I stopped reading comics books years ago. My house burned to the ground and took my collection with it. Never had the space or motivation to rebuild and now I’m unlikely to want to find the room to store comics again.
So when I read about Marvel Unlimited a few months ago I was somewhat intrigued at having online access to a decent chunk of their back catalogue for $69 a year. In real money that’s about £40 a year or £3.30 a month.
I haven’t bought comics for years so I didn’t really know how much they even cost these days. Apparently a single new issue online will cost you about £2.50, so it sounds like a great deal since there are a ton of issues I never got to read.
In addition to the yearly rate you can get a month of access for $9.99…so I did…
Obviously this is going to turn into a rant so let me get the good stuff out of the way first.
I love the content. It’s great. I didn’t realise how much I missed it and being able to run through entire series and search for all of the other titles that are part of a crossover set is very nice.
The thing I notice most about the content is that the artwork looks very different these days. The regular issues look more like the content you used to only see in graphic novels. The colours are warmer, the art is more realistic and everything seems more grown up. Just compare this 1968 Iron Man cover with this 2008 Iron Man one.
My problems are really all with the delivery.
How Many Readers Do You Need?
Before I bought Marvel Unlimited I was already using their Android app to read the small selection of comics they provide for free so I tried to purchase an Unlimited subscription through the app but couldn’t find any way to do it.
No matter, I went to the website, and the purchase page. I had to log into the same account that I created for the Android app to purchase the Marvel Unlimited subscription so I was pretty certain that it would be associated with it.
Once I had purchased a subscription I went to see what comics were now available for me to read in the app, and had a hard time finding them.
I killed the app and restarted it, thinking that maybe it doesn’t sync purchases except at startup, which is a reasonable thing to do.
Still no dice. Lots of comics for sale but none to read without payment except those I was already being offered for free before purchasing a subscription.
Curiouser and curiouser…maybe my purchase hadn’t been processed yet? Some period of time that needed to get past for one part of their system to talk to another part of their system? I make software and I have had to integrate with a number of company’s systems that were so badly designed that it could take hours for seemingly simple things to be actioned so I couldn’t rule out the possibility that a comic book publisher had paid some bozos to write a system that was just as bad as a lot of the banks you trust your money to.
I did what any self-respecting English gent would do. I made a cup of tea and had a think.
Then I used Google and found that Marvel has not one, but two apps to read comic books with!
One App Good, Two Apps Bad
Yes, two different apps to read comic books with, one is called Marvel Comics (MC), the other Marvel Unlimited (MU).
Surely they can’t have created a completely separate app just for reading comics through your Marvel Unlimited subscription, can they?
Hold on, actually, get this, you can also purchase comics to keep in the MU app…just like the MC app. Now, I’m not entirely sure where I would have to read those comics if I bought them in the MU app…both? Would I be able to read comics I bought in the MC app in the MU app? Probably? Help?
Oh fine, I’ll go buy a comic and find out what happens.
So, in the MU app when looking at the comics information page there is an “Own It” call-to-action with a price in US Dollars. Selecting it I was directed to a website to make the purchase, with no back-link to the app I used to get there. After purchasing it and going back to the MU app it still says I can purchase it. Clearly the MU app knows nothing about your purchased books, it’s simply able to direct you to purchase them elsewhere.
Opening up the MC app I have access to the comic I purchased. So, MC is for purchases and MU is for subscriptions…which makes no sense to me now than five minutes ago.
Trying from the MC side I get a completely different info page style with a price to purchase in GB Pounds. Selecting it gives me an in-app purchase dialogue at which point I cancelled. The MC app handles purchases in-app and MU directs you to a different website. Why?
Maybe there is a really good reason for having two apps. I put this into the same category of likelihood as there being a good reason to nail my balls to the kitchen table but I’m happy for anyone at Marvel to educate me on this one. Then maybe they can tell me why they have two apps.
