Marvel Unlimited: Everything good and bad about comics, for $9.99

Marvel UnlimitedI’ve never really been a comics nerd. (I’m certainly a lot of other kinds of nerd, just not that kind.) I read ’em as a kid, of course, so I know enough to know who the Avengers are and that Aquaman sucks. But I lost interest in them in adolescence and never really came back, so I missed out on their remarkable creative efflorescence over the last twenty years or so.

All of which was kind of embarrassing when I was reading an article the other day that was going on and on about the brilliance of this one particular writer working in comics today, Matt Fraction. Feeling ignorant, I wanted to get up to speed on Fraction’s work and see if it lived up to the hype.

I started poking around the Web to see if I could find good recommendations for where to start, and the general consensus seemed to be that Fraction’s run on the Marvel title Hawkeye was a good choice. Since I was just looking to stick a toe in the water, the convenience and ease of getting digital copies instead of trying to hunt down physical copies was appealing. But I was disappointed to discover that digital copies of the issues of that book ran between $2 and $5 each, which would add up quick given the brevity of individual issues. Compilation volumes are available, but they’re not cheap either, running $12-16 for 5 or 6 issues bound together. And of course Marvel won’t sell you digital issues without larding them down with DRM, so even after spending that money you don’t really own anything; you’ll only be able to access the material you paid for as long as they choose to allow you to.

I did however find another option: Marvel Unlimited. Unlimited is basically the Netflix model, applied to Marvel’s comic library — you pay a subscription fee of $9.99/month, and they’ll let you read as many of the 17,000 comics in the Unlimited archive during that month as you want. You don’t own anything, of course — stop paying the subscription and you lose access to the whole library. But that was fine with me, since I was just looking to casually browse these books, not to build a personal collection; and in this case I was actually getting something valuable in exchange for giving up ownership rights, namely the ability to read the whole series for one low price. A quick check of the Unlimited database showed that Fraction’s Hawkeye was included, so I ponied up my $10 and got down to reading.

And the article was right! Fraction really is a good writer; his Hawkeye is grounded in the real world in a way that the comics I read as a kid never were, and he’s good at establishing characters with realistic problems and motivations. But there’s only 22 Fraction-penned issues of Hawkeye, so it only took me a couple of days to blow through the whole thing; and I had an entire month’s subscription paid for. So what then?

The good news is that there’s a ton of other good stuff readable via Unlimited as well, both modern (the new Ms. Marvel,¬†with its teenaged Muslim Jerseyite protagonist Kamala Khan, is every bit as good as you’ve heard) and classic (the excellent¬†X-Men comics I remember from my childhood, which I discovered via Marvel were the work of writer Chris Claremont). If you want to nerd out on comic books, it’s a very good value.

Not a great value though, for a few reasons. The first is that, if you don’t know enough about comics to go in looking for a specific issue or writer/artist/whatever, Unlimited doesn’t do a whole lot to help you find something worth reading. They make some limited stabs in that direction, but for the most part they just throw you into their gigantic database and tell you you’re on your own. That’s no problem for the veteran comics reader who knows she wants 1974’s Incredible Hulk #180 because that was the first appearance of Wolverine, but for newbies it’s all a bit overwhelming. I ended up turning to threads on Reddit and in comic nerd forums to identify gems for picking out of Unlimited’s database, but it’d really improve Unlimited’s value if Marvel did that work for me.

There’s also the problem of the way comics are written, which is to say the problem of crossovers and team-ups and one-shots. Organizing everything by title means there’s no easy way to just follow the plot thread of one particular character, because characters — especially popular characters — were and are constantly being pulled from their main title and dropped into others to help boost their sales. And sometimes there’s a big “special event” series like 2006’s Civil War that takes pretty much every character and scrambles up their story in ways that make no sense until you go back and read all the issues from the special event. I understand why they do things this way, it’s been a reliable way to move comics off shelves for decades apparently, but when you’re viewing everything as a big flat pile of comics rather than a slow month-to-month drip of new issues it makes picking up a story and following it difficult.

And then there’s the obvious problem: Marvel Unlimited is just, well, Marvel. You won’t find comics from DC, or any other publisher. There’s still plenty to read, and Marvel characters are a big share of the world’s best-known and best-loved comics characters, but if you’re expecting to use it to catch up on the history of, say, Batman, you are out of luck.

Even with those problems, though, I found it to be enough fun to more than justify the $10 I spent on it. The biggest challenge for Marvel now, though, will be finding a way to convince me to keep spending $10 on it every month. Now that I’ve read the Hawkeye comics I originally came for, and had a good browse through a range of other titles as well, the difficulty of finding new stuff to read makes me feel like it’s probably not worth keeping the subscription going. So if Marvel wants to turn Unlimited from a novelty into a habit, they’ve got some work to do. However, if the idea of binge-reading comics appeals to you, and you don’t mind basically renting the comics instead of owning them, Marvel Unlimited is where you want to be.