The Outrageous Origins of the Motion Comic!

Curator's Note

In 2008, the Wall Street Journal reported that DC Comics would begin to utilize a "new kind of Web entertainment" called motion comics to "unlock value from the company’s…library by creating a new kind of comic" that could be distributed digitally. The increased visibility of the motion comic, thanks to Saw: Rebirth (2005) and Watchmen (2008-2009) and the success of adaptations over the past decade would lead one to believe that they are one of the many to join the evolving species of new media. Yet, the hybridic form, which often utilizes original comic book art and renders it cinematic by removing the hyperframe of the page, closing the gaps in time and space with animation (removing the act of Scott McCloudian readerly act of closure from the consumer), has been around since the Grantay-Lawrence produced TV series The Marvel Superheroes in 1966.

Marketing for the series promised Marvel heroes "Exactly as they originally appeared. The same superhero artwork as in the MARVEL comic books." In the opinions of the developers, the artwork and style of the comics meant as much to the consumer as the stories.  According to series developer Robert Lawrence, "the [comic] artwork was absolutely alluring. We decided to see if we could animate a book." Yet, this embrace of comic style also had an economic incentive: Grantay-Lawrence could repurpose the original comic book artwork of Jack Kirby and the other artists in the Marvel bullpen - providing a literal blueprint for the show - that Kirby and company went unpaid for.

The show lasted for one year before the team went to work on Spider-Man (1967-1970). Yet, the show's ultra-limited animation has returned with a shift from analog syndication to digital distribution. For McCloud, motion comics are a waste of the potential of the digital: "The worst part of it is that we are conscious collaborators one moment and not the next...  It’s just a miserable, inconsistent, soup of sensations.  It's a novelty."

I ask you to judge for yourself by watching the origins of the Hulk from 1966. Does the motion comic undermine the unique formal properties of the comic, becoming a colorful phenomenological train wreck? Or does it, like the Hulk, have powerful special abilities that are just below the surface?


Great idea for a post! Motion comics usually aren't for me, but a lot of people seem to enjoy them.

Personally, I find the idea of motion comics to be mostly irrelevant due to their attempts to meld comics and traditional animation. In animation and any moving picture art form, you're taken through the story in a very linear fashion with no opportunities (except for those the filmmaker provides) to take in specific detail or linger on any image you wish.

Comics, although told largely in a linear fashion, do not bound you to, as Alan Moore once said, be "dragged through at 24 frames per second." You can read comics in as much of a non-linear way as you wish, by turning back (or forward) pages, taking in an image as long as you'd like to, and to take the story into your mind at whatever pace you wish while absorbing narrative details not possible in a moving picture medium. A subtle image planted in the background of the art here, a small panel there, and so forth.

Motion comics, to me, lack the uniqueness of the comic book reading experience, which is why I personally don't care for them. If I want to watch animation I'll watch something meant for the medium, not a comic book story "brought to life" through the miracles of animation. I think there's generally plenty of life right there on the page.

Thanks for bringing this fascinating historical artifact to our attention, Drew!  It's interesting how this version uses the dominant animation technique of its time (the limited animation of Hanna Barbera and UPA) to repurpose Kirby's original content, much as current motion comics exploit Flash animation as a similarly low cost, high payoff animation form. The theme song along (to my knowledge, the only attempt to find a rhyme for "gamma rays") is priceless.

The discussion of the pros and cons of motion comics is the latest chapter in a long discussion about the "purity" of a medium.  Scholars/practitioners have long argued that artists should exploit the "essence" of a medium and avoid material that made the text "inconsistent." And so people have argued that silent film should avoid interruptions from text intertitles and that computer games should limit cutscenes (film-like scenes which unroll without gamer interaction) because (to borrow McCloud's phrase) because "we are conscious collaborators one moment and not the next."

The idea that any medium has a Platonic essence has been pretty well attacked (where would such an essence reside and why would it need to be defended?).  And while I'm not a big fan of motion comics for some of the reasons that Chris lists, I'm hesitant to jump on the "they'll never be art" bandwagon with McCloud.  There's a long history of people making such pronouncements:  Rudolf Arnheim saying that sound film will never be truly aesthetic, Roger Ebert saying that computer games aren't art. History has a way of making such predictions look foolish.

For me, motion comics are a useful borderline case in helping us think about the definitions of comics and animation.  How much animation is required to turn a motion comic into recognizably standard animation? (to my mind, if they had animated the running figures in the Hulk example, it would look much like standard limited animation)  I'm not deeply invested in the "definitional project," though many people from Eisner and McCloud onward seem deeply invested in trying to specify exactly what a comic is, and motion comics seem helpful in that conversation.

Greg, Thanks for your comment! I agree that the concept of a Platonic essence is problematic, but I do think there are core formal attributes to a medium that evolve over time (essentially, I'm a believer in Bolter and Grusin's concept of remediation). That said - and here's where 400 words sometimes isn't enough- I wish I could have quoted Scott McCloud at greater length (the quote was from a personal interview and I'm deeply thankful that he sat down to speak with me) because I don't think he would completely write off the form of motion comics entirely, saying that they can never be art. Given my brief conversation with him and his book "Re-Inventing Comics," I think Scott is unhappy with the way they are currently being produced. Essentially, and I'd have to agree with him on this, he sees the majority of the current manifestation of motion comics as being an awkward pair with animation that removes the reader from the equation. That doesn't of course mean this is the last stop for the form and I should note that not all motion comics do this (there is a great Easter Egg on the INCEPTION Blu-Ray of a second, non-Flash, motion comic that the viewer controls). I don't enjoy that experience and I don't really enjoy the odd form of address that they put the viewer in. For instance, by adding a voice-over soundtrack and retaining the word balloon, we are torn in how we devote our attention. It's not like the balloons work like subtitles in a foreign film, giving us information we don't already have. Essentially, I agree with many of Chris's points and I hope e-readers like the iPad can provide a platform in which the full potential of the motion comic can be investigated, one that is more reader controlled and not defined by an industry looking for the cheapest way possible to re-purpose content.

