Thinking About … Digital Comics

One thing I don’t think I’ve really spoken of on here are digital comics. It’s a big issue in the industry right now, and though I’m not the first, I do have some thoughts. And with this week’s release of Avengers vs. X-Men #1, and its new Infinite Comics and AR (augmented reality) bonuses, it’s the best time to do so.

Reading on the iPad/iPhone

When I got my iPad, one of the first apps I downloaded was the Marvel app. To this day, I’ll download anything that Marvel puts up for free. My copy of X-Men Season One and a few single issues since have come with a free download code, which I have taken/will take advantage of. And I’ve bought an issue both times they’ve offered a coupon for my local shop with a purchase. So I’ve ended up with a few of the Point One issues, some older #1s. Stuff like that. Jumping on points. But it’s rare that I actually care about these books. They’re just something to read when I’m stuck somewhere and bored: crappy opening band, waiting rooms, whatever.

It’s been talked up and down – reading made-for-print comics on a phone doesn’t work. There are certain storytelling tricks used in print, like differing panel sizes to emphasize important moments, especially the full-page or two-page splash, that become worthless when each panel is expanded or shrunk to fit the screen. The zoom can make smaller panels easier to view, but the impact of larger ones is diminished. Another problem is how panels are oriented. I was reading Dark Avengers #1 the other day. Mike Deodato’s panels were rarely uniform. Vertical panels as big as the page, panels curving across the page in sequence. I remember enjoying this issue a few years ago when I read it in print, but this time I was forced to flip my phone again and again, just to properly read the story.

It doesn’t work. And that’s OK. Says the comic, “I just wasn’t made for these times.”

One benefit of reading a digital copy is you don’t know how much comic is left. When flipping though a physical issue, you can feel that you’ve got two pages left. Your brain prepares you for a conclusion. If it’s a book that showcases upcoming covers or has a letters page, you do the math even sooner. This just brings you out of the story. You’re too busy thinking about the act of reading, the object you’re holding, to lose yourself in the narrative. But when going one panel at a time, you could have one panel or one hundred. Like watching TV on DVD, or a show on HBO, you never know when it might end. This episode of The Wire could be 52 minutes. Could be 64. You don’t know until the credits roll. It allows for more surprises.

Infinite Comics

When Mark Waid announced that he was thinking about how comics should work in this new medium, and was working with the Deviant Artist Balak01, I was very excited. I can’t remember how, but years ago, I was linked to Balak’s DA page. I’ve had it bookmarked ever since, as an example of someone thinking ahead of the rest of the industry. He was thinking about how this medium is different – the pacing of a user’s clicks, how to take advantage or (the presumed setback) of the locked screen size. But my first reading of Waid and Immonen’s new Nova story was a disappointment. Then I realized my setting were off. Yes, use the setting that Marvel suggests on the introductory page, but also make sure that you are set on panel, and not page, view.

Settings fixed, I tapped back into the story. Wow. This is what I’m looking for! I control pacing. The new tricks, like characters in the foreground moving across a static background, or a rack focus, help tell the story. Waid and Immonen aren’t limited to reveals on page turns. They can change scenes or locations at any time. And it’s made to fit the screen! The impact of panel sizes and splashes is back, baby! The story itself is pretty basic, but with these first steps, it truly feels like a new experience.

Check out this extract.

Marvel Infinite Comics - NovaA nervous Nova enters the sky above New York. Tap.

Marvel Infinite Comics - NovaIn not quite a new panel, but an evolution of that first panel, he crashes into a building. The panel gets bigger, the story progresses. Tap.

Marvel Infinite Comics - NovaAnd into another building. Another tap, another expansion, another evolution. It’s progression. It’s storytelling. It’s that suggested motion usually imagined in the gutter. Unlike cartoons or motion comics, there’s a sequence that you control the timing of.

We’re lucky that Marvel is throwing this in with purchase of Avengers vs. X-Men #1. That should get a lot of eyes on this, pushing for more advancement. But it’s also available as a stand-alone for 99¢. I’d gladly pay that for more of this.

Augmented Reality

Augmented reality. In the advertising industry, these words have been thrown around for years because of their possibilities. They represent enhancements possible for ads, business cards, magazines, anything that you can shoot with a webcam or camera phone. But in my experience, no one had it quite right. AR was always clunky, buggy, or plain useless. Well, let me tell you, Marvel doesn’t have it quite right either.

Big credit to Marvel for the idea. They are really bringing something new to the table. Process animations (pencils, inks, colors). Character bios. Creator commentary. Simply put, this is added value. You want to encourage people to go to their local shop, instead of buying a glorified PDF? This is a good start. Retailers must love it.

But the execution? Whomp whomp. In order to activate the AR features, you hold up your Marvel AR App-enabled tablet or smartphone to certain panels, indicated with a AR icon. This has logistical problems. It’s hard to hold the comic open and position a camera at the same time. For reference, I was using my iPhone, but I’d really suggest something with a bigger screen. Of course, that’s even more unwieldy, but full-screen character bios are close to impossible to read on a four-inch screen.

As a Wednesday warrior, I’m not the target audience for the character bios. But if I was, they’d be a big help. Rather than send someone off to Wikipedia to learn Hope’s story, keep them engaged with the comic. And you can protect them from spoilers. I do think these would be better suited to the recap page though. They could even carry across all Marvel’s books. Imagine a code for, Iceman for example, on the recap page of every book he’s in. And another for the Vision. Another for Strong Guy. And these bio could easily be updated regularly on Marvel’s end. New reader? Don’t recognize one of these 30+ characters? Beep boop. Bio! Here’s their powers. Here’s their origin. Here are some stories you can read about them – sending them back to their comic shop.

The process animations are also a nice bonus. I like seeing how much impact the inking has. How much impact the color has. If something changed from layout to pencils, as happened pretty drastically in one place here. As AR though, they are too clunky. How about a activate the AR, then tap once to drop to pencils, tap again to add inks, and again for colors. Allow the reader more control.

Two last comments. 1) I still don’t know if I needed to focus on one panel or an entire page to start the AR. 2) If you start an AR function, and your hand twitches, your camera may lose focus and you have to start the clip over. It’s a drag.

Inna final analysis, Marvel’s new digital initiatives don’t score a perfect 10, but they are a perfect start.

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