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"Goodbye, Jean-Luc, I'm gonna miss you. You had such potential. But then again, all good things must come to an end."
- Q, Star Trek: TNG

Gorge Yourself on Comics with Marvel Unlimited

by Ken Newquist / May 12, 2013
The mome screen for the Marvel Unlimited app.

I love comics. I could spend every Saturday afternoon reading them... but I can't afford to do that. With titles running $2.99 to $3.99 a piece, I can only keep up with my core X-Men titles. If there's a major comic event (and there's always a major event) I might pick up an extra book or three, but I could never afford to read the whole thing.

Until now. Marvel Unlimited is Marvel Comics' online archive of 13,000 digitized comic books. For a monthly fee of $9.99 (less if you buy a year at a time), you get access to all of them. The service has been available for years, but I've resisted the temptation because the service was Flash-based and inaccessible on an iPad. Reading comic books on a computer wasn't attractive to me, so I resisted the urge to subscribe.

In March 2013 Marvel finally rectified this, releasing an iPad app for Marvel Unlimited. I've been gorging myself on comics ever since.

Theoretically, the collection goes back as far as the 1960s, but the further you get from the current day, the less likely you are to find a comic. Books from the last 20 years are the best represented, which isn't all that surprising. Older collections are piecemeal.

The application lets you browse by series, characters, creators, and comic events. My goal with the app was to finally read some of the big story arcs from years past, so I immediately tried out "Comic Events".

It was a gold mine. Here was the complete "Civil War" story arc, with over 100 comics. Here was "Avengers Disassembled", "Siege", and "Fear Itself", all of which build on each other, all of which bled into my X-Men comics to a certain degree, and all of which I've ignored until now. I immediately began reading "Civil War" and got about halfway through the list before realizing the drawback of this fire hose approach: while I can now easily read every comic in an event ... not all those comics are worth reading. It's a happy problem to have of course, and you can easily skip those tie-ins you don't like.

Some reviewers have slammed Marvel for the "Unlimited" title because it's not really unlimited. Marvel doesn't include comics from the last six months, and it doesn't include every comic that Marvel ever published.

I'm ok with these limitations. First, charging $9.99 for access to all of Marvel's first-run comics would radically undercut their print product. I don't begrudge them their $2.99 for a paper product; the days of a $.99 comic are long gone. I don't know what percentage of their profits come from the print side of the house, but extending Marvel Unlimited to include those titles would have to hurt both Marvel and your friendly-neighborhood comic book store.

Moreover, I'm used to time-shifting my video and reading habits. I already wait 6 months to a year to watch Game of Thrones; I can wait that long to read comic books.

I can appreciate how Golden Age and Silver Age comic book fans would be upset by how their comics are under-represented, but it doesn't matter to me. I'm more interested in the 1990s and 2000s and finishing the dozens of story lines I've left unread. Case in point: Avengers vs. X-men. I only read the X-Men side of that mega event, but now that AvX books are showing up in Marvel Unlimited I can go back and fill in the holes.

There are things that frustrate me about Marvel Unlimited. The app's not as good at pinch-and-zoom as the Comixology-powered Marvel App, though they've recently introduced a full-screen mode that makes that less necessary.

Some of the comics have issues with dialogue not appearing in black balloons -- this is most noticeable with Rocket Raccoon in Guardians of the Galaxy. It makes the comic pretty much unreadable, given that 1/5 of the dialogue on screen at any given point can't be read. How big of a deal this is depends on the comics you read; if Guardians was your reason for getting the app, you'll be pissed. If not, then you can probably just shelve those comics until the problem is fixed.

The publication dates are utterly confusing. Some of the dates seem to match up with reality, but others are off by several years. In a particular story arc -- say, Civil War, you can find titles with publication dates that are years apart. It's not a crippling problem, but it can be annoying. There are also issues with cover art; for example Annihilation #3 featured a cover from an X-Men comic.

I've had random issues with the app not loading comics or downloading them for offline reading; restarting the app seems to solve this issue. I'm not sure if this is a manifestation of a problem with my wireless network or the app, though I tend to think it's the latter given that the rest of my apps are able to use the Internet just fine when this problem occurs.

The app's clearly not perfect and yet ... I love it. I've read through Civil War, Secret Invasion, and Siege. I just branched out into Marvel's cosmic heroes genre with its Annihilation, which isn't something I would have read without Unlimited. It's definitely worth getting if you're a comics fan, or even if you're just curious after having seen The Avengers or Iron Man 3.

Comments

After several months of using Marvel Unlimited I can safely say that it is the buggiest and most crash-prone app you'll ever love. Half my gaming group has subscribed to the service, and I can safely say that its network issues are not a problem with my wireless hub.

Marvel Unlimited is often suffers from schizophrenia; the other night it refused to let me download Avengers issues because it said an Internet connection, but it then happily let me read Amazing Spider-man.

Offline reading has been expanded from six issues to 12, which would be great if it actually worked. Half the time I use it the app freaks out, says I need an internet connection, and forgets that I downloaded any issues. Those who travel a lot and who are counting on this app for reading on the train or plane should pay particular attention to this issue.

That said, it is awesome when it works. I've read so many comic books, many of which I'd never have tried if they weren't in Unlimited. It's fantastic, but it is infuriating.