In conjunction with our X-Men: Bland Design column, we’ve been re-reading X-Men comics, starting with Giant Sized X-Men #1, on Marvel Unlimited. We’ve used Marvel Unlimited before, but this is by far our most extensive use of the app. We’ve read through X-Men #215, including any spinoff series, annuals, and adjacent series we’re aware of like New Mutants and X-Factor, so more than 200 comics over the course of a few months.
We’ve read damn near close to every issue of every X-Men comic ever published, many of them multiple times, in various formats, but this is the first time we’ve attempted to do it in order in well over a decade. We have a pretty decent collection on paper…
…and many duplicates in trade paperback, hardcover, black-and-white essential, and omnibus. But nobody should read a 20 pound omnibus (or a forty-year-old comic, for that matter) in bed or in the bathroom. Marvel Unlimited solves that problem for $9.99 a month, provided you have a large enough device with decent resolution to use it on.
We’ve read some Star Wars comics on our phone on Marvel Unlimited using the guided view, and it’s passable, but it’s not the same experience as taking in a full page or spread and navigating it with your own eyes. We’ve previously read digital comics a few years back on an older model Kindle Fire 10″, and it was also passable, but the screen back then wasn’t up to snuff and couldn’t compare to paper. For our current re-read of X-Men, we’ve had access to our own iPad Mini (2017 model) and our wife’s iPad Pro 10.5″ (2016 model), both with Retina screens. Most of our reading has been done on the iPad Mini.
Overall, it’s been a satisfying experience and worth the subscription fee. But of course, that doesn’t mean we don’t have some complaints. And in this special edition of X-Men: Bland Design, we’re going to tell you all about them.
One of the most important requirements for reading comics on a tablet is that they can be read in their original format, full-page, not in the guided view that skips from panel to panel.
On both an iPad Mini and an iPad Pro 10.5 screen, it’s possible to read comic in full-page view without needing to zoom or scroll. On the Mini, it can be a little tough on the eyes to read double-page spreads without rotating the device, which we prefer not to have to do, but it’s still possible to read the words, and they don’t occur as frequently in comics pre-1990, so it’s only an occasional annoyance. The iPad Pro is fine for reading in portrait orientation straight through every book.
Flipping through the pages is easy enough, though we’ve found that occasionally a page will refuse to load, and it will spin on a black loading screen until you exit the comic and re-enter. This is a minor annoyance and doesn’t happen often enough to ruin the experience. Holding the iPad for an extended amount of time is easier on the lighter mini, but the tradeoff is that it doesn’t look as nice as on the Pro. Both are workable though. At the end of an issue, you’re prompted to read the next issue. It would be nice if it just flowed automatically to the next one, but that’s also a minor gripe.
At least some of the comics appear to have “upgraded” coloring. In some cases, it might just be the result of returning to the original artwork that makes the coloring look better than in print on a 30 year old comic, but in some cases it’s absolutely horrendous. For example, in the mid-eighties, X-Factor crosses over with Thor a few times, and the recoloring of those Thor issues in a modern style is a gradient-fueled atrocity against all of comics artwork.
Thor’s recoloring is jarring and distracts from the experience, but it’s the worst we’ve come across. For the majority of the X-Men comics, the art looks great, the text is crisp, and it feels just as nice to read it on a screen as on paper, even for dozens of issues.
We’ve mainly focused on X-Men, beginning with Giant Sized X-Men #1 and then continuing chronologically, jumping off to spinoff minis (like Wolverine), Annuals, and adjacent series where appropriate. By the 1980s, that means we’re concurrently reading Uncanny X-Men, New Mutants, and X-Factor. We didn’t hit a gap in available images until X-Factor #12. X-Factor cuts off at issue #11, right after the Mutant Massacre crossover, and doesn’t resume until issue #18. The book has other gaps coming up in the near future.
In exploring crossovers and appearances of X-Men characters, we’ve also noticed that some other books also feature a lot of gaps. Alpha Flight is missing a lot of issues. Power Pack is missing a decent sized chunk. For the most part, that didn’t hamper our experience until about 1987 in the X-Men timeline, but it looks like it will become a more major obstacle in the near future.
Here is where Marvel Unlimited truly fails for anyone looking to read more than one series at a time chronologically. While the app offers some curated reading lists, it does not offer any kind of custom smart or manual “playlist” feature. That means that if you want to read X-Men, X-Factor, and New Mutants at the same time, you need to exit the current series and open the next issue in another series. The app does an okay job of managing this by keeping your most recently read series on the home page, so you generally just need to tab “back” to exit the issue of Uncanny X-Men you just finished, tap on the next issue of X-Factor queued up on your homepage, and read. Still, it would be a killer feature to let a user program a smart playlist that included multiple series and moved through them by publication date.
The lack of a smart playlist feature becomes more problematic when it comes to short-term crossovers, spinoff mini-series, annuals, and the like. Thankfully, Marvel Comics used to do a great job of letting you know in a caption box when something happened in [Insert Comic Here], so when you see something advertising the Wolverine and Kitty Pryde mini-series, or something that happened in Thor, it’s easy enough to know where to look. However, it does require going to Marvel’s master list of series and locating the one you want to read, and in general, it means that, unless you stop in the middle of an issue, you’re reading the story slightly out of order. For example, Psylocke shows up in an issue of Uncanny X-Men, and it takes a few issues to realize that she ended up there due to occurrences in the latest New Mutants Annual.
If series, minis, and annuals could be added to a single smart playlist, it would immensely improve the experience of reading on Marvel Unlimited. If those playlists could also include individual issues of other series (for crossovers), then it would be well worth spending the time creating one that contains all the comics you want to read and then happily binge-reading several decades of comics non-stop. Even better, if Marvel made custom reading lists shareable, it would probably be a matter of days before every possible configuration of comics reading orders is available on the web. This seems like it would be a no-brainer feature for Marvel to implement, which would drive people to their service.
Maybe they don’t want it to be too convenient for the monthly subscription fee, lest it cannibalize sales of digital comics on comiXology or trade paperback collection, but in our opinion, making comics easier to read benefits everyone in the long run.
We plan to continue our X-Men re-read on Marvel Unlimited, but we expect it to require more work to keep up as more and more X-series are added and we encounter more gaps in Marvel’s digitization program. Perhaps we’ll check in in another few months with an update.
For now, we can easily recommend reading X-Men comics on Marvel Unlimited from the 1970s at least through to 1987, and honestly, we can’t think of anything better you could be doing with your time.