreads easily. (Credit: LongBox)

In production for more than three years by QuickSilver Software, LongBox is a free, cross-platform iTunes-style jukebox for comic books. Judging by the proposed feature set, it's the most apt comparison, and one that LongBox CEO and founder Rantz Hoseley is happy to make. "One of our guiding principles is not replacing print or subsuming print, but creating a business model that works hand in hand with print. We want a diverse clientele."

In the comic book business, that's no laughing matter. The industry long ago abandoned the spinner racks in your local convenience store as direct market retail stores became more profitable. Direct subscription sales have also dwindled. It's hard to image the modern comic book, from mainstream superheroes like Batman to hipster icons like Scott Pilgrim and film inspirations like "30 Days of Night," without the comic book shop.

Built on a set of proprietary APIs, LongBox will allow readers to purchase and download new comic books in a new, proprietary LBX format. The program contains a viewer that allows you to see pages one at a time or as a double-page spread, zoom in on individual panels, flip through pages, and skin the interface. It even contains an "anti-spoiler" feature so you won't see what's coming in a story unless you want to. Since the LBX files are made directly from the InDesign and Quark production files that the publishers send to their printers, the zoom feature won't result in pixelation.

Readers will be able to bookmark pages, and LongBox will support right-to-left reading for manga as well as Western-style left-to-right. It will also support what Hoseley called the "gray market" of CBZ and CBR file formats that have been created without the consent of the publishers. However, he cautions, "CBR and CBZ won't have the same metadata as your store-bought LBX files."

LongBox is designed to be both a comic book reader and a comic book manager. (Credit: LongBox)

In addition to broad metadata, Hoseley promised that there would be eventual social-networking features baked into the platform, but that there were hurdles unique to comics. "There are certain things we need to do right," he said. "There's the whole fair-use law of images. We want to make sure that the recommendation system has validity to it, and we want to minimize spamming and grade-inflation."

Not only will LongBox allow users to read and manage their comics from their desktops and mobile devices, it will also come with access to an online store so readers can purchase their books directly. Starting at 99 cents per issue, the LongBox store will have one major factor that differentiates it from the iTunes model, Hoseley says. "Along with buying an incentivized 12-issue subscription for $10, publishers can and will provide discount coupons for print versions if (the reader) subscribes to the LongBox version."

Hoseley was reluctant to go into further detail on how the coupons will work, although he did say that readers should be able to use them at comic book retail shops as well as online stores. If LongBox does wind up driving readers to purchase both digital and print copies, it would be the first time digital content has been used to directly support a physical copy.

In another similarity with iTunes, LongBox will support three methods for getting free comics out to readers. There will be a monthly sampler pack of eight comics, as well as promotional titles that a publisher pays for out-of-pocket. The platform is designed to support ad content as well, and Hoseley said it's possible certain titles will be made free to readers in exchange for watching an advertisement.

LongBox will launch in the fall, probably October, for Windows and Mac, and has plans to support handheld devices, smartphones, and game consoles by the summer of 2010. Users will be able to access their LongBox content on up to three systems. "You can have your core library, section it off, or burn it to externals," Hoseley sayd. "We will be keeping track of a user's entire library." Hoseley assured me that there would be privacy safeguards, but didn't specify how or what they would be.

At the San Diego Comic Con Thursday, Hoseley announced that several big-name comic book publishers had already signed on for the platform's launch. Image Comics, Top Cow, Boom Studios, Dabel Brothers, Archaia, Shadowline, and NBM have signed on. Several creator-owned titles have, too, and from multiple genres, including Mouse Guard, Phonogram, Suburban Glamour, Viking, and Hunter-Killer.