NOTE: Marvel Unlimited has changed substantially with the release of native apps for Android and iOS — read my updated review for details!
(Original review follows below)
Two weeks ago I looked at the book that I consider the future of digital comics. Today, I look into the past with Marvel Digital Comics Unlimited.
It almost seems unfair to refer to any digital comics initiative as a relic of the past, but Marvel’s present online format debuted a hair over four years ago, which is approximately a century in digital time. The MDCU is a subscription based-service, differing from Marvel’s (non-compatible) iOS and Android apps in that it offers unlimited access to a back-catalogue of 10,000 titles, rather than facilitating per-issue purchase of day-and-date new titles. You can safely think of MDCU as a “Netflix for Marvel Comics” with the caveat that you won’t find anything more recent than books which streeted six months ago, with the bulk of the service dedicated to digital versions of Marvel books from decades past.
For me this has proven ideal, as I have pretty much zero interest in contemporary Marvel books, but plenty of desire to fill in the Bronze and (especially) Silver Age gaps in my Marvel Comics reading experience. Given as I’m not obsessed with actually owning those old books (and in fact at times find the whole concept of a collection a burden), merely viewing — rather than physically collecting, or even downloading — these old books is fine with me. And the price has been right, too — a year’s sub for about forty bucks, thanks to a discounted subscription that my family scored for me over the holiday (finally, the geeky gift for the geek who has everything!). For less than the price of a Marvel Omnibus I can roll around in digital comic book heaven for a year, and if at the end of that year it all goes up in digital smoke, well, I’m no worse off than I am today, and hopefully better for having read hundreds of comics over the preceding twelve months.
Overall I’ve been satisfied with MDCU but the experience is far from perfect. I mentioned that the system is four years old, and it shows, not least of which in that it is entirely Flash-driven, which knocks my iPad out as a viewer, because, as we all know, there ain’t no Flash on iOS devices.
I did try to work around the Flash limitation by viewing the site using the Puffin browser on my iPad, but it was even more dreadfully slow than the stock Flash experience, and I could never quite get a full-page view dialed in the way I’d like via Puffin. It isn’t fair to hold MDCU to account for failing to function on a non-supported platform, but it is a bit frustrating that this otherwise-attractive service is unavailable on iPad, a device so well-suited to the “lean backwards” experience of digital reading.
Instead the MDCU must be viewed on a computer with internet access, but even here the results are a mixed bag. The ideal system is a big, crisp display — MDCU seems to have been built with 27” and larger monitors in mind. My problem is that I’m not keen on sitting in front of a computer to read comics (computers are a “lean forward” experience), and there’s no way to get that big monitor to the couch or into bed where I prefer to read my books. A laptop is the obvious compromise, but you do give up the quality of the big monitor experience, and my viewing satisfaction is further exacerbated by owning a Macbook Air, which is a tremendous device for writing Longbox Graveyard, but a sub-optimal comics viewer owing to its 13-inch display.
Below a certain screen size, you’re practically required to view the MDCU library using the “smart panels” option, which does a pretty good job of selectively framing a panel or two at a time, but makes it difficult to appreciate the overall architecture of a comics page, and feels a bit like reading your books through a knot-hole. Even on a large computer monitor, the horizontal aspect ratio of computer screens is at odds with the vertical orientation of a comics page, which is more ideally suited for, oh, I don’t know, maybe this iPad 2 here that I can’t use!
Anyway, on a full-sized computer monitor, you can display a full page (or better-yet, two), lean back, put your feet on the desk, and comfortably read a book … but it still doesn’t compare to relaxing in bed or in a hammock or on some silken divan surrounded by a legion of Princess Leia slave girls with your complete digital run of Howard the Duck.
In an ideal world these comics files would be PDFs, Marvel wouldn’t care if I downloaded them instead of just viewing them, and I could get them on my iPad where the aspect ratio is perfect and pinch/zoom touch controls dispense with the whole awkward smart panels thing …
… you know, the way it is if you pirate the books from online sights right now.
Regardless, I genuinely think forty bones is a more than fair price to view so many Marvel books of years past online. I knew full well going in that the reading experience would be sub-optimal so it really isn’t fair to complain about it. Hopefully Marvel will get their strategy sorted out and provide an iPad-friendly version of MDCU sometime soon. In the meantime, imperfect as it is, viewing these books via my Macbook is the only game in town.
Unfortunately, the challenges of MDCU aren’t limited to the viewing experience. Browsing the site is slow, indirect, and earns failing marks. You can browse by Character, Series, Creator, Comic Event, and On-Sale Date, but everything is accessed through links-within-links, and every refresh of the page is painfully slow.
