Marvel Unlimited & digital media ownership: some thoughts

I’ve been buying comics weekly since I’ve had an allowance – about 30 years or so. 98% of them are Marvel comics – and in particular the X-men and the “street heroes” (Daredevil, Iron Fist, Luke Cage, Spiderman). About 4 years ago, I more or less stopped buying physical comics and switched to buying Digital Comics – this coincided, not at all incidentally, with my buying my first retina iPad. But I was still spending a fair amount of money each week on comics, and, while physical comics come with definite ownership, the built-in DRM of the Comics apps (Marvel, Image, Comixology) meant that I didn’t really feel like I was buying comics any more so much as I was  licensing them. I have a similar experience with other digital media.

And because I wasn’t really buying them anymore…the thrill, the urgency was gone. When I stopped buying physical music, I stopped caring so much about “owning” the music. And so I got an Rdio subscription – which suits me fine. More or less unlimited music, great discovery tools, for a small monthly fee. I kind of feel like I’m renting the world’s greatest music library.

When I stopped buying physical movies, I likewise stopped caring. I still will buy some movies on iTunes, but you know what? 90% of the time I’m perfectly content to wait for the movie to show up on Netflix: again – I’m happy to pay to rent access to a large library.

Books…I haven’t found my Netflix for books, mostly because the digital reading experience for me is much more intimately tied to the device I consume it on. I read only Amazon-purchased books when I had a kindle. Now I have a Kobo (almost entirely because of, at least publicly, how poorly Amazon seems to treat Authors/Publishers), and I buy Kobo books. Also: I *really* like the Kobo hardware. Much more than either Kindle I owned prior. If there was an on-device “Netflix for books”, I’d likely stop buying & immediately sign up for that. But I don’t like reading books on my tablets, so the existing services might as well not exist for me.

So we come back to Comics. About 2 months ago, I decided I no longer needed to be buying digital comics weekly. The pull of some 18,000 back issues available for rent in the Marvel Unlimited app was such a great draw. And so I downloaded it, and it’s been…ok. On to the original point of this, here’s some good and bad things on the Marvel Unlimited app:

  • Good: The experience of reading an individual issue. The pages/images are crisp, and really reward a high DPI screen. I can zoom in to see detail I often couldn’t with physical media. It’s just like the purchased digital issues.
  • Fantastic: Content. Seriously. If you’re a fan of Marvel comics, there’s almost no excuse to not have this app just to get access to all that content.
  • Meh: How the app handles rotation. Some pages/panels are better landscape, some portrait. As you rotate back and forth, it sometimes gets lost and you end up zoomed, or more oddly, back a page. Likewise, it sometimes has issues loading in the issue. Consistently, for me, every 3rd issue in a session, I need to exit, restart the download, before I can finish the issue
  • Good: consuming “official” events. You can just keep reading the next issues.
  • Missed Opportunity: Search. The Marvel Wiki is an amazing resource for discovery. It seems terrible that I can’t leverage that knowledge base, directly in the app, for discovery.
  • Bad: Inter-issue linking. If a comic says “as seen in [title]” in one of those little editor notes, the meta-data for that issue should always link me to that.  This, to me, is an almost unconscionable omission in this app. It’s a rabbit-hole app, and should take every opportunity to send me further down the rabbit hole. Same goes for Cross overs. If an X-Factor story links to a She-Hulk issue, when I finish that X-factor issue, show me the She-Hulk title! Cross overs are nearly impossible to read in the Marvel Unlimited App.
  • Bad: No wish-list. Seriously. Even if it was limited to, say, a dozen titles. let me wishlist items to read later. I can’t keep 18K comics in my head, but I might come across a title while browsing that I want to read later, but not right now. Why can’t I store that desire somewhere? Again. This is a rabbit-hole app. So help go further down that hole.
  • Potential: Sharing/social reviews. I’ve got friends who’re using this app. But I have no way to learn what they’re reading, what they liked, etc. Sharing what comics I’m reading has always been part of my comic culture. So why I can’t I share my reading list with my friends? Or publish quick reviews of issues/titles/storylines to Social Media? Seems a really easy missed marketing opportunity for Marvel

So what’s my overall? To paraphrase Winston Churchill, Marvel Unlimited is the worst of all Comic Reading apps – except for all the others. The content is so great that it absolutely trumps the varied experience of consuming the content. But, there’s so much opportunity to grow this app into something amazing, that I’m actually a little sad how poorly executed it currently is.

