CouchGuy Digital Comics
The Limits of Marvel Unlimited

When Marvel tied the established Marvel Unlimited subscription service to a new iOS reader app this week, I decided I had to take a serious look at it for the first time. (In the process, they changed the name from the much more unwieldy “Marvel Digital Comics Unlimited”, which eliminates the confusing and unfortunate acronym “Marvel DCU”.)

My reason for not doing so in the past was that the legacy service was Flash-powered and browser-based — and those are both deal-killers for me. I have no use for Flash at all — it is a bug-ridden, memory-hogging, power-draining dinosaur that can’t die out soon enough to suit me. I also have no desire to sit at my office desk or with a laptop to read comics.

The idea of a one-price, all-you-can-eat media business model is attractive, as the users of such services as Spotify, Pandora and Netflix can attest. With the kickoff of their new iOS reader app, Marvel made the service available for a limited time for $60/year, half the cost of the $10 month-by-month price of the service. I have not been a hard-core Marvel fan for more than 10 years, but I have recently started to look at a few titles via ComiXology, and a chance to catch up on a decade or more of Marvel events that I’ve missed was enough to get me to commit $60 to the experiment.

Marvel Unlimited cannot replace my ComiXology account for keeping track of current Marvel titles. Marvel Unlimited claims to be adding new content about 6 months behind current releases. This might be their goal, but most Unlimited content is older than that — at least 10-11 months behind. It does offer an alternative to buying trades or back issues, but it is not intended to compete with Marvel’s “same-day” releases. I knew that going in, so that part is OK. If you want to catch up or reread older material, this could still be a good bargain. If what’s happening now is all you want, look to ComiXology for that.

You can download the new Marvel Unlimited app for free from Apple’s iOS App Store, but you can’t sign up for the service that way. You will have to visit the Unlimited website to pay up and create your account. I recommend trying the app with the smattering of free titles before subscribing. The setup has a lot of quirks and not everyone will be satisfied with the service experience.

As with ComiXology’s Comics app and the ComiXology-powered Marvel Comics app offering more current content, you can select comics directly from the app, searching for issues by series title, creator, featured characters. You can also search for a large selection of pre-defined Marvel cross-title “events” like Civil War, Infinity Gauntlet, World War Hulk, etc. The latter ability is very useful if you are thinking of the service as filling the place of trades, as the results of such a search brings you everything connected to such an event regardless of title, in more or less chronological reading order.

The interface itself is not as attractive as the ComiXology app. It is not unusual for a cover illo thumbnail to fail to display completely, for example. But the look is not ugly and is certainly serviceable for choosing what you want to read. Since you can choose to read anything in the system, offering a preview is not necessary once you have an account, but the functionality is still there for free users to see a few pages of an issue.

The experience of actually getting those comics to your hand-held device? Well, that’s a lot less satisfying in several respects. You can choose any title and tap it to open a window with a larger cover thumbnail and tabs displaying a blurb about the issue’s content, creator credits, and publication information. You also have two buttons, a red one marked “Read Now” and a black one labelled “Add to Library”. Closing a window requires tapping a small “Done” tab at the top left. (Why not just close the window anytime you tap outside of it?) Navigation in the system is sometimes non-intuitive and more difficult than it needs to be.

Clicking “Read Now” opens the issue in question. It takes longer than opening a ComiXology title, but that is to be expected since the file isn’t yet resident in your device. You can’t start reading until the whole thing downloads, though. It won’t serve up early pages right away and then download the rest in the background as you read. Once open, the navigation between pages is a bit slower, and lacks the very smooth feel of purchased titles from The ComiXology/Marvel app, but not cripplingly so.

Clicking “Add to Library” is a bit of a mystery to me. When you click this button, you are presented with a slider asking if you want it to download for offline use. I’m not sure why this step is even there. If your aim is to read the comic now, you’d just tap “Read Now”. If you want to read it later, offline, you’d want to download it. To me, that’s what the Library choice should be for — to download to local storage for reading when you aren’t connected to the internet.

If you choose not to download for offline rewarding, the title and thumbnail appear on your “Library” screen. I suppose you can use the Library to queue up a number of unrelated titles from different series and groups to look at later all at once without navigating to them again. But just because something is in your library, don’t assume it is going to open faster or be available for offline reading. Library titles won’t open for reading unless you have a live internet connection.

To read comics offline, you have to select “Add to Library” and set the slider to download for offline reading. The issue will then appear in the library and in a separate part of the same window indicating issues that are available for offline reading. The download process is quite slow and the whole Library interface metaphor is confusing..

The downloading seems to hang up much too often as well. Last night, while downloading several comics at once, the app hung up and would not continue the download progress until I had shut down my iPad 3 entirely and rebooted it from scratch. After that, the incomplete downloads were gone from the Offline area and I was able to start over by reselecting them and restarting the download.

In my experience so far, the download process seems less stable when downloading multiple files, and often does not recover if a download is interrupted because you lose internet connectivity momentarily. I’ve yet to be able to actually have a full six issues downloaded at once without a hang or crash. It all feels a little fragile, and I hope later updates will make this process more robust and reliable.

The biggest hang-up is that you are limited to having only six titles available for offline reading at any one time. To get more, you must release the ones you have back to the ether and have live internet access to obtain more. This is not the app to take with you for reading on even a short car trip, let alone for airplane travel.

