Digital Comics… Not Just Animation. Oooo- Clicky!

17 03 2012

So a bit of a departure today- more musings than anything. I’ve been reading up on some of the digital comics news of the last month or so, in particular: DC’s announcing their surprise that digital comics sales actually seem to be helping PRINT comic sales; Mark Waid’s assuming himself the mantle of comics’ digital white knight; Marvel’s announcement of their Marvel AR Re-Evolution Revolution Augmented Reality And Infinite Digital Comics And MY, Aren’t We Technically Literate And Hip Initiative; Marvel hiring Waid to work his digital magic for them; Marvel’s Joe Quesada and Waid both talking about how they worship this guy Balak; and how all this affects me. Because that’s what it really comes down to, right?

First, at the ComicsPRO meeting earlier this month, DC’s John Rood revealed some vague statistics that some are interpreting to mean that digital comics might be helping print. Somebody suggested that this could be just a matter of greater exposure for what is a very niche product. This makes sense to me. It also occurs to me that this doesn’t necessarily mean we have nothing to fear from digital comics- to me, it just means that digital comics still stink. As soon as digital comics actually start truly replicating the vast majority of the experience of print comics, (like Mp3 files do for CDs, or epub files for print books,) then we have reason to worry about the state of the print comic industry. But that death knell is still a touch further off than many people seem to think. Because with comics, it’s not just a matter of software to display the individual images of a comics page, but the canvas: the overall display device itself. Comics are far more tied up in their medium than other forms of traditional media, and as such, the digital media to display them has a long way to parity.

Mark Waid thinks he’s got this thing just about figured out. To his credit, I applaud him for trying so hard. I agree with him entirely that a major part of the excitement about the promise of digital comics is the chance for independent creators to brave the frontier in ways more conservative large companies might not. That said, digital also entails a much broader skill set than traditional comics, and perhaps the infrastructure of  a larger company can do more than individuals. Not that I have much faith in Marvel or DC to spearhead this. Rather than traditional comics creators working to reinvent comics for digital, wouldn’t it be wild to see computer programmers come at the problem from their end?

Marvel does have quite a big plan in the works, a two-pronged approach of Marvel AR and Infinite Comics, under the banner of Marvel ReEvolution. Seems a bit of a scattershot approach, and currently a bit confusing in their branding of it. Marvel AR is an augmented reality app for phones and tablets, (and I do really like that they’re marketing this as for “tablets” and not “iPads.” This seems practically a first for the digital content delivery industry, and is sorely needed.) The app allows you to point your device’s camera at a print comic and it will then display on the screen additional content overlaid on the comic image. It’s described as akin to DVD extras, and they’re insisting that it’s only for print comics, (for now,) which I’m glad to see they’re interested in using digital as a means to help print. This is smart. But what they’re offering can even more easily be offered for digital comics, so to not do so is just introducing artificial scarcity into the equation, which is just silly and never works. Plus, the (admittedly very limited) content I’ve seen so far seems gimmicky and annoying. Time will tell, but I see this sort of content being far more successful when linked with digital comics themselves.

Marvel’s Infinite Comics is a whole ‘nother kettle of fish.

Oooo. Clever logo!

Motion Comics were a joke, current digital comics are little more than glorified scans, but Infinite Comics seems like the first try at actually experimenting with the digital medium on its own terms. So that’s exciting. From what I can tell it looks like both writer Mark Waid & Marvel’s Chief Creative Officer Joe Quesada saw French comic artist Yves Bigerel’s 2009 experiment (and you should definitely check this out!) and were totally inspired by it. (Bigerel is called Balak on It bothers me that I’ve seen  Quesada extensively cite Bigerel, while I’ve only recently seen Waid mention the guy when questioned about him in reference to his work with Marvel on this project. Waid either came up with this same stuff independently or in tandem with Bigerel, who he calls a friend, and maybe he’s cited him a lot outside of where I’ve read. And I know Waid has cited Bigerel before. But in all the digital! digital! digital! I’ve heard from Waid in recent months I wish he and the press would have mentioned Bigerel a bit more.

Regardless of that matter of my small perspective, what Bigerel, Waid, Marvel, (and others!) are playing with is basically clicking the screen to advance the comics panel, or elements thereof. Word balloons appear at the click of a mouse, picture elements change incrementally, and even the panel frame shifts, revealing different parts of a scene. Bigerel’s experiment is exceptional, much more interesting than Waid’s Luther, but it all feels more like reader-directed animation than comics to me. Bigerel and Waid keep talking about how for comics to remain comics the reader must remain in control of the passage of time. They advise that introducing actual audio, whether sound effects or full voice performances of the script, and uncontrolled animated elements, like in Motion Comics, breaks the reader’s control of time. This makes perfect sense to me. However, I feel they’re missing something else integral to comics. Bigerel states that “Comics are about creating Time with SPACE!” He even second guesses himself, wondering if he’s not just employing digital gimickry, but eventually decides that No, he’s not. However, I believe he, and Waid and others, are in error to suggest that giving the reader control over just the rate of time’s passage is all that’s required of a comic. I’d argue that the simultaneous juxtaposition of sequential images is also required. Scott McCloud at least hinted at this in his explorations of the definition of comics.

As I click through Bigerel’s, (very enjoyable!) experiment comic I use the arrow key. As he says, it’s very easy and natural. I advance the story at my own pace. Some transitions are quite exciting and I even enjoy the usage of identical copied images from frame to frame while a single key element, like a word balloon or facial expression, is all that changes. (I’ve ranted before about how I loathe the use of mechanically reproduced images in print comics.) It’s a great experience. But at times, especially at some of the most exceptionally compelling transitions, I start to get a familiar feeling. It feels like animation. I do my own experiment: I hold down the arrow key. The images fly by, a bit too fast, but the effect is clear. This isn’t comics. This is animation. I play around some more, looking for what makes this different from comics. I realize something else important. Bigerel says comics create time with space, and I agree entirely. However, he’s overlooking what makes time Time. Time is one event following another. In print comics individual images visually follow one another in space, creating the ILLUSION of time. The reader has to make a creative/imaginative effort to decide that these two images represent the same subjects sequentially in time, despite their juxtaposed existence AT ONCE in reality. Yet, in Bigerel’s “click-comic” experiment, (yeah, I just coined that idiotic term,) no two sequential images ever exist for the reader at once in her experience of the comic. Each image is  always at least a click away and can never be viewed simultaneously, and are therefore ACTUALLY separate events in TIME. Therefore, these type of comics break the one rule that Waid & Bigerel consider sacrosanct. Time is actually NOT in the hands of the reader; it still absolutely controls the manner in which she must experience the comic. Yes, the reader controls the rate of time’s passage but they don’t actually perform the essential imaginative act of creating time’s passage in their minds. Without this key element, I’m afraid these click- or swipe-through comics are actually far more akin to animation than their creators hope.

And that’s all pretty darn interesting to me. Without a doubt, experiments like this will only lead to a greater understanding of these art forms, maybe even creating some new ones in the process. And it’s fascinating to me that it took comic creators playing with new tools available to their medium to discover a brilliant new way to allow a viewer of animation to experience that medium. And for comics, this experimentation leads us to an even more refined definition: A comic uses a visually juxtaposed sequence of images as a metaphor for a temporal sequence of events, asking the reader to make that imaginative leap. So click-comics, by being composed of individual events separated by time, are not comics.

It is called sequential ART, after all, not sequential events.