Ed Note: Marvel – I’d love to help make this app better. Want to hire me?

2nd Ed Note: The cover image has very little to do with the post. But I like coffee and comics. They go well together.

The Bone Clocks

The Bone Clocks

I’m a big fan of David Mitchell – I devoured Cloud Atlas – although, perhaps oddly, I’ve not read The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet, which I suppose is a precursor to this book, so maybe I should have. But, it it’s not necessary to have done so.

Mitchell’s way with prose is second-to-none. He can create a world in a paragraph and destroy all your remaining hopes and dreams in another. He’s also really mastered the multiple-narrator trick. Each sounds distinct in a way that isn’t cloying, but natural.

Holly Sykes, the principal protagonist of this book is, well – she’s one of the best characters I’ve read in ages. She’s inspirational, she’s tough, she’s smart. She’s only the narrator in 2 sections, but features prominently in all.

Here’s an odd thing – with the exception of the epilogue (more in a moment), the narrators are universally dislikable. The other characters get to shine when someone else is narrating them, but the narrators themselves do not. When we first meet Holly she’s a bratty teenager – not horrible, but not exactly nice or good. But, tellingly, you already see the signs of worthiness that the latter narrators will expose. But Hugo, Ed, Crispin & Marinus are all quite unlikable as narrators, though each gets varying degrees of remediation in the eyes of other narrators.

The primary sci-fi element running through the book is forgettable, oddly. Indeed, my least favourite section is the primary dénouement, which is straight-up super-hero-immortal vs super-villain-immortal and not terribly well thought through, I thought. I found its own internal rules inconsistent, which is a cardinal sin for sci-fi/fantasy. But, the book is so good this is easily pardoned. And Holly. Holly’s so damn great to read that she makes this section worth it.

Finally. The epilogue: A post-internet, near-future (30-years-from-now) post-apocalyptic world that is so horrifyingly plausible that it left me fairly shattered after reading. Honestly, the first 500-odd pages are worth it just to read this – but DO read the first 3 sections at least to give this the real weight it deserves.

Lastly, there’s a nice (I’m assuming) hat-tip in the book to Vancouver’s own Douglas Coupland.

Comics

I buy comics. A fair amount of comics. I’ve drastically cut back my spending these past couple of years, but the fact remains is that nearly every week of the year, I’m buying 3 or 4 issues. And they make me happy. Every few weeks, for the past 15 years, ever since I moved to Vancouver, I head down to Golden Age Collectibles on Granville st. There, they’ve put aside the comics I collect in a “saver”. When new series come out, I add those to my list. This is an incredible way to shop. Comic shop sales-people have a bad rep (see: The Simpsons, Big Bang Theory), but in my experience, they’re some of the nicest retailers I know: they get  customer service. If an author or artist I like has a new book coming out, I’ll often find the first issue of that series in my saver even though I didn’t ask for it, because they think I might like it. When I lived in Toronto, I went to the Silver Snail, using the same saver system.

I used to buy physical music. But I started ordering CDs online as soon as Amazon delivered to Canada, and never looked back. I never had a single local supplier of music. & when digital music became a viable option for me, I mostly stopped ordering CDs at all, and never looked back.

I used to buy physical books. A lot of books. When I first moved in with Leah, I believe the boxes of books were more in both weight & volume than the rest of my possessions combined. & I tried to support local, indie booksellers. But in the end, I started ordering online because it was easier. But I didn’t have a single source for books ever since Bollum‘s at Granville and Georgia closed, and so I never looked back. & now I only buy digital books – mostly Kindle, but the occasional iBook thrown in for good measure.

And while I’m bummed about the loss of bookstores & music stores, I never had a connection to any of them. I started reading some digital comics when I got the first iPad. The app sucked, the interface wasn’t great. But you could tell this was where things were going. But now with the new iPad (3), the retina display means that comics could potentially look as good, or better, on screen than they do in print. And there’s no storage issue. I have boxes & boxes of comics, stored in the basement that I don’t know what to do with. Sometimes I go and re-read old series. I hope someday Liam or Kellan might like to. But I don’t want to keep adding to the pile, particularly as I move to a new place where storage is at something of a premium.

