Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Marvel Digital Comics Unlimited - An overview

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.

I've been a Marvel Digital subscriber for almost two years now, and am quite happy with how the platform has developed, both in terms of the interface and the increasingly wide selection of comics available. If you took a look at this service two years ago and decided that you'd rather wait for that as yet undefined moment in the future when the perfect digital platform would emerge, you may want to reconsider. Hit the jump to find out more.

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.

You can search the archive by series, character, creator and other criteria, and each comic is opened in a special Flash-based reader, complete with various controls. Images can be zoomed in, speech balloons can be magnified, and there are settings that allow you to view full the content by page, by spread or have it set to something called smart panels that does a lot of the work for you in terms of navigating the page.

The Good

There are a lot of things to like about Marvel's digital service, and much of the early criticism is less valid today. The selection is huge and new comics are added relatively soon after print publication. You can even find entire mini-series these days without running up against the constant annoyance of being able to access only a few issues. While this isn't true of all limited series, it no longer feels like Marvel is using the service only as a way to get people to buy the trades.

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.

Before the latest version of the reader was introduced, there were pretty serious resolution problems, particularly with the older comics from the Marvel Masterworks collections. Zooming in or out would make the art look pixelated, and while it's still not perfect, the situation has been much improved in recent months. For a look at what a scene viewed at three different zoom levels looks like, see the image below. These panels are from Neil Gaiman's and Andy Kubert's 1602 #4 (a series which is available in its entirety, by the way), and I recommend that you click the image below to view it to scale.

The Bad

As you can tell, I'm quite a big fan of Marvel Digital Comics Unlimited, but that doesn't mean that there aren't problems with it. Aside from the limiting factor of not being able to purchase the comics, the web interface, though improved, still looks like something out of a 1990's video game. I suspect that alone is enough to put a lot of people off. Personally, I'm not thrilled about some of the controls either, and it seems like the user experience could be a whole lot smoother.

A bigger problem are the many bugs in the system. Occasionally, a comic will fail to load, the speech balloons might be misaligned against the background, and the text sometimes behaves strangely when zooming in and out. Most comics look perfectly fine, but there are enough times that something goes wrong for the general experience to be a little on the buggy side.

The search function isn't perfect either, most likely due to many issues not being tagged correctly. You can search for a particular character and be rewarded with a search result that includes issues that doesn't actually have that character in it. The search might also miss certain issues for the same reason. I'd also like to have the option to search for comics within the reader itself, and that's not currently supported.

Who is it for?

People looking to catch up
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.

Fans of Silver Age
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.

The hesitant (or patient) trade waiter
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.

People with vision problems
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?

The hardcore collectors and big consumers
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.

The impatient
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.


I've pretty much covered it all, so I'll be brief here. Marvel Digital Comics Unlimited may not be the perfect platform for digital comics, but it's here now and is a much better service in 2010 than it was in the early days. If you find yourself having to cut your pull list for financial reasons, there are other ways of getting your fix at a reasonable prize. True, the most recent issues are missing, but with thousands of others to choose from, you're guaranteed to find something you haven't read.

I'm a satisfied subscriber myself, and recommend that you give Marvel Digital a second chance if you're at all interested in digging into the Marvel archives.

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Ivan said...

Very good article.

I've never been a fan of reading comics in a computer screen, but the "pros" you listed have me currently considering the subscription.

Parallax207 said...

There is something about digital comics that just does not compare to feeling of reading a paper comic.

I like that they are trying to make an actual service to subscribe to. But I can't really see people paying for something they can already get for free from torrent sites.

Christine Hanefalk said...

About reading comics on screen, it doesn't compare to holding the real thing in your hands, you're both absolutely right. That's why I see digital comics as a complement to their print counterparts, not as a replacement.

When it comes to being able to get things for free from torrent sites, that's a matter of conscience. Downloading old material that is out of print (in which case the copyright holder suffers no actual economic loss) is one thing, but when there is a legal option available, as in this case, going the paid route just feels like the right thing to do. There is a cost associated with making comics, and I think I should pay my share of that cost as a customer. Hopefully, there are other people out there who feel the same way.

