What’s the Point of a Motion Comic?

Spider-Woman motion comic

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, 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.

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.

Superman: Red Son

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 (link no longer available) 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.