Very interesting post, Drew! I really am intrigued by your historical analysis of motion comics and the connections you’ve drawn. The comments that followed helped to really elaborate the discussion, and your last post discussing the odd contrast between text bubbles, dialogue, and distraction made me think of how we can theoretically contextualize these often troublesome beasts as separate from both printed comics and more full-on animation. I must admit my experience with motion comics is pretty much limited to The Watchmen, but what I was immediately struck by when viewing it was how it seemed more like an audio book with images than a comic brought to life. I’m a huge fan of the original book, and their attempts to replicate it were very noble. But there was something almost “uncanny” about the visual movements and a sole actor performing all of the voices (much like an audio book).  When that experience was suddenly thrown into a similar experience watching a movie, I suddenly found myself distracted from both the visuals and the audio and ended up being swept away in the experience.
Some of my other research has been on Doctor Who Loose Cannon Reconstructions, which are when fans reconstruct lost episodes using the surviving audio track and surviving still images and clips to accompany it. While these motion comics are not exactly the same as those, there are some experiential similarities. What separates Loose Cannon Recons and these motion comics from their earlier incarnations (as complete episodes or printed books) is a shift in experience. The moments of distraction tie in with cinephiliac discourse, with scholars like Miriam Hansen and Walter Benjamin coming into play (I strongly recommend Hansen’s “Benjamin, Cinema and Experience: ‘The Blue Flower in the Land of Technology’”). While Benjamin argued that mechanically reproduced objects cannot have a notion of authenticity due to their inherent reproducibility, he later argued that if you could achieve a state of distraction (from a film’s narrative) they could create a mechanically mediated experience of authenticity (aura). This concept is something that might be useful when analyzing the similarities and differences between motion comics, their literary forefathers, and less-minimalist animation.

My reaction is almost the opposite of Ian's; I'm aware of how motion comics are designed NOT to remind me of audiobooks.

I spend a good bit of time on the road and so I listen to a lot of audiobooks.  As a scholar interested in radio (the foundation of broadcasting practice), I've often been struck by how quickly audiobooks decided to duplicate the experience of a book being read aloud to you when they could clearly have chosen to act more like radio. Audiobooks are mostly read by a single actor rather than being enacted by a cast of voices as in old time radio days. The single reader emphasizes that the novel is the product of a single author's "voice," as opposed to thinking about the novel as a polyphonic collection of voices (as Bakhtin would say).  The pleasure of a good audiobook has much to do with hearing how well the single actor's voice epitomizes the author's worldview (may I recommend Ron Silver reading Philip Roth's American Pastoral) or listening to a single voice trying to impersonate multiple character voices.  A few audiobooks do use multiple actors (which, after all, takes more money), and I'm always interested to note which ones and why (The Immortal Life of Henrietta Skloot uses two actors to distinguish between white and black voices).

The motion comics I've seen/heard have not tried to duplicate the experience of hearing a comic read to you by dear ol' uncle Stan Lee.  They've assigned different character voices to different actors (as the Hulk example does), which indicates to me that they're trying to position motion comics as closer to standard animation practice (at least on their audio track).

 The Watchmen MC definately felt like an audio book to me.  The single actor, who gave narration and dialogue the same inflection, did not help the epically long title.  That said, other titles do take the radio approach (Inception, Saw:  Rebirth).  One odd adaptation element of the Watchmen MC was the exclusion on the interchapters (Under the Hood, the Kovacs report).  Leaving those elements out, which fill in huge gaps in the story, felt like an odd artistic choice to me.  I'm not sure how they could have adapted these (perhaps new material in a montage sequence?) but their absence left me scratching my head a bit.  

A few questions I'd like to ask:  

How many motion comics have you watched?  

Have you paid for motion comics?  Or just engaged with the free ones used mostly for product marketing (Rebirth, Inception)?  

I have heard positive things about the Buffy:  Season 8 MC, which I think is now on DVD (or coming to DVD).  

Interestingly, I didn't particularly remember the audio of the Watchmen motion comic, but I'm not sure that I watched the whole thing.  The other motion comics I have actually paid for have been the Marvel ones, partly because I wanted to see what people like Brian Michael Bendis and Joss Whedon did with the format. (my students assure me that my habit of continuing to pay for content is a sure sign that I'm an old fogie!)  The "motion" format that I've actually been most attracted to was a moment a few years ago when certain artists were doing webcomics that used Flash's capabilities in expressive ways but didn't use a dialogue track.  The result (comics that sometimes moved and used Flash-y transitions but still had word balloons) was a striking mix of the "look" of both comics and Flash, things like John Barber's Vicious Souvenirs or (to a lesser extent) Brendan Cahilll's Outside the Box. I don't know if folks are continuing in this vein or not, or if it was a transition to a transitional moment....

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