Ever since the cloud service revolution started taking root over the last few years, comic readers have clamored for an all-you-can-eat subscription style method to access the comics they want to read. While Marvel has offered its Marvel Digital Comics Unlimited service for some time, its capabilities and compatibilities have kept it out of the limelight due to its requirements of a Flash capable browser to access its stash of past glory. All that changed last week, when Marvel rebranded the service as Marvel Unlimited and added native application support to iOS devices; a key feature in any digital comic service in this age of iDevices. Today, with these advances and press releases, there has been a new-found rejuvenation of interest in the offerings of Marvel’s digital subscription service; alongside a whole new batch of questions of what this service is and whether it is worth taking a look at. So lets take a quick look under the hood and see if this “new” delivery method just may be a good fit for you!
What Is Marvel Unlimited?
Marvel Unlimited is the name of the monthly or annual subscription service ($9.99/mo, or $69.99 annually) to allow digital access to a large swath of back-issues via your web browser or portable device through the newly unveiled Marvel Unlimited application. Redesigned to take on a ‘Netflix Queue’ approach of finding and marking titles you wish to read, it offers over 13,000 issues from years prior that you have unlimited access to browse and enjoy as long as your subscription is valid. In order to limit conflict with brick-and-mortar stores as well as their own digital storefronts, the subscription does not cover current releases, and instead focuses on the deep well of back issues that have already gone through the digital conversion process with more being added each week.
Value – It goes without saying, the main draw to something like this would be the fiscal value for the end user. With thousands of back issues stretching over a wide array of titles and time periods, the average reader would be hard-pressed not to get their money’s worth out of this service for some time. As I have stated prior, having been subscribed for close to two years now, I am rather casual in my use of the service and still find my cost per issue hovering somewhere around 15¢ even though my usage is fairly light. That is a hard bargain to turn down, especially for individuals who are looking to catchup on specific titles or even the Marvel Universe at large. And with additions to the back catalog on a daily basis, there is always something new to read even if you did somehow plow through all 13,000 issues.
Portability – A more recent positive would be the portability of the service now that it has native application support. While we used to be constrained to mostly PC’s to access the catalog due to the reader’s Flash dependencies, the new app that has been released for iOS devices (with an Android application to follow shortly) has allowed subscribers to access the service practically anywhere they have an internet connection. As an added bonus, Marvel has allowed the download of issues to a device to act as an offline copy to read while off the network. While that perk is limited at the moment to 6 offline issues, there has been mention from Marvel that the number is only in testing at the moment and may see an increase pending on feedback.
Responsive Support – Another target of feedback from the previous iteration, Marvel has put a lot of work in the last few months to plug holes in their digitized issues to help complete iconic runs and series. While they still have some ways to go (see below), there is a genuine effort from the staff to fill in those gaps as soon as they can as users point out missing issues in a storyline. Case in point, a year ago I ran across two critical issues that were missing from a run and sent an email to the support address asking if there was an ETA for their addition. The next day I received a response stating that they would elevate the priority on those issues, and not too long afterwards (in the grand scheme of things) I received a second email informing me of their availability. Now I cannot say that this is a common response, but it does warrant some positivity from my perspective in this arena.
Premiere Titles – Finally, when one looks at the service on paper, you would cynically assume that the titles offered would be slews of their less popular characters and teams in an effort to make a few more dollars off of titles that do not warrant a reprint; and you would be absolutely wrong. While this will surely become an interesting portion of the service to watch in the future (as the digital marketplace gains traction and individual back issue sales rise), the current selection of titles and issues comes as close to present as 6 months ago and features all of the marquee titles and books most people wish to read. Admittedly, the bulk of the titles available fall into the 1998-Present timeframe, but there is no holding back on iconic storylines from all of the various ages, with even the events themselves fully scanned and ready for you to read at your convenience.
Ownership – The primary negative for most would be the lack of ownership. With debates already occurring over the value of physical ownership on the digital front, many will be turned off by the fact that when your subscription ends, you do not have access to any of those titles. While relatively common in this day and age of cloud services, it is still something that many will find to be an unattractive aspect.
Missing Issues – Coming in at an extremely close second, would be the forced selection itself. While I stated above that there is a wide breadth of options available, there will always be some side title or one-shot that you wanted to read that has not (or will not for various reasons) be added to the digital offerings of the subscription plan. Even more frustrating, though it is an issue they are trying to alleviate over time, there are still quite a few instances of missing issues over the course of various runs. While the amount of these missing issues has dropped drastically in the last year, it only takes one or two key issues in a title to leave a very sour taste in your mouth when happily clipping through a series.
App Woes – Being in a technical field myself, I am well aware of the revision process when developing an application. Unfortunately, this late in the technical cycle for reader applications, there are quite a few glaring shortcomings in this inaugural version of the Marvel Unlimited reader app. Key among them would be the woefully underpowered Guided View in comparison to practically all of their current competing readers. While it is there (though buried under a view menu at the bottom of the screen), the guiding process is sloppy at best; missing panels, cutting off dialogue from others, and consistently requiring a screen reposition. Where this really stings the application, is its dependency on a larger screened device unless a user wants to soldier ahead with the underwhelming panel view, practically knocking most phones out of usefulness in its current state. In the same vein, the user interface is somewhat clunky, zooming and resizing a little on the unresponsive side, and instead of using a simplified swipe method puts two gigantic arrows on either side of the page to traverse page turns. Another aspect of annoyance, is the lack of a ‘Next Issue’ button when finishing an issue. That shiny button that says ‘Press Me For The Next Part’ has cost me hundreds in other digital applications, and is a simple addition that is lacking in the current application. Instead, one needs to go back, find the next issue, and load it up to continue. Needless to say, this is the easiest and most likely place users will see improvement first, but as the main stage where all usage of the service will be funneled through, it leaves a lot to be desired. As a side note, for those who had an account prior and cannot get it to work with the app, make sure your username is all in lowercase when entering it in the application. It’s those types of oddities that turn people off quickly even if the service itself is astounding.
Search Inconsistencies – The search algorithms are another place where the back end suffers in this offering. I am fully cognizant that we are speaking about 13,000+ issues, many sharing the exact same name in differing volumes, but the search results are a bit choppy at best. Items frequently show up out of order, such as issues 1-7 and 13-16 appearing on page 1, while issues 8-12 languish somewhere on page 7 regardless of how you sort. This, combined with the sporadic missing issues and lack of a ‘Next Issue’ button, can make the holes in runs seem much larger than they in fact are, and gives a very haphazard presentation to the experience of utilizing the service.
That’s going to have to be a decision each person makes based on weighing the above and seeing if the pros outweigh the cons. In my own opinion, the service, even with the glaring shortcomings above (and even more so in its previous Flash only iteration), is still a great value for my money. There is something absolutely liberating about waking up on a Sunday morning, thinking “What do I want to read?”, and just punching it up and plowing ahead with no regard to cost after my initial subscription. Honestly, one of the biggest cons I have with the entire service is figuring out where to start reading a title with the massive backlog available. And when it comes to problems, that’s a pretty good one to have.
Bonus Tip: With Convention season upon us, it has been a common practice for large discount sales on the annual subscription to coincide with the larger conventions. While I have no way of knowing if that may continue this year, those of us who are a bit more frugal may want to keep their eyes peeled around these main event conventions to possibly save a few more dollars in the process.
Hopefully this will help arm you with a little more knowledge to make your decision, but as always, feel free to let me know if you have any specific questions below and I will do my best to answer them or find an answer for you!