I like comic books, and I especially like comics written by Brian Michael Bendis, so I’ve been following with interest as he has been developing (and relentlessly pitching) a new “Motion Comic” based on the Spider-Woman character.
I’ll be honest, I was skeptical going in. Marvel has been attempting these kinds of “limited animation cartoons since the 1960’s, and they’ve always had their issues.
I love Bendis’ writing, and except where the format blunts some of his usual skills. In this case, there’s no doubt that Spider-Woman is a well written story, with some fantastic art. But on a technical level it doesn’t work. It is proof, I think, that one of the fundamental elements of comics are that they move at the reader’s pace, while video in all its form is something that drags viewer is along for the ride.
One “trick” that comics have always used is the captioned narrator—those little square boxes that fill the corners of the panels. In the 60s and 70s the captions would almost always be used to describe the action directly by some kind of narrative voice. By the 80s their use became more subtle. What had traditionally been an omniscient point of view was more often used as a version of voice over, and would often provide a counterpoint to the visual action, rather than simple repetition of the scene you were already viewing.
And that narrative, character-based deconstruction is still pretty much the primary use of it today. It’s an effective tool because you can frame the action, and provide some sense of pacing from frame to frame. Well used, by people like Alan Moore and Bendis, and you can create humor and irony by simply choosing how you break up that narrative tool across the visual panels that sit underneath them.
But what Spider-Woman shows is that what seems subtle and clever in the frozen moments of a comic can come off stilted and ham-handed when put into motion. Some of Bendis’ witty banter really seems broken here. More so because it’s easy to see how well it would work on a printed page.
And once they’ve got it in motion, they don’t want it to stop moving. Every scene in the motion comic features some kind of camera action. I’m guessing that having frames without movement ended up feeling odd, but having everything constantly in motion is a bit disorienting and distracting.
There have been some interesting experiments in putting comics on the web, including this one. It’s an example of why I think it’s it clear that one thing that will survive from print comics as they move to the web is, to greater degree, the user controlled pacing.
That’s a trick that you often see well-used in video game cut-scenes in a number of different ways. Take a look at this section from Freedom Force, and you’ll see quite a few comic elements used effectively in an interactive environment, including talking heads, and different types of narration. Of course, even the more movie-like sections it works because it’s an homage to comics, but not actually a comic book. Spider-Woman’s script suffers from the fact that it needs to work in multiple formats. Even the Watchmen move, which is probably the most slavish recreation of a comic ever committed to film, rebuilds its scenes to make them work as real-time action. (Although you could do worse than study how Snyder has managed to get a comic book vibe by slowing down the action to create an iconic “frame” of action.)
There’s no doubt that as comics move to the web there’s going to be some kind of web-hyrid “next-generation” of comics that smoothly integrates motion and effects, but Spider-Woman feels like it’s too focused on being a “comic book in motion” to really be leading the way.
All that said, I’ll still be picking up the next issue…