Let’s say I want to browse the Fantastic Four. It may be the World’s Greatest Comic Magazine, but it isn’t in the default display for “Browse By Character.” Clicking “F” I wait a few seconds, then select from the “F” books on offer, then select Fantastic Four (as opposed to Fantastic Four (Ultimate)).
Now two layers deep in the interface, I see books 1-20 of 1086 issues on offer. It will take me another two clicks to arrange the screen the best way for my purposes — displaying 100 titles per page, rather than twenty, and sorting from oldest book to newest, rather than the other way around — and the ancient Flash interface takes more than fifteen seconds to process each click. But even then … the first eight entries are things like Visionaries collections, Marvel Age re-imaginings, and Clobberin‘ Time Digests (WTF?) before I see the canonical Fantastic Four #1 from 1961 available for reading. What is worse, I have to jump through these hoops every time I want to browse a title, because as near as I can tell, there’s no way to save my preferences for browsing. I always want to view books from old to new with the maximum number of titles per page, but the system will always make me start with viewing them new to old with a minimum number of books per page.
With all the books on offer I should feel like I’ve been let loose in the biggest comics shop on the planet, but this interface makes browsing and discovery a real chore. This has been a major disappointment. It makes me want to cry.
I’ll get over it … somehow …!
To get around this hurdle I’ve made heavy use of the “Must Reads” feature, which lets me checkmark a book for later reading. In theory, at least, this limits my pain in that I can go through my now-optimized FF list one time and just check off the books I want to read … though making check marks next to each book is no joy, and there’s still the wait time required to refresh each of the dozen or so pages as I move forward through the library.
But having a robust “Must Reads” list is no picnic. Clicking “Must Reads” defaults me to an Issue View displaying only 10 books per page. I already have over 200 titles on my Must Read list, so that’s twenty pages of clicks to page through even my painfully-curated list.
To get the list into useful shape, I first have to change the 10 per Page view to 50 per page, then guess which of the four pages will have the book I want to read. On a good night, I might guess right and estimate that the Silver Surfer issue I want to read is on Page 3 of my Must Read issues list … but that was still three clicks (each with a longish pause to load) before I could get to the book I wanted (which will itself require another long load), and I will have to jump through those same hoops again next time, because as with the browsing experience, preferences aren’t saved. Plus when I do finally have my Must Reads list set up just right it is still out of order half the time, because the system sorts issue numbers by first digit instead of value …
A “Browse Must Reads By Series” option would seem to offer some relief, by collapsing all those individual issue listings into series subheads, but maddeningly I am unable to actually launch and read books when using this view. Instead MDCU throws up a kind of checklist showing which books are on my list to read, but there are no links to the books themselves.
Searching yields better results, but it seems feature-rich to little effect. After seeing Amazing Spider-Man #229 lauded over at the excellent (and recommended) Chasing Amazing blog, I figured I’d look up that issue for myself. Entering “Amazing Spider-Man 229” into the search box and narrowing results to “Digital Comics” yields bupkis. Entering the same string into “All of Marvel.com,” however, led me direct to the … ahem … digital comic, which I was then able to load and read. Why provide an option to narrow search results if only the general result will work?
The whole interface is simultaneously over-featured and undercooked. For example, I can rate each issue after I’ve read it, between one and five stars. That’s nice. But what can I do with that rating? There’s no option to sort the books I’ve read by rating, or review and compare (and maybe adjust) my ratings after I’ve entered them into the system. My rating presumably influences the displayed rating for each book as a guide for other readers, but it is useless to me. It would be nice to pull up a list of all my five-star books to offer as a recommendation list for friends, or even to isolate the best books to show my kids when they evince a rare moment of interest in my hobby … but no can do. I can export my reading list as a CSV file but my Mac copy of Numbers couldn’t make much of the data. The “Digital Comics I’ve Read” view is just as cumbersome to use as the “Must Reads” interface, and doesn’t show my ratings at all, so there’s basically no “scorecard” experience for using the MDCU — no sense of accomplishment or feeling of gradually filling out a digital collection to offer even a transitory substitution for the experience of collecting and reading the books themselves.
I don’t know if it is due to copyright concerns or simple indifference, but there are basically no tools for sharing content or comments or anything else about these stories. If I think of my old pal Chris Ulm while reading about Iron Man slugging it out with the Mandarin I’m better off getting a screen grab and pushing it to him via email than I am opening this cryptic window:
So much for sharing, really. This interface will result in pretty much zero virality, and seems a real missed opportunity for Marvel’s fans to spread the brand and co-opt their friends into the system.
