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What's the Creative Potential of Static Images?

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A product like the Season Eight motion comic seems aimed primarily at Buffy collectors and completists, and possibly at fans who have otherwise stayed away from the comics. Collectors and people looking for additional ways to own or engage with particular characters beyond, or outside of, print, seem to make up much of the intended market for motion comics, at least judging by the number of transmedia properties that have been rendered in that form, from X-Men to Watchmen.


There are cases, such as Brian Michael Bendis’s and Alex Maleev’s short-lived Spider-Woman for Marvel, where a motion comic is released not so much as an opportunity for collectors to acquire another piece of a multi-media character, but more as a way to widen the pool of readers. The premise being that additional sales can be gained from offering an alternative to people who are reluctant to invest in the traditional reading of a series, or who are interested, but resistant to adding to their comics storage problems.


As indicated in The Wall Street Journal, corporate rights holders such as Marvel, Warner Brothers, and, in the case of Buffy, Fox, primarily see motion comics as a means to squeeze additional profit from well-established titles, characters, and creators, particularly when working from already existing comics (Sarah McBride, “Web Draws on Comics: Shirts Boost Batman”, 18 July 2008). The producers of these works see consumers more than they see readers, and given the attractiveness of making something new out of something old, one of the central questions to be addressed for the future of motion comics is in production values.


No matter how carefully a motion comic is adapted from print, the creators will always be working from art that is meant to be static, and, in many cases, at a different size and resolution than it will end up being on a television or on an iPhone. There are a number of panels from Buffy Season Eight where figures that were originally drawn as if viewed from distance, are shown in close-up on the DVD. The level of detail in facial features, for example, is very different in each of these cases. There are also shots in the motion comic where the movement of a character’s hair or limb looks like a piece of paper has been cut with scissors and then moved back-and-forth, or something that I could easily do myself by tracing from a comic and making my own paper dolls.


Similarly, there are always going to be characters, and lines of dialogue, that work well on the page, where the reader imagines how they move and they sound, and also decides how much time needs to be spent on such imagining, but appear poorly conceived when subject to animation, especially of a rudimentary kind. In Buffy Season Eight there are a number of fantasy creatures, and more than a few vampires, who seem silly when given eyes that move or a limited of range of motion in their extremities. An argument can be made that these ‘flaws’ are actually part of the charm, or part of the art, of the form, but one area that seems crucial to me is in the casting of the voice actors.


Audio books are, almost by nature, best read by a small cast, and typically by one person, otherwise the experience starts to become more audio play than audio book. However, while having a single person reading a book may work for straight prose, it’s difficult to imagine that working very well in comics, where much of the narrative is in pictures rather than in words, and what is being read is almost exclusively dialogue from and between different characters.


One of the main problems with the Buffy Season Eight DVD is that all of the actors hired to voice the core cast of characters sound too young. This is not a comment on their professionalism, but on their appropriateness for these roles.


Scanning reader reviews at iTunes and on Amazon, the quality of the voice work is a repeated subject of comment regarding motion comics. While this maybe particularly the case with a title like Buffy, where the roles originated in live action, even where readers are not likely to have a specific actor’s voice in mind for a character, they will often have a clear idea of how someone should sound based on what they know from the books and from, in some cases, years of engagement with a storyworld.


Getting the voices right on a motion comic seems essential, and the less that is invested in achieving that end, the less likely it is that readers will be satisfied by what they hear, let alone with what they see. Whether hiring the best available voice talent fits within the economic models that underlie the development of motion comics or not will become more apparent when and if the form develops a reliable consumer base.


Most of what’s currently available in motion comics is adapted from print. There are a few examples of both original motion comics, such as Broken Saints (2001), and transmedia projects that incorporate motion comics from the beginning, Godkiller (2009), for example, and it is in these kinds of works that the artistic possibilities of the form are most likely to be realized. Maybe one sign of that is in Godkiller‘s writer, Matt Pizzolo’s insistence that his work is an “illustrated film” and not a “motion comic” (Scott Thill, “Post-apocalyptic Godkiller Comic Emerges as ‘Illustrated Film’”, Wired, 6 October 2009). Markers of difference like this are one way to cultivate reader interest and also a means to shape how works are received.


Whether “motion comic” or “illustrated film”, the future of this medium lies in how much creative potential there is in the use of essentially static images in a moving image format and marrying those images with sound. Part of that potential is with readers. If readers don’t find satisfaction in the experience, if they would rather read in print and watch in live action or animation, then motion comics will become the digital equivalent of the film strip, an interesting artifact of a particular period of media production, and not much more. On the other hand, if a readership does develop, even a cultish one, then what we are seeing now will be the crude beginnings of a new art form.

Shaun Huston is an associate professor in Geography and Film Studies at Western Oregon University, where he primarily teaches courses in political and cultural geography. He also makes films, including Comic Book City, Portland, Oregon, USA (2012), a documentary on the community of comics creators in Portland, Oregon (view details on IMDB).


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