Last December, I noted that Marvel had quietly released a beta version of its Digital Comics Unlimited service for tablets, and today they made it a real thing with an iOS app and the promise that an Android version is on the way as well. They also rebranded the service as simply “Marvel Unlimited.”
That’s a good description: Unlike the other Marvel app (and comiXology, which runs it), Marvel Unlimited doesn’t sell you one comic at a time; it’s an all-you-can-eat service with a subscription cost of $60 per year or $10 per month (and one of the few criticisms I have of the app is that you can’t find the price anywhere on it). The library currently numbers 13,000 issues. This is a service designed for readers who want to go deep and read all the back issues, not for those who want to get the latest thing. All the comics on MU are at least six months old. But if you’re OK with that, or if you use it as a supplement to comiXology’s Marvel app, it’s a pretty good deal.
The app does away with some of the complaints that people had about the original service: You don’t have to sit in front of your computer to read the comics (the one digital comics experience that is universally loathed), and while Marvel Unlimited on your computer is streaming-only, the app allows the user to download up to six comics to read offline.
How does it work? Beautifully, at least on the iPad. It’s true that the iPad screen is smaller than a standard comics page, but the images are crisp and easy to read. The pages load quickly and navigation around the page is simple and intuitive. There is a panel-by-panel view function, called Smart Panels, but it’s not all that smart. Unlike comiXology’s Guided View, which carefully pulls the page apart into individual panels and letterboxes each one, the Smart Panels feature just chops the page into pieces, each of which may contain several panels. In every sample I looked at, the panels were poorly cropped—either a strip along the edge was chopped off or a strip of the adjacent panel was left in. You can also use the iPad’s pinch-and-zoom to enlarge the page, but you can’t turn the page without going back to the original size. (This is an annoying feature of the Kindle as well.) The good news is you probably won’t have to, as the pages are pretty easy to read. The iPhone is a different matter: The pages are too small to read, and the Panel View is just as bad.
If there’s a problem with this app, it’s findability. The problemis that many Marvel characters are featured in different comics, and there are multiple lines that get renumbered from time to time. As a result, if you don’t know exactly what you’re looking for—or even if you do—it can be hard to find things. I read part of Daredevil #1, and when I went looking for it again, I couldn’t find it. There were over 20 Daredevil series listed in the browsing area, but that particular issue was nowhere to be found. I have had similar problems on the website, so I’m not sure if I’m doing something wrong or the comics are just poorly indexed. Even in the best of circumstances, if you’re new to the Marvel universe(s), the array of titles and characters can be daunting. ComiXology does a nice job of organizing comics into story arcs, but Marvel just throws them up there, so it’s a little hard to know where to start and where to go next. In the past, users have complained about gaps in the story arcs, but Marvel is working on fixing that.
Even when I had to read the comics on my laptop, I thought the Marvel Unlimited service was good value for the money. The iPad version puts it over the top. The comics look great, and there are plenty of them. Marvel seems to be pretty serious about putting comics onto the service once they are six months old, so if you’re willing to wait, you can read to your heart’s content at a very reasonable price.