Around the DC Universe: So How is It?
It’s an understatement to say that I was excited for the release of DC Universe. Since the service was first announced over a year ago I’ve been regularly scouring the internet for news, checking my email for updates and pestering the company’s customer service department for information through a variety of social media outlets. After a short beta test DC Universe finally launched and I’ve spent almost every single free minute since trying to experience everything it has to offer.
I’ve gotten more into the specifics of what I’ve been reading and watching but I want to focus on the nuts and bolts of the service itself and discuss who I think will get the most out of it.
A quick note on devices before we begin: I have been accessing DC Universe using the app on my Android phone, streaming to my TV via Chromecast. I’ve tried several time to use the browser on my Chromebook but I’ve had little success.
Movies and TV
For a lot of fans the movie and TV portion of DC Universe is what will make or break it. Fortunately I think it’s also the strongest category at the moment. I watched a variety of programming this weekend and found that the interface worked well and was user friendly. There were quite a few problems with videos pausing in the middle of the day Saturday but less than I expected given the heavy volume that they were almost certainly experiencing. There is a good selection of movies and shows for fans of all ages. Choices tend to skew towards older material though so you won’t find any of the current CW shows, Gotham or the DC Extended Universe films. You can watch the Christopher Reeve Superman movies, the 90s Flash show and most of the DC Animated Universe (with the exception of The New Batman Adventures and The Zeta Project). DC’s original animated features are also very well represented including some of the most recent (Gotham by Gaslight, Death of Superman and Ninja Batman). It’s nice that most of the shows are presented with all of their seasons intact for convenient binging but there are some odd omissions (notably The Dark Knight Rises, the only Nolan Batfilm that wasn’t added for Batman Day). There are also some surprising choices like The Spirit TV pilot and The Human Target series both of which I had forgot even existed until I opened up the app.
While Marvel has had their Unlimited service available for over a decade, DC has been conspicuously absent from the field of comics streaming, the only major hold out. What most excited me about DC Universe was the ability to read their titles electronically without having to pay a la carte through ComiXology or another eStore. Early on it was announced that the selection available would be curated. What this meant was left vague causing concern for many and prompting some not to pre-order.
Now that the service is available I can honestly say it’s a bit of a mixed bag. The selection of comics is extensive but it doesn’t seem anywhere close to the thousands of titles that were mentioned in early promotional materials. Many series (including stand alone mini series like New Frontier and All Star Superman as well as the recent Rebirth series) have only have a single issue available. Others (like many from the New 52 launch) present incomplete story arcs but a few of the less successful books are available in their entirety. Older titles have more representation but there are few if any complete creative runs (though there are plenty of story arcs including Geoff Johns and Gary Frank’s Braniac and Frank Miller and David Mazzuchelli’s Batman Year One) which work well outside of the larger continuity. All in all it feels a bit like walking into a public library and browsing their selection of trades but that’s not necessarily a bad thing, especially for more casual readers who may not have much experience with the characters in their native medium.
The biggest issue with the comics part of DC Universe is that its very hard to keep track of what’s available at any given moment. Unlike Marvel Unlimited you can expect comics to come and go (in the four days since launch I’ve seen several issues and even an entire series vanish) but there is no schedule to it or to the addition of new issues/series (again unlike Marvel Unlimited which has had a regular new release schedule since its inception). There is no indication of what you have or haven’t read unless you create your own list of read titles. The app notes that the entire DC Digital Collection will be available to purchase beginning in October. This makes it seem like DC Universe is following the path of ComiXology Unlimited by offering a few teaser issues to subscribers to entice them into buying more. If that is the case I hope that the app makes it clear what books are available for an additional fee and which are included as part of the subscription. I also hope that they will also do us the favor of offering at least one complete trade worth of material on which to base our choices, at least in the case of ongoing series.
