Saturday, March 24, 2012

Why Digital? Pt 1

Howdy all,
It's been a breakout time of late for the 'Digital Comic', with Alan Moore (Watchmen, V for Vendetta, Promethea) strongly hinting to the Guardian that he's exploring this new medium for comic storytelling, and Mark Waid (Daredevil, The Flash, Irredeemable) releasing his proof of digital comic teaser, Luther, and then of course there was the major announcement from Marvel at the SXSW Interactive conference in Austin, Texas, of their new digital only imprint, Infinite Comics, also being spearheaded by Mark Waid who is writing the A vs X digital tie-in, Nova -- and then, there's me and Dave, the Ironclad Imagineers. We launched our Digital Comic, the ass-kickingly kick-ass post-apocalyptic, space western, love story, The Legend of Spacelord Mo Fo back in January 2012, after eighteen months of non-stop night and day development... well, many, many weekends anyway as we both had other writing and art gigs. My point being, the Digital Comics landscape is being created right now, and those of us on the frontier are looking to encourage creators with a pioneering spirit to come join us.
The Legend of Spacelord Mo Fo - Riding the Digital Comic frontier
"But comics are already available digitally, what's with all the 'frontier' talk?" I hear some of you ask. Well, it's true that traditional comics have been available in digital format for quite a while now. You can read them on your Tablet/PC/Notebook etc, and you can pan and zoom and turn the pages, but that does not make them 'Digital Comics'. What we are doing with Spacelord Mo Fo, and what Mark Waid has done with Luther, and is now doing with Marvel, is a completely new way of presenting a comic, yet still remains true to the essence of comic storytelling principles. And just to be clear, we're not talking about Motion Comics, which aren't really comics, they're animated films... no, don't try to argue, sound plus movement equals animation. Nuff said! And neither are we talking about most web-comics, as they generally mimic the look and feel of traditional comic presentation, be it Strip or Comic Book, minus the printing and distribution overheads. So, what then is a Digital Comic?

A little back story required here. My journey to Digital Comics started after seeing Travis Charest's gorgeous and fun, Spacegirl comic strip which he was releasing panel by panel online. I had been wanting to develop something web-based, with achievable production goals, and zero print costs -- and Spacegirl was just the inspiration I needed.
You can follow the entire strip at Travis Charest's blog HERE. Printed collection is also available and highly recommended.
I'd been working on a film script for Spacelord Mo Fo for a few years, and so my first thought was to turn Spacelord Mo Fo into a web-comic and then produce it much the same way Travis Charest was doing with Spacegirl - as a serialized web-based strip. I contacted Dave (Co-creator of Spacelord Mo Fo), who I had worked with on various projects over the last 20 years, and he too was looking for something new to sink his creative teeth into. So, we started work-shopping the idea. At about this time the Ipad arrived, and in very short time, digital copies of traditional comics were being read on the Ipad, though you had to turn the tablet sideways and scroll the page up and down to see it properly, but people were doing it. Now, I'd always envisioned Spacelord Mo Fo as having a cinematic quality, and with its space-western feel, Dave and I both agreed that we'd develop our strip in a cinematic widescreen 1024 x 576 format, black bars and all, which happened to be a nice fit for a sideways-held tablet. Cool! We'd release our in-development comic-strip for tablets too! And this was the 'moment' when we started getting truly 'Digital' in our thinking.

Finished panels from The Legend of Spacelord Mo Fo, in widescreen format, which we've dubbed, 'Cinegraphic'.
I had written the first issue of Spacelord Mo Fo like I would an episode of TV, and since it was a space-western, I had started with a long opening tracking shot as an homage to Sergio Leone. While discussing with Dave how we could best translate the feel of said long tracking shot into a strip comic, we hit upon the idea of creating one large background piece, which we could then add different elements to; characters, actions, dialogue, sound effects, etc. Each panel of the strip would then showcase the next important moment of the tracking shot. Suddenly, we we're no longer doing a conventional strip, we were doing something closer to a fully rendered storyboard sequence with word balloons and sound effects. To really make it work visually, we felt we could no longer just present each panel as one might a traditional comic, in a line down the page, instead we hit upon the idea of having a slideshow that would allow the reader to advance through the panels at their own pace --