At the end of the day, people have to follow their own conscience. With MDCU, there is also the added bonus of having everything collected in one place, and (fairly) neatly organized.

KentL said...

Excellent article. I've pretty much ignored MDCU so far, but as I struggle with space and time issues, I find myself buying less and less comics, but still wanting to read a lot of them. This may be my solution. If they could get the time between street date and uploaded to MDCU down to a month or two, I'd jump at it.

Do they eventually put up all new releases? If not, how do I know if something is going to be uploaded?

Bill said...

I hate the reader, and I don't like the subscription model either.

I'm fine with reading comics on a screen, so long as it's full screen with no UI in the way, and simple keyboard navigation.

And as far as the subscription thing, I'd pay to have that run of Daredevil on my laptop, but not in a browser. If I've got an internet connection, I'm fine as far as entertaining myself. But when I'm stranded somewhere, need to kill time, and have no way to get online (or don't trust any of the nearby wifi connections), *that* is what I'd want digital comics.

Ethereal said...

I don't like the reader, I think the page switching is frustrating. I use CBR for stuff that I can't find anywhere, and I think Marvel could use some of the features from CBR.

Doug said...

Had it for about 2 months. I love it when it works, and don't have a problem with the reader, however, it is plagued by problems which randomly prevent it from recognizing my subscription. This locks me out, and though it was only $60 for the year, they still have my money and I have no product. Fix these tech issues and I'll recommend MDC to anybody.

Anonymous said...

I've read some previews a few times, and the experience just doesn't live up to the hype. Marvel made it sound like it was something revolutionary, and unless I'm missing something, it's just scanned comics. Heck, I can do that. I'll keep an open mind, but to date I just don't get it! Thanks for the review!

djk said...

Great coverage of the pros and cons of this Digital Comics Service. I've just started as new subscriber to Marvel's digital comics, this past month--and so far I love it. I hook up my computer to my 40 inch flat panel tv which seems to very nicely upscale the images. I find it just stunning to see the art work this way. I also love pouring throughthe archives and reading 25 issues of a comic in a row. Now that I've been using it a while I think it's an incredible way to read comics, assuming you have some nice hardware to view it on.

My only complaint is when they skip a key issue or stop a run before the story ends, which I've come across a few times--if they get better on this score I think I'll be subscribing to the service for many years to come.

My big wish now is for a similar access to a Vertigo digital archive--that would be a total joy.

Anonymous said...

I gotta say, I love the thing. I'm not a serious fan, but I was in my younger days, and rediscovering all kinds of titles that I never read or catching up on years of arcs that I missed is such a good time!

There are a lot of people like me who enjoy the characters and stories but have missed out on a lot of them, and digital is a great way to enjoy them - if not the best way.

Ditto though, my reader glitches out and crashes my browser sometimes. That needs to be fixed.

I can only imagine how fun this would be on a high-res tablet like the iPad though!

Chris said...

aside from the accessibility issues of online content (I'm not always going to be online). The $60 a year price point is the issue. Yes, the monthly breakdown comes out to what some people pay at Starbucks in a single purchase but I think I'd rather put that towards something I can take away with... if anything, put that towards a subscription to support that last vestage of the local comic book dealer.

If it's a service model, then I would hope there was more to the whole package and experience then just access to digital library that consists of only comics... fails miserably on the pride of ownership and overall experience.

SP said...

I'll start w/ the bad. Website is "down" more than it is up. What's the point of paying for something that doesn't work. Let's say it's down even 10% of the time, that is completely unacceptable. ECommerce sites would fire their main honcho even if the site was down 0.5% of the time.

Many issues lack sequence. For example, Nova goes from issue 1-20, then 23, then 25, then 29. For real?

Good - Reader is more than adequate to give an enjoyable reading experience for tons of comics. Only complaint is the sequencing/missing issues listed above and the fact that the reader doesn't load any comics ALOT of the time.

Anonymous said...

i agree, when i can download it on my computer or iPad and store them (don't care about printing them out) THAT'S when i will subscribe.
surely they can figure out a watermark system to prevent printing? hear me Marvel and DC when you offer them for protected download, I will be on board!
Fan since 1974

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