Marvel’s Digital Comics Unlimited service allows unlimited access to a library of more than 13,000 comics, all more than six months old. The service has been around for a while -- I've been a subscriber for more than a year -- but it took a great leap forward a few days ago with the release of a new iOS app that allows the user to read comics on an iPad or iPhone and download up to six comics at a time. Marvel executives discussed the new service, now rebranded Marvel Unlimited, over the weekend at South by Southwest, and it has received a good deal of coverage since its debut. I thought it would be interesting to dig a little deeper, so I asked ROBOT 6 contributors to join me in a discussion about how they read digital comics and whether Marvel Unlimited ties in with that.
Brigid Alverson: What do you think of the idea behind Marvel Unlimited, an all-you-can-eat streaming service? Would you prefer it to a download service like comiXology?
JK Parkin: I’m torn about it, to be honest. On the one hand, having access to Marvel’s complete library — or a huge chunk of it, or however many comics they have out there — sounds appealing. But I don’t think I’d have time to really use it enough to get the bang for my buck I’d be looking for. I spend most of my comics reading time trying to keep up with all the new comics I read — and I’ve got a stack of comics and graphic novels that tell me I’m not doing such a good job in that department already — so I don’t think I’d have time to make use of a library of stuff like this.
Of course, as someone who writes about comics, it would be nice to have instant access to a back issue I wanted to reference in a post. So maybe Comic Book Resources should buy us all subscriptions? That would be a win-win.
As for the question about a streaming service vs. a download service, I’ve had this discussion with a friend of mine who uses a streaming music service and thinks I’m crazy because I still buy songs to download. I like owning stuff. That being said, both comic models — Marvel Unlimited and any comiXology app — aren’t really offering “ownership,” are they? Sure I can “download” comics to the comiXology app, but they aren’t transferable to another app or anything, so essentially both services are pretty much renting you comics — the difference is in how you pay for them, how each app works and what’s available to you. ComiXology’s recent server problems, when they launched Marvel’s free first issues promotion, emphasizes the fact that actually having something I’ve downloaded is preferable to relying on a cloud service that may not always be available. Live by the cloud, die by the cloud, and all that.
Corey Blake: I think the subscription model idea is great, and I’d love to see other publishers emulate it. It provides readers with another option, and a unique way to promote a line of comics and a publisher’s identity. But beyond the payment structure (monthly fee vs. per-issue fee), I don’t see a significant difference in how the issues are consumed. While it appears to be a streaming vs. downloading situation, in the end they’re both a form of streaming. Both require reading on the app or website, and both libraries can be removed or altered at the whim of the provider. The download option is not a true download; it simply provides temporary local access to view the file. As the recent Marvel1 sale showed us, this is no big deal until you suddenly can’t access your comics because servers crashed. And that’s just one scenario. I can guarantee there will be others. For Marvel Unlimited, I think this platform is reasonable. It’s essentially a subscription to sit in Marvel’s reading room for as long as you like. You just can’t walk out with any of the books.
Michael May: I love comiXology and all, but as JK and Corey pointed out, it’s not really a download service. It’s more apples to apples than it first appears, and that part being equal, I love the idea of a subscription where I can pay a set amount per month for unlimited access. If anything, I’d love to see comiXology figure out how to offer that kind of service, even if it’s on a publisher-by-publisher level. Without trying hard I can think of several publishers I’d subscribe to that way.
Brigid: I signed up for Marvel Unlimited last year, and I like it because it gives me instant access to a lot of books without taking up any space. Honestly, I’m not a big superhero reader, so I use it more for work than play, but when I do have time for some pleasure reading, I really like digging out the older issues (they’re more my speed anyway), and it’s great to be able to read as many as I like. I think what makes the difference, for me anyway, is that I regard single-issue comics as disposable media, and I don’t expect to keep them. If I want to have something on the shelf permanently, I’ll get the trade. So I don’t mind that the comics will all disappear once I give up the subscription.
Have you signed up for MU? Why or why not?
