Digital comics just feel like a good idea. And it turns out in practice they’re pretty great as well; there’s something immensely satisfying about swiping from panel to panel in the Comixology Marvel or DC Comics iPad apps. Before I first played with the new generation of digital comics I was worried that the flow of a comic book page would be destroyed by going from panel to panel, but in all but the most complex, interconnected layouts it feels like the way comics were meant to be read.

So why do I own so few digital comics? Right now I’m blaming Marvel.


Marvel’s been the big leader in digital comics. Their Marvel Digital Comics Unlimited subscription service is actually sort of amazing. If you go in for a year subscription you’re paying five bucks a month to get access to thousands of comics, many of which hold incredible interest to hardcore comic geeks. One example is their great collection of Timely Comics from the 40s, giving modern readers long runs of wacky classic comics without buying the sort of prestige collections to which they’re usually relegated. And over a few years the Unlimited service has built up a huge number of books, like the first 100 issues of Amazing Spider-Man or massive runs of X-Men and Fantastic Four. All for five bucks a month. The catch is that you don’t own the books, which are never downloaded to your hard drive, but at the price point – and with the huge selection – this seems reasonable.


Marvel was also first out the gate with an iPad app, working with Comixology to have a reader available on launch day. But here’s where things get gooey: your Marvel Digital Comics Unlimited subscription doesn’t apply to the Marvel app. And to make matters worse, since Unlimited uses Flash you can’t access it on your iPad or iPhone. This is a big problem. The iPad is the perfect comic reading device, and while I hope you bought one for reasons beyond reading funny books it’s almost ideally designed for that purpose. 


The Comixology app (which you can get on its own and access books from just about every publisher that has digital comics, or that you can get as specific Marvel or DC branded apps) is great. The interface is simple, and the panel transitions – which I’m assuming someone somewhere has to actually create – are wonderful and almost cinematic. You know those stupid motion comics that were in vogue for a hot second two years ago? Well, this is like those motion comics if they didn’t suck and were pretty much just flashy ways of going from panel to panel. Best of all, the Comixology apps all allow you to buy comics in the app, without having to break out to a web store (which the iPad Kindle app still makes me do for some reason). You can find books by browsing author, artist, character, title or even storyline/arc. The look and feel of the app is top notch, and the folks at Comixology should be proud.


The inability to access your Digital Comics Unlimited on the iPad wouldn’t be so bad… if the Marvel app itself wasn’t so lacking in content. I don’t know how the decisions were made when launching this app, but they were all made wrong. 500 books were available on launch, and there are apparently 600 or so on there… but it feels like a sparse collection of almost random books. Part of this comes from the fact that titles relaunch semi-yearly now, so there could two or three different Avengers titles in there. But even if you figure out which series of Avengers is which, and then figure out which issues go where, the content remains spotty.


One of the biggest complaints about Digital Comics Unlimited when it launched three years ago was that the content was thin and that storylines weren’t complete. That lesson was not learned here; Marvel has half-assed runs of some storylines, and few full ones. Some titles have 40 issues available, but no real delineation of storylines; one of the nice things about the modern trade system is that it allows you to sit down with a collection and read a story. Books that have longer runs don’t have those runs subcategorized for easier browsing (and for more tempting buying – if I see a fill-in issue labeled as part 7 of a 12 part story (as it would be in a trade), I’ll probably buy it as opposed to skipping it). The tagging of comics is beyond lazy – for instance the Age of Apocalypse mini-series shows up when browsing Series, but not when browsing storyline/arc. 


Most damning is the lack of really momentous, interesting storylines. Even a couple of months into launch I’m hard pressed to find must read storylines in their entirety. Armor Wars is on there, and you can thank Iron Man 2 for that, but the Spider-Man storylines most involve dreck like One More Day and Back in Black. There’s a good showing from Civil War but where are the hardcore classics? Where’s Secret Wars or Days of Future Past or The Korvac Saga? These are stories that have already moved a zillion trades, so why not have them move a bunch of electrons as well now?


