Comics often operate on the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” model. The innovation, then, comes less in how stories are dispersed — print remains a vital part of the industry’s larger model — and more in the risks taken by the actual stories and their creators.
But sometimes you’ve just got to try and reinvent the wheel.
That’s seemingly what Marvel attempted in earnest last fall when the company debuted its line of Infinity Comics on the recently-revitalized Marvel Unlimited app. With weekly offerings from a slew of creators (including Giant-Sized Little Marvels, Deadpool, Spine-Tingling Spider-Man, and X-Men Unlimited), the real hook of the line was the entirely vertical format, a novel device for both telling and consuming stories.
And, at least as far as Marvel’s own metrics are concerned, the project’s been a success — the 350 or so titles have been read over 2 million times, and readership for the Unlimited app has grown by 30% (though that’s not just because of Infinity’s debut, mind you).
So, what’s this all mean? And are Infinity Comics a novelty or is there a brighter future? We asked two folks from Marvel — Jessica Malloy, the VP of marketing for Marvel New Media, and senior editor (and frequent X-Men Monday guest) Jordan D. White — to help contextualize everything. We talk about the measures of success, how Infinity stands on its own, and the future of Marvel’s online efforts, among other topics. Maybe nothing’s quite definitive, but it is clear that this “gimmick” is an interesting development among modern comic happenings.
AIPT: Jessica, when Marvel started the Unlimited initiative, did you have any metrics for success? Be that purely statistical or anything even anecdotal?
Jessica Malloy: Marvel Unlimited’s goal has always been to provide the best digital comics experience for all Marvel fans. It was a pioneer when it launched years ago, and has continued its evolution through present day. When we relaunched Marvel Unlimited a year ago we honed in on comic discovery, app speed and stability performance and introducing exclusive all-new Infinity Comics to Marvel fans.
Of course we spend a fair amount of time looking at metrics like subscribers, comic reads, app ratings and app performance to keep an eye on how we’re delivering on that goal, but our most fulfilling metrics come from hearing directly from our fans.
AIPT: Jordan, has anything done across the Infinity Comics, in terms of tone or storytelling tricks, made their way into the “proper” Marvel books?
Jordan D. White: Hm. Not really, because, like I said, the fundamentals are the same as print books so the things we are learning are things that are super specific to the format. I think every one of these I do, the more I learn about the Infinity format and what sort of things work better and worse for them… but those things don’t really translate back to print.
AIPT: Jessica, just how well has Unlimited performed over the last year or so? How does that compare to some of the other ways Marvel releases books/titles?
JM: Marvel Unlimited is just one part of the Marvel comic ecosystem that allows our fans to connect with new and classic stories every day. The service has performed very well in the past year with over 30% growth in our subscriber base, double the comic reads on the platform and encouraging app ratings (4.8 stars on Apple and 4.6 stars on Google Play), all of which is a result of a collaboration across all of Marvel. With over 2 million reads in their first year, Infinity Comics are resonating with readers and often in the top 10 comics read each day. X-Men Unlimited, our in-universe X-Men focused series, has released 54 issues in the past year and continues to draw readers in weekly.
AIPT: Jordan, what was behind the new genre series? What does that add to the larger Marvel experience?
JDW: Ah — now this is also interesting, I think it has a lot to do, once again, with the opportunity afforded to us because we’re releasing the books on Marvel Unlimited. It allows us to take some chances on stories that we might be more hesitant to do in print. For example, romance books — while having a huge audience many years ago — have not been huge sellers in recent year. But because the Infinity Books are included as part of a subscription, people are more willing to take a chance on things. The readers who might hesitate to buy a romance book are willing to check out one that comes with their subscription, and they’re digging what they find when they take that chance. That is great news and, who know, could even result in the broadening of the kinds of stories Marvel tells in every format.
AIPT: Jordan, why do you think Infinity Comics have been as popular as they have thus far?
JDW: I think the convenience is a big part of it. That you can just grab your phone and read a chapter while you’re waiting for the bus or otherwise have a few spare minutes. It’s pretty great. Formatting for mobile reading really does make a huge difference, the reading experience is so easy and fast. That and the fact that they are super-bingeable once there is a bunch up there, means it’s so great to just plow through a series.
AIPT: Jordan, what’s the process been like for editing Infinity Comics? How is that different from or similar to standard books?
JDW: Great question! In many ways it’s very similar — that’s why I like it, it’s still, at its core, comics. It’s a sequence of panels that read in sequence to tell a story. The ideas in Scott McCloud’s terrific “Understanding Comics” all still apply. Oh — actually, that brings to mind the following McCloud did called “Reinventing Comics” back in 2000. That’s when I first was introduced to the idea that the digital versions of comics could be formatted differently while still the same in the fundamentals. Scott was big on an idea he called “The Infinite Canvas” where comics could stretch out in any direction.
I think he even did a digital ZOT! series where each chapter was presented as a vertical scroll, which is how the Marvel Infinity Comics run. The main difference being he was formatting for the computer screen, while nowadays these vertical-type comics are formatter for cell phones, which I think was not an idea on anyone’s radar in 2000. So, to answer your original question more directly—what I love about Infinity Comics is that they are taking the classic storytelling of comics and pushing it in a new direction. It’s really fun to experiment with the form and learn what it’s capable of.
