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Bend It Like Bendis

Longbox Graveyard #96

I’ve made few pains to hide my biases here at Longbox Graveyard. Readers who have stuck with me for the last hundred-odd weeks won’t be surprised when I say I favor the Silver and Bronze Age of comics to contemporary books, or that I prefer four-color superheroes to the grim vigilantes of the current age. I am stuck in the past, and happily so.

Let's Level With Daredevil!

There are exceptions. One of my earliest reviews at Longbox Graveyard — and one of my highest grades — went to Ed Brubaker’s 2004-12 run on Captain America. I gave high marks to The Walking Dead and have favorably reviewed digital initiatives like Condito Comics’ Operation Ajax, or DC’s Legends of the Dark Knight. I named Saga my best book of the year for 2012. In my “Few 52” Podcast last I even admitted affection for DC’s controversial reboot of their superhero line. My reading isn’t entirely confined to comics of the past.

Spend any time reading contemporary comics and you’re going to encounter Brian Michael Bendis. After starting his career at Caliber and Image Comics, Bendis has become one of Marvel’s most prolific writers, cutting his teeth on Marvel’s Ultimate line, and becoming a mainstay on Marvel event books and Avengers titles. But it was Bendis’ lengthy run on Daredevil that first got my attention, and really got me to thinking about comics as a storytelling form.

Daredevil, Alex Maleev

Alex Maleev’s Daredevil does a mean Buscema Slouch!

Starting in 2001, and working primarily with artist Alex Maleev, Bendis crafted a spectacular fifty-odd issue Daredevil run that ranks among the best for a character that has seen signature work from some of the field’s top talents. Bendis’ take is grim, realistic, and street-level. With his identity revealed, Matt Murdoch is pressed to the breaking point and beyond, crossing the line from vigilante to criminal in his fight for the soul of Hell’s Kitchen. It’s a sophisticated and emotionally-mature work that offers an in-depth look at identity and ethics through the lens of a comic book. It is less about costumes than it is a gritty crime drama that would be perfectly at home on film or as an HBO drama.

I thought it was a great story.

I also thought it was a very poor comic book story.

It’s going to seem like I’m picking on Bendis here but that is not my intent. I quite like his stories — I read and enjoyed this entire Daredevil run, and I like what I’ve seen of his other Marvel titles. He’s committed to his craft; seems like a genuinely nice guy; and runs a great Tumblr blog that I shamelessly plunder for my Instagram feed. Bendis is hugely successful in his field — he certainly doesn’t need my endorsement, and criticism at Longbox Graveyard isn’t going to bring him to his knees.

I’ve selected Bendis only because his style bends the comics form until it breaks.

Consider the image below, which is typical of Bendis’ work. To my mind, this is not a comic book. This is an explosion in the word balloon factory.

Of course, it is a comic book. It is a story told with words and pictures and the only limitations imposed on the form are those created by artists and writers (and bloviating bloggers). What I’m getting at is that this is far from an ideal use of the form. It is not a story that takes advantage of the things that comics do well (and in some cases, do better an any other form of storytelling). This story feels like a teleplay or a radio drama force-fitted into comic book form where the characters are reduced to visual anchors for Bendis’ (generally quite good) dialogue and characterization.

This style of storytelling reminds me more of a fumetti or photonovel than anything else.

photonovel form

(And fotonovels can be artistic in their own right, but this seems rarely the case).

Many fans and critics will not see a problem here. Bendis has a shelf-full of Eisner Awards, so what do I know? But I still see this run as a missed opportunity. It told a great story of a very dark period of Matt Murdoch’s life but it did so in spite of being a comic, not because of it. Very little about the comic book form was used to good effect. Save for the (occasional) appearance of men in costume beating the crap out of each other, you might not recognize it as a superhero comic book at all.

If I’ve called out this Daredevil run as being especially ill-suited to comics, it’s only fair that I provide a counterexample that more fully explores the dimensions of the form.

