First Look: Marvel's comic subscription service comes to the iPad

Comic book publishers—including Marvel Comics—have found great success selling a la carte digital issues, most notably from the Comixology mobile app, as well as via Marvel Comics's own app. But Marvel’s first foray into selling comics digitally was its Digital Comics Unlimited subscription service, which provides a catalog of more than 10,000 comics to subscribers.

Ever since that service was first launched in 2007, it’s required Adobe Flash—an unfortunate choice given that mobile devices, most notably Flash-eschewing tablets such as the iPad, are perhaps the perfect devices for reading digital comics. But beginning late in 2012, Marvel has been testing (among paying subscribers only, apparently) a new HTML-based viewer that lets Digital Comics Unlimited subscribers at long last read those comics on the iPad and other devices. I’ve read a half-dozen issues on my iPad using the beta version of the reader and have found that it does a pretty good job, though it’s definitely got some room to improve.

First, a primer on what Digital Comics Unlimited is: It’s a subscription service that lets you read as many issues as you want, but current issues of Marvel comics aren’t in the library. Think of this as the Netflix Instant version of Marvel Comics—for $10 a month or $60 a year, you can graze freely from classic issues and recent (but not too recent) events.

Finding comics

You can find comics using the Web interface, but it’s clunkier than using an app would be.

There are a lot of comics in Marvel’s Unlimited library, but the selection is (again, like Netflix) spotty and random. I found more than 300 issues of the 500-plus issue run of Uncanny X-Men, including the very first issues and the Byrne-Claremont run, but not my beloved Paul Smith issues (#154 to #166 are MIA), and most of the recent issues. You can search the catalog by character, series, event, or release date, so I was able to select “House of M” and see all the books in that event, not just the core eight-issue miniseries.

The Web interface leaves a lot to be desired, especially on the iPad. Reading forward through a series requires a re-sort, since by default issues are displayed from newest to oldest, a reading order only Guy Pearce’s character from “Memento” would favor. Marvel’s database could use some proofing, too: The “House of M” event showed some incorrect publishing dates that sorted some comics completely out of their proper reading order.

In general, while using Marvel’s Web interface to find comics works, it feels stunningly inefficient. This is one of those places where native apps can shine. Even if Marvel kept using its new Web-based engine for reading issues, the experience of finding issues would be greatly improved with an app that could display the Digital Comics Unlimited catalog more efficiently.

Reading comics

Atomic Web Browser hides browser chrome and vastly improves the reading experience.

Reading comics inside a Safari window is tricky, but Marvel has done a credible job. Zooming and panning isn’t great; I found that the best way to read comics was on a full-sized iPad—on an iPhone or iPad mini things were generally too small. Tapping on a page reveals a slider that lets you move through the issue, as well as forward and back arrows to advance through the issue, but I found it all unnecessary—swiping left to right will take you forward or back through the pages. There’s no fancy animation as the pages turn, but they generally turn.

I was able to flip the iPad into landscape mode to read spreads, and if you prefer that orientation the reader can also display two single pages side by side. (I prefer to read comic pages in portrait mode, as Stan Lee intended.) Occasionally I’d find myself unable to swipe to the next page, and sometimes the page-turn arrows appeared and refused to go away. I’ll chalk those up as bugs to be fixed before Marvel declares that the beta-test period is over. I never found myself waiting around for the next page to load, which surprised me.

More troubling, some issues just didn’t load—when I found one, I just kept moving on until I found an issue that would load. I’ll chalk this one up to a beta bug for now as well. When I did read through an issue, I was disappointed when I got to the end. Unlike Comixology, which prompts you to read the next issue in the series, Marvel’s reader does nothing. Quickly moving on to the next issue seems like the perfect feature for an all-you-can-eat comics subscription.

The biggest problem I found with Marvel’s Web-based reader was that Safari’s browser chrome stays visible the entire time, forcing these comics pages into a smaller space. I solved the problem by using Atomic Web Browser, a $1 iOS browser that offers a full-screen mode. Again, this would be a problem that Marvel could solve by building an app wrapper around its Web viewer.

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