July 8, 2011

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Digging into Digital: Looking at the Marvel Digital Comics Unlimited System

I've been meaning to give a review on Marvel's Digital Comics Unlimited, their cloud-based subscription service that debuted a few years ago. Since Marvel is currently offering a discount to subscribe that lasts through Monday, I figured this was as good a time as any to do so.

While Marvel comics had put out some CD-roms of their older material over the years, I don't think anyone took them particularly seriously. I know I didn't. However, when I first heard several years ago that they were starting a digital database online, I was intrigued. I love comics, and I have a special fondness for older Marvel comics, so the idea of a digital database intrigued me. The fact that they also had some of Marvel's newer material online as well also caused me to kick the tires a bit when Marvel debuted its service.

However, the early offerings were not terribly appealing, especially at the price point. There were some nice runs of Amazing Spider-Man and Fantastic Four, along with a few new treats (Marvel Adventures Avengers comes to mind), but nothing I either didn't already have or could easily pick up at the library. In addition, the interface was very clunky, and the panel-by-panel technology that we almost take for granted now in digital comics was there, but done poorly.

Over time, however, the database grew, comics started getting more expensive, I had to move and got rid of a lot of single issues, and my new library was less likely to carry Marvel's new trades beyond initial volumes. When a sale came up, I decided to give it another try.

While the Marvel Digital Comics Unlimited is not the best way to read comics online, it has definitely improved significantly, enough that I'd easily recommend it to fans of Marvel Comics. In this post, I'll talk about what I like, what I don't like, and why ultimately, it's worth your time and money.

Things That Are Mr. Fantastic

The database of comics is now up over the 10,000 mark, according to the page urging you to sign up with the service. You could spend all of your reading time doing nothing but reading Marvel Comics online, and end up having well over 2,000 hours of comics entertainment. I don't think anyone would want to read each and every comic, but with 10,000 or so in the system if you are a fan at all of Marvel comics, you are going to find more than you could possibly want to read for quite some time.

Every week, Marvel adds more comics. Marvel is committed to growing this database as much as possible. They have loosely themed daily releases Monday through Friday, such as Spider-Man Monday, X-Men Wednesday, and Fantastic Four Friday. Roughly about twenty-five comics are added every week, which means that even if you managed to read everything you were interested in reading, there's liable to be something new for you on a monthly, if not weekly or daily, basis.

It's not just extremely popular comics, either. While there are certainly quite a few newer comics, like Jeph Loeb's Hulk or Doomwar, Marvel is also giving us 1950s issues of Journey Into Mystery or Tomb of Dracula because Gene Colan just passed away. I have been extremely impressed by the wide variety of comics Marvel has chosen to include.

For new fans, there are ways to search for comics by character or comic book event. Want to know what to read to enjoy (if you can call it that) Secret Invasion? Marvel's got them sorted out for you. Only want to read about Deadpool (I'm so sorry)? You can look for all of his digitized appearances. I'm being a bit flippant here because these tools are used primarily to focus on parts of Marvel's history that I'm not fond of. However, they also spotlight Acts of Vengeance, Secret Wars, and other crossovers from days past.

Loading times are no longer an issue. When I first tried Marvel DCU, comic pages took forever to load, at least compared to reading a page. Now it scrolls smoothly, or at least I'm more used to the scroll. Anyone who reads their comics online already should have no problem.

Marvel's panel viewer has improved a lot. As with the page turns, the panel view was slow, clunky, and often with unreadable text. The scroll is clean, the panel/panels shown make logical sense, and it's rare that a piece of text is unreadable, though it does still happen.

Many new comics are added roughly six months after their street date. While this is not entirely true, it's a pretty close measurement for most comics. Not unlike waiting for a movie to hit Netflix, if you don't mind being a bit behind the times, you can get just about anything you wanted to read in print via the digital cloud in time. Not everything, of course, but definitely a lot.

At five dollars a month regular price if you buy yearly, it's an extremely cheap way to read a bunch of comics. Basically, if you read two modern comics a month, you've paid for the service. And I guarantee anyone who likes Marvel comics will read more than that.

Things That Might Doom Your Interest

No, you don't own these comics. None of the Marvel DCU comics are downloadable. That means you are paying five dollars a month to access a database, like having a New York Times subscription.

Marvel has a maddening habit of missing issues. There are 9 Agents of Atlas comics from the ongoing series for instance. Issue 3 is MIA, and I have no idea if they'll get around to adding it. The same is true for breaking up some runs of Fantastic Four or Spider-Man.

The online database has *not* caught up to the Essentials. Right now, on average, they're roughly at the same level as Volume 3 of your given Essentials series. I really think this is a failing. Obviously, they have scans of these comics available, and they should be paying an intern to start digitizing them.

While 10,000 comics is a lot, there's certainly a lot of Marvel history that's missing. If you are a big fan of the 1980s Marvel, you're probably going to be disappointed for instance. The digital comics database is a treasure trove, but it's not bottomless.

Selection is at the whim of the Marvel marketing department. It seems like Marvel digitizes anything that best helps their current marketing plan, which is good if you like Thor, not so much if you're hoping for more Cloak and Dagger.

The viewer, while better, is still not as good as it could be. As far as I'm concerned, Comixology is the gold standard of digital comics. Marvel has a partnership with them on the Apple side of things, and they need to work with them on making Digital Comics Unlimited better. There are still times when I have to squint to read things or when panels are semi-skipped in smart view.

You need to be online to use the system. There is no way to read offline, so anyone who pays for internet use would definitely have an issue.

As with anything online, there are no guarantees this will be there forever. Marvel could pull the plug any day they wanted, leaving its subscribers holding the bag with nothing physical to show for their payments.

Marvel Digital Comics Unlimited renews by default. Seems to be the norm, but I don't have to like it.

The Living Tribunal Says...

Ultimately, the cleverly named Marvel DCU is not for everyone. Personally, I look at it like having Netflix for comics. I pay an extremely small fee (that I admit I wish was monthly, not yearly, to get the best rate) and have access to full-color versions of thousands of comics filled with characters I've been following since I could read. When you are paying so little to get so much in return, I think worrying over ownership is troublesome. It's not like I can't get these things at the quarter bin if I ever must have them when/if Marvel opted to take this program away.

The Marvel DCU system is not perfect. I wish they'd make sure that they were digitizing comics in order, and also that they went back and filled in any holes that are currently standing. I'd also love it if there was a definite policy on when new comics were added, whether it's 4 months, 6 months, or even a year after publishing date. Maybe they'll make some of these changes in the future if people ask for them. It seems like, based on watching the system change over time, as though Marvel is genuinely trying to make the Marvel DCU experience a positive one for readers.

Right now, however, you have a system that provides a quality reading experience for fans of Marvel superhero comics. It is not for the collector, it's for the *reader.* I've always preferred being the latter. If you want a chance to read a boatload of Marvel comics for pennies on the page, you can't do any better. Just be aware there are some quirks. I love Netflix, but it occasionally gives you a bad disk or is missing a volume or two here and there of series they carry. Marvel DCU can also fail its readership now and again, but certainly not enough that I'll be doing anything other than renewing next year when my time is up.

If you can get past these flaws, a great set of comics awaits you (and some not so great comics, too, but that's the nature of the capes-comic beast). The good definitely outweighs the bad in my opinion. This is a system that I strongly believe Marvel comics fans should subscribe to. If you've been on the fence, this is a good time to dive in, as there is a 30% discount through Monday, July 11th, using the code 2MILL2011.

If you do subscribe, let me know what you think! I'd love to do a follow-up column sometime on Marvel DCU subscribers and their experiences.