Marvel’s Great Digital Divide

imgres-6Somewhere back in October of last year, I was sitting in my local coffee shop, sipping a cup of delightful black gold and utilizing their complimentary Wi-Fi service when I found myself face-to-face with an undeniably tempting web ad for Marvel’s “Digital Comics Unlimited” service. “Unlimited Streaming Access to 10,000+ Comics!,” the ad shouted in my general direction. My resistance to such things was weakened for some reason, so the discounted price for a month of service caught my attention. I want to read 10,000 comics, I told myself. Damn right I do. Thus it was only a matter of time before I decided to pull the trigger and give Marvel more of my money, $7.99 to be exact. I knew deep down that this was probably a mistake and that it’d be up to me to cancel the service somewhere down the line, but for whatever reason, I opted in. Simply put, I was going to give the service an honest shot and see how it compared to my current method of consuming digital comics, which is namely buying them a la carte, downloading them to my IPad and reading them whenever the hell I feel like it.

The idea behind the “unlimited” service is pretty simple: you pay a monthly fee of around ten dollars (less if you opt for an annual plan) and you get access to a back catalog of thousands of Marvel’s wonderful comics. Thousands I tell ya! Sounds great, right? For someone who buys as many digital comics as I do, this seemed like a great plan. I imagined I might save money in the long run. Not the case. As I did my first exploration of MDCU, I realized that the selection of comics contained therein didn’t match up with what’s offered on the Marvel app itself.  There’s some overlap, but simply put, the MDCU service seems to be more about older comics and classic Marvel runs, as it doesn’t offer current comics until many months after they’re publication. If thought you’d be able to catch up on say recent issues of Wolverine and the X-Men, you’re out of luck. Currently, the service is promoting issue #2 of that comic as “freshly digitized.” Ever get that not-so-fresh feeling?

Lack of truly current issues aside, there’s another major aspect of the MDCU that makes it somewhat tough to get url-1behind, namely the fact that it’s only accessible via a web browser. That’s right, if you’re hoping to enjoy your access to a massive Marvel catalog on your portable digital device, you’re also out of luck. This is not a service for people who want to read their digital comics un-tethered and on the go. You see you’re not actually downloading or buying any of these comics outright; you’re just paying for access to them, streaming access that goes away the minute you stop paying that monthly fee.  Clearly Marvel understands that the real money is in recurring subscriptions of their service. Rumor has it that DC has plans for a similar service in the near future. Can’t really fault these companies for the business model, I suppose, but one of the great things about digital comics is the ability to bring them with you and have them on hand to read out there in the world. The fact that you essentially need a laptop or desktop to enjoy them seems to defeat the purpose as far as I’m concerned. Why they don’t have some sort of tablet version of the service is pretty darn puzzling.

imgres-5I do give the service some credit. It does open the door to a lot of classic comics and there’s something to be said for that. The back issues are nicely digitized and it’s certainly fun to go deep into the Marvel archives and see some of the oldies looking as good as they ever have.  Unfortunately, the whole thing exists very separately from the mobile Marvel app and its associated apps. For example, if I’m reading a copy of Silver Surfer #4 via the “Unlimited” service, there’s really no way to take it to the next level and buy that comic in its digital form. Sure, there’s some crossover between the two services, but it’s pretty inconsistent. Seems to me that the service would be a better deal if both the streaming access and the ability to buy and download titles were intertwined.  Why not give me the option to actually own a comic that I’ve just enjoyed streaming in my web browser? I’m probably a bit old-fashioned, but there’s something to be said for actual ownership of one’s digital comics, as well as the mobility and sense of permanence that comes with it.

There’s no doubt in my mind that Marvel has crunched the numbers and figured this all out so that one really has to keep subscribing in order to maintain one’s online collection. Unfortunately, the end result is something that’s ironically quite limited and lacking in flexibility when it comes to how these digital comics are consumed. I’m not sure how successful the MDCU service really is, but my sense is that it’s more novelty than anything else. Seems to me that that most people want to take their digital books on the go. I know I do. I just want them and I want them at my convenience, whether or not I’m on or off the grid. In the end, the digital comics experience still has to replicate the act of reading a book. And if you’re stuck at your computer or laptop, it just doesn’t feel the same. Anyone else have experience with the Marvel Digital Comics Unlimited service? Did like it? Hate it? Love it or loathe it? As I knew I would deep down in my gut when I succumbed to Marvel’s ad that day in that coffee shop, I ultimately cancelled the service, which they of course made rather difficult.  Hopefully, future iterations will result in a product that is more about the user experience and less about hooking the customer in for the long haul.

Gabe Roth is a TV writer trapped in the suburbs of Los Angeles. He’s @gaberoth on Twitter.


  1. For the most part, I agree with what you’re saying. I’ve been a Marvel DCU annual subscriber for a couple of years now, and I absolutely echo your frustrations…I hate that it’s via browser only, and I especially loathe how it exists independently from the app…but I obviously still continue to subscribe. It’s a pretty great database for back issues, and newer stuff gets added roughly six months after it hits stores, so if you are woefully behind on something, or missed the hot run of 2011/early 2012 (or earlier, obviously), you might be in luck. I think it’s pretty invaluable for any new readers wanting to catch up on classic events like Avengers Disassembled, House of M, Civil War, Fear Itself, etc. before jumping into some of the current titles…but then again, libraries are also a great (and free!) resource for hard copies of all of that stuff. Ultimately for me it’s been a convenient resource for reading for the fun of it, but not an alternative to purchasing from my local shop or digitally.