Comparing apples to oranges, here’s a two-page spread from the recent vintage of Daredevil #1 by Mark Waid and Paolo Rivera.

Paolo Rivera & Mark Waid

Not every page of every comic is going to be like this (just like not every page of Bendis’ work swarms with word balloons), but this does serve to make a point. There’s so much to unpack in this panel — and much of what happens here can happen only in comics. Unique to the form is a single master shot that in still form depicts both time and motion with multiple portrayals of our principle characters — Matt Murdoch and Foggy Nelson. In this single image we see two worlds at the same time — the mundane world that Foggy perceives (watch out for that doggy doo, Councillor!) and the world revealed by Matt’s enhanced senses. Matt’s world is a mosaic of smells, vibrations, and overheard conversations brilliantly displayed with inset panels emphasizing tiny details inside this same master shot. Add to this a balance between words and art — which lets us admire Rivera’s scene-setting draftsmanship, while at the same time wonderfully framing Waid’s dialogue that advances the story and illuminates character — and we lose ourselves in a story that fully embraces (rather than fights) everything that comics do well.

While any kind of story can be told in comics, I am most interested in those that can only or best be told in comics form — where words AND pictures are used to best effect. To be fair, many of the comics I laud here at Longbox Graveyard do not fit this description — for all that I cherish Silver and Bronze Age superhero stories, they don’t always take best advantage of the form. At the same time, these classic stories weren’t trying to be anything other than comic books. They might not always have been great comics, but they weren’t trying to be film or television (for the most part), and when Steranko or Paul Gulacy adopted cinematic techniques in their comics art, it was as a means of revolutionizing or revitalizing the comic book form, rather than imitating another type of media.

But there is very little competition for the heart of an old-time comic book reader such as myself. If you want those kinds of stories, there’s really only one place to get them — old comics.

Master of Kung Fu, Paul Gulacy & Doug MoenchMaster of Kung Fu, Paul Gulacy & Doug Moench

My problem with the Bendis approach is that by electing not to play to the particular strength of comics, Bendis can’t help but compete with other forms of media which do these kinds of tales as well or better. With all this character-driven dialogue (which Bendis does very well), I can’t help but feel I’m reading a television script. Rather than read Bendis’ Daredevil, a part of me would rather re-watch The Wire or The Sopranos. Of course, there’s nothing stopping me from doing both, but I come to comics with a set of expectations, and one of those expectations is that they are going to give me a story that I can’t get anywhere else, whether it is a cosmic Jack Kirby space epic, or the unique exploration of the printed page demonstrated by Will Eisner. When a comic tale puts aside so many of its tools and techniques in favor of dialogue, dialogue, and dialogue (however clever), I can’t help but feel some fundamental aspect of the form has gone missing.

Bendis wears me out with his dialogue-heavy style, but I do like his stories, so I thought I’d search for his work in other forms.

I thought I’d struck paydirt with the motion comics version of SpiderWoman: Agent of S.W.O.R.D. After all, I kept thinking of Bendis’ work as a television script. What could be better than a comic book animatic?

Unfortunately, this form wasn’t much better than a Bendis comic. Without all those word balloons it looked cleaner, but the story was still too talky and static. Practically the entire first episode was two characters talking on a bus. Even Sandra Bullock and a satchel full of TNT would have a hard time livening up this scene. Maybe it gets better in later episodes, but I couldn’t be bothered.

More recently, though, I have found that the man and the hour have met at last in Bendis’ relaunch of the Guardians of the Galaxy. No, not the best-selling comic. I’m talking about the “Infinite Comics” prequel stories that have been made available for free in the run-up to the new series.

This format is still clearly a comic. There’s no distracting audio, and the reader controls the pace of the presentation. Transitions and scenes are presented in conventional comic book style. But the ability to re-use space finally gives Bendis’ dialogue has the physical word-space it needs to breathe, and the minimal change of art from panel-to-panel doesn’t feel as much the cheat here that it does on the printed page.