Content aside I think that they have done a very good job with its presentation. The reader works smoothly especially in the panel by panel mode. Guided view has always been Marvel Unlimited’s Achilles heel but DC Universe’s panel by panel mode works very well on my phone. I only had a few problems with some panels displaying out of order on a couple of modern comics. There is an option to set up automatic panel transitions but I abandoned it pretty quickly as it really doesn’t account well for the fact that not every panel will take you the same amount of time to read. The biggest problem with the interface is that it requires you to download comics to read them on the mobile app. This isn’t a huge inconvenience if you’re reading a limited series or a short story arc but it can be aggravating if you’re trying to binge a longer series. It also takes way more effort than it should to get from a finished comic to the list of available series or to the home screen. You also have to go out of your way to read a story that occurs in more than one title, switching back and forth between the books in question. This would be a huge hassle for family wide epics like The Death and Return of Superman or No Man’s Land should such be made available in their entirety.
One of the things that DC promoted most vigorously about DC Universe was the way in which it would allow users to communicate with one another, selling the DC Universe Community as a cross between Facebook and a Message Board. While this is an admirable goal it falls short in several respects.
The nice thing about the DC Universe Community is that it seems to be very well moderated especially given the fact that DC fans have developed something of a reputation for toxicity. I’ve seen none of that in the Community posts and that is all to the good because the last thing DC fandom and the world in general needs right now is another outlet for hatred, ignorance and bile. It’s also easy to mark threads as spoilers for those who care about such things. What’s unfortunate is that a lot of features that made social media platforms like Facebook so successful are missing here. There is no way, as far as I can tell, to reply to a specific user and no means of being notified when someone responds to your posts. This ultimately leads to a bunch of detached comments loosely related by a broader topic floating around next to each other rather than being a real discussion. It also makes it very easy to ignore as you have to spend time trying to find your old posts to see if anyone has commented on them. It’s a nice idea but not particularly engaging as currently configured.
Pitched by DC as a more reliable version of a wiki, this is probably the biggest disappointment of the service. Part of the problem is that it is woefully incomplete. This wouldn’t be so bad if the choices they made seemed to have a reason behind them but as of Sunday morning major names like Braniac, the Justice League and Lex Luthor are nowhere to be found. Instead there are articles for Sam Lane and “The Watchmen” (a name that is never once used in the Alan Moore/Dave Gibbons comic to refer to any group of characters). If that weren’t bad enough there are only a few links between the entries that do exist and the content on the service. It would be great if you could use the encyclopedia to catch up on a character’s backstory, diving directly into comics, movies or TV shows as they become available but that’s not an option at the moment. It’s clear that this is a work in progress but it’s also obvious that not enough work or thought was done on this part of the experience prior to launch.
Last but not least comes The Shop, which offers a variety of member exclusive products. I wanted to buy something before writing this review but I couldn’t find anything I wanted badly enough to pay the price that DC is asking. The stuff is nicely designed but I don’t really feel like paying twenty five dollars for a t-shirt and I have more than enough mugs. It would be nice to see DC expand this section a bit with more stuff and a wider variety of price points. It’s particularly telling that after writing the first draft of this review I went to a convention and spent almost eighty dollars on DC trades and single issues.
I like DC Universe a lot warts and all. There are plenty of problems but I think that between the comics, the movies and the shows I will still get my money’s worth over the next fifteen months of my subscription. That said I’m still up in the air about whether or not I’ll renew. I’m hooked for now but I need to see significant improvement as well as additional content to keep me where I am.
Recommending the service to someone else is a thorny prospect at present. For people who are new to DC, TV or movie fans who want to give the comics a try or Marvel fans who might be DC curious, it’s a decent way to sample what they have to offer without breaking the bank especially if you are living in an area without a newbie friendly comic shop. If you are one of the DC faithful your response to DC Universe will likely depend on what you already own and what you want to read. If you happen to harbor the impossible dream of reading every DC book ever published from the first issue of New Fun Comics to the latest issue of Aquaman than DC Universe is probably a good match for you but if you are drawn to a particular period of DC history or to a character other than Batman its likely a hard pass. In all cases I would only recommend subscribing on a month by month basis at this point as much of the long term value of DC Universe will only become apparent as it grows and changes.