What’s the Point of a Motion Comic?
August 23, 2009

Last year (July 2008), Warner Bros. launched what they called “motion comics”, comic panels that had been “animated” through the addition of pans and zooms and a soundtrack with narration, voices, music, and effects. The best-known of such is probably the 12-episode Watchmen run, which was released on DVD as well as online to tie in with the motion picture of the same name. Motion comics are a jazzy, buzzword-filled way to turn reading material into something you can watch, often on the hipper viewing devices of a computer, mobile phone, or iPod.

Warner, through various digital, video, and new media arms, has been the leader in the field so far, with these additional releases: Batman: Mad Love, Batman: Black & White, and Superman: Red Son. They’ve even put out 20 Peanuts motion comic shorts.

Superman: Red Son

Warner wasn’t actually the first with such a project. In addition to the jittery Invincible series, announced earlier but released later (to iTunes and airing on MTV2), there were various Marvel cartoons that aired on TV in the 60s that used similar effects.

That pedigree leads me to question this new format. When you add camera tricks and a soundtrack to a comic, is it still a comic? Or just a poor excuse for a cartoon, done on the cheap? Are they reaching a new audience, attracted by a new format in more modern sales outlets (that come to them)? Will those hypothetical new readers eventually wind up buying traditional-format comics? Could this be just another way to try and make more money from the same, previously existing content?

This Wall Street Journal writeup gives some hints:

Warner, a unit of Time Warner Inc., sees the initiative as a way to unlock value from the company’s DC Comics library by creating a new kind of comic that can be distributed via the Internet, mobile phones and video on demand. It underscores the importance the studios are attaching to finding new revenue streams as sales shrink from DVDs.

They need to create a new format in order to open a new market and “unlock value” from whatever assets they can plunder. People don’t pay for content on the web, but they do expect to pay for mobile phone or iTunes downloads. (That may answer the fan question as to why none of this is available through the DC or Warner websites.)

Tapping an existing franchise is key to getting the business off the ground, says Diane Nelson, president of Warner Premiere, the direct-to-DVD production arm of Warner Entertainment, which is spearheading the project. The DC brands “have relations with consumers, and will break through the clutter in the digital-content area,” she says.

In other words, known characters are a plus, which is why we’re seeing the big two, Superman and Batman, and a tie-in to a blockbuster film release. And using existing, paid-for art and stories means minimal additional charges (just those for conversion and sound work).

Spider-Woman motion comic

Marvel, on the other hand, is taking the opposite tack. Last week, they released their own motion comic starring Spider-Woman, a lesser-known character (although one with a tie-in brand name). The in-continuity story is by Brian Michael Bendis and Alex Maleev. There are five episodes in all, 10-12 minutes each, released on iTunes every two weeks at $1.99 an episode. (For those who don’t care to purchase digital episodes, the Spider-Woman story will be published on paper next month.)

Marvel was quick to call it a success, crowing that it “debut[ed] as the #1 episode on the Television-Animation sales chart and as the #2 episode on the Top Television Episodes sales chart.” (TV episodes? I guess because it’s serialized.) Note that they offered special, half-off introductory pricing for the first two weeks of 99 cents for the first installment. They have already announced their next project, an adaptation of an Astonishing X-Men story by Joss Whedon and John Cassaday that will launch at the end of October.

So is this the future of comics, or just another stunted branch of experimentation? (That many of these efforts are only available in the U.S. may affect the answer.) Have you watched a motion comic? Would you want to? Does your answer change depending on price?

Comics aren’t the only medium with these kinds of tie-ins, by the way. Warner is also trying it with a new band from the UK, One Eskimo. Together with the studio, the band is releasing a “visual album”, a collection of cartoon videos, through iTunes on August 31.

“The Adventures of One eskimO”, is a 10-part short-form animated series that takes viewers on a journey through an epic love story starring our hero One eskimO and his band of animal friends that include Monkey, Giraffe, and Penguin.

