Digital-comics creators try to evolve with new medium

Digital-comics creators try to evolve with new medium

With comics going digital, creators are trying to evolve with the new medium. But at what point is a motion comic just a lousy cartoon?

Not too long ago, the comics world seemed to view digital comics in the same way J. Jonah Jameson views Spider-Man: as a threat and a menace. In 2013, the world of comics has embraced and accepted digital, and at Comic-Con the discussion was more about how the comics medium should evolve and adapt to a world in which readers are experiencing comics on their phones and iPads rather than on paper.

"Apple has sold more iPads in the last minute than there are comic-book stores in America," said Mark Waid, noted comics writer and co-founder of digital-comics publisher Thrillbent, explaining why he felt it necessary to explore the world of digital-first comics. "We've stumbled a couple of times, but that happens when you lead with your face," Waid said. "We're learning as we go."

This is an era of experimentation, to be sure. There are "motion comics" that are nothing more than animated versions of paper comics. There are digital versions of paper comics, perhaps with some additional animation or special transitions if you view them on the right device. But some creators are searching for ways to create new kinds of comics with the help of some new tech tools.

Madefire's Motion Book Tool lets creators layer artwork; add animations, transitions, and sound effects; and create what the eponymous company calles a "motion book" for deploying via the Madefire iOS app. Smith Micro's MotionArtist similarly gives creators a timeline and allows them to animate their art and play back the result in a movie file or on a webpage. Even dominant digital-comics app Comixology is promoting several digital-first comics that use Comixology's Guided View format to tell comics-style stories in a format that's not just a digital version of a printed page.

Madefire showed off its tools at a panel during Comic-Con, featuring its executives and and all-star panel of creators, including artist Dave Gibbons of "Watchmen" fame.

"What a lot of other people were doing was to take the venerable old horse of the comics industry and putting it on a skateboard and calling it motion comics," Gibbons said. "But [Madefire was] building an F1 racing car from the ground up. Once you see what the technology does, it inspires you creatively, and once the tech people see what the creators want it inspires them too."

But is adding sound and motion to comic-book-style art really a new form of storytelling, or is it an attempt to jam a static format into someplace it doesn't really belong? Comic books aren't animation, and they're not movies--they're static images that imply movement. As Scott McCloud wrote in his great book Understanding Comics, what happens between the panels of a comic book is just as important as what happens in the individual panels.

As I looked at MadeFire's sample video, I felt like I felt when I watched DC Comics' motion comic version of "Watchmen," a video that animated Gibbons's artwork for that classic story written by Alan Moore: It was caught somewhere in an uncanny valley between comics and animation, an unhappy space between two different kinds of media.

To his credit, Madefire CEO Ben Wolstenhome said all the right things about trying to find a new place for comic-style art without turning it into a cartoon. "These are books, not animation," he said, "and we want to push the envelope for books," not compete with Pixar.

"We're at a point where we're evolving a new medium, a grammar for the new medium," said Liam Sharp, Madefire co-founder. "This first year is an adventure in R&D." Sharp told a story about a concept illustrator for Lucasfilm who had no background in comic books using the motion-book tools to create something that a traditional comics artist wouldn't ever have considered. "He completely busted out of the left-to-right, top-to-bottom storytelling, revealing stories in layers and creating collages... it's so exciting."

The giants of comics publishing are experimenting with the format too. Marvel's Infinite Comics initiative continues with the current weekly release of a Wolverine comic using Comixology's Guided View technology. DC Comics' new digital-first comic, Batman '66, uses the same technology to create unique transitions the likes of which would be impossible in print. The actual colors of the drawings can shift from tap to tap.

During another panel on digital-first comics, Thrillbent's Waid pointed out how the storytelling possibilities change when you're not designing your stories on printed pages. "With a comic book, the only place I can surprise you is in the upper left hand corner [after you turn the page]. With digital, every new swipe of the page is a new surprise and a new image, a chance to surprise, to scare," Waid said. "Writing for 20 pages of comics is like haiku. It is a specialized language about being terse and about fitting a specific format... [on digital] we have some elbow room. Your story can be as long as it needs to be."

If comics is ultimately a story-telling medium, most everyone I heard agreed that the best stories are crafted by the professionals--and not the audience. Responding to an audience question about creating interactive comics, Waid expressed skepticism of anything that doesn't help the story along. I heard at least one creator bring up interactive CD-ROMs--and not in a positive way--suggesting that digital comics should not turn into choose-your-own-adventure games. That's a good call.

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