Marvel Unlimited: Sadly Limited, But Still Marvellous

If you'd told 13 year old Alex Kidman that one day I'd have access to thousands of Marvel comics for a single subscription fee, I would have simply exploded. That would have been messy, but today I can sit in front of an iPad and scan through comics at a rapid pace. Is it still worth exploding for?

I was, for a period spanning (roughly) 1987-2002, a major comics geek. I guess I still am, but I stopped buying physical issues some time back, mostly for budgetary reasons and partly because the comics shop I used to frequent sadly closed down, and I wasn't a great fan of the local alternatives. Every once in a while, I'd pick up a trade paperback here or there, but in recent years, my comics collecting habit has been exceptionally shallow. I'm sure 13 year old Alex would disown me, just as he'd explode over the potential of Marvel Unlimited for iPad.

What Is It?

Marvel has offered its online Unlimited package for a number of years now, and I do remember getting somewhat excited by the promise of over 13,000 back issues, even if I wouldn't own them, right up until I tried it out. Reading comics on a laptop or desktop just doesn't cut it for me, and the web browser interface that Marvel uses is, to put it very nicely, terrible. It was terrible when the service launched, and it's terrible now.

So when Marvel announced last week that it was bringing the Marvel Ultimate service to iPad, my curiosity was piqued, tempered by the fact that the web service hasn't been all it could be.

What's Good?

Thankfully, the basic iPad reading experience is a lot better than on a desktop or laptop system. It's still not perfect, but on a retina-capable iPad it's feasible to read a single page with enough clarity that zooming in really isn't an issue at all.

It's also reasonably fast. Living as far from an exchange as I do -- there are quite literally people over the road from me who can't get ADSL -- my connection could never be called fast, but the wait time for issues to load is only a few seconds, after which it's essentially seamless.

There's a lot of options within the search parameters; not only by series, but also characters, creators, major comic events, and plenty of more granular searches within, so that you can check for individual character appearances within a single series, for example.

There are also a lot of issues available; Marvel's claim is that there's some 13,000 back issues on the service. I haven't quite had time to count them all, but that's essentially believable. Let's just say that a significant portion of my weekend was spent happily curled up on the couch, reading comics, or trying to get my iPad back from my wife, because she was using it to read comics.

What's Bad

13,000 comics sounds like a lot -- and I guess it is -- but there are huge chunks of Marvel's back history that simply don't exist within the Unlimited service, and I have no idea why. I do understand why there's nothing within the last six months on the service as a commercial decision, but Marvel's history spans back decades, and once you get beyond about 20 years, things get very patchy indeed. Where are The Defenders? Where's Power Man & Iron Fist? I may be the only person on the planet who cares about those two series, but it's not as though Marvel (or parent company Disney) is making a mint out of trade paperbacks of either series, so their omission is baffling. This even happens with more prominent characters. There are plenty of issues of The Incredible Hulk to read -- and I'm working my way through them -- but there are huge gaps in the chronology. Search for every Hulk comic that came out in, say, 1978, and as far as Marvel Ultimate is concerned, the big green fella simply didn't exist.

The app could be a little bit better; there are intermittent crashes -- one of which required an entire iPad reboot to fix -- and the scrolling interface isn't as smooth as the competing Comixology app. Stability is something they could fix in future updates. It's true enough that the early versions of the Comixology apps were pretty error prone too.

There's also some very weird database errors in there, mostly to do with covers. Sometimes they don't come up, sometimes they're clearly a different issue, and for no reason I can see at all, the cover of The Incredible Hulk 474 (which, for reference sake, should look like this) instead features an image of retired Pro Wrestler Diamond Dallas Page.

Is It Worth It?

There are all sorts of choices for digital comics on iPad. Obviously, you can go for the illicit .CBR route and any number of reader apps, but I'm a firm believer in actually paying people for their work. I can't stop you, but if you like comics, doesn't it make sense to support their creation?

Marvel's currently offering a deal through Comixology for 700 "first" issues of its various series for absolutely nothing. That's great value, but it's rather like a gateway drug. In order to actually follow the story, you're going to have to lay down some dosh for additional issues.

That's where Marvel Unlimited is more like a direct hit of superhero-laced heroin directly into your veins. Marvel's also currently running a deal on an Unlimited subscription for $US59.99 for the first year, which for what's on offer is very good value indeed. At that price, even with the limitations, I've got to be honest and say that I'm totally hooked. Now, if you'll excuse me, I've got the full run of Howard The Duck to read through yet again.

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