Friday, November 23, 2007

Marvel Digital Comics Unlimited

Marvel announced last week that they were starting a new subscription service that would offer digital copies of their comic books online for ten dollars a month. Initially there are a handful of preview books that will display a small number of sample pages which invites some direct comparisons.

This isn't the first time that Marvel has done something like this. In 2000 they announced they would offer a selection of their comics digitally for free a few weeks after they were available in stores. I read the first twenty issues of Ultimate Spider-Man this way as well as a few other popular series. Marvel also licensed a document storage company called Graphic Imaging Technology to scan in complete series and make them available. The GIT product are PDF scans of the complete original book including the letter columns, bullpen pages, and advertisements priced at roughly $40 for the major series and less for ones that don't have hundreds of issues. Since there already are good quality scans of nearly complete runs of some series already available it makes sense to compare both of them directly.

Before I get too into this I need to say a quick word on my methodology. I picked smaller panels and screen captured the marvel image first then screen captured from the PDF viewer. Both source images have roughly the same dimensions but there may be slight differences which I did not scale in the imaging problem I used to avoid creating artifacts there. I did zoom in on the Avengers panel to illustrate how well both formats scale up. The online service's images are first followed by the PDF's image. I recommend clicking on the images to view them full size so you can see the differences between the two very clearly.

First things first, the browser based Flash applet for the new Marvel service does not have a great interface (something that I'm sure will come as a shock to anyone who has used Flash based navigation). With the online digital comics by default there is a pointless page transition and a lack of ability to flip through the book (if you use the current PDF viewer you can see thumbnails of the pages). If you're looking for anything then it will take time and if you're looking to check something across several issues you'll find you cannot open more than one at a time. You can view pages one at a time, two at a time, or a "smart panel" view which zooms in on individual panels but the two page view appears to be strictly tied to the book layout so double page spreads could be cut off and the "smart panel" view sometimes didn't focus quite right with trickier panel layouts. Individual pages are loaded as separate images downloaded when you view them rather than transferring the entire document to the computer at once also, and in my brief sampling I encountered several times when pages simply didn't load.

You can also see that the colors are very oversaturated in the online image. Coloring in comic books was designed to show up well on the cheap newsprint and work with the limited color separation process that was available at the time. In the 1980's new printing technology made certain high end books look better (new paper stocks, for example) and by the 1990's coloring was dramatically different. However if those old comics are printed with the same "coloring" with modern techniques then the result is garish. The GIT images are scanned in directly from hard copies which means that the color used is almost exactly what you would see if you had a paper copy of that same book.

The online scans are lower resolution than the ones used by GIT. You can see it especially in the curved lines in these panels; the top of Iron Man's head in particular is a good place where you can see the difference in the quality of the scans. In the online scan it's blocky. The fact that they're streaming these files out to the viewer rather than having a local copy is a disadvantage for the quality of the imaging.

The one place where the online Marvel digital comics can gain an advantage is in availability. The GIT collections are limited to what they think they can sell and it takes them a long time to scan in a book. While obviously they aren't going to have everything up instantly when they start out it would not be unreasonable to expect them to have a complete run of a recent miniseries since they would have all the material on hand and if they're scanning in one or two issues they might as well do all four to six. This is not the case. Agents of Atlas has only two of its six issues, Nextwave has issues #1 and #7 (I'll get to that problem in a moment), and New Avengers: Illuminati has just one issue. There are some series (GLA: Misassembled or Hulk: Grey) that do have all of their issues but most only have one or two. For the ongoing series the coverage is spotty often skipping several issues. The whole thing is just a mess.

And there's one more problem to cap off the entire fiasco. As I mentioned Marvel Digital Comics is a subscription service and yet they still have ads:

In the end I found the Marvel comics online service severely lacking. If they kept it current and made a point of at least maintaining complete runs of series or story arcs then I could see a place for this service but at the moment it seems like its little more than an advertisement for hard copies of things that people are already paying to get.