'Buffy the Vampire Slayer' as Motion Comic: Paper Doll or New Art Form?

Will motion comics become the digital equivalent of the film strip? Merely an interesting artifact of a particular period of media production? Or are they the crude beginnings of a new art form?

One of the curious side effects of digital media as related to comics is the advent of 'motion comics', a form that came to public prominence in 2008 with adaptions for Watchmen and Batman: Mad Love. Both were produced by Warner Brothers to promote films, self-explanatory in the case of the former, and The Dark Knight in the case of the latter.

Despite my interest in transmedia storytelling, I have largely sidestepped this new way to read, but with the release of the Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season Eight Motion Comic, I decided to take my first good look. In viewing the sixteen "issues" collected on the standard DVD – the set includes a Blu Ray disc as well – I kept asking myself, Who is this for?

Motion comics, essentially, entails adapting print comics to digital video through selective use of animation and, typically, the addition of sound. If that description makes you think of crude animation, you aren't alone. In a review of the Astonishing X-Men motion comic at Comics Alliance, Chris Sims explicitly compares the medium to 1960s era Marvel cartoons, underscoring the point with a clip from an animated version of The Hulk ("Astonishing X-Men: Motion Comics, Why Bother?", 9 August 2010).

DVD: Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season Eight Motion Comic

Director: Jeff Shuter

Studio: Fox

Cast: Kelly Albanese, Natalie Lander, J. Anthony McCarthy, Daniel Taylor

Release Date: 2011-01-04

Distributor: Fox

Image: insightful as this comparison is regarding the look and feel of motion comics animation, it also obscures the ways in which the form is meant to be something other than cartoons. What most distinguishes motion comics from straight animation is a fidelity to visual narrative structured and framed by pages and panels. This commitment at least partly explains why figures and backgrounds in motion comics remain largely static. The viewer is propelled through the narrative via changes in perspective, or 'page turns', and by movement between and within panels, rather than by fully animating the story.

In the Buffy Season Eight Motion Comic panels slide, drop, and fade into and out of frame. The 'camera' also moves and zooms to shift reader attention from panel-to-panel. Movement of and between panels, in fact, constitutes the most significant form of motion within the comic. Characters, by contrast, look like paper dolls with limited articulation of limbs and heads and limited movement of facial features. Elements such as wind and water are also animated, but it is between the panels that Season Eight is most noticeably put into motion.

Both Sims and Geoffrey Long at guttter geek, reference Scott McCloud's discussion of "closure" from Understanding Comics (HarperPerennial, 1993) as a way to explain the effect of this forced movement on viewers ("Motion Comics: A State of the Art", October 2008). Whereas print comics not only allow, but, following McCloud, depend, on readers to complete the action as they shift between panels, motion comics seek to do this for the reader. In a traditional comic, a movement such as Buffy lifting her scythe would be mentally completed by the reader as they look at one panel where the weapon is pointed level or down and then another where it has been raised. In a motion comic, those movements are incorporated into the visual narrative through simple articulation of character limbs, or by changing the orientation of a panel. What might take two panels in print, can now take place in one.

Long is also concerned with closure as it relates to the passage of time. In print comics, an artist can use panel shapes and page layouts to imply longer or shorter durations of time, and writers can use dialogue and the implied presence or absence of sound to hold or release reader attention, but, ultimately, a reader reads at their own pace, forging a relationship with the creators to define the time-frame for a narrative. In a motion comic, that time-frame is standardized, and is no longer subject to negotiation between reader and creator.

In this way, then, motion comics engages readers in ways more akin to movies or television than comics, raising, again, the question of who and what the form is for. And in that regard, while motion comics may be comparable to other moving image media, in its relationship to print, the form it most closely follows is the audio book.

Like audio books, motion comics are not so much adaptations as translations of print works to a different medium. Both promise recitations of the original work. In contrast, live action and fully animated versions of books, whether comics or straight prose, necessarily require substantive changes, reflecting differences between how content typically works on the page as opposed to on screens. However, the translation of prose to audio results in a qualitatively different product than does the translation of static images and printed words to digital video.

Audio books belong to long-standing traditions of turning written words into spoken, and to telling or reading stories aloud. They are electronic, portable versions of storytime, for kids and adults alike. Most importantly, they allow people to 'read' without having to engage hands and eyes. They have an obvious appeal for people who don't have time to read in print as much as they would like, and to people who have time for listening, but not for holding and scanning a traditional book, or e-book.

Motion comics, by contrast, require the same kind of engagement as actual comics, possibly including one's hands if a title is being read with a mobile device. If an audio book makes it possible for me to be read to whenever I want, a motion comic lets me read digitally while someone else does the swiping, zooming, and re-orienting.

Of course, many people like being read to. The appeal of having someone else, effectively, flipping through the pages of a book for you is more elusive.

Buffy Season Eight is on my pull list, and as a regular reader I did find the motion comic to be a convenient way to reread the beginning of the series (the motion comic only covers 19 episodes in the 40 issue print run). Having said that, I would not have paid the $34.99 list price for the DVD/Blu Ray package just to review comics I had previously read. I can, and do, re-read my standard comics in order to re-orient myself within a narrative, and it is no trouble to do so. I imagine that this is true for most people who follow monthly series.

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