Marvel Digital Comics Unlimited: close enough?

English: Logo of Marvel Comics I knew it was some time last Holiday season when I last looked at the Marvel Digital Comic subscriptions, but I hadn’t realized it was a year ago today that I posted my review. As I tidied up my trial last year, the two big things I remember sticking out to me were that the digital catalog didn’t include newer titles, and the even bigger negative, it was only available in flash enabled browsers running on a desktop.

They are catching up

Looking at the digital release calendar, it looks like quite a few titles are running about 13 months behind. Not perfect for your avid, die hard comic book reader – but for your employed, middle aged (oh god, did I just say that?) comic reader looking for some fun in their down time, its perfect. In addition to filling in recent titles (with an understandable gap – they need to make money still), the back catalog is filling in nicely. When I looked at MDCU last year, Amazing Spider-Man had only a handful of issues. Now you can read most of issues 500-687 online, with older issues scheduled to go up in March (I’m not clear on their release cycle, but it looks like its quarterly bulk updates). This is a significant amount of comic book reading, folks.

Now on the iPad, kind of

I know, first world tech dependencies, yada yada yada, but it really does mean a lot in this modern age to have access to digital content away from your computer. I think the appeal of smart phones and tablets to the popular consumer is actually just that – they don’t want a computer, but until the advent of these devices it was the only way the could access digital content online. And nothing screams needing to be readable on the tablet to the modern geek than comics.

Currently, we have applications like Comixology and Marvel’s own branded version of that app. Disappointingly, even when you tie your MCDU account to the app, you can’t browse the MCDU collection. I was somewhat dismayed when I discovered this, in part because I decided to opt for a year’s subscription on the promise that they were in beta with iOS reading, and that it was available to everyone.

And then I tried it in a web browser (Chrome at first, and then in Safari on the iPad).

Its not perfect. In fact, its a bit awkward at times, because the browser pane is less than a full screen what with the header bars and tabs and whatnot. Its certainly not as usable as the native comic reading apps, which let you read a panel at a time and handle the transitions for you. But there is an art to it, if you try. You can fit a whole comic page on a single screen, making the text just this side of readable, and there is way to swipe between the pages that I almost have mastered. The advancement here is that  Marvel has found a way to break away from the Flash dependency, which makes their content suddenly available to folks on Apple devices.

Like I said, its a touch awkward, but the payoff is you have in your hands, sitting on your couch, access to the Marvel library.

Attention Marvel: use a style sheet!

Its not all roses and smiles. More distracting than the awkward navigation options while reading the comics is the MCDU site itself. I’m no expert on these things (I tend to spend my days between the OS layer and the presentation layer), but as I understand it sometime in the 1990’s browsers started supporting something called a cascading style sheet. Its arguable that the use of the site on mobile devices is a recent advent and that Marvel hasn’t had a chance to address this yet.

I hate arguing.

What I can tell you is that there is no mobile or tablet aware version of their site right now. Which means the clutter of ajax that works well with a mouse is awkward and difficult to navigate with a stubby, tree-trunk shaped finger on a touch screen. Getting to a comic will involve a lot of pinching, scrolling, and back buttons as you try and get to what you’re after. And be warned, even then the content isn’t guaranteed. I was intrigued by a volume one offering of Ant Man comics (I’d never read any, figured here was my chance to dive in). I clicked on it and was brought to…the Ant Man volume 1 screen. I clicked and was brought to…the Ant Man volume 1 screen. Yes, you just got to experience the same frustrating loop I did, except you probably didn’t blame the size of your fingertips for it the first time.

The clincher – it was %30 off of the already reduced “50% off” price

And that really is the clincher here. At @$40 for a year’s worth of access, that’s what made this worth it to me. My fun budget is small and quickly spent on books and apps. Its a small budget because I spend it frivolously, and that’s for the better. Being able to afford the MCDU for a year means I just bought a year’s entertainment at less than $5 a month, and you can’t beat that. The offer is only good for the rest of December, so if your convinced this is for you still, you’ll need to act fast.



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