AIPT: Jordan, is there something different about Infinity Comics in terms of editorial stuff (voice, structure, plotting, tone, etc.)?
JDW: All the changes really boil down to the format. It’s why, before working on Infinity comics, I made sure to read a ton of other vertically-oriented comics, and when I work on Infinity books I make a point of reading proofs on my phone even though it’s kind of inconvenient.
Formatting a comic so it’s read on a phone screen rather than a page is a big adjustment. And not only are you seeing it on a screen, you have to scroll down into that screen. When you read a print comic—and yeah, I am gonna state the obvious here, but it bears saying — you see an entire page all at once. So if there is a panel that has an image of someone being punched, a sound effect for that punch, and a line of dialog being said while the person gets punched… you see them all at once. The entire panel is visible at the same time and you take it all in. In and Infinity Comic, however, you have to scroll into that panel. So… whatever is at the top of the panel you will see first, and you’re not going to see what’s at the bottom of the panel until you get there.
So if the person throwing the punch is at the top of the panel saying “Yeah—how do you like that knuckle sandwich?” and then you have to scroll down and only then do you see the punch connect and then the sound effect… well, that is going to read a little awkwardly. You really want to make sure the top of the panel is the first moment of the panel.
In addition, since these stories are being released on Marvel Unlimited and anyone who has access to the newest chapter has access to all of them, we’re able to treat each issue a little more like part of one overall story rather than an issue that has to stand on its own. In print comics, we’ve long had the philosophy that every comic is someone’s first, so we want every issue we publish to be able to have everything in it you need to understand the story of that issue.
With the Infinity Comics, we can tread a 6-issue arc more as one story — we don’t expect many (is any?) people will start reading with part five, they have access to all 4 previous issues, they can just go start at start.
AIPT: Jessica, is Unlimited just a place for digital comics or do you think it operates as something else entirely?
JM: Marvel Unlimited is more than just a place for digital comics, it’s both the most expansive digital library of over 30,000 Marvel Comics as well as a destination for a community of readers looking for an unending journey through over 80 years of storytelling.
AIPT: Is there a sense that you’ve really innovated something here with Infinity, or is this just about meeting fans in how they consume comics?
JM: Innovation has always been a part of Marvel’s legacy. From innovating the way comics stories were told in the 1960s, to embracing digital comics over a decade ago, our innovation strategy is to meet consumer where they are. Infinity Comics is the next step with that innovation, by leveraging a mobile friendly format that challenges our creators to tell stories in new ways. But we didn’t stop there as we explored how innovate within the Infinity Comics format most recently with the launch of T.E.S.T Kitchen Infinity Comics, where the vertical format is used to combine an in-universe character, comic book action, and cooking. We’ll see more content in this format over the next year and we’re excited for what’s to come.
AIPT: What does the success of Unlimited do in terms of influencing the rest of the Marvel line or properties? Do they remain two distinct things (basically, digital and traditional/print) or is there bleed-over, as it were?
JM: Ultimately it’s the great storytelling and love of Marvel characters that guide our new opportunities. Infinity Comics have allowed us to expand in certain areas faster than in the past. As an example new print and consumer products are releasing now stemming from swell of fan love for the It’s Jeff Infinity Comic Series.
AIPT: Jessica, what do you attribute to the larger success of Unlimited as a whole?
JM: Certainly Marvel as a brand is more popular than ever across the world. Marvel Unlimited provides the ever-expanding fan base a way to interact with characters they may meet in the movies, TV shows or video games in a different way. With over 30,000 comics, Marvel Unlimited enables fans to dig deeper with the characters they’re interested in, from their comic origin stories to major storylines through the years. One recent example of how we’re broadening the connection to comics for fans was the recent episodes of She-Hulk, Ms. Marvel, and Moon Knight that featured embedded QR codes in the episodes, that when scanned fans were able to read comics curated by the showrunners from Marvel Studios with selections that inspired the series.
AIPT: Jordan, does this (Infinity or maybe Unlimited in general) feel like something innovative to you, or are you just meeting fans in their existing tendencies and habits?
JDW: You make those two things sound like they are opposites, when I think making comics that are easier and more convenient to read IS an innovation. We’re not looking to cultivate a niche of comic readers—we want comics to be spread to as many people as possible. I think broadening the reach and appeal of comics is absolutely innovating. It’s very exciting to me, playing in this new form, because… well, because I love comics and so the combination of pushing the form into new applications, learning how it stretches and reforms into new shapes, alongside working to make stories that work in this new format that is so portable and digestible… that’s a real thrill. And there’s more work to be done—I am just starting work on a new Infinity project that I am even more excited about because it will be a first for the Marvel Infinities. So, yeah — it continues to grow and push every time.
AIPT: Jessica, how do you look ahead for the future of Unlimited?
JM: We think about it as four-part strategy focused on product experience, comic discovery, content format, and community. On a daily basis, we work to better serve the fan, and ultimately we will continue to grow as a result.
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