Pow! Zap! Comixology Battles Marvel’s Unlimited Service

Now that the music and video-streaming markets are pretty much cornered, the next big frontier is the written word. Services like Kindle Unlimited offer all-you-can-read streaming for traditional books, but if you crave a combination of sequential art and punchy prose, comic books are the way to go. Enter Comixology Unlimited ($6 per month) and Marvel Unlimited ($6 to $10 per month)), the two big contenders for your pulp-fiction fix.MORE: 10 Best Comic Book Readers for Mobile

As any fan of the funny pages knows, buying comics can be a prohibitively expensive hobby. Individual issues cost up to $5 for less than 30 pages of content, and especially when dealing with superhero stories, you may need to buy five or six issues per month just to keep up with big events. Collected editions aren't much cheaper, often knocking only a few dollars off the total cost. Subscription comic services may not give you the newest issues, but they'll give you thousands of stories you've never read before at about the price of a takeout lunch each month.

Comixology Unlimited and Marvel Unlimited target slightly different audiences. But if you're looking for a cheap, simple way to stream more comics than you can shake a magical staff at, read on to find out which service offers the more comprehensive experience. Excelsior!

Selection

When it comes to subscription services, content is king. Having thousands upon thousands of comics to choose from won't do you much good if you can't find anything you want to read. Similarly, having a few truly exceptional titles won't help when you've blown through those and find yourself in a literary wasteland. Thankfully, both Comixology Unlimited and Marvel Unlimited have strong selections, depending on what you're looking for.

Marvel Unlimited, as the name suggests, includes only comics from Marvel’s 75-plus-year run. While the service doesn't offer every single Marvel title between 1941 and the present day, it does have more than 17,000 titles across a wide variety of series. All the usual suspects are present and accounted for: "X-Men," "Spider-Man," "The Avengers," "The Fantastic Four," and all the bizarre team-ups and crossovers those heroes have done over the years, with plenty of miniseries and one-shots to round things out. Generally speaking, Marvel loads new issues six months after they first appear on store shelves.

While it's tempting to view Marvel Unlimited as a superhero-comics-only service, that's not strictly true. Disney owns Marvel, which means that you can get a ton of "Star Wars" comics, as well as a few Disney-Marvel oddities like the "Big Thunder Mountain Railroad" miniseries. I was also rather tickled to find many of Marvel's underrated illustrated classic-literature adaptations, like "The Odyssey," "The Three Musketeers" and "The Jungle Book." (And no, I certainly didn't interrupt my X-Men binge to read Marvel's "Pride and Prejudice," even though the repartee between Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet is even more charming in graphic-novel format; whatever gave you that idea?)

Comixology Unlimited takes a different approach. Since Comixology is a storefront instead of a publisher, its Unlimited program draws from a number of big publishers, though they're not quite as big as Marvel and DC. Instead, you get companies like Image, IDW, Dark Horse, Archie and Dynamite. As such, the sheer variety is impressive. During my initial binge, I downloaded titles like "Locke & Key," "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," "Star Trek," "Bitch Planet," "Creepy," and "Kill Shakespeare." I would have downloaded "Saga" in a heartbeat had I not already devoured the whole series. Comixology Unlimited has some seriously good, offbeat titles under its belt.

On the flip side, Comixology's selection is rather inconsistent and not that big, weighing in at only a few thousand individual comics. Comixology Unlimited has to wrangle a number of different publishers; as such, it doesn't have the clockwork "wait six months" regularity of Marvel Unlimited's new-release schedule. "Saga" has only six out of 36 issues available. For the comedy/horror title "Hack/Slash," you can get three volumes (but not the first three), along with a bunch of random one-shots. For series with multiple iterations, like "Buffy" or "Star Trek," good luck. The best description of Comixology's selection is "haphazard."

WINNER: Marvel Unlimited. Although Comixology clobbers Marvel in genre diversity, Marvel offers way more comics in a much more complete fashion.

Interface

All right, so you can read thousands of comics. But how easy is it to find the ones you want to read? Both Comixology Unlimited and Marvel Unlimited have clean, navigable interfaces, but how you find new titles and manage your existing one differs between the two services.

First and foremost, Marvel Unlimited has its own app. Even if you've bought digital Marvel comics elsewhere, they won't show up here. That's fine, as it minimizes the amount of clutter. The main menu is extremely simple, offering a Home screen, Discover (to find new series), My Library, Browse and Account options. The app is not exactly lightweight; it can even be a little sluggish, depending on how powerful your system is. But it's straightforward and makes it easy to get around. The Library even has helpful Read and Unread sections for easy sorting.