The anemic selection of stories you’ll see when browsing Storylines on the iPad Marvel app. Note that none of the Daredevil stories that are available on the app are reflected in the Storyline browse.


The relatively recent nature of the storylines wouldn’t be so irritating if they were a touch more recent. I understand that Marvel (and DC and the rest of the publishers) don’t want to cannibalize book sales, but Decimation and Civil War feel like really old news right now. Where’s Secret Invasion even, or Dark Reign? The app does have the first issue of Young Allies, one of the new Heroic Age titles, which I happily bought, and I’d like to see more newer titles – within six months, say – being offered.


Strangely, Marvel offers no ability to buy collections. While it does give you the ability to browse by storyline/arc, you still have to buy each issue on its own. If you want all seven issues of Civil War, you click buy on each one and download each one individually. It’s not exactly as bad as starving in Somalia, but it feels pointless. The main Comixology app has the ability to buy what are essentially trades of titles like The Walking Dead; it just makes so much sense to be able to buy all seven issues of Civil War or the full run of Armor Wars with one single tap. A huge chunk of Ed Brubaker’s stunning run on Captain America is available, but to the casual surfer it just looks like a huge jumble of comics; offered to buy in trade length installments (and mentioned in the storyline/arc browse – it’s weird that The Death of Captain America isn’t tagged), the title would be more enticing. 


Then there’s the price. For Marvel the prices seem to be uniformly $1.99, which often just doesn’t feel right. I’m an old fogey who thinks comics have been way overpriced since they broke the dollar barrier, but even taking that into account a flexible pricing system would make more sense. Other publishers using Comixology have prices that range from .99  to ten or twelve bucks (for collections), but Marvel remains the market leader and the new DC branded app indicates that the other major publisher is following them on broad 1.99 prices. I don’t understand why the early issues of Amazing Spider-Man or X-Men, which have been sold and resold to dweebs like me in trades and reprints for decades (I’ve owned the origin of Spider-Man in so many formats over the years), shouldn’t have a lower price point. Two bucks for Amazing Spider-Man #1 feels high, especially when I have it on my shelf in a Masterworks and an Essentials edition, and probably have a reprint or two sitting in boxes somewhere.

Also, to be honest, the buy as you go plan doesn’t feel like it fits the enormity of what’s possible with the Marvel app. The Digital Comics Unlimited – sort of a Pandora for comics – feels right. I may want to read some key X-Men stories but I probably don’t care about owning them forever. At the very least the Marvel app should allow me to rent titles or runs; I probably don’t want to own the awful Ultimatum storyline, but I would pay a couple of bucks to read it through once.

I’m not letting DC off the hook totally here; for me this is all about content, and they’re fairly lacking as well – but their app has only been up for a week or two. I think they should have launched more robustly, but they’ve been slower to embrace digital comics all around (and they’ve just killed their digital specialty division as well). I will say this: when you search storyline/arc on the DC app you’ll find Year One, and when you click that you’ll only find the second part of the story. If you go in through the Batman browse, you’ll find part one as well, but no other parts. The bad tagging looks like laziness, and the trickling out of a decades old, massively resold storyline strikes me as foot dragging. I should be able to buy all of Year One in one tap right now, not have to pick up an issue a month.


Other companies have the right idea with content. As I mentioned, The Walking Dead has a number of trades available, and it also has individual issues up to #71. I don’t like the book, but that’s a real invite to new readers to get right in there and catch up. If Marvel isn’t going to bring a Digital Comics Unlimited reader to the iPhone/iPad (and I’m betting they won’t, as that would be competing with themselves on the platform), they need to at least up the ante when it comes to content. They also need to kick some asses when it comes to tagging the comics that are available so that they’re more easily findable. 


Paper comics are fun, but this feels like the way I should be reading comics from now on. I’m excited to spend some money on a hobby I pretty much completely abandoned two years ago, but for some reason the folks behind the scenes aren’t working quite hard enough to get my money from me. I’ll wait patiently.