And so, I’m likely going to start subscribing to a lot of the series I like digitally. Sure, I’m locking in to some DRM scheme, but I’m ok with that. The convenience of digital subscriptions current outweighs my dislike. But I’ll  be sad about not going to buy comics from my local. I’ll miss their recommendations. And I’ll be sad if/when they close. I don’t know how much the memorabilia/collectable trading card portion of the store brings to their bottom line. But I think the time is coming, in the very near future, where I won’t be buying physical comics anymore.

And I’m sad about that. & I suspect that I’ll miss an ephemeral, but important part of my cultural landscape in a way that I didn’t with books or music.

Online News, Titles & Usability: The Globe & Mail Gets It

I spend a lot of time reading news online – far too much really. And why not? It’s an easy way to get a wide view of current events. Generally, in any given week, I’ll read through at least 2 stories from The Globe & Mail, The New York Times, The Vancouver Sun, The Guardian, Al Jazeera (english) & Le Monde. There’s a slew of other sites as well, but I’m focusing on “traditional” newspapers and their online forays. Each of these sites shares some layout similarities – I don’t want to talk about their design for this post – a leading article + accompanying photo at the top, under their masthead, then a list or grid of other articles. Some look more “bloggy”, others more “newspapery”. When a story breaks, a fun little activity I do is to canvas the headline for that story from each of the news sites I read to gauge their editorial take on the issue (firmly pro, anti-, on the sidelines, reluctant, eager, etc). I’ve come to the belief that the leading headline (is that the lede?) reflects the political leanings of the paper more than any other visible element. As a result, headlines are often somewhat misleading as to the content of the story hidden behind it – the lede is there to “sell” after all.

Because all the article titles in an online paper are links, this is the information that I have to decide whether or not to read a story – there’s occasionally some intro text for the lede & other important stories, but often, I’m basing my decision whether or not to click solely on the link text. Let’s take a look at 3 photo + headline combos that are around today.

First, The New York Times:

Judy Dench
Story about Judy Dench's Memoirs in the NY Times

There’s a photo of the subject of the article, Dame Judy Dench, but slightly turned away – I suspect many readers might have no idea who she is. The headline isn’t any more informative either. We can assume that the article is about the woman in the photo, but maybe not. And do I care? I don’t know who this person is. There’s not really a lot to help me decide whether or not to read this article. I personally don’t find a compelling reason to click through this.

Now let’s have a look at a headline I pulled from the Washington post today:

Story about debt from the Washington Post

This headline I find more informative, although I’m never fan of stock art without good reason. Certainly an editor could have found a more compelling image about American debt than a piggy bank? But at least I know who wrote the article (if that matters, and when it was posted. Both useful pieces of information in the online world. I go back and forth on the WP’s habit of including a couple of related stories. I like it because it groups related stories together, but I also find it distracting, because sometimes the related story is what I end up clicking on, and forget about reading the main headline. If you click on the main headline, you can still find the related stories (oddly buried in the middle of the main story), but  not vice versa – click on a sub-story and you’ve lost the relationship established on the home page. But again, nothing here tells me what I’m going to be reading about.

Finally, the Globe and Mail:

Video interview with Bono about aid

Much like the other 2, this title isn’t terribly informative. I know from the thumbnail that I’m linking to a video (actually, this bugs me: When I see a play button, I expect to be able to play something in situ, not be sent somewhere else – why doesn’t the video just expand and play right there?). The headline is ok – not terribly informative or compelling, similar to the other papers. But here’s where the globe and mail really shines: Mouse over that headline, and they’ve made smart use of the title attribute to provide additional detail about the article underneath. In this case, it reads: Bono, singer and activist, speaks about aid getting smarter since the 1960s. “Don’t be put off by the past. The present aid is working.” So I get additional insight into what I’m about to read – some context, to help me make my decision. It makes such a difference when presented with a long list of article headlines as to which I actually click on. It’s trivially easy to program, and yet the Globe is the only newspaper that makes use of this. It’s primarily why I consume the Globe more than any other paper – they help me make my reading decisions easier. I can scan the homepage quickly, easily get more context on a given article to decide if I want to read it, without having to click through to read the intro paragraph.

It’s a simple thing, news sites: Help me make my reading decisions easier. It takes me 2 clicks to get any other newspaper in the world to read the same story – so make me want to read at your site. Adding titles with information about the article I’m interested in is one tiny little detail that isn’t hard to do, but it’s that attention to detail, sweating the small stuff to improve usability & accessibility that will make winners and losers in the age on online media.