At my reading speed, the limited download ability isn’t even suitable for a WeDiCoLu (what I call my Wednesday Digital Comics Lunch). If I eat at McDonald’s with a live wi-fi connection, it is fine. But if the place you choose to settle into for a nice read has no such facility, I’m going to run out of reading material pretty fast.

The download limit is one of the most annoying limitations of Marvel Unlimited, assuring I’ll be using it at home in my easy chair or in bed but not when I’m out in a parking lot waiting for my wife Barbara to finish shopping and return to the car. (In fact, I am sitting in just such a parking lot now as I write this paragraph. This is prime comics reading time for me, but I’ve already blown through the six issues of Avengers Academy I downloaded earlier. I am rather disappointed in this limitation, and I hope they will increase the limit soon.)

As a reader, the new app is quite usable, if not as clean and quick as others. Again, most notably, the ComiXology Comics app is a lot cleaner as a reader, with less distraction between you and the comic you are reading. The reader works in either portrait or landscape orientation, and you can choose between a 1-page or a 2-page spread with a couple of clicks. You can move between pages by tapping to the left or right of the screen in a shaded block with an arrow. The visual cue arrow stays on the screen unless you tap in the center to send it away. You can also just use a sweep gesture left or right, and I suspect that’s what most users will settle into.

When working with 1 or 2-page spreads, you have the usual “pinch to zoom” capability for getting a closer look at the art and word balloons. You can also get what passes for a panel-by-panel view by taking a couple of clicks to switch to reading in what they call a “Smart Panels” mode. Sadly, Smart Panels just isn’t as smart as ComiXology’s Guided View mode. Where Guided View slides around the page as if your eyes were scanning it, Smart Panels just jumps from one rectangular cutout of the page to the next, serving larger panels individually or in smaller groups. The effect is jarringly jumpy, and frequently results in a panel view that leaves a dialog balloon that being cut off.

Smart Panels does not handle non-grid layouts very well at all, and mostly provides only very basic masking, often leaving you with fragments of the surrounding panels in each view. Smart Panels doesn’t really enhance your viewing experience — it just makes it possible to see things a bit closer than one page at a time.

Having tried Smart Panels on the iPad, I think I will stick to page-at-a-time view there. That view might be too small on an iPad Mini, though. On an iPhone or iPod Touch, Smart Panels isn’t great but it is still better than trying to use zoom to follow a story. Ifvall you have is a small screen device, You’ll likely find reading somewhat uncomfortable. The whole thing as a reading experience feels like a work-in-progress to me. Here’s hoping for a version 1.1 soon.

Is Marvel Unlimited worth the price? For me — and anyone else who wants to sit and read entire runs of back titles or big events — it is a bargain at $60/year despite the limitations. It certainly will not replace ComiXology, nor do I think it was designed to do so. That’s why Marvel offers both.

In the long run, I might end up buying more current Marvel titles via ComiXology if I get hooked again on some of the characters and storylines I used to love over a decade ago when I moved away from Marvel. That may be a big part of Marvel’s insidious little plan, actually. Well played, Marvel!

I left Marvel behind completely about the time Civil War started. I found I could no longer keep up with massive crossover events. I kept missing issues and I hated losing track in the middle and not knowing what was going on. I lost interest and gave up on Marvel completely. Soon after, I curtailed my DC reading as well for similar reasons, following only a couple of titles with less complex continuities sporadically.

Digital comics brought me back into regular comics reading, starting with the original Marvel digital app powered by ComiXology. But I was still so far out of touch with Marvel that I found myself able to enjoy only a few titles. It was the DC move to same-day digital releases that really made me a rabid fan again. I’m back to buying comics regularly, mostly a mix of DC & indy titles.

I did start following one Marvel series regularly when the Classic young X-Men made their time-travelling return, and it has given me a taste for more. With Marvel Unlimited to let me catch up with those past big events at a reasonable price, I could get hooked back into the ranks of the Marvel Maniacs. Will finally being able to complete the Civil War make me want to dive into Age of Ultron on a same-day release basis. Maybe. I’ll let you know.

If I were paying $10/month for Marvel Unlimited — that would be a lot harder sell. It might be OK for a short time to read a lot of big events in their fullness. If I can keep the $60/year price, I would not be surprised to be re-upping this time next year.

If the interface gets smoother and the tiny download capability is expanded considerably, I’d be a lot happier with the purchase overall. I hope for both situations to improve with later iterations. But if you just want to immerse yourself in a ton of Marvel comics for a very small cash outlay, you can’t truly lose here. Tethered to a laptop or desktop, no. On an iPhone… maybe after Smart Panels gets some tweaks. But on a full-size iPad — yeah, it is a definite must-buy at the current annual price.

Marvel Unlimited has some real limits despite the name, but the price is right and that might carry it through. Without an iOS app, I didn’t think the service had a chance. Now, it is looking like a good idea. As an add-on above and beyond my usual weekly comics purchases, I can overlook the limits (for now) and concentrate on having 15,000+ new (to me) comics to read over the next year. More are added each Monday, I am assured. Meanwhile, it is nice to see all these old friends again.

UPDATE: Marvel just made a number of announcements at SXSW regarding the future of Marvel Unlimited that may make it an even better deal in the near future. Catch up with it here:

http://marvel.com/news/story/20261/sxsw_2013_marvel_unlimited

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