It appears a bit too twee for me. The animation was produced by Passion Pictures, the same group that did the Gorillaz animation, and Warner is promoting this visual album as defining “a unique new digital category” and the “first of its kind” in providing “a fully immersive musical and visual storytelling experience”. I think the Beatles might have something to say about that, with Yellow Submarine, but that will get me ranting about why their works aren’t yet available on iTunes.

37 Responses  
Lori Henderson writes:  

We sat through the Marvel Digital Comics panel at SDCC (wanted to get good seats for Rifftrax panel after), and I have to say, neither me nor my husband was impressed with the Spiderwoman or Astonishing X-Men videos they screened. Marvel was touting their digital comics as the next logical step for comics. I sure hope not.

Roger Benningfield writes:  

I’ve already spoken of my love of the Watchmen motion comic elsewhere, and I’m really looking forward to checking out Spider-Woman. The format can suck a bit if it’s handled sloppily (hello, Invincible!), but I have high hopes overall.

RE: pulling people in

It worked on my wife. Back in the mid-’90s, when MTV was running The Maxx as (essentially) a motion comic, she became hooked. When I introduced her to the comic shop in 2004, she immediately snagged all of the trades… which next led her to Sandman… and Buffy. (She’s on The Sword and Alias right now.)

RE: the point

For me, it’s a cheaper, more versatile way to consume comics-related content. Look at the alternatives for a sec:

FLOPPIES: Are you crazy? $3.99 for essentially 10-15 minutes of reading, while still being buried in ads? You’ve gotta be a die-hard to even think about it in 2009.

TRADES: Great value, great format… but decentralized and bulky. People want more on their Kindles and less on their bookshelves.

E-COMICS: Comixology on the iPhone is cleverly designed, and single issues are reasonably priced. It also gives your Kindle-esque access to your library, which is awesome. So it’s most of the way home. Where it falls down is the size of a portable media device’s screen… no matter how well they chop up each panel, I still end up having to do a double-tap to zoom in on text far too often. And at least at the moment, my library is locked up on the iPhone, and thus unavailable to the larger screen on my laptop. I’m sticking to free issues until they sort that out.

MOTION COMICS: Price decent? Check. A centralized, remotely accessible library of content? Check. Watch on my handheld, laptop, and television? Check. Screen size? Not an issue, since active panning and zooming with voice-over makes it easy to enjoy on most devices.

Johanna writes:  

Neat story about the Maxx, Roger. It’s a shame none of these (or similar) are running as free tastes like that did.

I strongly prefer buying a print book (with spine) than digital content, just because I like to own things (not rent at someone’s pleasure) and have the ability to resell or donate them if I want or need to. Plus, you can’t lend digital comics to people without the owners calling you names. :) But I appreciated seeing your rundown of the plusses you found in digital.

Jim Kosmicki writes:  

actually, i kinda like the motion comics based on what I’ve seen, which was the first chapter of Watchmen. I see it as giving a bit more respect to the original version. if you watch the famous UPA version of “The TellTale Heart,” which was nominated for an Oscar for best animated short and eventually put on the National Film Registry, it’s basically a motion comic. it just happens to be of a non-published comics version of the story.

Roger Benningfield writes:  

Johanna: Oh, don’t get me started on DRM… I accept the iTunes variety (because the “use this on five different devices” license covers everything my wife and I have), but only grudgingly. And I love me a book with a spine! But our house is too cluttered as it is, and piling up ever-more volumes of The Walking Dead just seems like an inappropriate use of space at this point.

I’m already ripping my DVDs to the home server so I can move all those DVD cases to the garage, so it just makes sense to go the same route with books.

Robot 6 @ Comic Book Resources – Covering Comic Book News and Entertainment » Comics A.M. | The comics Internet in two minutes writes:  

[…] Digital comics | Johanna Draper Carlson wonders what's the point of motion comics: "When you add camera tricks and a soundtrack to a comic, is it still a comic? Or just a poor excuse for a cartoon, done on the cheap?" [Comics Worth Reading] […]

Alan Coil writes:  

Are current “motion comics” any better in technical quality than the ones made by CrossGen circa 2002?

