Marvel’s biggest push at South by Southwest this year was to offer a one-month subscription to their Marvel Unlimited service for .99 cents. At a guess, it was to promote the app’s new features, like in-app purchases and the audio enhancements they promised at the last SXSW. I’ve been curious about Marvel Unlimited for a while now – it’s been brought up a few times on some of the nerdier comics podcasts I listen too – so I figured, for a buck, it would be a waste money to not give it a try. I’ve had the service for a month now. So – how does it fare?
For those who haven’t heard, the Marvel Unlimited subscription service gives users digital access to an almost indescribably broad library (the promo material estimates close to 15,000 individual comics) of both classic and modern Marvel titles. And believe me, I am not using “modern” with any hyperbole – current series are running at just a six month-or-so deficit, which means I was reading stuff like Rick Remender’s Uncanny Avengers and Kieron Gillen’s Iron Man from as recently as their September 2013 issues. The digital interface is very similar to Comixology’s reading experience; there’s even a “Guided View”-style feature, allowing panel-to-panel viewing. This feature is instrumental to the app’s newest draw – audio enhanced comics.
I was pretty skeptical of this addition – “enhancing” the comics reading experience usually means adding some kind of awkward animation or seemingly cheap, shoe-horned in visual effects. Also, I doubt it’s a coincidence that the six issues that have so far been “enhanced” are the key “Winter Soldier” issues of Brubaker’s Captain America run. So I admit I was pleasantly surprised by the audio track’s overall result – sure, the music itself sounds like a generic video-game soundtrack, but there are a number of neat audio effects that tie in to what’s happening on panel (machine gun fire, Cap’s shield impacting against an AIM agent’s skull). I don’t know if it really enhanced my reading experience per se, but I did have a lot of fun exploring those issues again.
The other big, new feature is the ability to purchase an issue in-app. Literally, this is just a link when you click the comic (alongside “Read Now” and “Add to Library”) that takes the reader to the Marvel Comics app to purchase there. It’s a fine idea, but nothing revolutionary, and it doesn’t really tie the traditional Marvel app any closer to the Marvel Unlimited service. I was much more interested in the Library option – the reader can store up to twelve issues of any comic to their device for off-line reading. As an iPad owner who relies on wi-fi for internet access, it’s a helpful feature, especially if I’m travelling.
Site navigation, unfortunately, is still the app’s weakest feature. If the user wants to search by anything other than the comic’s title, I wish them the best of luck. The Character, Creator, and especially the Comics Events search tabs are woefully unconnected, leaving large swaths of material only accessible by diving into the title’s entire catalog and fishing. I was shocked at how few Events were collected, and that the few that have been are not linked issue to issue – to read the next crossover tie-in instead of the next issue of that comic’s title, a reader has to back out to the library and select the next issue. It would be nice to have two “continue reading” options – one for the next issue in the series, one for the next in the pertinent crossover. Searching by Creators gives you a ton of issues by that particular author (and even those aren’t entirely complete – a random search of Ed Brubaker spotlights his What If? issues, but not his AvX contributions [Note: I couldn't find the exact issues, so I got you guys as close as possible. -Sam]), but those issues are not sorted in any way, shape, or form, giving the reader a hodgepodge of work with absolutely no through line or theme.
I would also be remiss if I didn’t say that some of these scans are far from perfect. There were at least two comic issues where the last double-page spread before the final page was cut; I only happened to notice because one of those was the ridiculous “snikt” from the pentultimate issue of Old Man Logan. There’s an issue of X-Men where about three-fourths of the dialogue seems to have been left out; another where half a caption box has been blanked out. And it’s a crapshoot as to whether or not a double-page spread will convert to widescreen format when the reading device is tilted; thankfully, the zoom still works, so those pages are more difficult (but not impossible) to read. I don’t personally know how widespread these bugs are – I read close to two hundred comics in my first month, and I only encountered a handful of problems. However, there were enough problems that they were noticeable even considering the number of comics I’ve read, and I haven’t seen any kind of notification that such bugs are being addressed.
But even considering all those flaws, I immediately re-upped my subscription because quite frankly access to a 15,000 issue digital library for ten bucks a month is staggering. As far as I can tell, there are complete runs of the first volumes of Amazing Spider-Man, Uncanny X-Men, Captain America, The Avengers, and Thor; the Incredible Hulk and Fantastic Four runs are a handful of issues away from the same. With a couple of exceptions, the entire Ultimate Universe up through the third issue of Hunger is available – I spent a lazy Saturday afternoon catching myself up on post-Ultimatum (Note: I'm absolutely not linking anyone to Ultimatum. You want it, get it yourself. -Sam)/pre-Hickman Ultimates stories. Jack Kirby’s Devil Dinosaur and Eternals are both complete (Note: Sadly, neither Kirby's Devil Dinosaur nor Eternals are on comixology :( - Sam). Hell, the very first comic I read was an issue of Skrull Kill Krew (Note: Also not on comixology, they're killin' me here. -Sam). A deep cuts Marvel fan is bound to be disappointed by the lack of something – I mean come on, Kirby’s Devil Dinosaur, but no Kirby or Ditko Machine Man? Plenty of Miller Daredevil, but no Nocenti? Or Kesel? – but even considering what’s missing, the sheer magnitude of content available outweighs the loss.
For all its technical flaws, the Marvel Unlimited app has proven itself a game changer to the digital comic field. For the cost of about two and a half modern comic titles, readers have unprecedented access to the rich, vibrant continuity of the Marvel Universe. The app has earned its place on my iPad. Now, if anyone needs me, I will be gorging myself on post-Steve Gerber Howard the Duck (Note: Seriously, this isn't on there either? Are you kidding me with this comixology/Amazon/Bezos?! -Sam). Do excuse me. And Sam's increasingly erratic notes.