    The one thing I will add is that the new beta they’re testing is a couple steps closer to a game changer. With a data plan on my iPad the entire database is now portable in a way it wasn’t when everything was Flash based. The development team has been really responsive to bug reports, and I honestly appreciate what they’re doing with this. I’m still frustrated by the divide you’re describing, but I’ve come to terms with the fact that I use the Marvel DCU for a slightly different purpose than my personal back issues, purchased print comics, purchased digital comics and borrowed library volumes. I might be an outlier here (and a slightly obsessive reader), so I’m interested in what other people have to say on this topic.

    • I hear rumor of the beta MDCU app, but haven’t been able to get my hands on it to put it through it’s paces. Could indeed change things up. Still having to be connected to wi-fi or use data is a bummer. The ability to download as part of your subscription (a la Spotify) would be the real game-changer, I think.

    • How do I get the Beta?

    • I believe the beta app is an invite only situation for existing subscribers of MDCU.

    • I don’t know if it’s only for annual subscribers, but it wasn’t invite-only in December. In the My Account setting on you could opt-in to the beta. Can any current subscribers who didn’t set up the beta confirm?

    • I saw a beta opt in, ignored it cause I didnt know what it was … now I cant find it. :'(

  2. Gabe, great article!!! I enjoy it and got the year discount at $49 which is super worth it.

    I enjoy Marvel DCU quite a bit. I’ve never been a Marvel fan, but as a result of this, I’ve been able to read a lot of classics that I didn’t even know about. I have been able to catch up on New X-Men and Astonishing X-men which was definitely worth it.

    Remender’s first 19 issues of Uncanny X-men is on there too, so that has been a treat. Not to mention all the Kirby, Ditko and other stuff.

    The downside as mentioned is that it’s flash based (as mentioned) and the cataloging needs work. Sometimes I had to be clever with the way I found some titles because they were listed under the wrong creator.

    I’ve since slowed down on reading cause there is just so much! I would love to see a DC version because I am a bigger fan.

    When membership is up, I’ll have to see if its worth keeping, specially since there won’t be a 30% discount …

    • I should add, I don’t care of I own the issues cause I rarely go back to read them. If I do, I just buy the trade.

    • If you do decide to cancel the service, be aware that the cancellation process involves sending Marvel an e-mail and jumping through a few other hoops. No simple way to do it otherwise. FYI.

    • Thanks for the tip Gabe!

      I’ll remember to send an email, but you can always do a chargeback against them if they refuse, which will hurt their credit rating …

  3. I tried MDCU too. The thing that made it unusable to me is that there’s rarely a continuous run of issues within a series. There’s commonly a gap somewhere that prevents you from reading a full storyline. I don’t know if this is by accident or design but I rarely found a full of run of something I wanted to read.

    Also, the guided view mode was frequently off center or would skip a panel, forcing you to go out to full page, then zoom in, then go back in to guided view to keep reading.

    • The gap is due to bad cataloging … if you search, you’ll find them. I had trouble with New Xmen and found them under a different creator. I would find all the creators and search under them for the missing issues, they’re probably there …

    • Absolutely. The backend of the database is severely lacking, but if you get creative with your searching you can find all the back issues. If you’re using the beta, sennd them a note for anything that’s mislabeled.

    • While what AmirCat said is for the most part right its not always true. They’re often hidden under different creators or a slightly different series name. Sometimes though they just miss an issue and no matter how hard you look you wont find it. The worst part about when that happens though…marvel doesn’t notice, that issues never getting uploaded and you might as well forget about it.

  4. I’ve dabbled in the MDCU in the past and have liked the ability to go back to stuff I hadn’t read. I started reading around 1998 and even then it was almost exclusively X-Men. Plus some of the newer stuff like Dan Slott’s Spider-Man are still pricey to go back to the beginning and catch up on. However, reading on a computer screen is just not enjoyable. A tablet screen feels much better and fits the comic pages better, too. They sent a “come back, please” message a while ago and mentioned the app in beta. I will probably check that out when it comes out of the testing phase. If they integrate it with their regular app it may even help sales. They could easily have something at the end of an issue that say “if you like this, catch up with the current arch Now!”

    • That’s exactly the way I’d like the app to work. If I liked something that i read, I want the option to put it in my permanent collection. The subscription cost needs to be low enough that people will continue to subscribe and buy books, as well. Just because I have Netflix, doesn’t mean I’ll never buy a movie again. It’s all about having the option.

  5. I looked at it a while back and agree with the folks who don’t enjoy reading on a computer screen. It wasn’t until I got my iPad that I really got into digital comics, and they’re going to have to make that experience pleasant before I will be tempted again.