Guardians of the Galaxy: Infinite Comic #2 by Brian Michael Bendis and Ming Doyle

Guardians of the Galaxy: Infinite Comic #2 by Brian Michael Bendis and Ming Doyle

Guardians of the Galaxy: Infinite Comic #2 by Brian Michael Bendis and Ming Doyle

Guardians of the Galaxy: Infinite Comic #2 by Brian Michael Bendis and Ming Doyle

Guardians of the Galaxy: Infinite Comic #2 by Brian Michael Bendis and Ming Doyle

It may not look like a lot here in still images, but through the “Infinite” format, with balloons transitioning in and out … it works! These are essentially the same kind of minimally-changing images that annoyed me in Bendis’ Daredevil, but only seeing one panel a time makes Bendis’ wall-of-words less intimidating, and the transitions help denote passage of time and make it easier to notice and enjoy story and dialogue beats. These are lightweight little stories — especially when compared with Bendis’ heavy Daredevil run — but they’re fun and they do show a promising evolution of the comic book form. The effect is much easier to judge by experiencing it for yourself, and the books are free at Comixology, so check them out.

In the end it comes down to personal preference, and I’m willing to admit my tastes are idiosyncratic. What do you think? Am I being too narrow with the way I define the best use of the comics form? Share your thoughts in the comments section, below.

NEXT WEDNESDAY: #97 Top Ten Captain America Foes

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The Next Billion Comic Book Readers

I had an interesting conversation on my Twitter feed with a kind soul from Comixology that I thought worth sharing:

Nice to know my digital comics rant and podcast are ringing through the hallowed halls of the vast digital comic book establishment!

Thanks for reading, listening, and commenting, Slim!

Legends of the (Digital) Dark Knight

Longbox Graveyard #61

Last week I exhumed my rant about digital comics and the state of the comic book marketplace. This week, Longbox Graveyard looks at DC Comics’ “born digital” Legends of the Dark Knight comic series. That’s right — Longbox Graveyard is reviewing a book from the present century. And it doesn’t even come on paper!

Despite my love for comics of the past, I help run an iPhone developer and I write this comics blog, so that kind of puts me in the bullseye for digital comics whether I like it or not. I’m enjoying Insufferable over at Mark Waid’s Thrillbent site, and even allowing for substantial interface issues, I remain a fan of Marvel’s Digital Comics Unlimited subscription service. I also recommend Operation Ajax for iPad as a “concept car” for the way technology and graphic story telling can come together.

I’d like to have a weekly comic book fix — I just don’t want to trek to a comic store and pay $3.99 an issue to get it. So my little bat ears perked up when I learned DC Comics was launching a new, out-of-continuity Batman series, to be published weekly in digital form, for .99 each. Weekly installments, low price point, a character I like, and digital delivery! OK, DC Comics, you got me back.

Now … can you keep me?


Reviewing Legends of the Dark Knight requires looking at the title from two different angles — technology and content. Let’s tackle the tech first.

Legends of the Dark Knight on iOS is delivered via DC Comics’ own app, which is a branded version of the Comixology store app (Marvel uses the same platform in their own branded app). The DC Comics app isn’t a store so much as a storefront — all billing and downloads are handled through Apple’s iTunes, which means all the app has to do is provide a clear and attractive marketplace for browsing and placing orders.

In this the app comes up a little short. Having learned about the series from DC’s blog I came to the DC Comics app eager for some digital Batman. I didn’t come to this series in the first week and so missed any special banners or promotion that might have run trumpeting this new series, and had to search the book up on my own.

