guttergeek the discontinuous review of graphic narrative

Motion Comics: A State of the Art

By Geoffrey Long

It's fascinating to watch a new medium gathering its legs beneath it.  First it needs to figure out what unique characteristics it has to offer over well-established media like film or television, then determine what characteristics it will keep from its ancestors and what it will cast aside, and finally discover how to use the resulting combination of old and new to create really memorable stuff.  Early films and television shows were frequently recordings of stage acts, and early CD-ROM games were often little more basic interactivity grafted onto bad B-movies.  Today's new "new media" almost all arise from one common question: how to use the twin developments of cheap, ubiquitous video devices and the Internet to tell stories in new, interesting and hopefully profitable ways.  

Among the most common of these new forms are webisodes (online-original shows like Joss Whedon's
Dr. Horrible’s Sing-along Blog) and mobisodes (shows designed explicitly for consumption on mobile devices like the 24 spinoff 24:CONSPIRACY). The latest contenders to emerge, and perhaps the most interesting to comics fans, are motion comics.  

The premise is simple: take still comics, add in some basic animation and voiceovers and deliver them to small screens over the Internet. You can almost hear the giddy pitch: "We blend the best parts of comics with the best parts of animation at a fraction of the cost, with almost no delivery overhead! If comics-inspired movies like
The Dark Knight can rake in over half a billion dollars at the box office, then our new motion comics are a surefire hit!"

Not exactly.  

Motion comics are still very, very early in their self-discovery process, and they have a long way to go until they find their footing, if that even turns out to be possible.  This is demonstrated by three high-profile motion comics which have appeared in recent months: an adaptation of Robert Kirkman's
Invincible, developed by MTV; Stephen King’s N, an adaptation of a short story by King developed by Simon & Schuster and Marvel; and an adaptation of Alan Moore's Watchmen, funded by Warner Premiere (the imprint of Warner Brothers usually tasked with developing direct-to-DVD movies).  All three series are available over the Internet from both stand-alone sites and through Apple's iTunes service, and all three seem designed to be easily consumed on small screens like that of Apple's iPhone, which suggests a close genetic link to both webisodes and mobisodes. Motion comics differ, however, in that they have less in common with animated shorts than they do with animatics, the rough sketches often produced by directors when preparing a screenplay for shooting.  And therein lies the trouble: while these motion comics are certainly interesting experiments, they seem to be fumbling blindly for a market that may simply not exist. While motion comics may offer interesting differences from both animated shorts and actual comics, they arguably offer real advantages over neither.

This isn't to say that these motion comics aren't entertaining.  Far from it – there is a definite thrill to hearing Rorschach's low growl in
Watchmen, Invicible has moments of real giddy lunacy just like in the paper versions, and Stephen King’s N delivers a few suitably spooky chills.  Still, each of these three projects is rife with the earmarks of a new form because of their obvious awkwardness.  The creators themselves are certainly aware of this.  As King himself describes his own foray into the field on N's official website, "N is kind of... I'd have to say the Birth of a Nation of this particular medium, and it does something that is a hybrid -- you can't really describe it until you've seen it."

Well, I've seen all three of these, and I still find it difficult to to describe them.  Perhaps the best way to try is by outlining the three key issues that I think motion comics currently face: framing, time, and voice.

I. The Issue of Framing

If there's one thing that motion comics indisputably offer over traditional comics, it's the introduction of motion.  It is certainly an interesting sensation to watch the 'camera' swoop and slide over each panel of a familiar comic like
Watchmen.  While regular comics ('still comics', perhaps?) have certainly learned the fine art of framing a shot, it's still difficult to capture the mood of truly great cinematography.  By adding simple panning and zooming into the comics experience, motion comics do kick it up a notch, but this is where the animatics issue I mentioned earlier becomes truly apparent.

Stephen King’s N and Watchmen both have a nifty cinematic feel to them, framing each image to the dimensions of the hardware.  The trouble is that for all the dynamism these series try to inject, all too often it comes across as little more than a Ken Burns documentary. It becomes difficult not to lose interest in the screen after the tenth zoom or push transition—after a while, these motion comics start to feel like over-labored PowerPoint presentations. 

