Author: Sean Michael Kerner
I tested a half dozen different tools to help satisfy my comical appetite. The tools run the gamut of programming language preferences, as you can find applications written in PHP, Perl, Python, and Java.
Many of these applications are command-line-driven scripts that acquire then output the comics to a local or external HTML file for viewing. In this category falls Dailystrips, comics-grabber, Dosage, and GrabCartoons.
The difference between downloading the strips to your local computer versus having external links generated for the strip is a question of semantics and philosophy. GrabCartoons in particular makes an issue of the local versus remote sourcing of strips. GrabCartoons’s Web site says, “to avoid depriving free comic Web sites of their well-deserved traffic, GrabCartoons does not download the comics to the local machine. Instead, it creates a page with links to the comics at their original locations.”
>From a performance point of view though it really doesn’t make that much of a difference seeing as most of the comics are relatively small in terms of file size anyway
Command-line scripts are fine, but I want to use a more powerful, well-maintained tool. ComicViewer and PHPGrab Comics, both of which have easy-to-use GUIs, fit that bill.
ComicViewer is a Java-based local viewer/aggregator of online comics. Its developers offer three builds: Alpha 3, Development, and Bleeding edge. The difference between the builds is a question of stability and how often they are updated, with Bleeding edge being the most rapidly updated, taking updates automatically whenever something is added to the code. Alpha 3 is the release build and arguably the most stable, though from a practical point of view I found the development build to be quite stable and very usable.
It’s an easy-to-use a desktop application that relies on Java (as long as you have the Java Runtime Environment). ComicViewer makes comic strip aggregation and viewing a point-and-click affair. However, subscribing to new comics is the kryptonite of the ComicViewer application. Though the app includes 17 different strips by default, the GUI doesn’t contain a simple mechanism to add new ones to that list. I suppose if I was adventurous I could have downloaded the full source code to see if I could manually enter new strip, but bottom line is that it isn’t straightforward or easy.
PhpGrabComics, on the other hand, includes access to more than 235 comic strips (at last count). The application can be configured with a variety of user interfaces, depending on how you want to use it.
The phpGrabComics site itself allows you to view the comics directly from the site. There is also a Sidebar (for Mozilla browsers) as well as an RSS feed of available comics, so you can finally put your RSS aggregator to some (happy) use. A port also exists to easily integrate phpGrabComics into a PHPNuke CMS.
The real superpowers of phpGrabComics rest in the main application, the phpGrabComics server. Like all of the comic strip aggregators I tested, phpGrabComics allows you to display a comic strip in an HTML file. It also allows those strips to be saved to a local file. The phpGrabComics server has both a graphical Web interface and a command-line interface. Going one step further, all of the basic front-end function (getting comic strips) can be called via a PHP class, which is also what makes easy to extend.
With great power comes great responsibility, or so my Uncle Ben once told me. In the case of phpGrabComics that responsibility includes having PHP 4.3.x + and MySQL installed if you intend to run the server yourself. The latest version of the server is available on the project’s SourceForge page in tar, RPM, and Zip formats. The included installation instructions are straightforward and easy to follow.
The question remains, however — why bother installing a phpGrabComics server yourself when you can utilize one of the existing online resources? If all you want to do is access the comic strip aggregator and don’t have any other delusions of grandeur, use the Sidebar, RSS, or phpGrabComics site. If you’re looking to build something more grandiose and have a need for greater power and control, so that you can be the ultimate master of your comic strip aggregation empire, then by all means install the server yourself. Having the server installed allowed me to tinker with it, and I could also track viewing usage of the strips that my server was pulling. But to be perfectly honest, for the simple fun of reading the comics it’s a bit of overkill.
For those of us who are always looking for ways to shave an extra minute or two out of busy days, yet still somehow justify the time spent (or is it wasted?) on reading comic strips, open source comic strip aggregators give us greater speed and power. Whether by command line or the Web, I’m laughing all the way.