I’ve already touched on the reading experience, which is pretty good if you can get accustomed to reading your books one panel at a time. Most of the older books that interest me have pretty pedestrian page layouts, and the gestalt that I miss in not seeing entire pages is compensated for by seeing panels blown up several times their printed size, which has already helped me better appreciate a few artists (most notably Steve Ditko).
You will also have to decide if you like the colors of these digital copies, which of course provide a substantially different look and feel than reading the original books. The system isn’t perfect and some of the page turns can take their sweet time but I’ve made peace with it. Be aware that I found one book — Thanos #1 — where the word balloons and panels were distorted and out of place, possibly a bug related to adjusting the zoom controls, but that this is first time I’ve found a book unreadable out of the seventy or so that I have sampled.
So … aside from a rotten browsing experience, a pretty crap interface, long page loads, inadequate reading list tools, bad sharing tools, and material that suffers for being viewed on a laptop computer monitor, how did you enjoy the play, Mrs. Lincoln?
Surprisingly, I enjoyed it. A lot. And it is all due to the content provided by MDCU.
Once you start to get your arms around the scope of the books on offer here you can’t help but have your eyes grow wide. For a person like me, who took twenty years away from comics, there are entire lost decades to explore, to say nothing of the buried Bronze and Silver Age treasures I bought this subscription to read. Sure, I’m no particular fan of 1990s comic books … but seeing dozens of Jim Starlin books from that era pop up in a search on that creator’s name encourages me to give them a try, and if I don’t like what he did with my Bronze Age favorites like Captain Marvel, Silver Surfer, and Warlock, then, well, I’m not out anything but my time, am I?
It’s like grabbing the tallest stack of comics you can imagine from the ultimate free funny book library. The biggest problem is deciding where to start, and then finishing what you begin. The full Lee/Ditko run on Spider-Man, or the full Lee/Ditko run on Dr. Strange? Two-hundred and fourteen books by Gene Colan? (Though that enthusiasm was later tempered by discovering many of those hits were for cover-drawing credits, rather than interiors — did I mention the browsing experience of MDCU was crap?)
A hundred eighty-nine hits for John Buscema doesn’t seem like a lot … until you realize there aren’t any Conan books here, and this is all prime superhero stuff — Thor, Fantastic Four, and that classic Avengers run. There’s just so much here … the Peter David Hulks that I never read, more than six hundred hits for Jack Kirby, reaching back to Marvel Mystery Comics #12 from 1939 …
Where will I find the time to read all these books? Just building a reading list is a full-time job!
Am I missing some favorites? Sure. There are the victims of cloudy or lapsed licenses, like Conan and Master of Kung Fu, and some sad omissions like the original runs of Iron Fist and Ghost Rider. But there are also some nice exclusives, like the retro Captain America: 1940s Newspaper Strip, a 3-part series published in 2010 that tells a “lost” Captain America tale in an updated Golden Age style.
In the final analysis, despite these three thousand words (!) bitching about the interface, I count myself a fan of MDCU, because there is just so much here to read and enjoy. There are gaps in the library, to be sure, and fans looking for recent books may be especially disappointed, but for an old timer like me, this really is digital comic book heaven. I like reading these old books on line far more than I thought I would, and maybe it’s a good thing I can’t do it on a tablet, and that the interface is trying to kill me, because I might otherwise disappear into the digital depths of Marvel’s universe and never come back.
Gene Colan panel from Iron Man & Sub-Mariner #1 (1968), which I never would have enjoyed without my digital subscription
And with this I realize I have made a near-complete departure from the original mission of Longbox Graveyard. Instead of organizing, cataloging, re-reading, and evaluating my Bronze Age books out in the garage, I am instead leaping back even further in time to read lost Silver Age books, or scrubbing forward to read select series from the missing decades when I thought I was quits with comics for good. I feel that I am in love with comics like never before, and that I want to steal away to a cabin in the woods (with WiFi!) for a week to just read, and read, and read some more. I want to gorge myself on these treasures until four-colored digital ink shoots out my nose. It has driven home for me that I am a reader far more than I am a collector, and I can clearly see a day when I’d happily dispense with paper comics altogether in favor of this digital form that will some day prove superior.
Some day, but not today. But even today it is pretty good. Aside from the browsing, and the sorting, and the list handling, and the sharing tools, and the …
NEXT WEDNESDAY: #31 Longbox Shortbox