Invincible, however, feels more like a comic because it keeps the panels of the comic intact, opting instead to treat the viewing device as a page instead of a screen.  Invincible does some neat tricks with assembling entire pages on the screen as panels come into view, instead of merely doing simple animations inside the existing panels as in Watchmen.  Of the three, Stephen King’s N feels the least 'comic-y' and feels more like a simple animatic, in part because of its very limited animation but also because of its abandonment of text balloons, which I'll address in a moment.

II. The Issue of Time

If Scott McCloud is to be believed, then one of comics' greatest strengths is the idea of
closure, or how readers fill in the gaps between panels. Motion comics do this for the viewer with extra sound effects and time. An unfortunate side effect of this is that while traditional comics enable us to read at our own speed, motion comics lock us into fixed durations.  

Perhaps it's simple personal preference, but only when I sat down to watch these motion comics did I discover how much faster I expect the consumption of a comic to be; apparently I skim over most comics pages at a pace much faster than I expect from watching television.  This awkwardness could also be due to how writing for print has a drastically different sense of timing than writing for audible media like television or radio, and since these motion comics weren't 'adapted' for the screen as much as they were directly 'ported' there wasn't a lot that appeared to have been cut out for flow.  Of course, it could also be because really solid timing on TV shows like
Buffy the Vampire Slayer or 24 are the result of actors and directors knowing how to establish a sense of urgency and rhythm, and the creative teams behind these motion comics simply haven't developed this yet.  Whatever the reason, the pacing in N, Watchmen and Invincible all felt oddly stilted and occasionally dragging. 

Another issue facing motion comics is that the form, like mobisodes and webisodes, are still trying to find their 'sweet spot' for both duration and frequency.  All three series vary in both. 

So far
Watchmen has only released one 25-minute episode, which premiered on July 14th; it's unclear as to whether its further absence is the result of a tepid response or the Fox-vs-WB lawsuit currently plaguing the production of the feature film, but I'm guessing the latter considering that an article in the New York Times claims there are "a dozen 22- to 26-minute Webisodes [planned] to help make the complex story [of the film] easier for the uninitiated to digest."  Running the numbers, this equates to around four and a half hours' worth of this stuff, which is a decent length for an audiobook but makes for an awfully long PowerPoint presentation.

Invincible has released three episodes and a behind-the-scenes promo episode, three of which were released on iTunes on July 22nd and the fourth a week later on August 5th.  The three regular episodes ranged from fifteen minutes to nearly twenty minutes.  Since then nothing's appeared on iTunes, which means that, as with Watchmen, any fans of the motion comics wouldn't have any idea when to check back again.  

The one of the three to really get the frequency issue nailed down is
Stephen King’s N.  According to the initial announcement on the project's official site, "the first episode will be available Monday, July 28th, 2008 with a new one released EACH weekday until August 29th. Blocks of five episodes will be released on iTunes each Monday until August 25th."3  This enabled viewers to know exactly when to expect the new content.  Unfortunately, since each episode was only about two minutes long, I was left with an almost constant feeling of dissatisfaction.  Like it or not, audiences have been conditioned to expect their content to arrive in certain durations, so while half an hour of uninterrupted slideshow (as in Watchmen) feels too long, two minutes feels way too short.  Invincible seems to have gotten the closest to the mark on this front, since each episode feels about as long as the length between commercial breaks on a standard TV show.  This may well be one of those things motion comics should choose to inherit from its ancestors.

III. The Issue of Voice

Another primary characteristic of standard comics is that they are inherently silent, which allows readers to imagine what characters' voices sound like.  These three motion comics series fill in those blanks for us, with varying degrees of success.  One of the simplest things that differentiate comics from storyboards (and, by extension, animatics) is the inclusion of speech bubbles - but what purpose do speech bubbles serve in animations?

Stephen King’s N does away with the speech bubbles altogether, which again is probably largely to blame for my earlier description of N as being the most like an animatic.  Both Invincible and Watchmen, on the other hand, animate the text appearing. In Watchmen this serves a particular purpose, because all the voices are performed by a single actor in the tradition of an audiobook (the female voices sound particularly jarring) and thus gives viewers a sense of who's talking.  In Invincible, however, the text appearing at the same time as the actors are performing it simply feels as redundant as watching a film with both the sound and the same-language subtitles turned on. 