    But even then, my digital buying habits have become: wait for something that I want to read to go on sale, buy all the issues (or at least as much as I’m willing to spend), and read them at my leisure. That method keeps my spending fairly low, and yet I seem to have a never-ending virtual pile to pull from. The all-you-can-eat approach is tempting,but since I don’t ever seem to run out of new stuff to read, I wonder how much I’d use it. Add to that the fact that it’s per publisher. I’d be at least as likely to subscribe to a DC service as Marvel, so, assuming similar pricing, that’s $100/year, and I’d still be hitting those .99 sales to stock up on my indy stuff.

    I guess the fact that it’s months or more behind the current titles doesn’t bother me much because I’m already waiting for the sales. And really, you own none of your digital comics, at least not if you buy them through Comixology. There doesn’t seem to be much danger of losing your collection at the moment, but that sense of ownership you get from buying a digital comic is purely imaginary. All the subscription service does is further strip away your illusions. Of course with the Comixology model, you have your comics as long as Comixology persists or as long as you have the device they were loaded on to. With subscriptions, they vanish as soon as you stop paying. But that seems like the only real difference, and, as a result, I probably would not be tempted to buy comics in another digital form if I had access via subscription. If they were offering me a real file that would persist beyond the life of the seller, that would be different.

    There are probably enough titles out there where I’m waiting for sale prices that the subscription services might be worthwhile as long as the subscription offerings were somewhat current (say a year or less). And it would help recapture my attention from some of the great independent stuff. Looking at my Comixology stuff, I see more Other Publisher stuff than what I’ve bought from the Big Two. A subscription service could having me diving into one publisher for longer periods of time.

  6. While it would be awesome to simply be able to use the marvel comics app to read MDCU I don’t see that happening anytime soon. Since the Marvel app is maintained by comixology and the MDCU is maintained by marvel (or perhaps an alternate 3rd party). Of course a MDCU standalone app wouldn’t be an unreasonable request….that being said I never really had a problem with the format I could read the comics in the Silk browser on my Kindle Fire back when that was my main mobile device and I can read the comics now in the browser for my Asus Transformer. Its not ideal mind you, but I never had any glaring issues.

    What was the real deal breaker for me was the complete and utter lack of customer service for MDCU. Imagine starting a six issue series and finding out issue 5 is broken on the digital player. Now imagine this happening 5 more times. Its enough to make you want to cancel, and what’s worse is while you can report the errors they never get fixed. I can’t remember all the times this happened to me but the very first time was for Ultimate Comics Armor Wars issue #2. I reported it a week after the issue was released on MDCU (April 2011), try and read it, it breaks before the 3 page preview is over. ITS BEEN 2 YEARS MARVEL! Yeah…needless to say I’ve cancelled my membership.

  7. I’ve been running the beta of MDCU for a couple of months and have been much more satisfied with it than the previous format (which ran on flash – I wonder if it worked on flash-capable android device?).

    The beta still has some kinks to work out. It works best on “page at a time.” This shrinks down double-page spreads 50% (which is subsequently a bit hard to read). They have a guided view option, but there seems to be a lot of problems there. It has a habit of skipping panels (and even entire pages). You can of course do a pinch and zoom, which is a little tricky but not too difficult. Overall, its leaps and bounds above the old browser-platform, if only for being able to read it on a tablet.

  8. All this talk about an app has me interested (even if their customer service sucks). Can anyone who has it back up the .apk and share it somewhere

  9. “People seem to like this Netflix stuff.Why not do the same with comics”

    It sounds like it has the same faults as Netflix streaming does.Wanna watch the latest season of Parks and Recreation? Nope.Wanna watch The Dark Knight Rises? Nope.You can’t even watch Batman Begins.

    That being said i might try and free demo of the DC version of it once it roles out.

  10. I’ve been a MDCU subscriber for a couple of years now. I don’t really care about the latest and greatest because I’m only a casual reader and have yet to get through all of the back history and events.

    They have started to do a much better job at getting full runs going, but I’d love to see better organization around crossovers and events.

    I have used the new beta reader on my android tablet, still some bugs to work out but is a considerable improvement over the old reader – and HTML5 based to boot, no more flash. Would love to see something like this from DC as well – also wish I could download issues or trades instead of having to be online all the time.

  11. The point that many people miss when discussing the lack of availability of newer titles, is that new comics cost $3-$4. Wait a month, and other publishers’ books cost $2. If you multiply that by the number of Marvel comics their typical fan purchases in month, you’ll probably end up with at least $60 per customer. It would be difficult to come up with a price point that makes any financial sense to Marvel, that also makes sense to a consumer. After all, it may not be the same, reading vs owning to the consumer, but you can bet that they’d lose a lot of their $60+/month customers to a subscription service.

  12. I have one very simple question for you Gabe: Is there anything that you DO like? I love this site, the articles, the podcasts, the posters, the reviews and everything. Except you’re weekly first world problems column. You seem to simply whine about minute things all the time. Maybe, hopefully I’m taking your articles the wrong way and if I am I apologize, please explain what you are trying to say. And yes, I realize that I’m being selfish in saying you need to explain yourself to me when you post these articles for the entire site but I just couldn’t bite my tongue any longer.