16 Nov 2007

Thought Balloon: Talkin' about a Revolution?

By Matt C

This big news this week has been Marvel’s launch of their online subscription service, Marvel Digital Comics Unlimited (or, DCU – did they do that on purpose?!). For $9.99 a month (or $60 a year) you can gain access to a virtual vault of high-resolution back issues, ranging from the classics like the first hundred issues of Fantastic Four to more recent series, such as Joss Whedon’s Astonishing X-Men.

So what does this all mean? Are we seeing Marvel taking their first giant leap towards the future and does this signal the end of the good old comic book?

Well, maybe one day that will happen but I think it’s a long way off, and I don’t see this service having any real impact on comics (or even TPB) sales. To be honest, I’m not really convinced it’s going to be any kind of success at all.

Okay, so you get access to a bunch of material that you would normally have to pay an arm and a leg for to see in its original form and it’s a good way of getting those stories out there to people who may not have access to a decent comic store, but as an alternative to buying comics? Can’t see it working.

I’m not sure who the intended market for this service is. I guess if you’re a fan of comic book stories you’ll probably fall into one of three categories: a) you buy comics on a weekly basis, or b) you wait it of for the TPBs, or c) a combination of both. Maybe there is another category, those who only read comics online, but I don’t know anyone who’s that way inclined. Okay, so obviously there are people out there who download torrents for various comics, but is that they only way they consume the material? Do they ignore all physical product in favour of virtual-only? I’m genuinely curious, and would love to hear of anyone who does this, or knows of someone who does this.

As far as I’m concerned, digital comics replacing their paper counterparts is a long way off and not something I look forward to particularly. I like to hold the damn things in my hand and I don’t think I get quite as involved with the stories looking at them on a monitor. And, let’s face it, currently the digital comic format just doesn’t have the portability of the paper comic. There’s a couple of places I regularly read comics that where I can’t picture myself taking a laptop: lying in bed reading before you nod off, and reading when you’re on, er, your “throne”. It just doesn’t seem feasible.

So okay, Fantastic Four #48 would probably set me back a hundred quid or so in good nick, and maybe if I was desperate to read the story accessing the DCU (!) would be a good move, but I’d still prefer a TPB to that. However, even a TPB couldn’t replace the feeling of holding the actual comic in your hands. It’s not just a visual thing either, it’s the texture and, yes, even the smell, which make up the experience.

I know I’m a back-issue nut and I’d go for those rather than picking up any collected editions but even if I did go for the TPBs I wouldn’t see digital comics as being an upgrade. Perhaps a good way of “trying before you buy” but not as a substitute.

Currently there are 250 issues available to peruse for free, for a limited period, to give folks an idea of what the service offers. I’ll admit the software is pretty nifty but I can’t see myself forking out $9.99 every month when I can spend that money on real comics I can hold in my hand.

I could be way off in my assumptions and Marvel Digital Comics Unlimited may turn out to be a resounding success – either way, I’ll be keeping an eye on the situation over the coming months.


Unknown said...

I'm treating the whole thing like a taster before buying the trade, as there are plenty of titiles I missed first time round. In saying that, there's a good reason why I missed a fair few of them. Paying to access these books maybe only acts as a benefit for those odd titles that have gone out of print, but that's what Bristol is for dammit! Like Matt I don't see this as a long term replacement, but those comic readers who are either a little embarassed of thier hobby or don't have the space to store hundreds of books might find use of it. Personally, I'm sticking to the funny books in physical form.

Anonymous said...

Online digital comics will probably appeal to younger readers, given time, but they don't interest me. There may come a day when digital publishing replaces print publishing, but that'll be the day I stop reading the titles in question.

On the plus side, I guess online access to the complete back catalogue of Marvel is handy for research purposes. If you happen to be commissioned to write a 'history of Moon Knight' for the Marvel Figurines magazine, the new DCU site would be invaluable. It's basically an online library.

- Rob

Matt Clark said...

QUOTE:Online digital comics will probably appeal to younger readers, given time, but they don't interest me. There may come a day when digital publishing replaces print publishing, but that'll be the day I stop reading the titles in question.

So Rob, say Daredevil suddenly became a online only comic, taking into account your reservations, would you drop it completely?

Anonymous said...

QUOTE: So Rob, say Daredevil suddenly became a online only comic, taking into account your reservations, would you drop it completely? UNQUOTE

Well, put it this way - I wouldn't pay for it. I'm quite happy to give Marvel money in exchange for a paper printed product, but if they decide to go the digital-only route eventually, I won't pay for it. If I have the opportunity to read Daredevil in digital form without paying for it, then I might, but not if I have to part with cash. Basically, if Marvel wants my money, they need to give me something other than an electronic data stream.

The same thing would apply by the way to music. as you know I have in excess of 2,500 records and CDs, so I'm exactly the sort of customer the music industry loves. I always pay for music I like. Even if I'm given a sample tape of something, if I like it I go out and buy it on vinyl or CD format. I wouldn't however pay for a digital download only piece of music.

- Rob

Anonymous said...

Having now taken a look at the website itself, and tried out the system for reading comics online, I’ve got a couple of other comments to make.

Firstly, since my VDU screen is essentially landscape shape, I couldn’t view the entire double page spread in its entirety, and I had to scroll up and down a I was reading, which was annoying. I also had to increase the size beyond that of a normal comic to make it easy to read: probably something to do with dpi resolution and the effect of screen glare.

Secondly, although I’m not an expert when it comes to image resolution, I don’t think the resolution is particularly good. I noticed jagged edges to curved shapes (such as word balloons and words themselves), especially when I increased the viewing size. I suspect the quality of the image scans is compromised in favour of a quick download speed. I didn’t find the images to be as ‘sharp’ as in a comic book printed on good quality paper.

On the other hand, download speed was quick (though I’m on broadband with a new Apple Mac) and I can see how this might appeal to someone with a small comic collection.

- Rob

Matt Clark said...

Did you think the image resolution was that bad? I thought it was okay, but then I sampled more recent comics so I can't comment on the older stuff.

Anonymous said...

I wouldn't say it was terrible. It's when you look at it close up (especially if you zoom in to better read the dialogue) that you begin to notice the rough edges to some of the scans. This was baded on viewing Ms Marvel 2 and She Hulk 1. The art looks fine when viewed at the default size, but that makes reading the text more of a chore.

- Rob