THE BEAT » Blog Archive » Kibbles ‘n’ Bits — 8/24/09 writes:  

[…] Johanna Draper Carlson looks at a WSJ article on motion comics from 2008, and wonders why everyone is getting into them so much — the article suggests that because motion comics are sold on iTunes it represents a way to […]

Joshua Nelson writes:  

To their credit, these motion comics are nothing more than a clever way for comics publishers to re-sell their printed content to people who are A) too passive or unimaginative to read the stories as their meant to be read (The atrocious voice acting for Spider-Woman make it all too apparent how much Bendis has lost a step in the dialogue department, but there are instances where whis does work, like with Kevin Conroy voicing some of the Batman B&W shorts) B) afraid of the stigma that STILL exists with respect to printed comics and their acquisition (How many “casual readers” do you really think frequent a direct market comic shop? You might bag a few of these folks at Barnes & Noble if you’re lucky)…

Despite these opinions, I agree with one of our writers’ ideas. My main beef isn’t with these “comics” existence. Heck, it’s great that publishers are taking this low-cost chance to rake in new fans. My problem lies with actually calling these comics. They are just what the author expresses, animation on-the-cheap for mobile devices.

Comics is a unique storytelling language that requires equal participation on the creator(s)’s and reader’s part for a full engagement in the experience. Do not corrupt this unless you plan on calling all regular comics “still films” or something equally absurd. The End.

Joshua Nelson writes:  

Sorry, I should have proofed that before submitting. I know I had a few typos and screwed up some there/their/they’re usage…

Hsifeng writes:  

Personally, I like reading comics because I like reading. :) Watching motion comics instead of reading their original comic books and webcomics sounds about as unappealing as listening to audiobooks instead of reading their original plain-text paper or digitized books.

Johanna Says:

“…Plus, you can’t lend digital comics to people without the owners calling you names. :) …”

Speaking of digital, far fewer comic books in electronic formats than comic books on paper are available from my local libraries (and this goes for other books too).

Roger Benningfield Says:

“…And I love me a book with a spine! But our house is too cluttered as it is, and piling up ever-more volumes of The Walking Dead just seems like an inappropriate use of space at this point…”

Yeah, that’s why I borrow most of what I read. :)

As for saving space by going digital, personally I’d still prefer reading digitizations of books (like .pdfs from the library and from the Philippines, Project Gutenberg, Jim Munroe’s e-books, etc.) to watching or hearing dramatizations of them (like motion comics, audiobooks, Masterpiece Theater episodes, etc.). ;)

Charles RB writes:  

I remember being linked to the Batman: Black and White “motion comic”.

It looked stupid. It was jerkily animated, clearly never intended to be animated, and the sound was just distracting and silly. Why would I want to pay for this? It’s not even a comic, it’s a comic cheaply turned into a cartoon – I can just go watch a cartoon.

Roger Benningfield writes:  

FWIW, I watched the first episode of Spider-Woman… and I was underwhelmed. Bendis’ ersatz Mamet dialogue requires a very specific type of delivery, and the actresses they hired aren’t up to it. Or, looked from a less BMB-sympathetic perspective, the actresses were finely cast and Bendis’ dialogue was inappropriate for the characters.

But the bigger problem was Maleev’s art. It’s gorgeous, no question. But what I’ve come to discover is that motion comics work best when they’re based on something like Watchmen or We3… something where there are tons of panels with interesting things happening in each. With Spider-Woman, half the story feels like it’s told using two head shots of Jessica and Director Brand.

In fact, now that I mention it, We3 would make an incredible motion comic.

