Marvel Digial Comics, First Impressions

As reported yesterday, Marvel Comics has launched a new service that offers its comic books online. The service has a selection of 250 free samples (for a “limited time”), with a catalog of 2,500 for $59.88 annually or $9.99 monthly. I have a lot to say on the matter of digital comics, but for now I’ll write about the service itself.

First, it’s all done in Flash. Flash is widely compatible with most computers (but not the iPhone), so you shouldn’t have much trouble with it, but it can be quite slow on some machines. (Also the site’s new, so it’s getting more traffic than its servers can handle right now, but that’ll cool down in a day or two.) In an interview with Marvel’s Editor-in-Chief Joe Quesada and Vice President of Online Operations and Marketing John Dokes, Douglas Wolk asks about why they’re keeping it all on the site instead of offering downloads. Quesada’s response is that fans won’t want to have to store all the data, which is a dodge. A PDF download would let me take it on my iPhone, but it’d also let me print the comics out, email them to friends, or post them online. There’s an obvious business reason why Marvel wouldn’t want to have their stuff out there, but if their new online push is an effort to combat bootlegging that’s already going on, putting out an inferior product won’t help too much. Apple succeeded with iTunes because, though it had DRM, the restrictions were reasonable enough that they didn’t get in most people’s way. The Flash presentation is fine, but Quesada could just say that he doesn’t want people downloading them and trading them around because he wants his artists to get paid. Note also in the interview that he says he’s going to share revenue with the creators, which is a direct reference to the current Hollywood writer’s strike.

Marvel’s service is a subscription plan. You’re not buying anything when you sign up, so when you stop paying for your subscription, you lose access to the comics. For most people this probably won’t be a big deal. They’ll read the comics once and move on. But consider that for your $60 you could have bought softcover collections of those same comics that you get to own forever.

The presentation of the site itslef is very nicely done. The default view places two pages onscreen at once, which is great for looking at the art, but it makes reading text difficult. Switching to viewing one page at a time gives you a nicer close-up view, but you miss out on experiencing the whole page as one image. Finally, they have a “smart panels” view which zooms in on each panel individually, something their earlier “dot comics” system did also, and it works quite well. None of it matches up to actually holding a book in your hand, but overall it’s a nice experience.

The system also popped up a little box that recommended that I type in my zip code to find a local comic shop near me, which is very smart of Marvel. They need to drive people from the online service to their monthly comics, so making it easy to find a comic book store is important.

Marvel claims to have 2,500 books online now (though only 10% are available for free), with “hundreds” more going up each week. Of the free selection, here are some highlights worth checking out:

I’m sure I missed some other key stories that they’ve posted, but that’ll get you started.