Marvel Digital Comics Unlimited Launches

marvel_dcu.pngA couple of weeks ago I wrote about some recent entries into the world of comics online. Today, the dominant news story in all of comics was Marvel Comics launching taking a stab at providing comics online. They’re calling it Marvel Digital Comics Unlimited. And that story got a crapload of attention. Last I checked, there was over 300 articles online from news providers around the world. And not just comics or fan news site, but mainstream media. So much attention was cast on Marvel, that their entire website, including the new digital comics archive was down for most of the day. It’s back up, but wow is it slow, but that just shows that a lot of people are using it.

Luckily, I was able to get some time with the new site earlier today before it went down and here are my thoughts on how it works and how it stacks up to other similar websites.

(Click on the images throughout to see screenshots of the comics browser)

The first thing I checked when I went to the Marvel site was to see what was available. They’re boasting there are over 2,700 comics from the Marvel library for viewing online. That’s really, really impressive and to date, the largest collection of online comics in the mainstream. For the majority of the comics reading public, there’s a good chance there’s something here that they’d want to read.

But if you dig a bit deeper, you realize that there are no current comics. Want to read Astonishing X-Men #23, which came out last week? You can’t. Now, this is a business decision to not cannibalize the retailer market, so I understand why and I don’t want to get too deep into the business side of things here, but it’s important to understand that there aren’t current comics here. In fact, there are only three titles from 2007, and the only notable one is Omega: The Unknown. The others being a Spider-Man 3 movie adaptation and Marvel Adventures Hulk. This doesn’t mean that there aren’t recent comics available. Most of the run of Astonishing X-Men is up there, as are other hits like Captain America and Daredevil. Conversely, the collection goes back all the way to the 1940’s, to the old Timely comics featuring Captain America and The Invaders. From a comics historians/fan standpoint, this is awesome. These are the kind of comics that everyone should have access to, so I totally applaud it. But realistically, how many of these older comics will get read? I bet, as we see this site get used, you’ll see the older the comics are, the less views there are — but that’s not Marvel’s fault, it’s yours, the reader. So do me a favor, and take advantage of this opportunity to read some comics that may seem hokey and old fashioned, but are important to the industry’s history. Okay, I’ll stop lecturing.

So how do you find the comics you want to read? That’s a bit of a challenge. On the main page of the comics archive, there is an alphabetical listing, but that causes for a long scrolling page. By clicking “All Comics” you get a paginated listing of the titles available starting at the beginning of the alphabet. This is great because you can see a sample cover and the # of issues available. But what if you want The Punisher? Who knows what page that’s on? You have to go page by page until you find the title you’re looking for. When you have 5 or 6 titles, this may be fine. But when you have over 2,700 titles, the lack of a clear way to search for comics is big problem. The solution is probably meant to be the “Browse Comics” box in the upper right of the site, which is a flash based application to drill down through the alphabet, but this is still not a search, rather it’s a filter, which while makes it easier, but it isn’t the solution. Perhaps the search box in the header area is meant to be the search application, as once you search for anything, you get meaningful results, but the separation of the search box from the page content doesn’t make it clear as a method to search for comics in the library. Which is a shame as it was the best way to find comics in my experience.

Additionally, and I totally chalk this up to the fact that it’s new and maybe all the bugs haven’t been worked out yet, I searched and found Excalibur, one of my favorite series. The listing page said there were 3 issues online, but when I clicked through, there appeared to be only 2 issues available. A bug, possibly? Maybe, but its things like that that don’t really inspire confidence in the library. But this bug (flaw?) is balanced by the sheer amount of data contained within their library. You can find comics by titles AND by creators AND by characters, which makes for a rich browsing experience.

Once you find a title you like, and find an issue you like, you can select to read it, which launches a new browser window and loads the comic reader. The comic reader is a flash based application, so the flash plugin is required (which is in the majority of browsers these days), but depending on your connection speed, the initial load of the application and the comic may take a little bit. But once its loaded (and assuming that Marvel’s servers are stable), you never notice any lag in browsing the comic. The browsing experience Marvel has created is very interesting, and unlike any I’ve seen yet.

First, you have several viewing options for turning the pages:

  • Flip – simulates the classic page turn, like reading comics in the “real world”
  • Cube – Imagine if the pages of the comic were pasted on a cube, and when you turn the pages, the cube just rotates
  • Plain – This just simply loads the next page in the window, with no animation

Now these are just bells and whistles enabled by the use of flash. Where the real innovation on Marvel’s part comes is on the the format of the reading, or the “View Mode”:

  • Two Page – Classic two page spread, like reading comics like we’re used to.
  • Single Page – Similar to the two page spread, but one page at a time.
  • Smart Panels – This is the innovation. They have mapped the viewing experience for each comic so that the browser zooms in and with the press of a key, you move onto the next set of panels. This guided manner of browsing the comic helps you, the reader, to read the comic and follow the flow of action and dialogue in a cohesive manner. The one drawback to this, though, is that you lose the feeling of “pages”, but in this webcomics world, maybe that isn’t a bad thing. But for us comics traditionalists, it takes some getting used to.