The background art in these three panels is from the same piece of background art as the panel shown earlier. To see Part 1 of the opening sequence click HERE

While work-shopping the opening sequence of panels, Dave happened upon a tutorial on DeviantArt by French artist, Yves "Balak" Bigeral, about the storytelling possibilities of the digital medium.
If you're going to develop Digital Comics, check out Balak's tutorial first! It's brilliant!
Balak opened our eyes to a whole new level of thinking about how we could present scenes and action and dialogue and sound effects. We weren't going to go back to the drawing board and start again. There is after all, no rule book to work from when developing a Digital Comic. We're sticking to our creative guns so to speak on the key design points we started Spacelord Mo Fo with. We're keeping to our Cinegraphic format. We're keeping our tracking shots, but what we learned from Balak's tutorial has changed how we think about the presentation of the story -- and we can't wait to play with our new bag of digital tricks!
First lesson -- don't be afraid to break the rules if it works!
And so we come back to the question at hand, What is a Digital Comic? Well, for me, the definition of a Digital Comic is one that has been developed specifically for the digital medium, and uses storytelling techniques that cannot be reproduced in a conventional printed format, yet still keeps to traditional comic principles of telling a story through sequential art. Now, how exactly one chooses to use the techniques offered by the digital medium is up to the creator of the digital comic.

As far as storytelling goes, what the digital medium does most effectively is give the creator greater control over how their story is revealed to the reader. Traditional comics present a sequence of panels over one or two pages, where the reader is led from panel to panel by the way the panels are presented on the page, and yet, all is revealed in some manner to the reader as soon as they look at them. While creators can time their big reveal moments to the turning of the page, a Digital Comic allows for control of the how and where of every reveal, be it action or dialogue or sound effect. In the same way a reader turns the page of a traditional comic to reveal what happens next, a touch of the screen, or a mouse click if viewing on the PC, advances the digital comic to the next moment in the story.

Having such control however, presents new storytelling challenges for the creator that again differentiates the creative process from the traditional comic. With print costs and page counts no longer such an issue, the question becomes how micro should the storytelling reveals be; every line of dialogue? Every change of facial expression? Every significant action? Well, the answer is going to be decided by each creator, and ultimately by the response from the readers. As a creator, one still needs to deliver a comic that engages and entertains... assuming that's the creator's intent.

And really, that's what this is all about. This is the answer to, "Why Digital?" Three years ago there was no viable digital medium, but the arrival of mobile devices like Tablets, Kindles and Smart Phones, with hi-resolution screens and easy to use functionality, has changed that. Comic creators now have a new medium in which to explore their craft and tell their stories. Will it be the end of the traditional comic? No. Digital Comics aren't about replacing the traditional, but they are a new way in which creators can tell their comic book stories. Will there be an audience? Well, that's up to us as creators. If we produce engaging stories and art, with well conceived uses of the tools the new digital medium provides, then for my money, and Mark Waid's if you've been following the news about his sale of his comic collection, and Marvel's, the evidence of what's been presented so far, says, yes.

Digital Comics are still in their infancy, and there are challenges to consider. What platform do you develop for? How do you reach your audience? How do you make money? How do you keep the bricks and mortar comic book stores on your side? Well, I don't have the answers to those questions, but I'm going to be outlining a few thoughts in the coming Parts II and III of this article.And if I've sparked your interest, then maybe Dave and I will see you on the digital frontier soon!

Cheers all,
Pat McNamara

To see the entire 'Legend of Spacelord Mo Fo' Digital Comic as developed so far, click HERE.

Warning: The Legend of Spacelord Mo Fo is for more mature audiences... well, not for 'kids'. Not sure about the mature part.

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