I have to admit that I was never a big fan of digital comic books. I enjoy the tactile sensation of reading a physical copy, the ease with which you can flip back and forth through the story, and the collector’s buzz of owning something as part of a collection. I didn’t want to start purchasing digital comic books because you don’t actually own anything – it’s more like an expensive rental, reliant on websites maintaining their servers because the comic book is stored on them and you only get to effectively ‘stream’ them when you want to read them. Therefore, I never really bothered with digital comic books or getting a tablet specifically to read them.
And then a global pandemic occurred.
Multiple lockdowns prevented my main access to reading contemporary comic books: physical copies of collections from libraries (see here for my praise for libraries, or here for talking about borrowing more than 1000 comic books from libraries; I even have the ‘from a library’ category on the blog), so it was rather cold turkey withdrawal. I had to turn to the digital libraries; however, as I discussed at the time, the RB Digital collection that the London Libraries Consortium used was not a great selection. I had to seek alternatives.
Comixology Unlimited sounded like the perfect choice, but it is unfortunately not available outside the USA (what century are we living in?), a ridiculous US-centric approach also applicable to the DC Universe offering, which offered some DC comics, and the comics-only DC Infinite Universe app that started in January of this year. I had Amazon Prime, primarily for the purposes of watching The Expanse, the best sci-fi show currently on air; the Amazon Prime Reading offering is pretty feeble for comic books, and I wasn’t going to give Amazon any more money to try Kindle Unlimited (although I have no idea of what the comic book selection is like). I was really left with only one choice: Marvel Unlimited.
The choice of Marvel Unlimited is a good one for me, and not just because they very sensibly offer the app in the UK (because apparently DC Comics doesn’t like money). The Marvel comic book universe was where it all started from me and it’s the one I love the most, so the opportunity of being able to jump into >28,000 comic books (at time of writing) is one that filled me with excitement. I’ve been using the service for a while now (I got a year’s subscription), so I thought I’d share my thoughts.
The first thing I wanted to point out is that Marvel Unlimited is a misnomer, or at the very least an ambiguous title. The ‘Unlimited’ might refer to how much reading you can do, but it does not refer to the amount of Marvel comic books that are accessible – you cannot read all Marvel comic books that have ever been published. There are no MAX comics at all, because apparently Marvel can’t work a simple age-restriction function into their app. I felt rather annoyed by this – I was looking forward to reading all of Garth Ennis’ Punisher stories, including the recent series, Punisher: Soviet, and naively thought that the app would solve my problem. There are also many other omissions from Marvel Unlimited, the reasons for which seem unclear (and how I wish there was a website listing them so I didn’t have to) – I was hoping to dip back into the New Universe comic books, for purely nostalgia reasons (I excised them from my collection when I was having a cull, and they’re the only regrets, even though I know they’re not great comic books), but apart from Star Brand, some DP7 and the first volume of Psi Force, they are largely absent – there’s one issue of Justice, and the latter part of that series was written by Peter David, and I really wanted to read Fabian Nicieza’s run on Psi Force, but no luck.
Talking of searching for books: that’s another weakness of the app – it’s got a terrible search facility. Perhaps we’ve been spoiled by Google taking over the world of search, but the ability to find comic books on an app dedicated to reading comic books should be a major priority. This is a serious problem which I hope Marvel fixes soon.
I’ll be talking about the app here – I don’t use the browser version – and specifically on an Android tablet; my experience might differ from people with faster, more modern tablets, so disclaimer upfront. The app is relatively smooth and clean. The Home page has a top tier dedicated to themed concepts dependent on recent events in the MCU – Kang The Conqueror is first on the slider of options at the moment, after the events of the Loki TV show – as well as most recent ‘big’ comic books (Avengers: Enter the Phoenix is another item on the slider at time of writing). Underneath that, there’s ‘Currently Reading’, which holds up to 20 different series so you can keep track of titles you’re following. Beneath that tier, there is ‘New This Week’ so you can see what’s been put on the app most recently and then ‘Popular This Week’, which is usually the same as ‘New This Week’, i.e. titles that have just arrived on the app, except for when they’ve dumped a load of older comic books in one go, so are technically ‘New This Week’ (recently we’ve have some 1970s Ka-Zar and some 1980s Punisher books). The final tier is ‘Pinned Reading Lists’ – the second tab on the app is ‘Reading Lists’, which separates out things for newbies to read, such as ‘Latest’, ‘Characters’, ‘Events’ and ‘Creators’, as well as ‘New to Comics?’, which is a selection of editor-picked titles, basically a handy range of books for someone who doesn’t know where to start because comic books and their numbering/titling are so incredibly confusing to anybody who doesn’t have an active interest in these things.