Searching for “Batman” didn’t do me a lot of favors …

That’s a lot of Batman, and the priority of the search results didn’t help. I’m a new digital customer, looking for Batman — I would expect DC’s new, digital-only Batman series to receive priority in search results. Certainly it should appear before hits for series that concluded in 1995 or 2004. Seeing that I was viewing just a fraction of the 46 series on offer and the 986 issues available, I was ready to give up on the whole enterprise, but instead went outside the app to DC’s blog, confirmed the title of the series, returned to the app, and then found it by searching for “Legends of the Dark Knight.” This brought up the title I wanted, though I still had to distinguish between this new original series and the digital version of a legacy print title with a similar name that breathed its last in 2007.

This is asking a lot of customers — someone vaguely hearing of a new digital Batman book would certainly be thwarted coming to the store and trying to find Legends of the Dark Knight by browsing. Search is complicated, and it’s a bugaboo for the whole Apple ecosystem, but the DC Comics app earns poor grades in this aspect. A storefront that can’t quickly and efficiently connect a customer with their product is failing its most basic function.

With the technology navigated I encountered my next problem:

Wrtitten by Damon Lindelof?

Crap!

Having recently endured his instantly-forgetable Prometheus, seeing Lindelof’s name on the masthead did not inspire confidence. But the story proved better than I expected, though it was too reliant on a long, talking head sequence, and I didn’t buy the twist ending. The art was kind of sketchy but that’s down to taste rather than execution, and I know Jeff Lemire has his fans.

In all the first issue was a tightly-constructed and clever one-and-done story, and for all the ballyhoo of The New 52, as a lapsed Batman fan I found it a better jumping on point that the Batman Vol.1: Court of Owls graphic novel that I read last June. In fact I liked it well enough that I exclaimed so out loud, and my office partner, Chris Ulm, sitting just across the desk from me, overheard and we struck up a conversation about the book, and DC’s new digital initiative, and he was instantly eager to check it out.

Here I encountered another technology problem.

Short of my physically handing Ulm my iPad, there was no easy way for me to share Legends of the Dark Knight with him. There was a “Tap to Rate” option on the last page of the story, where I could give the tale between one and five stars, but no means of sharing this story via email or social networks. No Facebook or Twitter buttons, no “recommend to a friend” link, not even a URL that I could copy and paste and send to Chris. Nuthin’. As an evangelist who navigated the app’s search functionality to find the one book among thousands I actually wanted, I was provided zero help in sharing my enthusiasm with another likely customer.

As the kids say: FAIL!

At this point, though, I’ve paid the opportunity cost of hunting up the book, and getting it onto my iPad, and I liked it well enough. I was sold on the .99 price and weekly frequency, and so looked forward to sticking with the series, even if I wouldn’t be sharing it anywhere outside of Longbox Graveyard. The book wasn’t going to make me forget Frank Miller, and there weren’t a lot of bells and whistles in the way the technology was used to tell the story, but not everything has to be Operation Ajax. The lack of continuity with the rest of the DC line might be considered an inadequacy, but for me it is a benefit — and in fact at the first hint of a cross-over, reboot, or line-wide editorial mega-event, I’m gone, baby! No, I like Legends of the Dark Knight just fine the way it is — a bat-specific shaped-charge perfectly suited to penetrate my Armor of Jadedness and get me back into a weekly comic book habit.

Issue two was another entertaining one-and-done story, this time by Jonathan Larsen and J.G. Jones. This tale pit Batman against Amazo, a “sentient android possessing all of the (Justice) League’s superpowers.” A mismatch on paper, the story showed how Batman used brains and grit to defeat Amazo — and by proxy, prove himself superior to his superpowered Justice League colleagues.

Clever, groovy, well-told, and it didn’t overstay it’s welcome. I can already see that the reduced page count and single-issue focus of this series is forcing creators to produce crisp tales, with little of the decompressed, “write for the trade edition” pace that frequently reduces my enjoyment of modern comic books.

