Sunday, October 19, 2014

Like Netflix, Only for Comics

I periodically encounter bouts of insomnia for various reasons: anxieties, changes in the weather, throwing my own circadian rhythms out of whack, but most often I'm kept up late baing caught up in a story that is not my own. Sometimes it is a news article or blog posting, other times it is a novel, but lately, it's been due to comic books.

When I bought the BluRay for Captain America: The Winter Soldier, it came with a promotional offer for something called Marvel Unlimited; a one month trial (normally $10) for only 99 cents.

Marvel Unlimited is an internet-based subscription service that lets you access up to 15,000 Marvel comics, ranging from the formative days of the Marvel Universe in the early 1960s, up to ones that hit the newsstands only a few months ago.

Ideally suited to iPad aficionados like myself, I thought Marvel Unlimited was an intriguing idea, and certainly worth exploring for a mere 99 cents US. After a brief registration and payment process, followed by downloading the free app, I was ready to begin exploring.

The interface is fairly friendly for the most part, letting you browse that week's new releases (Wednesday is new comic day! Boy, it's been a while since I remembered that...), or peruse the extensive library. Sorting by title can be a little tricky, what with the multiplicity of similar sounding titles, or multiple editions that have the same name.

You can also sort by creator name, in order to track down a favourite writer or artist (or letterer or colourist for that matter), and you can further narrow down that search by character or title as well. In this case, Frank Miller, whose legendary turn on Daredevil is one of the things that pulled me into collecting comics when I was 13.

The 'Discover' page of MU is designed to show off the newest releases and most influential events, so it is currently highlight in Civil War, a massive crossover event from 2006. This title-spanning series not only pit hero against hero over the idea that super-powered beings might not have the same expectations of privacy as 'normal' folks, but is also apparently the notion behind Robert Downey Jr. appearing as Iron Man in the next Captain America film, so they can square off on the silver screen like they did on the printed page.

Some of these events can impact up to a dozen different titles (Secret Wars, I'm looking at you), so being able to simply click on one such event and follow it through all the attendant crossovers is a delight (and at $3-$4 a title, a real relief on the old pocketbook, I don't mind telling you!). Take last year's "AVX" event, which put the Avengers against the X-Men, as they decide how best to handle the potential return of The Phoenix.
Sure, I'm coming to the party after most of the guests have left, but I am having just as good a time, and there is no lineup at the buffet.

Having access to a comics stash that is, for all intents and purposes at least, inexhaustible, has enabled me to do a few different things, the first of which is to revisit old favourites, like Frank Miller's Daredevil run, or Mike Baron's on The Punisher. Rediscovering 'period' titles, like '70s favorite Power Man and Iron Fist has been a treat too.

The second thing it has let me do is to fill in gaps in the canon of beloved characters like Daredevil. With the Netflix TV series featuring ol' Hornhead coming early next year, there has been a lot of mention of favourite story arcs in the comics. Some of these, like the Elektra saga, Born Again, or his revisionist origin story, Man Without Fear, I had already read (since they were all Frank Miller, I suppose). It turns out some of the stories from Brian Michael Bendis were equally memorable or influential as well, such as a courtroom drama where his alter ego Matt Murdock, a prominent New York attorney, defends White Tiger, another costumed vigilante, in court.

Instead of gambling on a trade paperback collection, I can dip into the series and peruse these influential tales at my leisure. In fact, one of the fill-in tales during the Bendis reign turned out to be a cracking courtyard drama that involves a wealthy businessman suing Daredevil for damaging his greenhouse during a fight - and hiring Matt Murdock to do it. The mystery ran for six issues and kept me guessing up until the very end, and turns out to have been written by Bob Gale, one of the co-writers of the Back To The Future trilogy. I never would have come across it without Marvel Universe, and an offhand reference by Vincent D'Onofrio (who, by the way, I think is a fantastic choice to play The Kingpin) to Bendis' work.

Likewise, lots of people have tremendously good things to say about Matt Fraction and David Aja's much more recent monthly book Hawkeye, featuring the Archery Avenger on his days away from that group. What a tremendous comic! Art reminiscent of David Mazzuchelli's Batman: Year One, and dialogue straight out of Moonlighting, it was compelling all the way through their run.

(Also, I was very glad to see trick arrows returning not only to this comic, but also to Arrow on TV.)