One of the first things I noticed with the Marvel website is that it is very slow. 5-7 seconds is not uncommon to get the item page for an individual comic. If it was only the website this wouldn’t really a huge issue for me. It’s not just the web site though.
I often have the app stall completely when attempting to load a comic and have to cancel and retry. They do however have a way of mitigating this, the ability to download a number of comics, ostensibly for offline reading, to your device. Once this is done you can read them without having to wait for download. It’s not without its own problems though.
There is a lot of content available to Marvel Unlimited users. A lot of content. So in addition to searching through the database every time you want to read something you can select those things that you’re interested in reading from the complete list and have these available in a section called My Library.
In addition to marking things that you want to read for later you can download a limited number of titles to your device for offline reading, currently 12, although I think that used to be lower from browsing some forum posts on the subject.
I use this feature for all reading since MU seems to be pretty flaky when it comes to downloading something immediately and it also means I’m never surprised when I go into a tunnel on the tube and want to continue reading a series.
The set of comics selected for offline reading is displayed in a horizontal bar at the top of the items in your library. On my devices (Nexus 4 and Nexus 7) this allows you to see three titles.
The offline list has one huge problem, at least on my devices, in that swiping left and right to see the rest of the items in the set will, more often than not, select one of the items that your swipe first touches.
This means it can take forever, okay, maybe minutes, to get to one of the items in the offline reading set to access it because you will continually go to the detail page for a title when you really want to swipe to the end of the list of downloaded titles.
This isn’t a problem if you’re reading a series in order and want to just go to the next one, titles generally have a link to the next in series at the end of the content, but it does mean that if you have two different series in your offline set you are better off searching through your entire library or using the general search feature to find the title because you could be there for a while trying to swipe along to it.
Absent Or Useless Toggles
To put a title in your offline list you need to tell the system that you want to select it for offline reading. Fair enough. Sometimes, however, the toggle that allows this isn’t shown or simply does not work.
Below are screen-shots from my Nexus 4 showing the screen for the same title reached two different ways. The left is what you see when you navigate to the title directly from your library and allows you to select it for offline reading.
The one on the right is when you have finished reading the previous title and it offers you the choice of reading the next one. Note it has text asking “Read Offline?” but with a red padlock to the right of it now, and grey text underneath stating “Members Only”.
On my Nexus 7 it only ever shows a screen like the left one above, but the “Read Offline” toggle simply doesn’t work if I have reached the screen at the end of reading the previous title.
Weird, inconsistent, confusing and not very useful.
Arc Reactor Required
My only other real problem right now is that the app is also a bit of a power hog when the device is meant to be sleeping. This is not uncommon in apps but is really annoying when you put your device to sleep, throw it in your bag, only to find later that the MU app has been chewing through your battery the whole time.
I’m not here solely to complain, I’m just good at it. I’ve also got some ideas other than fixing the above bugs.
It would be great if the system recorded which titles you had read. After going through 4 or 5 titles I probably don’t recall exactly which cover or numbers I have read so having the system record this would be really, really useful.
Presumably for people who already have a real collection the ability to mark things as already having been read so you can filter them out of search results would also be useful.
Form An Orderly Queue
When it comes to offline reading why are we allowed 12? Why any particular number? If the device only allows you to read the content whilst your subscription is current then why do we need a fixed limit on the number of titles you can download for offline viewing?
I think a better method would be to allow us to order all the titles in our library into a queue for reading and have the top few be automatically downloaded.
I currently spend a lot of time manually selecting, and after reading, de-selecting things for offline viewing. This is incredibly tedious, and with a better interface would be unnecessary.
On A More Positive Note
All of the things that currently bug me about the Marvel apps are really quite easy to fix given a modicum of motivation to improve the experience, and I can’t wait until they get on it.
Did I mention I love their content? Right, off to finish the Fear Itself story arcs.
20 June 2014 - marvel unlimited comic books digital comics android app