I do feel sorry for anyone new to the Marvel comic book universe trying to start reading the books, because it’s not easy, but you get the feeling that the app is aimed at long-term fans who know what they want. The straightforward way to search is through the Browse function at the top of the home screen – tapping on it goes to a new screen that has lists of everything, starting from ‘Series’, then ‘Characters’, ‘Creators’, Comic Events’ and ‘Publication Date’. As I said, it helps if you know what you’re looking for in the first place, to help you narrow down your searches – for the most part, I’ve been using the ‘Creator’ search, which is pretty thorough – but you need to know exactly what you’re looking for if going by ‘Series’ because some of the naming gets weird and excludes things with even the slightest difference pretty quickly.
However, when you’ve got >28,000 comic books to access, it’s going to be difficult to narrow down – one of the first sensations I had was ‘rabbit-in-the-headlights’ because there’s so much. I was lucky in that I knew what I wanted to find: the likes of Jonathan Hickman’s House of X/Powers of X that redefined the X-Men, the Alan Davis-drawn Thanos graphic novels written by Jim Starlin (I’m a fan of Davis but not that much of Starlin), books by writers I like that aren’t big hitters so the collected editions were unlikely to end up in my local libraries, the issues of series that weren’t collected because they were cancelled so I could complete the stories (such as Kelly Thompson’s West Coast Avengers), old titles I never had the chance to read (the original Squadron Supreme maxi-series, and the Earth X series drawn by John Paul Leon after his sad passing), and the ongoing series of books that I’ve enjoyed in trade paperback from the library (Immortal Hulk, Captain Marvel, Black Panther, Avengers).
I also get to sample things that I might not have tried or got the chance to read because of the pandemic – it’s a strange sensation reading things in a monthly format again, instead of collected editions. Comic books don’t arrive on the app until 3 months after publication (it used to be 6 months before the pandemic, and I don’t know if it will revert soon), but that’s fine with me because I was reading trades anyway – I don’t care about being up to the minute, I care about reading good comic books, regardless of when. This has meant checking out Strange Academy, Chip Zdarsky’s Daredevil, Eternals, Black Widow, Power Pack, Marvel, the Chris Claremont anniversary special, Star – the list goes on. It’s very enjoyable being able to read a wide selection of titles that I wouldn’t have bought or might never have reached libraries.
The reading experience itself: this is pretty smooth (although it can be a little sluggish on my older tablet), with clear buttons to ‘Read Now’ or move back and forth through the series, and allowing you to easily ‘Mark As Read’ or ‘Remove From Library’. The pages takes up the full screen, with a tap or a swipe-right to proceed to the next page, with a good resolution (although the print feels a little small at times – the size of the tablet means that the screen page is smaller than the size of a standard comic book page). The app allows you to proceed panel-by-panel through the book with the Smart Panels feature: by double-tapping the page, you zoom in on the panel and you can proceed to read the page as directed – this is particularly helpful for double-page spreads, which don’t work very well on the tablet, even if you rotate your tablet to landscape mode. The only issue is that this can be a little sluggish and interrupts the reading flow, at least for a fast reader like me. You can revert to the normal page size by double-tapping again. You can also zoom in and out by using your fingers manually, but I found it unreliable and even more sluggish, so haven’t used it much. When you finish an issue, it offers up the next issue in the series to read next; if you come to the end of a series, there are some recommended titles that you might also like, although it can be pretty random.
The experience is enjoyable – I think I still prefer reading the physical version – but I’ve become accustomed to the digital page through plenty of experience and practice. It’s not glitch-free – the app can lose the book even if you’re in the middle of it, or think that you haven’t read a book you’ve just finished reading; when you click on it to check, it puts you at the final page in the comic book and then realises its error. I also had a problem with one issue of the Slapstick Infinite Comic, which repeatedly refused to allow me to read certain pages, something that wasn’t resolved using the Help function because it works fine for the people at Marvel Unlimited, but that has been a one-off so far.
I’m not sure if Marvel Unlimited is for everyone – I can’t see casual readers sticking around – but at least it exists as a way for people to try reading comic books again. I would recommend it for fans of comic books and fans of the Marvel comic book universe – being able to access so many books is wonderful (even if they don’t have everything), and it has meant that I won’t have to have so many physical comic books in my house any more, a relic from a time when the only way you could get to read these stories was if you had actually purchased them. Now, my reading is (almost) limitless …