By the time the third issue rolls around, it’s fair to say I’m a fan. Legends of the Dark Knight has helped establish a little Thursday digital routine for me. Instead of spending my lunch hour with a Marvel digital moldy oldie, now I’m looking forward to a fresh new Batman episode on my iPad. Neat!

Except for one thing.

I do enough customer support for my own iOS firm to know that download errors rarely have anything to do with the app itself. They’re usually upstream at Apple. Still, it was disappointing to want some Batman on my lunch hour only to be thwarted by a vague download error message. An advantage of digital comics is that they should be available at any hour, instantly, and that they never sell out. We’re not there yet.

An hour or two later and my download was approved, and it was worth the wait. This third installment — by Tom Taylor and Nicola Scott — is a gimmick story, but it’s a good gimmick, as Batman (and Robin, yay!) do a little data mining to stop a crime before it happens.

I’ve always liked these street-level stories that try to get into the psychology of Gotham’s criminals, and in it’s tone this tale reminded me of the 1980s stories that Doug Moench used to tell so well. One jarring flaw was hearing Robin refer to “hiring” a car — we “rent” them over here in the States, but author Tom Taylor is an Aussie and can be forgiven that colliqualism (while we lay the body at the door of DC’s editorial).

Following these three single issue tales came two three-part tales. First up was “Crisis in Identity” by B. Clay Moore and Ben Templesmith, which has been my personal favorite arc of this young series. This was a lacanoic and darkly-humorous take on the Joker’s plot to unhinge Batman by hypnotizing select Gotham citizens into thinking they were Batman, then setting them loose to battle Killer Crock, with predictably fatal results.

Then came the three-part “Letters to Batman” by Steve Niles and Trevor Hairsine, which revolved around the tales exhumed from sacks of letters sent to Gotham City Hall by the city’s citizens, thanking Batman for his thankless service.

Author Steve Niles weaves his epistilary plot-lines together nicely and provides an unexpected judo-flip when one of the letters comes from an otherwise annonymous criminal opponent of Batman, but I found the final installment confusing — not understanding how Batman deduced where to find the bad guys from the letters he was reading — and I think this tale suffered a bit from also featuring the Joker, who maybe needed some time to cool down after having just been at the heart of the previous arc.

Calling these multi-issue stories “arcs” is a bit of a misnomer. Each installment of Legends of the Dark Knight clocks in at 22 pages … but those pages are formatted to fit the landscape orientation of an iPad, and so it might be more accurate to say that each issue is about eleven pages long, based on an equivalent print comic. That means a “three part” story runs around thirty print pages, which is longer than a single print comic, but still well short of a graphic novel or trade paperback. Actually this feels like a good length to let the story breathe a bit and permit creators to explore their idea while not being so long that the tale gets flabby or stale. The serial nature of weekly distribution also ensures each story hits a little climax every dozen “pages” or so.

On balance, Legends of the Dark Knight has been a bit better than I expected. I would likely hold a print book to a higher standard, but as an inexpensive and easy weekly Batman fix, this series pushes all the right buttons for me. Niggling technology issues aside, I expect I will keep my weekly lunch date with the Bat … so long as DC can resist rebooting or retconning the book! Kids these days may be all about the New 52 but I’m the Old 50 and I can only take so much change.

Enjoy Legends of the Dark Knight … and stay off my lawn, you rotten kids!

  • Title: Legends of the Dark Knight
  • Published By: DC Comics, 2012-present (ongoing) (Schedule through Fall 2012 HERE)
  • Issues Reviewed By The Longbox Graveyard: #1-9, June-August 2012
  • LBG Letter Grade For This Run: B-minus
  • Read Online: DC Comics Online

NEXT WEDNESDAY: #62 Six Degrees of Jack Kirby

Digital Comics Rant!

