Somewhere 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 behind, 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.
I 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.