The State of Comics on the iPad

I, like many adults, used to collect comics. I owned dozens of long boxes, filled to the brim with various copies of X-Men, Spider-Man and Detective. But I eventually traded comic books for cars, and shortly thereafter my collection went away, sold to a man for pennies on the dollar.

Three years ago, I started collecting again. But I didn’t end up in a dusty comic book shop that smelled of vanilla and shame, but instead from the comfort of my living room using the many popular iPad apps built by Comixology. And recently, the game changed again with Marvel Unlimited. But the shape of the online comic book landscape still isn’t that bright. How so? Let’s find out.

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The Beginning

When I first saw the iPad, I thought, “This would be great for comic books and magazines!” and I was right. It took a bit, but soon magazines were flourishing on the iPad with their own apps, and eventually, on Newsstand. But comics? They came out of the gate shortly thereafter, led by Comixology. Now I don’t know the behind-the-scenes story of how they came to be, but what I do know is that they started making apps for DC, Marvel, Dark Horse and Image, which meant that they had the iPad comic book industry sewn up.

Now this system — which still stands today — isn’t without its flaws. Major titles can still command retail prices, which seems a little bit ridiculous for a title that you can only store locally — yes, there’s no way to back up your comics, other than trusting Comixology. Having the latest issue delivered to you in stunning Retina-quality graphics while you sit on the can is fantastic and all that, but the initial price and restrictions are a bit steep.

The Marvel Unlimited Play

Marvel already has a Comixology app, and it’s great. But they also have decades of content out there, and it would get pretty pricey to buy all that up, even at the discounted $0.99 rate that most older comics command. Even though Marvel did stand to make some money by continuing on with the status quo, they decided instead to switch things up and come up with their own app, Marvel Unlimited.

Yes, you can view things offline, but it just doesn't look or function very well.

Yes, you can view things offline, but it just doesn’t look or function very well.

The easiest way to describe MU is like this: It’s Netflix for Marvel comic books. You pay a monthly (or yearly) subscription fee, and you get access to the thousands of Marvel comics that they offer on the app. Now they don’t have new titles (they don’t want to kill their Comixology sales, after all), but most come out between six months to a year after their debut. For example, you can read the Age of Ultron series right now, and it came out in March of 2013. It’s amazing. It’s also quite frustrating.

See, MU isn’t perfect. The app has a ton of flaws, including missing pages, improperly labelled covers, poor search results and more, which means that it’s really more of an advanced beta than anything. Admittedly, it’s gotten a ton better since its release a few months ago, but it does still have quite a few kinks.

The Band-Aid

All that said, MU does solve a pretty basic problem that online comic fans have had for quite a long time now: ownership. If you’re a Netflix user, you probably get it already, but here’s the gist. If you have access to any movie you want at any time you want, then there’s no reason to own a physical (or downloaded) copy of it, right? Now apply that principle to comics, and that’s MU. In theory, that means that you don’t have to worry about whether or not Comixology stays afloat, you just have to keep your MU subscription paid up. And that’s a very important distinction.

However, MU only covers Marvel comics, which leaves out millions of other titles. There’s no Batman, Superman, Green Lantern or Wonder Woman to read, and that’s just on the DC side. Throw in the great titles at Image, Dark Horse and other independent comic companies, and there’s a lot more that you’ll miss. The problem is that it seems unlikely that all of those publishers would do their own systems, and even if they did, the costs could get exorbitant for the average reader.

Stating the Obvious

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention one of the other alternatives to purchasing your comics on your iPad: piracy. Look, what you do with your time online is up to you, so I’m not going to get all preachy here by any means. Obviously, piracy is illegal, and that’s not something that we condone here at AppStorm. Yes, we do understand that publishers of any media online should make said media available for purchase and posession, and if they don’t, piracy is one of the options for fans of the genre. We just can’t rubber stamp that as OK.

I'm pretty sure he's supposed to say something poignant here.

I’m pretty sure he’s supposed to say something poignant here.

But like music before it, comic books do need to have a better option for purchasing and locally backing up materials. When Comixology went dark in March of this past year, thousands of people (including myself) were left without any option for viewing the comics that they purchased themselves. Unless it happened to be on that specific device, they couldn’t read it. That’s a problem.

The Fix

What needs to happen with comics seems unlikely to ever take place. Ultimately, comic book publishers need to get out of their silos and become DRM free. Although Image went out on a limb and did that on their own, it’s not enough. That means that all of the Image comics that I’ve bought from Comixology don’t count, and I have to do it all over again through Image’s system. Although that’s cool for future purchases, that doesn’t help me with what I’ve already bought. It’s also just one publisher, and the rest need to go, too.

Until that happens, the next best option (for Marvel fans, anyway) is Marvel Unlimited. It’s flawed, somewhat broken and doesn’t work that great, but if you want thousands of comics at your disposal, it’s the only way to go.


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