By contrast, Comixology Unlimited is part of the regular Comixology app, an all-purpose digital comic store. There's only one dedicated Unlimited menu option. After you download comics from your Unlimited subscription, they wind up in your regular library, right alongside the stuff you bought outright. It's clean, but could get confusing if you tend to mix and match.

One positive thing about both services, though, is that the comics themselves are almost always gorgeous, high-res originals or scans. You'd be amazed just how far you can zoom in, especially on newer titles.

WINNER: Marvel Unlimited. A dedicated app for the whole service trumps a single page that bleeds over into the rest of another app.

Curation

Unless you know exactly what you want to read from the moment you subscribe until the moment you cancel, discovering new comics is a vital feature. Both Comixology and Marvel offer fairly robust ways of finding new titles to augment your library. But while Comixology is better at helping you hunt down specific titles, Marvel has much deeper options for finding unexpected gems.

First of all, let's assign criticism where criticism is due: Marvel doesn't have a proper "search" feature, and that's a huge pain. In typical Marvel fashion, an "X-Men" comic teased a legendary throw-down between rivals Wolverine and Sabretooth, then said to pick up "Wolverine" #90 to read the whole thing. To do this, I had to browse through a multitude of titles called Wolverine, then scroll past dozens of comics until I reached the 90th issue. There has to be a better way to do this.

Comixology not only has excellent search features, but also lets you flip a switch to include or exclude non-Unlimited content. From the Unlimited menu, you can find fan-favorite titles, recommendations for newbies, staff picks, and then individual genre recommendations, including sci-fi and fantasy, movies and TV tie-ins, superheroes, horror, gaming tie-ins, and so forth. The curation is fantastic, and it introduced me to a ton of great titles that weren't even on my radar.

On the other hand, Marvel Unlimited has one huge advantage: the Discover tab. In addition to a bevy of Browse options, including series, characters, events and creators, the Discover capabilities set the service a cut above the rest. Every week, the Discover tab features a different recommendation from the Marvel gurus, including character spotlights and recommended reading orders (with tie-ins!) for events. There's a lot of love evident in this feature, and I made use of it every chance I got.

WINNER: Tie. Marvel Unlimited has better ways to find new and unusual series, but Comixology Unlimited's search feature is something Marvel sorely needs.

Offline Storage

You won't always have an internet connection when you want to lose yourself in some comics, and in this regard, Comixology Unlimited absolutely mops the floor with Marvel Unlimited. While Marvel allows a fairly generous 12-comic stash for offline reading, Comixology Unlimited bumps that number up to 50 — and some of those 50 can be full graphic novels.

There is one small drawback to Comixology's approach, however. Marvel Unlimited is a streaming service with an optional download feature; Comixology Unlimited requires you to download comics before you can read them. This means that you have to clear out a fair amount of free space on your smartphone or tablet, and you may have to wait a while before you start reading a large volume.

WINNER: Comixology Unlimited. While streaming content is a feather in Marvel Unlimited's cap, 50 off-line books from Comixology will carry you much further than Marvel's 12.

Value

In terms of raw monthly cost, Comixology has the edge on its competitor. Each month of Comixology Unlimited costs $6, without an annual option, whereas Marvel Unlimited's monthly subscription costs $10. However, if you're willing to pony up a $70 annual subscription fee, Marvel's cost falls to about $5.83 per month, making the two very similar.

Unless you are the most prolific comic book reader who ever lived, you probably won't be able to exhaust either service's library anytime soon. In raw numbers, Marvel Unlimited has way more content, but Comixology still has enough to keep the average reader busy for years, and neither service is going to stop adding comics anytime soon.

Still, Comixology Unlimited is a relatively new service. It has the most potential for growth, but it's also much less refined. Marvel Unlimited gives you more bang for your buck in almost every category at the moment, although based on Comixology Unlimited's promising start, that could change at any time.

WINNER: Marvel Unlimited. Both services give you thousands of comics for the price of a decent sandwich, but Marvel Unlimited has way more titles and offers a more refined experience.

Bottom Line

Marvel Unlimited is the biggest and best comic subscription service, for the moment, at least. And it's still not for everyone: Although Marvel's app is more robust and polished, there's no getting around that it's mostly for superhero buffs. And if the last few years have taught us anything, it's that superheroes represent only one aspect of comic-book-dom.

Comixology Unlimited excels in its variety, offering not only superhero fare, but also romance, horror, sci-fi, fantasy, teen dramas, graphic novels and manga, among other, more experimental titles. If you've had your fill of capes and costumes (or never had any interest in them to begin with), there's no question in my mind that Comixology is your best bet.

Otherwise, as a wise man once quipped, "Make Mine Marvel!" 'Nuff said.

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