Strip News 8-28-9 | Strip News | ArtPatient.com | ArtPatient.com writes:  

[…] Have you seen DrawerGeek’s take on Spiderman? Superhero Nation talks about effective superhero costume design – it reminded me of the heroine’s design in Kukuburi. Harvey Pekar launched a webcomic (and Superheroine liked this) and the hubbub over motion comics is over but Comics Worth Reading covered it if you missed it. […]

Digital Strips: The Webcomics Podcast : Left to our own devices: Backlist in motion writes:  

[…] Draper Carlson wonders why anyone would make a motion comic and looks at the difference between the Marvel and DC strategies at Comics Worth […]

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[…] Yet another company jumps on the “motion comic” bandwagon… […]

Archie Freshman Year #1 Comic on iTunes » Comics Worth Reading writes:  

[…] not questioning it — Archie is the biggest comic name available on iTunes, if you ignore the motion comic animation approach DC and Marvel are taking. As a result, those apps aren’t on the same list […]

Helen Lee writes:  

Motion comics, animation, cartoons, interactive, flipbooks… as far as I am concerned it´s the storytelling and the readers/viewers experience that matters. Not what the technique or genre is called. It´s exiting with all the new possible ways to tell a good story and to give different people with different tastes an experience. There´s enough space in universe and on line for all different styles. The purists can stay on reading, wich is wonderful, and others can create and take part of whatever is out there. Why squibble about the technique? Important – does it tell a story? Does it entertain (somebody)? New media has to brake grounds too, maybe the first ones wont be the perfect way but will inspire others that will do something amazing? If anybody don´t like Marvel f e to make money on old stories – don´t buy! Simple!

Charles RB writes:  

But it’s not a new possible way or a form of “new media”: barely-animated comic panels were done in the 60s.

And you can’t say “why squibble over the technique? Important — does it tell a story?” when the technique is linked to how the story is told.

Helen Lee writes:  

@Charles B: The new thing is in the distribution, access maybe? I never saw anyt motion comics in the 60s, for sure it would not have shown in my small town in Sweden had I been old enough that time or on statetelevisions only channel. At least now my son, who has never read these comics and probably never would buy them on paper, thought it was a good story and inspiring drawings. Me, maybe not so impressed by this particular ones.

But somebody will get inspired and take this thing further, maybe someone my sons age who was´nt on in the 60s and otherwise just know online 3D-worlds.

For me, no problem with lots of choice in the way stories are told. I think motion comics are both accessible and will also inspire lots of storytellers to do something themselves and get it out there. If a thousand halfassed stories leads to one wonderfully made and told it´s a good thing.

Charles RB writes:  

I don’t see how motion comics can go further without turning into actual animation.

Helen Lee writes:  

I have some ideas! :) Not all motion comics are created equally too.I do animation, but the motion com´s inspire me to think differently.
But, if you don´t like it that is fine with me. If somebody likes it, that is also fine. I was never very interested in any Marvel-comics to begin with so maybe my view is different from those of old fans?

ChrisCross writes:  

I had dreams that comics would finally find a place where people will take them more seriously. I had dreams myself about comic panels moving while you read them. Although, this was already being done in the sixties with Marvel Men, it’s cool that they’ll be put in some genres and expanded so anyone and everyone will be able to get into a graphic novel without worrying whether Mom and Pop shops all over will continue to fold limiting the amount of access. Now in these mediums, comics can be more expressive. Anyone who hates that idea obviously is still in the sixties and hates change.

Charles RB writes:  

“Now in these mediums, comics can be more expressive”

Once that expression is movement, music, and voice acting, how is it still a comic and not a different medium entirely?

And what do motion comics have to do with not worrying about “Mom and Pop shops” closing and cutting off graphic novel access? You buy comics online already (and legally download some of them), or from shops that aren’t small chains.

Helen Lee writes:  

“What´s in a name?… ”
If it makes some blodpressures lower, why not call anything but paper-printed-comics … digital comics? crossmedia comics? Or just … fun? New-stuff-that-was-not-possible-to-do-on-a-homecomputer-and distribute-all-over-the-world-in-the-sixities?

Downloading comics? Are they really comics if they are digital and not on paper? The feeling is gone then I thought.

