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Ian Peters
Avi Santo

This post could not have been timed better! I remember seeing somewhere (possibly on the DVD and in some interviews) that when Batman Returns and Batman Forever were being developed that Marlon Wayans was originally cast as Robin. The part was dropped from Returns and recast when the production team changed, along with the casting of Val Kilmer as the next Batman. I’m curious if there would have been a similar outcry, or what other debates might have come up?  Would it have been solely a discussion of race (or even at all)?  Would there have been more of a discussion of Wayans as a performer?  It is even possible that none of these issues would have emerged.

Watchmen:  The Complete Motion Comic
Ian Peters
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.

Watchmen:  The Complete Motion Comic
Greg M. Smith

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.

Watchmen:  The Complete Motion Comic
Drew Morton

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.

Greg M. Smith

Yep, I think that much of Hollywood’s recent embrace of superheroes has a lot to do with finding already recognizable characters/stories where they can show off their superior special effects capabilities.  When Hollywood adapts superheroes who don’t have super powers (Batman, Daredevil), they still parade their gadgetry. If you’re interested in the connection between CGI and superhero films, I’d point you to Scott Bukatman’s piece in the latest issue of Cinema Journal (50:3, Spring 2011, http://www.cmstudies.org/?page=current_issue), which has some interesting things to say about the difference between filming the physical body of the actor and the computer generated body of the superhero.

Watchmen:  The Complete Motion Comic
Chris Clow

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.

Aaron Kashtan

To relate this back to film, your reference to "paper culture" reminds me of the way that film grain is often discussed in film studies. If I understand this argument correctly, visible film grain is a reminder of the material and mechanical nature of the film; it reminds you that you’re watching a photographic film strip that was produced by chemical means. Because digital cinema does not have film grain, it seems less like a physical artifact, and more like an ethereal illusion.

Similarly, in comics, the presence of paper — the smell and the feel of it — is proof that the comic is a material and physical artifact, not just a transparent support for a reading experience. And there’s a long tradition of making comics in ways that emphasize the physicality of the reading experience. Good examples of this include Acme Novelty Library, or on the other hand, the gimmick covers of the early ’90s.

Incidentally, the other reason why film grain is important is because it reminds you that the film is an index of reality, that it captures a reality that actually existed. Digital films don’t have film grain because they were made by manipulating digital information, not by recording  The lack of film grain in CGI films is a reminder that the events shown on the film never actually happened, but were brought to life by artificial means. In this respect it’s interesting, though I don’t know what to make of it exactly, that superheroes are one of the most popular genres of CGI films. The superhero genre is perfectly suited to CGI because it involves the portrayal of things that are impossible to stage in front of the camera.

Chris Clow
Avi Santo

I really enjoyed this post. I think that continuity should be pretty rigidly adhered to when you’re talking about the development of character attitudes and psychology, but race is rarely an issue. We’ve already had a Superman played by a half-Japanese actor in a major television series (granted he didn’t necessarily look too dissimilar from the source, you take my meaning), but even so, casting in other media for the more "iconic" characters is generally more rigid when trying to preserve their look.

With a character like Spider-Man, the look is intact regardless of race because of the nature of his costume. It covers all of him and wouldn’t particularly matter too much. Todd McFarlane spoke of how race wasn’t a large factor in this character when he was the primary artist, and I tend to agree.

Laurence Fishburne was recently cast as Perry White for the next Superman film, and I think that’s brilliant casting from a capable actor. I remember talk of Will Smith being up for Superman a few years ago, but Superman should collectively embody the expectations of everyone, and while an African-American actor could potentially accomplish this, I think Will Smith would’ve been wrong for the part. Fishburne’s casting has little impact on the wide perception of the Superman mythos, although it does diversify the Daily Planet offices while ensuring a good performance from a great actor.

 

Greg M. Smith
Avi Santo

This may be a bit of a stretch, but sometimes I wonder if "continuity" isn’t the comic book equivalent of "states’ rights" or "strict interpretation of the Constitution" in American political discourse. It’s an authoritative source to cite when you want to and it’s equally easy to ignore when you don’t need it.

Roger Whitson
Avi Santo

I really enjoyed this post. I think the Ult Spiderman development is complicated but pretty great, overall. True (as you say) it is an alternate universe, not the regular universe. It seems the Ultimate universe is different from an Elseworlds storyline, say, featuring a black Superman because it can be a sustained storyline. The move is not as gutsy as killing off the "real" Peter Parker and making the "real" Spiderman black, but it is still a big move. 

I ventured on some of the messageboards on Comic Book Resources, and looked at the fan reaction. Obviously it was mixed. Everything from "Spiderman is Peter Parker, I’m quiting this title," to "at least they didn’t make Peter black," to "they should have made an original character  and left Spiderman alone, because Spiderman is white." Of course, the last argument totally misses the symbolic value of taking an iconic white character and seeing what would happen if s/he were another ethnicity (or another gender, sexual orientation, etc).