Digital comics are becoming increasingly common, with some publishers even releasing books digitally before they go to print. But, as with many things digital, delivery models are still being defined. The Comics app from Comixology, on iOS and Android, is essentially an online comic store with books purchased as single issues. Apps like Kindle and iBooks offer collected editions with entire story arcs. And Marvel has offered a branded version of the Comixology app and a subscription service with access to thousands of issues in their back catalog.
Marvel Unlimited is the new app to access that subscription service through iOS devices.
The Limitations of Marvel Unlimited
Let’s start out with what Marvel Unlimited isn’t. It’s not a digital comic store with an inventory stretching across many publishers, like the app from Comixology. It’s Marvel-only. And it’s “Unlimited” in the same way a buffet is – you can have as much of what is offered as you want, but you’re limited to that offering. You can help yourself to as many of the comics as are currently in the library (that’s a little over 13,000 at the moment), but it’s a long way from the entire Marvel history. And it doesn’t include comics on the day they’re released in brick-and-mortar stores. Marvel Unlimited has about a 6 month delay with books being added to the library.
With that in mind, what is available through Marvel Unlimited is pretty impressive.
Evolution of Marvel’s Subscription Service
I have a fairly long experience with this service. I’ve been a subscriber since late 2008, but I’ve only been using it regularly for the last couple of years. The reason for that is the readers available. Until now, it’s been a strictly web-based service through the Marvel website, and for most of its history it’s been Adobe Flash-based, which ruled out reading on the iPad.
Digital comics really need to be read on a tablet; I find phone screens are too small and sitting in front of a computer, even a notebook to read comics is not particularly comfortable. On a tablet, you get a very printed comic-like experience, being able to see entire pages at once, which can be important to get the storytelling feel the artist intended. But as long as Marvel Digital Comics Unlimited (the previous name of the service) was strictly Flash-based, the only tablet option was on something that could run the mobile Flash reader. Even on Android tablets, that’s gotten tough, as mobile Flash has been pulled from the Google Play store and newer versions of Android won’t work with it. It was simply very tough going to get the large inventory of Marvel Unlimited on a tablet.
In mid-December of last year, Marvel invited subscribers to beta test the HTML5 version of the site that became the basis for the new app, and the iPad finally opened as a possibility. Now with the release of the app, it’s come to iOS as a smooth and polished experience.
All You Can Read for $10 (or $5) a Month
The concept of the service is that for a fee ($10 per month or $60 per year) you gain access to the constantly growing library of available Marvel back issues. As a rule, each week day sees five new comics added to the service. Subscribers get a weekly email listing new comics added, and the app’s home screen also displays what’s new. From the app or the website you can browse the entire inventory and add comics you want to read to your library (like a queue on Netflix). A feature new to the service allows the user to select up to six comics to download to the iPad for offline reading. Offline reading has never been an option before. While six is still a small number, it’s movement in the right direction and there are indications Marvel may be willing to bump that limit up if the demand is great enough.
An App That Improves the Service
Navigation in the app is extremely easy and straightforward with separate screens for your library, and a Browse screen that allows you to easily review all the titles currently available. Loading times for books can vary, and is understandably slower when comics are not being stored locally. Page turns and zooms are responsive.
As a long-time subscriber, I look at this app as something that may double or triple the value I get from the service. Navigation and title discovery are much easier than they were on the old website (the design style of the app is now reflected on a redesigned site). Given that the current cost of a new Marvel comic is at least $3 or $4, paying a few dollars more for a month of all-you-can-read service is a huge bargain. As noted before, books won’t be showing up here as soon as they are in comic stores or as individual purchases, but what is there will keep a fan of Marvel superheroics very busy.
The Marvel Unlimited app is free in the App Store and there are a number of free comics you can browse to get a feel for how it all performs. Although the experience is best on an iPad, it works on an iPhone or iPod Touch as well. With a subscription, you may find your comics budget stretching farther than you ever thought it could.