The last thing MU lets me do is keep (relatively) current. There are a lot of neat things happening in comics now, but I just don't have it in me to head down to Happy Harbor every week or so and grab the latest issues as they come out. I've preferred collected editions like trade paperbacks for years now, and the only exception I am willing to make is for Saga by Brian K. Vaughn and Fiona Staples, which I buy digitally in addition to the TP. I did buy the first issues of Captain Marvel and Ms. Marvel for the girls, and while they enjoyed them, none of us found it compelling enough to purchase too many further issues. With MU, we can now keep (mostly) up, and stay abreast of current developments in the Marvel Universe.

Another recent title I've found really interesting is the reimagining of Ghost Rider from flaming skull motorcycling stuntman Johnny Blaze to East L.A. teenager (and muscle car fan) Robbie Reyes. I'm only two issues in, and they are playing the origin fairly cagey, but the art and design in this book is way beyond anything in the spinner racks I frequented as an adolescent.

Being able to follow along on as many new(ish) comics as I can read in a month as a subscriber for less than the cost of two issues off the newsstand (a year's access is $69) is a pretty good deal, as I see it. If you happen to see me yawning or rubbing bloodshot eyes during the week, Marvel Unlimited is probably to blame. Feel free to ask me what's keeping me up, especially if you have a soft spot for larger than life heroes battling it out panel by panel on the both the printed page and the iPad screen.

UPDATED: I guess if I am going to tag this as a review, I should include some of the shortcomings of Marvel Unlimited.  One of these would be the occasional crash, but this may be related to my recent adoption of iOS 8, so I don't want to blame MU without cause

Double page spreads are handled pretty poorly, generally speaking; in portrait orientation, when you try to enlarge the picture, the software 'docks' it, which makes the bottom quarter or so slide off the bottom of the screen and be unreadable, unless you manually drag it up and hold it in place, which is, indeed, a drag.  Turning the iPad on its side will usually give you the full spread, but sometimes they aren't coded correctly, so you end up with a tiny 2-page splash on the left of your screen and a third one on the right.  Nothing insurmountable, but the comments in the review section of the app seem to indicate this has been an issue for some time.

Far worse, however, is the tendency for incomplete comics to be posted as though they are intact.  I downloaded the first issue of "Dr. Strange: The Oath", but after reaching the fifth page, the comic ended, and I was prompted to read the next issue. Something similar happened to Daredevil #28, where I believe the story ended two pages early, since the final page lacked the "To Be Continued" tag all the other issues in the arc had.  Does this happen often?  Thankfully, no, but if you've read the first five issues of a story and this happens to the sixth, your disappointment is likely to be palpable.

Something similar happened when I read "Old Man Logan", a post-apocalyptic tale set 50 years after all the superheroes have been killed or driven underground.  When I got to the fourth part of the six-issue tale, I got a message saying I couldn't read it as I was not connected to the internet.  This was strange and annoying since a) I had downloaded all six issues to my iPad in anticipation of reading it offline anyhow, and b) I was at home and actually was connected to the internet at the time!

I emailed the folks at Marvel to see about getting this sorted out, and didn't receive the perfunctory 'Thanks for letting us know, we will do what we can' email for 13 days.  Now, I'm a reasonable man, and I understand how resources work, and I appreciate that there are only so many resources to go around, especially with a lot of the Marvel back-catalog waiting to get added to the library, but from a customer service perspective, that is a pretty brutal turnaround time when all you are saying is 'we're dancing as fast as we can'.  (On the plus side though, I just checked, and it appears to be downloadable and viewable now.)

One positive element I left out of the original post is the ability I alluded to above: being able to download up to 12 issues to your portable device so you can read them offline.  This would be of limited use if you are going camping or on a transatlantic flight, but is more than enough content for a three hour wait in the periodontist's office, just to give one example.  Being away from wifi for extended periods is becoming rarer and rarer in today's world, but even when it happens, there are other apps if you want to scratch that comics itch while travelling.

There are a few other glitchy little things, and I would appreciate some sort of bookmarking to make it easier to pick up where I left off when I get pulled away from a series, but none of them, including the ones I've listed, are what I would consider to be deal breakers.  I think it is in Marvel's best interests to correct these issues and work to improve their level of responsiveness for customer service, but in the meantime, I will continue to be a subscriber; even if 1 in every 50 comics has some sort of issue, that still leaves me over 10,000 to check out.

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