(Originally written for tumblr, posted here after it got a bit lengthy for that, with a trimmed down version over on tumblr itself)
So, the first comic I’ve had any real interest in rushing out to buy new in the last couple of years is coming out on the 20th October [insert obligatory Deadpool & Cable: Split Second plug here] as a ‘digital first series in Marvel’s Infinite Comics format’. Given that all my past experience with ‘digital comics’ has generally begun with either an ebay listing or a bittorrent link, that’s a lot of terms I haven’t really seen outside the odd X-Axis review. Now, however, I’ve got a title I want to see do well, and that means both buying it the minute it hits the stands and convincing as many others as possible to do the same. Obviously, this was my cue it was time to take one for the team here and investigate exactly what ‘digital first Marvel Infinite’ means, in terms of what they’re selling us and how.
Digital distribution channels have come a long way in the last few years, but can still be a little impenetrable to the newcomer – the release calendar on the Marvel website doesn’t even seem to cover digital-first releases, and that’s before you even get into comiXology versus the Marvel store or Marvel Infinite vs Marvel Unlimited versus a half-dozen other marginally different ways of selling you basically the same thing with a few different restrictions. What existing Internet guides I could find to this morass appear to consist largely of puff pieces or reviews of one particular service, frequently long out of date. Time to do some independent research.
In the last couple of weeks, I’ve signed up for no less than three different distribution services, picked up as many free titles as were available, and spent roughly $12 USD. Time and effort were by far the greater expenditure, and that much I can share for free. What follows is a quick overview of your options for (legally) getting hold of a digital copy of a Marvel comic. Some of this will also apply to buying digital comics from DC or any other distributor, but I haven’t looked that far into finding out how non-Marvel-related alternatives compare. They’re out there, but not covered here.
Let’s start out with a quick glossary of a few key nouns.
Marvel Unlimited: A library-like subscription-based service granting you unlimited access to a large back-catalogue of older comics for a flat $9.99 per month fee. Great for archive binges, not so great for access to new stuff. (more detail)
“Free” Digital Copies: Many Marvel print comics now come bundled with codes that will give you access to a complimentary digital copy for no extra charge. You’ll have to wait a couple of months to get hold of a digital-first issue this way, however.
Marvel Infinite: An imprint covering a subset of Marvel’s digital releases, specifically for comics written to take advantage of features that are only available in digital format. Unrelated to Marvel Unlimited, despite the names.
Guided View: Guided view is a reading option for digital comics which will take you panel-to-panel in a preset sequence, rather than just dumping the whole page on your screen at once. Nice when it works, just annoying when it doesn’t – fortunately, it’s usually possible to turn it off. Much of Marvel Infinite exists to make best use of these sorts of features.
(Yes, that’s apparently the officially spelling – small ‘c’, capital ‘x’. The nineties live on, folks.) ComiXology is currently the main hub for comic distribution internationally, for both the big name publishers and many smaller indie outfits. In addition to their huge library of existing issues for sale, you can find release dates and pre-order or subscribe to specific titles in advance to their actually becoming available (though you may need to know exactly what you’re looking for to get that far), and the FAQ section leaves Marvel’s own to shame. You can buy from them using either a credit card or PayPal – PayPal having the advantage that you don’t have to have a credit card to sign up and use the service, just a bank account. Prices look to be the same basically wherever you’re buying from, at around $1.99-3.99 USD for your typical issue depending on age, page count and the like. Even allowing for Australia’s presently miserable exchange rate, that’s a lot cheaper than what I’ve paid buying print comics locally, so big score there. There are also a number of issues available for free if you’d like to get a feel for how the system works without having to fork over any cash right away.
Many older titles are also available in bundles at a reduced rate, similar to how you’d buy them in trade, though the savings may not be that much improved over what they cost digitally issue by issue. For example, if you buy every issue of Cable & Deadpool at $1.99 each, you’ll be paying a few cents short of $104 for the lot, but if you buy them all in trade, the price goes down to $94, saving you a whopping total of ten bucks, or around 20 cents per issue. Still significantly less than you’ll pay for hard copies though, especially down my end of the world.
The upside of the comiXology system is that it makes your purchases very accessible – every comic you’ve bought from them will be listed under your account, and can be viewed in your browser anywhere you log in, including via aps on various mobile devices. The downside – and it’s a fairly significant one – is that you can’t necessarily read your purchases offline. comiXology does have a feature allowing you to download DRM free backups of your comics in pdf or cbz format (ie, versions you can copy to a USB or read using non-comiXology software), but only if the publisher has decided to make that feature available. Perhaps unsurprisingly, neither Marvel nor DC have bothered. There are apps for Apple or Android devices that do apparently let you download comics and read them offline, but no comparable program you can use on PC (an existing Windows 8 app has apparently been retired and is no longer for sale), and reviews of the apps that still exist are somewhat mixed. In the absence of DRM-free versions you’re basically stuck reading comics in the precise format they deign to allow you to read them, and that remains one of the larger critiques of the system as it exists that I’ve seen thus far.