Longbox Graveyard #60

I’ve been a comics fan and reader since the early 1970s. I left comics in the 1990s and have only this past year returned, but my interest is confined to nostalgia — today’s books don’t really interest me, which I think is a problem both for me and for publishers, as I am affluent reader with two kids who might pick up the hobby but the current approach at Marvel and DC holds limited appeal for us. I worked briefly as a writer on some non-Marvel/DC books decades ago, and I still have friends in the business, but I don’t think either one of those things gives me any special insight into what’s happening in comics today. However, since 2008 I have been partners in an iOS publisher and developer, and that DOES give me special insight into the digital world, at least in the apps publishing space.

I have two problems with the digital programs now on offer from the “Big Two.” One is editorial, and the other is with the marketplace.

The marketplace issue is the easiest to address. First off, there may not be a marketplace issue. As of March 2012, ComiXology is on record saying they’ve shipped 50M comics through their app, and they make frequent appearances on the iPad Top Grossing lists in the United States. Maybe Marvel and DC have managed to dig a flaming, gasoline-filled trench around their digital IP and will be able to keep their prices artificially high.

Speaking as a publisher who has to work to give away free games that pack hundreds of hours of content … if they can do that, then I say more power to them!

Speaking as a digital entrepreneur, my view is that publishers could be leaving money on the table due to inflexible pricing, a creaky storefront, too many partners (DC and Marvel must share revenue with Apple and ComiXology with their current apps) and cross-platform incompatibility that erects an artificial wall between new books and the catalog offerings of Marvel’s Digital Unlimited service.

Were I running the digital initiative for Marvel or DC I would ween myself from ComiXology as soon as possible in favor of my own publishing platform, built around microtransactions with in-app currency (to allow more flexibility in pricing and bundling), with laser-sharp metrics closely watching reader behaviors to guide future business decisions. I’d also leverage comics as a social platform by opening up the sharing possibilities of digital books and empowering readers to evangelize their passion by migrating the “collecting” experience from the physical act of owning books to virtual achievements built around viewing and sharing digital comics, with an eye toward restoring comic books as the brand leader for superheroes, instead of the trailing appendage they’ve become in this era of better than a billion dollar box office superhero movies (while equivalent books sell in the hundred thousand copies range).

This might already be in the works. A recent report put ComiXology’s “gross merchandise value” for 2011 at nineteen million dollars, with that number projected to jump to $70M in 2012. With that kind of money on the table, Marvel and DC can certainly afford to build and control their own platforms (and in fact they can’t afford not to).

A simpler solution would be for Marvel and/or DC to buy ComiXology outright, and it wouldn’t surprise me at all to see this happen.

The bigger problem is on the editorial side of the business, which is stuck with largely the same playbook they’ve been running for the last three decades. The freemium digital marketplace I’m advocating only make sense if you can reach a mass audience — a truly digital approach to content and monetization will work only when your audience numbers in the tens or hundreds of millions.

Evidence suggests the current system works to some degree for a market where the top print book struggles to sell 200K copies. The question is whether that market can ever be brought back to the levels of prior decades. If they think there is a mass digital audience out there, then it is an inevitability that DC and Marvel will have to stop price protecting their print retail partners and adopt lower prices for their digital offerings. I’m in my fourth year in the iOS business and I have seen the “Race To Zero” first-hand (with my own money on the line). It’s gotten so even .99 is considered a “premium” price, and you have to work to give away free apps.

In truth, even “free” costs too much these days.

The danger for comic publishers is that it may be too late for them. The market may be so damaged and diminished that it is no longer possible to tap into a mass audience by dropping prices to .99 or free. If the worldwide market for superhero comics really has collapsed to a half-million or so hardcores buying DC and Marvel print titles each month then the free market just won’t work — you’d need ten times that many people interested in digital books to make a profitable business off the 5% of your customers that you will monetize through free distribution. There would be some organic lift from getting free books into more people’s hands — and thus spreading your brand to a collateral audience — but I think the editorial problem at Marvel and DC is pathological enough that just getting the books into peoples’ hands won’t be enough. The content has become too dense, self-referential, and fringe to work as mass entertainment. Witness DC’s “New 52” reboot — presented as a means of making DC’s line more friendly to new readers — which after an initial surge of interest appears to have posted only modest readership gains in the long run (though there are encouraging indications the market is coming back).

