Marvel and DC apps: Disappointing digital endeavors from comics giants

March 14, 2013 | 1:18 p.m.
marvelunlimited ipadlaunchscreen Marvel and DC apps: Disappointing digital endeavors from comics giants

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)


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.

Marvel Unlimited's home screen. (Marvel)

Marvel Unlimited’s home screen. (Marvel)

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.

A screen from the DC Comics app. (DC)

A screen from the DC Comics app. (DC)

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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19 Responses to Marvel and DC apps: Disappointing digital endeavors from comics giants

  1. Chambers Stevens says:

    I agree with you about the layout. Confusing for both apps.
    And it is frustrating that there are so many holes in the DC app.
    I use ComiXology which is an amazing app to read the comics with.

    The only thing I do not like about your review is how you are using an old ipad.
    Damn dude, you are writing for the LA Times. Upgrade.
    It is embarrassing that you are reviewing the latest technology with your old ass ipad.

  2. I've not tried Marvel Unlimited but I've found the Dark Horse app to be massively inferior and crash prone compared to the ComiXology-powered apps. I often have massive issues loading up the store at all with the Dark Horse app.

    • justintefft says:

      I agree. I'm not a big fan of the Dark Horse app, although I do enjoy their comics. The Dark Horse reader itself is great, but the store is confusing and poorly arranged. Marvel and DCs apps work just fine and I don't see anything wrong with their navigation. I do subscribe to Marvel Unlimited as well and while I am pleased with the service and the rate at which they are adding new material, the interface of the app, especially the comic reader is a poor experience. If you could combine the readers of the Marvel, DC or Dark Horse apps with the concept of Marvel Unlimited and the search and navigation functionality of Marvel and DC, you'd have a real winner. I expect that will all be coming in future iterations.

  3. Jeff says:

    What an unfair critique of the Marvel Unlimited service. As you mentioned, you tried using this service on the first day the app was available on a first-gen iPad that can't even handle the newest iOS. Many apps have issues on launch day, which is why there are updates and patches. I saw issues the first day as well with occasional crashes, but now (without an official Apple update to download) the crashes and issues with the library seem to have been fixed for the most part.

    Also, you criticize the amount of comics available in Marvel Unlimited, without mentioning that new comics are being added on a weekly basis (this past week it seems as though over 100 issues were added to the service mostly Iron Man for those fans who want to prepare themselves for the new movie).

    Comparing the DC app to the Marvel Unlimited app is like comparing apples to oranges. The Marvel Unlimited app is run solely by Marvel, where the DC (and the Marvel Comics app) are run by Comixology. While there are some inconsistencies in what is offered as far as back issues, many of the larger events and story lines that fans are concerned about are present. By insinuating that the Dark Horse comics app is any where near the quality of any of the Comixology apps shows that you have little experience with the apps, as the Dark Horse app has more issues years after its release than the Marvel Unlimited app had on day one.

    Thank you for your article.

  4. Jake says:

    Are you using a different Dark Horse Comics app on your iPad than I am? The one I have crashes constantly, is impossible to navigate (on the rare occasions it's not crashing) and usually when I try to buy something that is a day-and-date release, it gives me an error. I've decided to just torrent all of their releases until they switch to Comixology or create a better app.

  5. Jake says:

    Also, Comixology just released new versions of the Marvel, DC and Comics by Comixology apps last week that fixed most of these crash issues. They're all incredibly stable now. I assume updates to the rest of their publisher/series specific apps are close behind.

  6. Joel Shoemake says:

    Have you tried Comics Plus? They don't have the Big Two (it makes no sense that Marvel and DC only work with Comixology when the app keeps having issues), but the Comics Plus app is far more stable and user friendly.

  7. ian friend says:

    Wow, I've had a completely difference experience with the Marvel Comics Unlimited app on my Ipad and Iphone. I've used it a lot too, and it's never crashed once. You may need to check it on a newer model.

  8. Adam Tomlinson says:

    I find Marvel Unlimited to be a lot of fun.

    I've been using it all week and it has not crashed and has allowed me to read a lot of recent "classics" easily and more importantly cheaply. I am currently working my way through Bendis' Avengers, the recent X-men series and older Todd McFarlene Spider-man. The monthly payment and unlimited access appeals to me as well.

    I assume now that the app is up and running it will catch up with current events, as much as it can. I am more than happy to wait six months.

  9. Mike says:

    I like the idea of a subscription with unlimited access. I'm more about the story than collecting so I'll give Marvel Unlimited a try.

  10. Jody says:

    I have the most recent iPad. I'm still getting crash issues and load issues on many comics. The app also has an annoying habit of chewing on bandwidth the whole time it's open, constantly checking back to the Marvel servers even when I'm making no input at all. The UI isn't the best either, slightly annoying on the whole.

    That being said, when the app works, it's glorious. It's a real treat to jump back and read stories from the 1960s or from last year. I'm really hoping that it's an update or two away from being a "must-have" for every comic nerd out there.

  11. Greg says:

    I'm trying to work my way through the Marvel catalog chronologically, and I wish there were an easier way to do that through this app. For instance, right now I'm up to March 1970, so It would be great if I could just find everything they published with that cover date. Or even just search for the March 1970 issue of Silver Surfer, for instance. Other than that it's a pretty good app. Once they improve the interface a bit more and get the rest of the catalog up, I'll definitely subscribe, and I'd be willing to pay more than $10/month for the privilege.

  12. Steven says:

    Hi Noel,

    If you search for Kurt using the search tab at the bottom of the DC app rather than through browsing creators, you will see the actual books that Kurt contributed to in your results and will be able to go directly to their detail. There still needs to be improvements made for sure, but it's not quite as bad as you make it out to be.

  13. Steve says:

    Not to be a troll man, but half your article was beating up Marvel for launch issues… And the majority of your problems were solved shortly after. I feel like you are venting frustration unfairly. I think Marvel Unlimited is exceptionally charitable on Marvel’s behalf. And why complain about an interface that will no doubt be upgraded or even revamped over time? It’s the first time any company has tried anything like this. Cut them some slack.

  14. Mark says:

    I recently acquired a marvel unlimited subscription and I rather dislike the fact that certain numbers are missing,so I can read number 1,3,4,6 to 11 in a series, but have to buy 2 and 5 seperately. The android app is pretty good, apart from the libray update issues, not always seeing me as a member and downloading the preview. And it has some rotate/zoom issues.

  15. D.reid says:

    Way to harsh of a critique. I've been reading comics since the 80's and as a boy i never dreamed of being able to carry 13,000 comics wherever I go. the marvel app is awesome. Could it be better? Of course. But to have access to thousands of comics… Insane. I highly recommend this app. I wish dc had a 10.00 subsciption.

    We are so spoiled today, when we can so easily complain about the miracles of the future. Haters gon hate.

  16. Walter says:

    Just recently subscribed to Marvel Unlimited, reading it on my iPad, and I've got to say I'm very pleased with the app/service. It's very affordable for what it delivers, I hope DC eventually matches it.

  17. whatever says:

    Get a new tablet then update article.

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