In addition to controlling the manner of the page transitions and modes for viewing, you can also zoom in on the comics and move around them, up and down, left and right, by using you mouse. But these controls leave a little bit to be desired. Actually, what is desired from them is the consistency of experience and ease of use. What innovation is found from the “Smart Panels,” is lost due to this lack of consistency. You cannot zoom with keys or with the scroll wheel on your mouse, rather you need to click the zoom controls on the viewer at the bottom of the page. While in “Smart Panels”, you can use the mouse button to skip panels, or the left and right key to go from panel to panel, and the up and down key to zoom out and in to the comic. If you switch to “Single Page” you can go from page to page with the left and right key and scroll up and down with the up and down keys (if zoomed in). But if you switch to “Two Page” mode, you can no longer zoom in and out with the up and down keys as in the “Smart Panels” nor can you scroll up and down when zoomed in, yet the left and right keys still work to go from page to page. This lack of consistency can be irksome as you get the feel of the application, but once you settle on the method of reading the comics, you forget about it, so I could be splitting hairs here, admittedly. Personally for me, I choose the “Two Page Mode” with the “Cube” page transitions.

There were two issues with the comics browser that did frustrate me more than anything purely because I couldn’t explain them. First, due to the nature of the application being flash based its fluid — it stretches and contracts with the size of your browser. Marvel suggests you put your browser into full screen mode to have them occupy the most screen real estate, and someone like me, with a widescreen laptop and a widescreen monitor has no problem with screen real estate — but someone on a smaller monitor, with a larger resolution, well the application doesn’t size very successfully. The buttons along the bottom merge into one another and the application ceases to work very well. This is probably a minority of the audience, but still, the best applications are ones that have no restrictions. Additionally, I think there is is one part of the comic viewer that is simply broken. In the lower left, by the page listings there is the option for “Autoforward”, which I assume turns the pages automatically, so you can sit back and watch, but for the life of me, I couldn’t get this to work. It just turned from “off” to “88.” Perplexing to say the least. But it’s okay, because I don’t think I like the idea of auto page turning.

Finally, I found the use of user registration to be the ultimate source of frustration. Marvel is making a big deal about the fact that you can preview a lot of comics for free, which is awesome. But after you read 6 pages of any comic, it forces you to log in or register to Now, you don’t have to pay or subscribe, but you have to register. Trust me, I understand the business side of things, but personally I believe you should never interrupt the user in their experience, especially reading something you’ve offered for free. Trust me Marvel, if you allow people to read the FULL comic for free, with no obstacles, they’ll register and they may even subscribe. Also, and this may be due to their server issues today, but even with the paid account I had logged in under, after a short while the site would forget I was logged in and I would be forced to log in again. And again. And again. Again, this could very much be due to the massive traffic their site is seeing, or it could be a bug in their registration/log in functionality. Regardless, after the third time, I was ready to walk away and pick up an old fashioned comic book and read it on my couch.

In comparison to the previous other online comics initiatives I wrote about previously, Marvel is the closest to ComicMix in that it provides a viewer for reading the traditional comics format, unlike Zuda Comics which is focused on the online webcomics format. What Marvel has over ComicsMix is obvious, the back catalog. Creators and titles that are the kind of comics that most people want. But I still give the edge to ComicsMix in terms of the viewer. If Marvel was smart, they would either buy or work with ComicsMix and integrate their HTML based viewer, which is much more intuitive and a slightly better viewing experience.

There is one major drawback, as one can probably guess, and that is that the comics cannot be viewed offline. You must be connected to the internet and view them in a browser. For those iPhone nerds out there, you’re out of luck too, as the application is in flash and (for now) your iPhone doesn’t have flash in the browser. So this comics reading experience is limited to your desktop computer or laptop.

All in all, I have to come out on a positive note on this and applaud Marvel for this initiative. After several failed attempts, they seem to have finally embraced the concept of reading comics online and have emerged as an industry leader (despite the technical issues of today). Would I have liked to see downloadable PDFs or some other format to read them offline? Absolutely. Do I wish they had current titles? Totally. But as mentioned above, those are business decisions I don’t feel like analyzing here (perhaps in a future post). But given the day that they’re ready to release current comics, or if I get the urge to read Doctor Strange #174 from 1968, there’s finally a usable, albeit not perfect, option for doing so online.

Oh, and does anyone else find it slightly amusing that the name, Marvel Digital Comics Unlimited abbreviated could be “Marvel DCU”?


