Mark Waid Talks Digital Comics at Tools of Change for Publishing

An experiment here. First I want to talk about Mark Waid and his thoughts/advancements in digital comics. After that I have some thoughts on our digital lifestyles. And to finish off, we’ll see if I can tie them together nicely. Here we go.

Some months back, (seriously, it’s been in my Google Reader [now Feedly] for 143 days upon writing this), Mark Waid presented his thoughts on comics in the digital age at the O’Reilly Tools of Change Publishing Conference. Waid’s resume includes well-remembered runs on The Flash, Captain America, 52, his current work on Daredevil, and plenty more. But recently, he’s placed a special focus on the new capabilities of digital comics, I.E. comics viewed on our modern electronics, including desktop computers, a tablet, or a smartphone. One of Waid’s allies is Yves Bigerel, who created the best example of what comics can do now. Though Bigerel does not come up in the video, I know how integral he has been in much of Waid and Marvel Comics’ attempts at digital comics. If you have any interest in the evolution of an artform, it’s worth a watch.

For more examples, you can read my post from last April. Then, as now, I loved this stuff.

And here is where we switch tracks. I swear, it ties together. I think.

So why did the video sit in my Reader for so long? It’s 22 minutes! It’s not tl;dr, it’s too long, didn’t watch.

I’m sure I’m not the only one whose computer is less comfortable to sit at than his couch. And on the computer, I’m so much more likely to find another distraction. Many videos don’t need to be videos; the visuals are unnecessary. I can shift the video’s window to the side and do something else. If something catches my eye from the side of the screen, I can look over. But for the most part, it has the attention of my ears, but not my eyes.

If I’m scrolling though Facebook or Tumblr, I don’t want to stop to watch some video. I really don’t. A dog walking on two legs? Two minutes is too long. When on my computer or phone, I’m in charge. I control what’s on the screen and the pace at which I progress to the next image or story or whatever. Once I’m actually watching a video, I’m frozen. I’m not doing anything else, I’m slave to that video’s creators. At 22 minutes, you have be dedicated to watching that video. You carve out time to watch your favorite TV show. Conveniently, the 22 minutes of story are split by commercial breaks, even in our Age of DVR. We need those breaks, not only to pay for the production of the show, but to go to the bathroom or the fridge. We get released from servitude for three minutes.

And now for the dismount …

Control is also what was lacking in the early attempts at comics in the digital age. Motion comics weren’t comics. They were bad, limited animation. Most had lackluster voiceovers. Remember the one for Watchmen? One voiceactor for all the parts, including the women. And you can’t control the pacing. You hit play and 26 minutes later, it’s over. Sure, you can pause to study the background elements or rewind to hear a piece of dialogue again. But no one watches TV like that. We assume we see what we need to notice and if we don’t quite understand something, we can fill in the blanks soon. But reading, we’ll go back to savor a certain line or trace where a shadow came from. And though they’re on a brightly lit screen and not a dead tree, digital comics are all about that level of control. Each tap or swipe, a door opens, a punch is thrown. We take control.

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.

Library Reviews 9-17-10

Nothing too in-depth, but some quick thoughts on some books I’ve read recently.

Batman and Robin: Batman RebornBatman and Robin: Batman Reborn by Grant Morrison, Frank Quitely and Philip Tan

I do not believe this is the be-all, end-all series that some people are calling it. These are good comics, not great. Interesting is not a big enough word for Grant Morrison’s ideas, but too often, I feel he can’t follow though on them. I remember being so excited to read his New X-Men and Animal Man, but they never met my expectations. Come to think of it, only WE3 and All-Star Superman have. Here, he creates two unusual villains in Professor Pyg and the Flamingo, but very little comes of them. Both conflicts are solved by punching enough people enough times.

