I’ll admit, originally when I heard about motion comics a year or two ago I thought they sounded stupid. My thought was, “Why bother watching a comic when you can just read one in half the time?” With other cartoons like the 90s Batman, or The Adventures of Superman, or Teen Titans, they existed separate from the comics, with most of the stories being largely original, but featured characters people would recognize from the comics.* Motion comics on the other hand are visual representations of actual comics. So I scoffed and never bothered to watch one until not so long ago.
The first motion comic I watched was the Spider-Woman mini-series. I turned to it partially out of boredom and partially because one of my favorite writers Brian Michael Bendis was involved. This was actually a pretty good series. For some reason, I thought motion comics would just zoom in on the panels and have actors recite the lines as if we’re illiterate. Instead, motion comics include what appear to be pieces of comic art, but with points of articulation. It’s not second-rate comic art either. Then, with computer enhancement, the animators create virtual depth, making the art not look two-dimensional. Oftentimes, there’s so much going on in the simulated background that you won’t notice the characters themselves don’t move that much.
Marvel created a handful of these motion comics around the same time, but seemed to have slowed down recently. Marvel then broadcasted them on the website, but the unfortunate thing with the Marvel site is that most of the content requires a paid subscription. I don’t get this. With the money they’re making from the Disney merger, the summer blockbusters, the merchandising, the comics (do you think it’s the comics themselves that bring in the least money? That’d be my theory) couldn’t they just let the fans have a free place to release their inner nerdlinger? The DC site offers so much more for free.
Recently I just started watching Astonishing X-Men: Gifted, the motion comic series written by Joss Whedon (popular writer of Buffy, Firefly, lots of comics, and who will direct next year’s Avengers film) produced with help from comic artist John Cassaday. This one is in some ways better than the Spider-Woman series. One thing I noticed right away is that it’s more highly animated, and seems less like a slideshow and more like a cartoon with high production values. For some reason, the censors insisted on rating these motion comics TV-MA which is ludicrous when you think of all of the other shows that are TV-MA.
Apart from the slick animating style, the writing’s interesting too. Joss Whedon has a real knack for dialogue, although his style doesn’t always mesh well with the X-Men continuity, as the characters often seem much smarter than they normally are when he’s writing. There’s some tired and retread elements in the story, like Beast debating if he should try out a new scientific technique to reverse his mutation (make up your mind!) and Emma Frost is, as usual, the wild card character (this has been going on for so long! Who is she, Professor Snape?)
I can’t really give an answer as to why, but for some reason, Kitty Pryde is one of my favorite X-Men, if not my absolute favorite. Wolverine is cool, but he’s overused. When Joss Whedon writes, it seems like she’s his favorite too, and her character is fleshed out a lot during his run with the series… But then, right before relinquishing the reigns, he effectively kills her off (she returns later, as superheroes usually do). She plays a big role in the motion comic too.
What the motion comic form makes me think is that more of these need to be made. I think with live-action films, these take so long and cost so much that the franchises barely get to take off. For the past ten or twenty years, all of the movie studios have just been telling origin stories more or less, and it’s unlikely that, at this rate, the films will ever portray universes even a tenth as varied and colorful as the universes now contained in comics. With the more traditional cartoons, they are allowed to work faster for less and employ more imagination, but sometimes these leave the viewer wanting more from the visuals. It’s most likely impossible to ever animate an entire cartoon that looks as good as the art of say, Frank Quitely or Mike Mignola or Ed McGuinness (although they have tried). The end products are still interesting and worth watching. For instance, DC’s animation studios have made some cool cartoons: Wonder Woman and Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths were good, Superman/Batman Apocalypse and Batman Under the Hood were great, and All Star Superman was excellent. Motion comics though allow the art to be essentially directly lifted from the comics themselves. If these could be produced faster, we could have a thriving televisual version of the comic worlds we love. Of course, as this is a relatively new art form, some of the kinks will have to be worked out. For instance, sometimes the movements do appear jerky.
If you don’t want to subscribe to the Marvel website, most of the motion comics can be found on Netflix right now, many of them available for streaming. From what I could tell, they’re not available on Youtube.
*Interesting piece of trivia: Paul Dini was greatly involved with the cartoon of Batman. He also wrote a huge amount of enjoyable comics for DC. Harley Quinn (or Harlequin) was originally introduced on the cartoon and became so popular that they then transitioned her into the comics, creating an interesting exchange between the separate mediums. The owner of a comic book shop also informed me that Jimmy Olson was originally a character in the Superman radio show before he became a staple character of the comic book itself.
If you like motion comics by Marvel, check out my recent review of Iron Man Extremis.