Are there issues with the qualities of the performances?  Sure – none of these voice actors or actresses are likely to be nominated for Oscars anytime soon, but it's only the male actor trying to do the women's voices in
Watchmen that comes across as truly painful.  The voice acting in motion comics has the same quality potential as voice acting in standard animation, radio dramas, audiobooks or video games, but motion comics may be more likely to benefit from using the same voice actors as in other media, since comics are so frequently cross-media franchises these days.  For example, a Batman motion comic might want to capitalize on the existing audience from Batman: The Animated Series by including Kevin Conroy as the Dark Knight and Mark Hamill as the Joker.  Given the attraction of motion comics over standard animation as a low-budget medium, however, ponying up for such established voice talent might not be a choice many motion comics creators opt to make.

Are Motion Comics Really the Future?

The biggest issue of motion comics may be that they're trying to fill a niche that simply doesn't exist.  If we consider the original question, "how do we use the twin developments of cheap, ubiquitous video devices and the Internet to tell stories in new, interesting and hopefully profitable ways", the active word for motion comics becomes 'video'. However, it's unclear whether comics need motion at all.  

Arguably, the question of how to reinvent comics for the web might have already been answered by webcomics like
Diesel Sweeties, Achewood or Penny Arcade, all of which are maintained by independent creators with devoted followings and sustained through banner ads, T-shirt sales and print editions made available through retail channels and/or online storefronts.  Each of these series are providing high-quality content on a reliable schedule with relatively low overhead.  While many webcomics are done in the style of newspaper comics (frequently done in black and white and in three-panel format), series like Templar, Arizona, The Rainbow Orchid, or the video game-themed Looking for the Group. Best of all, series like Scary Go Round or Questionable Content show that hybridities between the two formats, like daily pages of a comic with punchlines, work extremely well.  It's incredibly easy to imagine publishing houses like Marvel or DC creating webcomic versions of their big properties, as Spider-Man, Batman and Superman have all graced newspaper comics pages in the past.  

Customizing this content for mobile devices might be as simple as resizing each panel to a standard size and then moving from panel to panel with a simple click or, in the case of the iPhone, a swipe of the finger.  Best of all, a beta test of this model is already in circulation, even if its legality is somewhat questionable: in late August an enterprising anonymous fan scanned the entirety of Mark Millar and Steve McNiven's
Wolverine #67 and reformatted it for viewing on widescreen monitors.  As the remixer himself notes, "I cut up the original pages and relayed [sic] them out on a 1280×800 pixel space. The result: individual panels fill up the screen, allowing for a more cinematic reading experience and greater appreciation of the details and nuances of Steve McNiven’s beautiful artwork."  The results aren't perfect – the biggest splash panels often result in lettering that's painfully difficult to read – but they certainly are promising.

Long story short, the primary challenge facing motion comics is determining what benefits this format has to offer.  If the primary benefit is its low cost, then simply creating still comics in a format better suited to mobile devices may be sufficient.  If the primary benefit is motion, then it remains to be seen what motion comics can do that standard animation (or even relatively low-budget Flash animation) cannot.  While I'd be hard-pressed to call any of these three examples a masterpiece, the cumulative effect of watching all three is still a sense that there is something interesting developing here.  It's disheartening to note that all three have either wrapped up or been put on hold, because there is clearly still a great deal left to discover about this medium.

Finally, it's interesting to note that both
Watchmen and Stephen King’s N were developed at least in part as marketing materials for more traditional media forms as opposed to stand-alone original content. That may be where motion comics fit into the greater media ecosystem for the immediate future: as commercials masquerading as experiments, or, to be a bit more generous, as experiments subsidized through advertising budgets.  Like webisodes and mobisodes, motion comics are still stumbling their way towards becoming an established form of their own.  Let's hope there will be enough sustained interest from both audiences and creators for them to get there.

Note: between the time of this article's writing and publication, both the second and third episodes of Watchmen were released on the iTunes store in relatively rapid succession, on October 7th and October 20th.  While there haven't been any major announcements explaining the 13-week wait between the first and second episodes, according to MTV's Splash Page blog (link this phrase to ), future episodes will be "hitting the iTunes store every two weeks after that point in the run-up to the March 6 release of the live-action 'Watchmen' film".  Further good news for motion comics: according to Sci Fi Wire (link that phrase to )DC has announced that motion comics are also in the works based on Batman: Black & White and Superman: Red Son.  Watchmen is currently available on iTunes, the Sony PlayStation Store, Xbox Live and Amazon Video on Demand; the new series will presumably be made available through the same channels.)