Since Philip Tan’s art is perfectly underwhelming, the real star here is Frank Quitely. I still don’t like his figures, but this is exemplary comics storytelling. I don’t necessarily mean his illustrated sound effects or camera angles. I mean things like showing Alfred preparing a meal in the penthouse, taking an elevator down the tower, climbing a ladder down to the batcave, and down a fight of stairs to the garage. We get a tour of the new base of operations, interactions with Dick and Damian, and a look into Alfred’s character. ALL IN ONE PAGE. Much admiration for that.

Hulk: Vs. X-ForceHulk Vs. X-Force by Jeph Loeb and Ian Chuchill with Whilce Portacio

I’m glad I didn’t pay for this, but I enjoyed reading it. It doesn’t make sense. It will not change your life or how you look at it. It’s just punchy, stabby action. It’s nice to see a cartoony take on the X-Force characters. The art on that book was always dreary or photo-realistic. Nice change-up here. The final issue in the collection, however, is the stand-out. That issue features Leonard Samson going under psychoanalysis from an unlikely doctor. That was my favorite. It was more cerebral, showing a side of Jeph Loeb I’ve always liked. This book isn’t worth buying, especially at its $4 price tag, but on a rainy day, for free, it’s worth a look.

Iron Man: Execute ProgramInvincible Iron Man: Execute Program by Daniel Knauf, Charles Knauf and Patrick Zircher

It must have been daunting to take over this book right after Warren Ellis wrote “Extremis,” but the Knaufs have nothing to be ashamed of. They write the best fun, playboy Tony Stark I’ve read, Matt Fraction’s book included. If you’re reading Iron Man with Robert Downey, Jr. in your head, this is a perfect fit. The only problem is that the story itself isn’t anything to write home about: Tony Stark loses control of his suit, blah blah blah. In fact, halfway through the book, I remembered that I read it last year or so. If that doesn’t tell you how memorable this book isn’t, nothing will.

Incorruptible, Vol. 1Incorruptible by Mark Waid and Jean Diaz

This was a cool book. Max Damage was a great superhero who decided to turn it around when his world’s greatest hero turned to evil. I’ve said before I enjoy villain books and seeing him try to do good, going as far as torching his stolen money and cars, is an interesting idea. There’s four issues here, so there’s not much more than setup, but it’s a lot of fun. I’ve never heard of Jean Diaz, but his art is impressive. Characters are larger than life and his panel layouts keep the pages interesting. I definitely plan on keeping up with this book and its sister, Irredeemable.

Justice League of America: When Worlds CollideJustice League of America: When Worlds Collide by Dwayne McDuffie and six pencilers

Six pencilers for seven issues? Really? That should show how little DC cared about making this a top-tier book. Dwayne McDuffie pulls some old Milestone characters into the DC universe and … I don’t really care. Only Hardware gets enough room to show some character, but all I can really remember is that he curses a lot. I knew I wasn’t going to enjoy this book. I don’t know why I continue reading it. “Thank you Holden Public Library. May I have another?” At least I didn’t have to pay for it.

Supergirl: CandorSupergirl: Candor by five writers and seven pencilers

With this book, DC’s trade department confused the hell out of me. Two of the stories don’t even involve Supergirl! After a cluster of four stories from around the DCU, this book collects the One-Year-Later story from Supergirl. It’s a strange tale, which desperately needs some context. Supergirl and Power Girl are stuck in the bottle city of Kandor (maybe there by choice?), fighting against the cruel dictator Kal-El. It isn’t Superman Kal-El (I think), but I never understood who he was. The last issue is outside of the bottle, but without any explanation or closure to that storyline. How did they get out? Was it a dream? Did I miss something? This book was not only bad, it was badly put together.

Superman: For TomorrowSuperman: For Tomorrow, Vol. 1 by Brian Azzarello and Jim Lee

Superman is not interesting to me when he’s facing a physical threat. He’s Superman! He will not lose! Yes, the actual conflict of this book didn’t intrigue me, but I did dig Kal debating issues with a priest. The conflict of religion and superheroics is always an interesting one. It’s moments like those that remind me of how good Azz can be. It is nice to see some Jim Lee artwork, if only to see once again how big of an influence he has had on the industry. Sadly, I have no desire to read volume 2.

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