Corey: I used to subscribe to Marvel Digital Comics Unlimited when it strictly used Flash. The reader wasn’t the greatest (full-screen view was really the only way to go with the size of my monitor) and the selection was impressive but with frustrating gaps. There was no real way to search for things other than using the really cumbersome menu filter which reset itself to the beginning every time you clicked on something. At $9.99 a month, I reasoned that if I read at least three to four issues a month (figuring a $2.99-$3.99 cover price, even though so many of the older issues were originally priced less than that), then it’s worth it. For a while it worked great and I enjoyed catching up on series as well as reading some vintage ‘60s and ‘70s stuff. I was easily surpassing that minimum. But, like JK mentioned, real life eventually got in the way and soon a month or two was going by between reading. Work, deadlines, life and brand-new releases kept luring me away. Eventually, while reviewing monthly budget expenses, I decided I was just throwing away $10 a month, so I canceled the subscription. But I’ve been watching for improvements because I’m definitely interested in re-subscribing. The Marvel Unlimited app is definitely an improvement, but it’s not perfect. The selection has improved but there are still weird holes (sometimes a portion of a story arc!) that sometimes blow my interest in reading that series or story until the gap is closed. Searching and menu navigation on the app is worlds better. That may be the greatest and most valuable improvement. The Smart Panels guided reading on the iPhone is difficult. There’s a lag, and the "next" and "previous" arrows are frequently just off-screen. Sometimes even portions of the page fall outside of the iPhone’s screen and you don’t realize until you swipe to the next screen and see dialogue has skipped a beat. This instantly pulls you right out of the story and really drives home how valuable comiXology’s Guided View is for so frequently getting it right. Reading Marvel Unlimited on the iPad is so much better, especially if you set the reader to 1-page display. Will I subscribe? I’m seriously considering it but haven’t yet decided. The weird gaps are probably the last speed bump keeping me from jumping in.
Michael: I’ve done as much with it as I can for free: downloaded the app; browsed the free comics they offer. I don’t think I’ll sign up though until they make some additional tweaks or I buy an iPad. I appreciate the effort with the Smart Panels, but the comics I tried didn’t blow up parts of panels the way comiXology’s Guided View does, so some of the text is still too tiny to read.
How do you feel about the selection of comics: Are there enough? Do you mind that they are all more than six months old? Have they filled the gaps in story arcs that people complained about in the past?
JK: About the “six months old” thing — actually, if they were putting new issues up on the same day they came out in shops, at the current pricing model, then yeah, I’d totally be using this service. Hell, I’d gladly pay $10 a month just to have access to all the new Marvel comics that came out that month. But that’s probably not going to happen.
Corey: The six-month gap doesn’t mind me but then I’m woefully behind on a lot of Marvel series. The gaps are being eliminated on high profile properties like Iron Man. But the more obscure you get, the more weird it gets. Age of Apocalypse #6 is the only issue from the 2011 series. But even Amazing Spider-Man has plenty of little to larger gaps. One or two issues here, 20 issues there. I’m not really sure why something as recent as Amazing Spider-Man #600 isn’t there when tons of issues before and after it are all there. Was the issue that horrible, Marvel wants to pretend it never happened? I’m more forgiving of older stuff. It’s going to take a lot of time to get decades of comics up. But for newer stuff, it’s weird when you see stuff being added sequentially and then they just stop, and then pick it back up five issues later. Was the story that inconsequential?
There are also a few errors in the thumbnail displays of covers: some missing, some show a cover for something else. Agents of Atlas #8 shows the recap page for the Amazing Spider-Man issue of the wedding of J. Jonah Jameson and Aunt May. But even the headliners aren’t immune to goofs. The cover thumbnail for Amazing Spider-Man #178 shows a partial scan of a Juggernaut trading card.
This is all from just scanning the A’s. But it is getting better and growing pains can be expected.
Michael: The six-month lag doesn’t bother me a bit. I’d still want to purchase printed copies anyway of the comics I most enjoy and want to keep up-to-date with. This service would be more for exploring Marvel’s history and reading on a whim.
Brigid: Because I’m not at the frontlines of superhero comics like you are, I don’t really care if the comics aren’t brand new. That said, I do buy new issues from comiXology when I want to see something right away. I think the two services complement each other nicely, actually.
Does the ability to download six issues change the appeal for you?
Corey: It seems kind of irrelevant. See my earlier rant about downloading vs. streaming.
Michael: I doubt I’d use that feature. If I could download like 30 issues, that would be attractive, but six isn’t enough to keep me occupied for more than an hour or so. I might as well just stream them.
What about reading on an iPad versus in a browser?
JK: I think making it available on mobile devices is a step in the right direction. I don’t know what the interface looks like on the iPad, but if done right surely it’s easier than reading on a computer screen.
Corey: Reading on a browser at Marvel.com has gotten much better. The two-page display mode at full screen is still the way to go even though part of the reader panel takes up a good inch, shrinking the image. But it’s better than seeing a third of a single page a time or the disorienting smart panels. The iPad experience is stronger though despite the weakened effect of two-page spreads.
Michael: I hate reading comics on my laptop, so I haven’t tried that. When I finally break down and get an iPad, it’ll be to read comics. Marvel Unlimited will likely be the second app I download after comiXology.
Brigid: I have to say, the iPad makes a huge difference. I’m one of those people who hates reading on a computer monitor. The iPad is nice and sharp, and while it’s a little smaller than a comics page, it’s still quite readable. Double-page spreads are a challenge, but overall I prefer reading this way.