Anyway, the good thing is that there is room now for everything, every style of storytelling, whatever the name wich can not be important at all. Paper-cartons will be there just as sliding around cartons, one thing does not have to diminish the other. What´s good is that now no one have to be all dependent on big distributors or publishinghouses to reach out with whatever they chose to produce…

Charles RB writes:  

I’m not sure what your point is here, we’ve had webcomics since at least the mid-90s – there’s already a name for them. They’re also not dependent on big distributors and publishing houses. By contrast, the publishing houses are the ones currently making and pushing motion comics (see article above).

Al Wescott writes:  

Alright, look, I’m a life long comics fan…had all the #1’s, and all that. Love comics now and forever. As far as “motion comics” goes, I’m for most ways to bring new fans onboard, to keep it all going. True enough, watching these “motion” comics will never replace the real thing, but I’m fear that without new ways to bring our heroes to the new generations, they will pass. My hope is that comics will continue forever, and that fans introduced by the new age comics, will ultimately appreciate history, the paper comics. Long live comic books…….whatever form they take. I love super heroes and would hate to see it all end. Thanks for listening (reading)….

Craig writes:  

I think motion comics have a future … if they’re handled properly. I agree that it’s in the domain of the ‘big players’ in the comics industry at the moment, but like any new medium, others will follow.

There are a couple of things to also consider:

– Motion comics predominantly use ‘authentic’ comic book artwork. They don’t rely on the traditional cel-based animation techniques that were around in the 60s Marvel animations.
– Their motion may be somewhat limited, but if we want to retain the authenticity of the original source material, compromises have to be made.
– It’s a very new medium/field and it will take years before it matures.
– New digital platforms such as the iPhone are ideal for delivering such content. As much as I love paper-based comics, I don’t want to carry a bag full of them if I’m going on a long train journey etc…
– The average kid doesn’t buy comic books anymore, that’s a sad fact. Perhaps motion comics will develop their interest in the medium.

Darn, Motion Comics Aren’t Dead Yet: Buffy Season 8 » Comics Worth Reading writes:  

[…] had thought, after not hearing of any new motion comics since last year, that the unholy hybrid of comic panels and limited animation had died out like the […]

Iron Man: Extremis Is Marvel’s Second Motion Comic DVD Release » DVDs Worth Watching writes:  

[…] and Shout! Factory have announced the second in their line of motion comic collections on DVD, after Astonishing X-Men (out September 28). Iron Man: Extremis is due out […]

Astonishing X-Men: Gifted Motion Comic » DVDs Worth Watching writes:  

[…] by Joss Whedon and John Cassaday and directed by Cassaday and Neal Adams. I’ve been harsh on motion comics before, but what I saw of it was better than I expected. Astonishing X-Men: Gifted […]

rayden54 writes:  

For people like me who struggle to read comic books, it’s a great idea. I gave up halfway through Watchmen when I realized I had no idea what was going on. I just couldn’t seem to get the bubbles in the right order. A motion comic will do that part for me so that I can actually enjoy the story.

I’ve been waiting for something like this.

Lyon writes:  

I agree with rayden54 above. It makes comic stories more accessible for some people. Especially those of us who get eye strains from reading text. Most of them are great, a few (like extemis) are not so great. But I’m watching them all the time on my iphone

Marvel Knights Animation Takes the Motion Comic to New Heights With Thor & Loki: Blood Brothers » DVDs Worth Watching writes:  

[…] to myself, this is a motion comic they’re talking about, right? The unloved bastard child of limited animation cartoons? Then I watched this […]

Spider-Woman: Agent of S.W.O.R.D. Motion Comic DVD Due June 14 » DVDs Worth Watching writes:  

[…] story, by Brian Michael Bendis (writer) and Alex Maleev (artist), started as a motion comic before being published, which is a reversal of the usual order. That suggests (one hopes) that this […]

Dale Rogers writes:  

I for one really enjoyed the motion comics The Maxx and Watchmen. I purchased both and would purchase other stories produced like this. I’m also talking with a writer friend of mine about producing our own.

Five Sites for Motion Comics | Forseng Fiction writes:  

[…] What’s the Point of a Motion Comic (a contrary point of view on motion comics and their usefulness) […]


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