Timeframing: The Art of Comics on Screens

Why Motion Comics Matter, Even If You Hate Them

I wrote this piece in November 2009 with the intention of posting it on my blog, but I never did. I've included it here as a pointer to a moment now past, but still exerting an influence on the field of digital comics today.

In a post titled (in part) “What's the Point of Motion Comics?” Under Culture editor Brian Longtin points out that this newly hyped format “doesn't seem to create new possibilities for art as much as it does for commerce.” As an outsider to the sequential art field, I don't view motion comics with the skepticism of either the professional creator or the dedicated aficionado. Nevertheless, I sympathize. It's no fun seeing the name of your favorite medium hijacked for what seems at worst to be little more than a cynical opportunity to create a new revenue stream. And it's downright annoying to see suggestions in the press and the blogosphere that somehow motion comics are the “next evolution” of comics, as if the medium was something small that had exhausted its potential and needed to evolve into something else to remain relevant. All this is unfortunate. And yet, motion comics do matter, though perhaps less to comics professionals than to interactive media creators seeking a broader palette for expression than the marketplace has currently allowed them.

In recent years, the interactive entertainment industry has been struggling in fits and starts to redefine its understanding of what a “game” is. A number of creators have been building interactive experiences that elevate intangible, experiential aesthetic qualities to greater importance than the muscular “game mechanics” that have traditionally been the hallmark of commercial projects. Some of these works have more in common with the electronic literature, interactive fiction or net art strands of digital creativity than with the mainstreams of gaming, and so when their creators call their works “games,” controversy often erupts. This has had the positive effect of making additional room in the gaming tent for a wider variety of works, but often these projects still retain a kind of second-class status among hardcore gamers, who accuse their authors of taking the moniker of “game” in vain. The producers of motion comics are often hit with similar criticisms from lovers of sequential art: “Motion comics are not comics,” they remind us.

Both criticisms are valid, and at the same time, irrelevant. Fans of videogames are seeking a broader range of works to immerse themselves in, and creators are responding. The term “game” (and, more recently, “indie game”) is merely a conduit to get these works out to the world under an easily digestible guise. Similarly, “motion comics” was likely never intended to be a technical term; to criticize it on technical grounds is missing the point. No, “motion comics” is the name of a market, both real and desired, a collective longing among both comic fans and financiers that their chosen medium should be “doing something” in the contemporary media environment besides inspiring blockbuster movies and beat-em-up videogames that have, on a formal level, even less to do with comics than motion comics do. As with any authentic market shift, this longing is part profiteering, part legitimate desire. As the reasons for the former should be obvious, let me try to shed some light on the latter, at least from the point of view of an interactive media creator.

I read Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics while working for an internet consulting firm, and like many in the interactive media industry, felt a strong degree of resonance with the way in which McCloud deconstructed visual communication. Even though Understanding Comics was overtly addressing its namesake medium, it was clear that every day I spent many hours staring at a screen that was, like the pages of a comic book, divided into discrete rectangular regions and filled with a range of visual signifiers running the gamut from iconic to naturalistic. I and many others were ecstatic to realize that McCloud had found a voice through which the expressive potential not only of comics, but also of interactive media could be actively perceived. 

Yet, with that joy came a curious sense of longing. Yes, McCloud had articulated some essential truths about interactive media, but how were we to make use of that knowledge? We in the interactive world were designing websites, applications and games, not comics, and if we were doing our jobs well, we were already leveraging the ideas laid out in Understanding Comics, whether consciously or not. Perhaps all that McCloud's book was meant to do for us was to serve as a kind of reference work, a reminder of the scope of the territory in which we operated, rather than a bridge to some new kind of hybrid form. I resigned myself to accepting the former, while still harboring a strong desire to see the latter come to pass.

I believe that longing is finally going to manifest itself in this new category of “motion comics.” That statement may at first seem to make little sense; after all, aren't motion comics just crudely animated linear video? What does interactivity have to do with these bastard children of 1970s cartoons and the video iPod? Everything, in fact, and precisely because that little word “motion” is, as I have pointed out, not a technical term but a metaphor for the magic we want comics to work with our digital devices, devices we interact with much more than we passively watch. Interactivity and comics are no strangers, but beyond realistic animated page turns and Choose Your Own Adventure plot twists lies a kind of experience that truly engages with the formal characteristics of comics in the service of great interactive storytelling—an approach which has only rarely been seen in digital comics to date. 

So yes, motion comics were born in video, but they will bloom with interactivity. It's no coincidence that they've arrived on the scene simultaneously with an explosion of growth both in the indie game community and the digital publishing industry. I think the ultimate value of motion comics lies in the fact that they provide the contemporary marketplace with a way to talk about digital storytelling on its own terms, a discourse that has been sorely lacking. Of course, all this is likely cold comfort to comics artists and aficionados, who will continue to see the name of their beloved medium taken in vain, just as hardcore gamers have. Over time, however, I think we'll see the term “motion comics” come to signify not just the absence of some of comics' most distinguishing storytelling techniques (panels, speech and thought balloons, textual sound effects), but the presence of thoughtful adaptations of those techniques for interactive media. When seen in this light, I don't have to like motion comics in particular to be excited about the collective artistic potential they represent.