  1. I just spent 6 months abroad and, therefore, was forced to get my comics fix throught the computer screen. Man I wish they had offered this then and I would’ve been hooked. I think it is a good move on Marvel’s part not to be left behind and to keep up with younger market. I also like that they seem to be offering digital comics that can’t be seen in any other medium. But, overall, now that I am back: I missed the “real thing”. Guess I’m an old fuddy-duddy.

  2. I think it is more appropriate to call these “Internet Comics” or a form or webcomics, because an active internet connection is necessary to view the content. While they are on a digital format, I think calling them “Digital Comics” implies they can been viewed across other digital devices. And that isn’t the case.

    Other than that issue, I like this for what it is. I use my local library to borrow stuff like the first post-OYL Robin trade. I only have a passing interest in the character. Enough to want to read the stories, but not enough to want to collect the trades. The same thing with Agents of Atlas. A couple of months ago I took the hardcover out of the library, because I heard it was a good series. I read it and I enjoyed it and I don’t need to have that book sitting on my self. If this system was up then. I would have used it for the same purpose. Of course I don’t have to pay anything to take something out of my library, but I will gladly pay $5 a month if it gives me easy access and immediate internet access to comics I am interested in.

  3. So why this caused such a buzz and Zudacomics didn’t?

    Is it that Marvel has a better press department than DC?

    Am I wrong in this perception?

  4. I’ve been reading in Popular Science that some companies are busy developing a clear paper like substance with fiber optics and internal memory and such (no, nanites were not mentioned…). The whole idea behind it is that you buy one, say in the shape of a newspaper, and then every morning you hook it up to the computer where it downloads and then diplays the daily paper. This is one of those “green” solutions that companies are looking at and supposedly there’s working prototypes and such.

    Now, imagine that appliied to comics. I think that would be cool because it would be a digital format, but still scratch that physicality (i.e. turning pages, etc.) that comes with comics. If this is a step toward that goal, that would be pretty damn sweet.

  5. I think it’s mostly different because Zudacomics is a completely different animal than this.

    Zuda is new web comics.

    Marvel is showing off a TON of older, classic comics with characters that most people are familiar with, therefore more interesting to the general public. Mostly everyone knows who The Hulk, Spider-Man and The X-Men, if nothing else than from the movies.

    I think both are great, but this is much cooler in the context of comics history, which I am a big fan of. Even though I like DC characters better, I can only imagaine how much time I will lose looking at archived Marvel stuff that I’ve never read before.

  6. On the other iFanboy forum there’s a discussion of digital comics with links to articles about the “ePaper” viewer that you’re describing, Neb. Sorry I don’t have the direct link.

    Why the buzz for MDCU and not Zuda? 1) I think Marvel’s PR is definitely better than DC’s but mostly 2) Size matters. Marvel put 2,700 comics online of characters that the public knows. Characters that have or will star in major movies. That’s a bigger story for the wider public. Zuda put a half dozen comics online with unknown characters.

  7. Oh, and thanks for the intensive review, Ron.

  8. Nate and Tad, thanks.
    You both are right. I just sometimes look at this things from a whole different perspective.

  9. I am a member and was very intersted in this new development. I live in Madrid and I was very keen to see if Marvel would be supplying current comics on this but like you Ron I was disappointed to see that they weren’t. This means I have to buy my comics every time I go home to London. This can be annoying when a few months go by without a trip home and I end up missing certain issues like buffy number 5. Comic shops in london are awful in keeping back issues these days

  10. Note to self: Hire Ron to design my website. On a serious note, in light of the WGA, strike does anyone know how much kickback the creators recieve in royalties with this?

  11. I thought the name “Digital Comics Unlimited” was funny too, but in my case it was because the first things I noticed about it were its limitations.

    The more I think about this, though, the more I like it. I finally got to check out the samples at around 1:00 last night, and those Smart Panels were an idea whose time had come. (It occurs to me that, in addition to having someone scan each and every one of these books, the Smart Panels basically mean they had to hire someone to read every one of the books and decide where the smart panels would be on every page. I don’t even know how to put that on a resume.)

    The delivery system isn’t perfect, but it’s better than I expected. For me, this will all come down to selection and/or whether or not I’d actually have time to read what I was paying for.

  12. I just happened to be browsing Marvel earlier this week and clicked through and read Omega the Unknown #1. I had no idea this was a new launch. Marvel has had digital comics up in the past and though this looked somewhat better, it was similar.

    I’m impressed with the scope overall. The experience is still not completely satisfying. I enjoy looking at those older comics with a bright, clean picture. But sitting at my desk staring at the computer isn’t exactly my favorite way to read.

    But the content is really strong (even if a bit dated) and I think that’s what really puts it up over Zuda (which is good in its own way, and which also has some weaknesses in common with this Marvel fare).