The new bedtime routine

Since buying the iPad, Liam, of course, loves it. He loves the double-scaled iphone games that now have larger buttons that he finds it easier to press. He adores (and is astoundingly good at) Labyrinth 2 HD. He appears to prefer watching movies on the iPad to watching them on TV – again, because he can hold it in his hands, rotate it, zoom it in and out – all the fidgety things that kids like to do.

And now he’s discovered how awesome iBooks is. The past 4 nights, I’ve been reading to him chapters from Winnie the Pooh, the included book. We turn of all the lights in the bedroom, shut the door so it’s completely dark, and snuggle under the blanket on his bed. He generally leans his head on my chest for a pillow, and I lean the iPad on my legs. I read and he turns the pages. Sometimes we zoom in on words or pictures, or rotate the iPad for a few pages.

Then last night we tried out Alice in Wonderland (AKA the Alice App). He immediately loved the typography of it. But then we got to the page where the March Hare’s pocket-watch sways gently back and forth. And then Alice shrank and grew as we tilted the iPad around. It was a great, great experience. I currently only have the lite version, but we’ll be purchasing the full one shortly. And Liam wants us to find more kids books on the iPad, of course. Because reading, in the dark, purely by the light of the iPad is again, one of those minor, but somehow transformative experiences.

Parenting Aside: I love that I can tap a word to get the dictionary definition of that word. But you know what would be great? What would be so awesome for Liam, who is reading a fair number of simple words, and figuring out how to sound out longer ones? if from that same pop-up I had the option for the iBook to read me that word aloud. Or, more to the point, read that word aloud to Liam.

Liam Reads me Bedtime Stories

On a lighter note, last night Liam decided that he wanted to read me bedtime stories, rather than the other way around. I, of course, took an iPhone video of him “reading” to me:

Story 1: 10 Halloween Trick or Treaters

Story 2: Curious George at the Chocolate Factory

I had asked for “Curious George and the puppies”, but this is what I got:

He’s going to be so mad at me when he’s a teenager, isn’t he…

Zeitoun

Zeitoun, by Dave Eggers
Zeitoun, by Dave Eggers

I’ve just finished reading Zeitoun, Dave Eggers’ latest book. I’ve an ongoing habit of alternating reading one fiction, one non-fiction book. I keep meaning to write about some of them here, but never get around to it, but am taking the time for this one. Zeitoun tells the story of one family’s experience immediately preceding, during & after hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. It grew out of the Voice of Witness project, a fascinating project, particularly in this modern age, with a goal of collection oral histories.

Zeitoun tells the story of Abdulrahman Zeitoun, a Syrian-American & his wife Kathy. Like most of what I’ve read by Dave Eggers, the concern here is not so much in the writing of a book, but in the TELLING OF A STORY. An important story – content seems to precede style in his work – particularly these semi-journalistic books like this one & his last, What is the What. This has both positives & negatives. I really feel like I’m hearing these people’s own voices, much less so than Dave Eggers’ voice. On the other hand, I think some of the writing suffers somewhat for this.

Yes, everything that you might think would happen to an Arab-American canoeing through post-hurricane New Orleans in the post-9/11 America happens to this family. It’s horrible. It’s also the most affecting personal story I’ve read of just how things have changed for muslims in America since 9/11. This small, personal story made a much greater impact on me than any of the large-scale important reporting I’ve read in the papers, magazines, etc to date. It’s a good, sometimes hard, but well-worthwhile read.

Guaranteed Delivery My Ass!

So we (of course) pre-ordered the latest Harry Potter book. Which guaranteed delivery on Saturday. And of course, there was no such delivery. Hopefully they’ll leave at our door today, or leave a note so I can go get it at the post office. But I was really annoyed that I didn’t get to read it on Saturday night – Leah was going out and I had planned on reading that book!

At least it appears we’ll be getting a refund

update:Apparently, I’m not the only one who had this problem

Buy the Flickr Book!

You should all go buy the Flickr Book. Why, you say, should I spend my hard-earned money on such a trifle? Because my photo is contained within! The same photo you can see for free online at any time! And thus potentially even print yourself, should you so choose! But this particular instance of it comes with a posse of 121 other photos, who’s only connection is that they were all born on the same day. Which perhaps, if you’re in the right frame of mind, makes the book-bound version of my photo (or the book-bound version of the other 121 photos) just that much more special and meaningful.

So what’re you waiting for!? With a pitch like the preceding, how can you resist?

(as a note, $1.00 of said purchase goes to something-or-other. I can’t remember what. But I’m sure it’s something good)