Marvel Unlimited's iPad launch screen. The app, for iPhone, iPad and iPod touch, allows Marvel fans access to its comics archive on- and offline. (Marvel)Link
Marvel Unlimited's home screen. (Marvel)Link
A screen from the Marvel Unlimited app. (Marvel)Link
Marvel Unlimited allows users to browse comics by character. (Marvel)Link
The DC Comics app is available for iOS and Android devices. (DC)Link
Give Marvel and DC credit: The two biggest, most established American comic-book publishers weren’t caught napping when the tablet revolution began.
Paying heed to the mistakes of the movie and music industries — both of which left money on the table and left themselves open to piracy during the early days of the downloading era — the mainstream comics publishers prepared well for the arrival of iPad, Kindle Fire and the like, building apps for fans eager to read comics on these new, comics-sized devices.
Both companies have continued to tinker with the still-growing tablet market too: running 99-cent sales on older titles; selling collected editions through Amazon and iTunes; releasing comics digitally the same day they arrive in stores; making their comics available through third-party apps like ComiXology; and so on.
But one of the biggest new developments in the digital comics market — Marvel’s recent announcement of its new “Marvel Unlimited” app — reveals how far Marvel and DC still have to go when it comes to getting digital exactly right.
Updating and expanding a service Marvel previously had offered through the Web, Marvel Unlimited promises access to more than 13,000 comics on the Web and tablets, via a monthly $10 subscription.
These aren’t the latest Marvel comics on the stand, but Marvel’s digital library continues to grow, and when the app was released last week, Peter Phillips, senior vice president of Marvel Digital, told Gizmodo that the window for new releases would be “six months.”
If it works as intended, Marvel Unlimited has the potential to establish a new business model for digital comics, creating a market more akin to Netflix or Spotify than Amazon or iTunes.
But when I downloaded the MU app on opening day, my first impressions were not favorable. At all.
I have an older iPad, incapable of running the latest iOS, so some of the constant crashing I experienced with Marvel Unlimited could well be a failure of my equipment, not Marvel’s. But even by the standard of what I’m used to, the Marvel Unlimited app crashed a lot. And every time the app crashed and I restarted it, none of the comics I’d previously saved were still in my library.
Seeking a workaround, I went directly to the Marvel Unlimited website on my laptop, and saved comics to my library that way. But when I re-opened the app, those comics still weren’t there.
In fairness to Marvel, some of the problems I experienced the first time I tried Marvel Unlimited could’ve been the result of first-day glitches and/or heavy traffic. Simultaneous to the unveiling of Marvel Unlimited, Marvel announced a promotion through which it was planning to release 700 comics free through its regular Marvel app and through ComiXology, and so many fans rushed to download those comics that the online store crashed. (The deal was ultimately canceled.) My Marvel Unlimited problems could’ve been tied to that mess.
When I retried the Marvel Unlimited app after that first weekend, I found that the comics I’d saved on the website days ago were finally in my library. Also, on opening day the comics selection wasn’t as advertised, and my attempts to find comics as recent as six months old fell well short. (On opening day, I couldn’t find anything that was less than a year old.)
After the weekend, many of the more recent titles that I’d been looking for finally showed up. I was even able to download and read one before the app crashed yet again.
It’s not just the instability of the Marvel Unlimited app that’s irksome. The rigmarole required to even find comics through Marvel’s apps is far more complicated than it needs to be. The same is true of DC’s native app, and ComiXology.
DC and the leading third-party comics app ComiXology have the same basic design, with featured titles (and specials) splashed across the landing page and tabs at the bottom for specific searches like “series” and “creators.” But let’s say I’m interested in reading comics written by Kurt Busiek. I tap on “creators.” I then have to tap a second tab for “all creators,” since the main “creators” page opens up to just a small list of “featured creators.” I then tap on “B,” and scroll down, to tap on “Kurt Busiek.”
The app gives a list of every title that Busiek has worked on and how many Busiek-penned issues are available for download. Let’s say I decide to buy the one available Busiek issue of “Green Lantern.” I tap on “Green Lantern,” but rather than being taken to that one available issue, I’m taken to the page for that particular “Green Lantern” series (the one that ran from 1976 to 1986) and have to search through each of the 29 available issues to find Busiek’s one.
It gets worse when there are hundreds of issues available, and when the creator I’m looking for wrote several of them.
What makes this even more annoying is that DC doesn’t sell bundles of issues (something that Dark Horse, among other publishers, does through its website and apps), which means that not only does finding any one comic require too many steps, but also there are even more steps needed to download a whole story arc. And with each new command, the likelihood of a crash increases.
Plus, because DC often makes some older issues available as part of promotions for new titles or high-profile arcs (or for new movies or TV series), the archive of available comics has huge, inexplicable holes. Those 29 “Green Lanterns,” for example, encompass issues 90 through 93, and then 172 through 196. Why just those issues? Anyone coming to the DC app for the first time would have no clue.
I reiterate: Marvel’s interface is no better. If anything, it’s worse, with the added annoyance of searches being slow to load. Whether I browse by title or browse by creator through the Marvel Unlimited app, the listing is initially incomplete, with new names being added as I scroll down, which means that the list constantly changes while I’m trying to read it, and sometimes even as I’m about to tap on a name.
Frankly, while some of the other major comics apps have better search functions — Dark Horse’s, for example — none of the big companies have created the digital comics retailing equivalent of an Amazon or iTunes. Granted, this market is still in its infancy, and it’s encouraging that companies as big as Marvel and DC have been so willing to experiment with elements like price-point, looking for the sweet spot between what fans are willing to pay and what the back catalog is worth.
Nevertheless, the core of the digital-comics-buying experience should be simpler. Readers just need to be able to find the comics they want to read, at a fair price, and know that they’ll be able to get through an entire issue without a crash.
– Noel Murray
Noel Murray is an Eisner-nominated critic who writes about comics, television, music and film for the A.V. Club. He also covers home video for The Los Angeles Times.
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