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Marvel Comics, iPad team-up reviewed

Marvel's comics on the iPad look gorgeous, and reading them is a smooth experience, but there's a bitter twist that may stop even the most die-hard True Believer.

The largest comic book publisher in the United States has joined forces with the hottest device so far in 2010 to create a seamless comic book reading experience. Marvel on the iPad is slick and sexy, as users have come to expect from high-end apps on Apple devices, but it's not the digital panacea that comic book readers or publishers have hoped for. At least, not yet.

The app opens to a splash page image of some of Marvel's best-known superheroes: Wolverine, Iron Man, Captain America, Spider-Woman, and Thor. That's no small irony that Marvel's version of the mythological Norse god is included in the art, since Thor and other Asgaardian deities are part of the public domain, and the closed system approach is one of the big prerelease complaints of the iPad.

The biggest strength of Marvel on the iPad is the size and portability of the screen, which has very little to do with the ComiXology app that Marvel's is built on. The iPad screen, as you've read elsewhere, is gorgeous. It doesn't do very well in direct, bright daylight, but otherwise it's easy to both read the word balloons and gaze at the art. The resolution of the drawn pages on the iPad can't be understated, as the device is the closest thing to replicating a readable, holdable comic book page. The lettering style of comics, now done mostly on computers but based on handwritten fonts, looks natural on the iPad.

This effortless display and readability works in tandem with the second strength of the Marvel app: it's hardly noticeable. There's no awkward design in the interface, no confusing labeling or odd button placement. When you're reading a comic, the app disappears completely. When you tap the screen, the thin menu bar appears at the top, with a minuscule page preview at the bottom of the app. This keeps upcoming pages from spoiling the story, but the navigation requires you to slide your finger along the pages to choose the one you want. The previews are too small to simply tap and go with accuracy for most people.

Marvel's comics store uses Cover Flow well in an attempt to start readers off on familiar footing. Seth Rosenblatt/CNET

If you're not familiar with the Marvel app for the iPhone, which is also built on the ComiXology platform, the page zoom resolves into high-resolution close-ups of individual panels. Reading the comic with only one panel visible at a time won't work for all comics out there since many page layouts are more complicated than an array of rectangles, but for pages that use standard formatting the letterboxing view allows the reader a surprising amount of control of tension in the story. How fast you read the comic, and how fast you discover what happens next, is entirely up to you.

The panel-by-panel zoom and progression isn't new, but it never looked this good on the iPhone.

One drawback from a reading perspective is that the app splits double-page spreads into single pages, where one image covers two sequential pages. That's not a deal-breaker, but it seems an odd defect given that comics from around the world often have double-page spreads.

A more important problem has nothing to do with readability, and will likely go unnoticed by many readers. The comics are nonportable. You can not transfer them to your desktop, or even to your iPhone. When you buy them, unlike when you purchase MP3s, you are purchasing them for the iPad only. This may change in the future, but for now this means that your comics are only as good as your iPad is. This is an incredibly restrictive DRM, and unlike movies, music, and books, binds your comics to this particular device in a way never seen before. To me, at least, this is a deal-breaker. Why pay for something that you don't truly own?

A minuscule strip at the bottom of the comic lets you navigate pages out of order. Seth Rosenblatt/CNET

Despite these hang-ups, there's no doubt that the comics store is just as well-oiled as the comics reader. The Marvel Comics store takes heavy cues from the iTunes store, complete with Cover Flow. This looks fantastic on the iPad, especially with Marvel's brightly colored superhero comics covers a natural fit for the Cover Flow style. Tabs at the top help you narrow down your choices, and tapping a comic will pull up more detailed information on the book. You can download or read it if you've already downloaded it, check out the preview, or see the full series of issues for that title. There's also a "Buy in print" link that takes you to a comic book shop locator, but that's the current extent of outreach to comic book shops.

Marvel says that readers will be able to preview three pages from each comic for free. According to a press release from Marvel, the comics currently need to be recolored and "redigitized" before being added to Marvel's catalog, so don't expect new comics on their regular Wednesday street date for the time being. Marvel has said that it expects to have about 500 comics available Saturday, when the iPad reaches the general public. The available comics run the gamut from modern incarnations of Iron Man and multihero stories like Civil War to the first appearance of Spider-Man from 1963.

There's no doubt that the Marvel app is a great piece of eye candy. If you don't mind the restrictions it could be the catalyst that gets you reading comics again, or reading them on a computer for the first time. However, not being able to remove your comics from the iPad and read them elsewhere can be a bitter pill to swallow for those who don't like Apple's new paradigm.

The Marvel Comics app for the iPad is free. The comics themselves are currently available only as individual issues, and most are $1.99. A small handful are available in full for free.