With the launch of the iPad (see Kirk's post on the subject), further fuel has been added to the ongoing discussion about digital comics. While I find the topic of various platforms and distribution models to be an interesting one, it remains somewhat theoretical for me and the many other people who live outside North America and don't have the same purchasing options.
On the other hand, most of the talk about a large digital market for comics centers more on what it might one day become than what it is right now, and that seems to be true regardless of geography. For instance, Marvel Digital Comics Unlimited, Marvel's most ambitious foray into digital comics to date, seems to be viewed by many as a sad product of backwards thinking, a sort of dead end transitional species in the evolution of the digital market place. I will agree that the kind of web-based platform that Marvel provides may not be the future, but I will say that it is a service that does fill a role in the here and now. For all its drawbacks, it offers a truly universal portal into the archives of some of the world's most beloved comic books.
What is Marvel Digital Comics Unlimited?
Marvel Digital Comics Unlimited was launched in November of 2007 as the latest, and most ambitious, in a line of various Marvel digital initiatives. The service is subscription-based and its extensive library currently offers over 5,000 comics. In order to access the comics in the database, the user has to be connected to the Internet as none of the content is available for download. While many readers would love to have the option of owning digital copies of their favorite comics, this kind of web platform means that there is no special application to download and that the content can be accessed from virtually any computer.
This brings me to the matter of the price. With the cost of comics going up, Marvel's digital service actually offers good value for money. If you just want to try it out, there's a monthly subscription for $9.99 that can be canceled at any time and an annual subscription for $59.88, which corresponds to just $4.99 per month. The monthly rate is a little steep, but the annual subscription is a pretty nice deal. Of course, if you just want to go for a test drive, there are freely available comics to choose from.
Who is it for?
If you're looking to get into a book you're not currently reading, and need background information that the latest trade simply won't cover, you can find most of what you need here. Issues seem to be added a few months after they've been collected in trade, but aside from the most recent issues, a substantial portion of the comics published in the last ten years are in the system. To take one example, admittedly not at random, the entire second volume of Daredevil is available, from the first issue in 1998 to issue #116 which came out less than a year ago, and the same is true of many long-running series.
If you're a fan of the old stuff and don't feel like paying for the expensive Marvel Masterworks volumes in order to be able to enjoy older issues. As a general rule, the eras best covered are the last decade and the issues from the sixties and early seventies. Also, other popular runs of series which have been collected in print are available as well. If an issue has been collected and reprinted at any time, the odds are good that you'll be able to find it.
For those who aren't sure about picking up a particular trade and feel okay about waiting a few months, reading the first issue online when it appears in Marvel's digital archives is a good way to sample it.
No, I'm not joking. The ability to zoom in close, and selectively magnify word balloons does offer something that the paper version doesn't in terms of accessibility.
Who may want to pass?
For those who buy a dozen or more comics a week and have been doing so for years, Marvel Digital Comics Unlimited has little to offer. Many people in this category probably either own everything they need to or might pass on the digital experience in favor of the "real deal" for other reasons.
For those who like their comics hot off the press, the several months it takes for an issue to appear in the system clearly won't cut it. While you'll find many books printed in the last year, there is a delay even compared to when the trades come out. This is fine for the casual consumer of the genre, but hardly for those who like to discuss comics with their friends or online before the ink even has a chance to dry.
Fans of the 90's
The collections in the Marvel Digital archives correspond mostly to issues which have already been collected in print. As mentioned before, this usually translates into the really old stuff, or most things from the last decade. Exceptions are the classic runs of certain books, but many readers who are fan of that particular character or creator might already own those collections in print. If you're looking for an issue you suspect Marvel would rather pretend never saw print, you're going to have to look elsewhere.