Motion comics have been on my mind, lately. Actually, it’s more accurate to say they’ve been in my face, courtesy of an aggressive ad campaign by Comflix.net for their offering The Nation, which has been serenading me from TopWebComics.com and sundry other geek sites.
I found the ad, which basically played scenes from the upcoming episodes, to be unwatchable. I’m not kidding, the first time I noticed it I had to flee the page before I fell any further into an uncanny valley of painfully “animated” photographs. Watch it without sound and the experience becomes particularly creepy. Comflix’s promo videos claim they’re making “comics for the 21st century”; that their way is the future; that they’re “bringing comic books to life!”.
Well, at best, the results of that jolt still so far seem to be on the level of Frankenstein. The Nation using photographic images for the purpose really made me want to haul out the torches and pitchforks, but even a motion comic that’s made from a fully hand-drawn piece has a certain bizarreness to it… it’s trying to find a niche between traditional, still comics and full animation that I just don’t believe is there.
Nor am I alone in that belief, if IO9, Geekforcefive, and the gentle townsfolk of CBR are to be reckoned with. Is there really some audience of hip youngsters clamoring for motion comics? Even if there is, the real irony is that this is being seen as anything fresh and new. Motion comics have been with us for a long, long time. They just weren’t being called that back then…
Yeah, that’s right. Back in the 1960s, motion comics were known as “poorly animated cartoons”. Take Jack Kirby’s panels from an issue of Thor, animate the mouths and a bit of other action, throw in some zooms and pans, and voila! You had The Marvel Super Heroes. I quote from that Wikipedia entry:
The cartoons were presented as a series of static comic-strip panel images; generally the only movement involved the lips, when a character spoke, the occasional arm or leg, or a fully animated black silhouette.
Now look past the refined bells and whistles of this Astonishing X-Men motion comic, and you’ll see what amounts to basically the same damn thing.
Very slick, very professional, and yet still very much something that just looks like a half-assed cartoon rather than anything revolutionary.
I think the main problem with why motion comics occupy a weird no-man’s-land is that comics as a form already represent a combination of images and time. That’s why comics are formally known by the term “sequential art”: without that sense and purpose of a sequence, they would just be illustrations. The paneling of comics already presumes an illusion of time and motion, utilizing that wonderful function of the human brain to “fill in the blanks” as it’s presented with only the most important parts of the story being told. What’s going on between those panels is both unpresented except through implication, and vitally important, and because of that comics have the potential to engage a reader in a very unique way.
True animation fills in all the blanks, but even though it takes away the mystery, we appreciate it because of its lifelike quality, because it represents how we see the world around us. But motion comics are an uncomfortable middle ground… they don’t commit fully to animation, and by partially animating still comics panels, they also kill the illusion of sequence. Either way, it becomes as distracting as seeing the wires holding up the spaceship in a pre-CGI movie.
Is motion ever appropriate for comics, now that we’re in a digital age that makes it possible? Yes, I’ve seen it done and done well, including several of the examples linked in this ComicsAlliance blog. Hell, I’ve even put money where the mouth is and included some in my own comic, such as here and here. But there’s still a world of difference between having motion in your comic, and having a motion comic. I think Laura Hudson of that above linked blog summarizes it nicely:
“…unlike “motion comics” as they are called today, the intent…is less to convert a comic into an erzatz cartoon, but rather (ideally) to enhance the effect of reading it panel to panel on the page, paper or digital. If publishers are going to continue to experiment with adding motion to their comics in the digital landscape — and certainly, experimentation is worthy, even if it fails — they might do better to consider this model, since at the very least it has the potential to add value to a comic rather than make it sadly less than the sum of its parts, as most modern motion comics seem doomed to do.”
As the realm of comics rushes headlong into the digital age, the temptation to go “multimedia” will continue to be there with its siren call of motion and sound. But animating comic panels in the way current motion comics do is like pulling the teeth and claws of a lion and presenting it as a housecat. In the end, you don’t have a housecat. You just have a crippled lion.