The search function on the comiXology main page also leaves something to be desired. You can search by title, publisher, genre or creator, and you can browse by category such as free comics or guided-view comics, but there’s no obvious way to search for, say, for Spider-man titles which use guided view, or Marvel comics available for free, or comics under $2 that will be available to buy within the next month. From a dedicated online store that seems like a surprising omission in this day and age.
The Marvel Comic Store
The Marvel Comic store is basically a stripped-down version of comiXology that sells only Marvel titles, though with a few extra bugs in the interface. Signing up at one or the other does not, however, automatically give you a working account at the other site – they’re functionally separate services, even though they charge the same for the same products. Theoretically it’s possible to link your accounts between the two so that purchases from one are accessible via the other, but after several tries I’ve got nothing but error messages, so clearly there are some bugs remaining at the very least.
Given that the Marvel store is comiXology only with fewer comics available, is there any point using them instead? Well, you can get a discount for purchases from the Marvel store if you’ve also signed up for the annual-plus version of the Marvel Unlimited service (not that I can see much to recommend an annual-plus account otherwise), and a few things like, say, finding all the free Marvel issues available right now are very easy to do in the Marvel store while being very difficult through comiXology. It’s also probably going to be the better way to go if you’re very sure you’ll only want to buy Marvel comics, but otherwise, you’re probably better off sticking with the original.
Here’s where the options start getting complicated. While comiXology or the Marvel store will charge you a flat cover price per comic and let you read it at your leisure, Marvel Unlimited (not to be confused with Marvel Infinite) is a service which charges you a flat monthly rate for access to everything in the back catalogue for as long as you keep paying your subscription. While there’s a great wealth of comics available through the service, it does come with two major caveats: new comics don’t become available through MU until they’ve been out for six months through the usual channels, and many older titles (particularly those predating the service) haven’t been made available there yet.
Subscriptions go for $9.99 per month, or $69 for a whole year at a pretty hefty discount. There’s also an ‘annual plus’ option, which will charge you $99 a year with a few bonus features, though I can’t say I found the pitch all that enticing myself. I suspect most of us will probably get best value out of the service by paying for a month here or there and spending it going on a massive binge through the back-catalogue, but it’s not going to be much use if there’s exactly one new comic you want to read as it comes out. If you want to read Split Second that way, for example, you’re going to be waiting until around September next year for all six currently solicited issues to go up on the Unlimited system.
While they’re superficially similar, Marvel Unlimited isn’t powered by comiXology, and the interface for viewing comics is just different enough from the comiXology one for the differences to be annoying. It also frustratingly doesn’t accept PayPal, only credit card purchases. It also lacks a proper storefront making clear what comics are available. New or popular releases to MU are prominently displayed, but to access an older title, you have to find it on the Marvel website, navigate to the issues list (click ‘comics’, hover over ‘browse’, click ‘series’, scroll down to alphabetical listing, find the actual title and click on that) – then hit a checkbox to limit the listing to MU available issues. You can then click an individual issue to read it, assuming it’s actually available. Again, there’s an ap which may be better designed, but again, it’s available for mobile devices only. Making the whole process worse, the ‘search’ filter for the series index is furiously literal. A search for ‘Deadpool’ returns only titles beginning with Deadpool and a search for ‘Deadpool and Cable’ returns nothing – the search wants you to type an & rather than ‘and’. Once one has forked over the money for the service, actual usability seems to have taken second place. I’d recommend forgetting the series index and just going straight to the search bar at the top, except that that sent me to a broken link when I tried to find the Deadpool & Cable issues that came out in 2010-2011, and it suffered the same confusion over ampersands too. Clearly there’s no actually guaranteed way of making the system work.
Also badly lacking is the infrastructure to help you navigate through crossover events where the core action takes place round-robin style through several different books. Navigation will automatically take you to the next issue of whatever series you’re reading when you finish the one you’re on, but there’s no allowance to redirect you from, say Uncanny X-Men #523 to New Mutants #12, even when that’s precisely the order you need to read to follow 2010′s Second Coming event. There’s a list of all the issues, but I had to resort to google to find even that, as it wasn’t even listed under the event index, and the internal search directed me to a blank page. After all that, the list linked above isn’t even in order and still won’t direct you through the narrative corectly if you start from that page. Quite frankly, if you asked me tomorrow for a legal way to read that event, I’d suggest paying your $9.99 for the good of your conscience then going to bittorrent for copies of the actual issues. Many other older events aren’t listed at all. The ap may have things better arranged, but the website interface for events like this isn’t worth the trouble.
This is all the more frustrating because what Marvel Unlimited offers is otherwise a damn good deal, even if I doubt I’ll personally ever end up buying more than a month or two worth of subscription per year.
If you’re looking for Cable & Deadpool related titles on Marvel Unlimited, I’m going to go ahead and save you some time now -- here’s a link list I compiled earlier this week while trying out the service, summarising all the relevant comics I could find that were up there, and the few that weren’t.
And that, in somewhat more than a nutshell, is your options for getting hold of digital Marvel titles nowadays. As it stands, it's hardly a system without its faults -- much as I sympathise with any developer tasked with managing a back catalogue as vast as that of the big two, lord knows I've seen the same online distribution issues handled better for other media. But as a means to support a new title soon coming up on sale, there's still a lot to recommend it, even over and above the traditional channels I've used before.