So if there is no reaching new readers, then it is actually best for Marvel and DC to do what they’re doing — circle the wagons, hold the price line as long as they can, and fight a delaying action until the publishers as we know them are closed down and their properties are licensed out to smaller shops. Paramount and Hasbro both have comic books without being in the comic book business — might Marvel and DC ultimately elect to go the same route? Marvel and to a lesser extent DC have already realized they are in the “superhero” business rather than the “comics” business and are reorganizing their operations accordingly. I have friends who will lose jobs when this happens and it gives me little joy to say it, but markets are never wrong — the music, publishing, and software businesses have already been disrupted, and there’s no reason to expect comics will be any different. The collapse of Borders and Blockbuster are just two of the earliest and most visible casualties in the digital disruption of entertainment. There will be a pile of bodies on the field before this shakes out.

The indie side of digital offers some opportunities but will be hamstrung by the absence of meaningful brands. There will be successes here and there — particularly for small shops who can keep their costs in line and put a LOT of effort into fan outreach via social media — but for that mass North American moviegoing audience we should be trying to tap, “comic books” = “superheroes,” and “superheroes” = Batman, Spider-Man, and Superman (and now also a host of lesser Marvel characters as well, thanks to a stellar effort from Marvel’s movie studio). Mark Waid has made news by shifting his creator-owned work to digital and I think he is smart to set up his own channel to distribute and monetize his work. He is definitely biting the hand that feeds him but the tide is inevitable and irresistible (and I have enjoyed his digital effort, “Insufferable”).

The problem Mr. Waid will face is that there’s only a fraction of this already-small audience interested in reading his original books than there are people who want to read his Daredevil books. The power of the superhero brands is substantial (which is why the movie business is roaring, for the most part), and with seventy-five years of brand equity built up around their superhero rosters there’s no way any small indie operation is going to challenge Marvel and DC with superheroes for the mass audience. It’s a risk for Mark (because he is making a living off this business) but he’s wise to know the end is near and to make the jump too soon instead of too late. The disruption is real and no one will escape. The guys still standing at the end will be the ones who disrupted themselves and changed into new and profitable forms.

So there you have my view — the major publishers afraid to take the leap, knowing there likely isn’t a far side of the ravine out there in the dark, while indie guys have the tools but don’t have the networks or the superhero properties the market cares about. In the next three years I expect you will see a few digital indie studios take root, clutch and grab to break even, and then be positioned to pick up the licenses to the big superhero brands when the monthly paper publishing arms of DC and Marvel inevitably collapse. The brick and mortar comics market will continue to struggle and is probably doomed. Fans will vote with their wallets and pirate digital books rather than pay inflated prices to placate direct market retailers. Publishers and retailers will remain chained to each other at the ankles, until the last second when the publishers will sever the chain and give retailers a shove over the side. Then the publishers better hope they still have an audience. Digital consumer habits for the next hundred years are being established RIGHT NOW and Marvel and DC are flirting with extinction because they aren’t at the center of it.

Time is critical and there may not be a second chance to get this right.

Note: This column original appeared at the We Talk Podcasts site, to support my appearance on the We Talk Comics podcast. This revised version of my Digital Comics Rant has been updated to reflect new information, and is reprinted here to support next week’s review of the Legends of the Dark Knight digital comic, as well as the pending release of the next Longbox Graveyard Podcast, which will cover digital comics. Thanks to We Talk Podcasts for providing a forum for the original version of this article.

NEXT WEDNESDAY: #61 Legends of the (Digital) Dark Knight

Operation Ajax

Longbox Graveyard #28

Just a couple weeks ago I admonished myself for crossing the streams, mixing my comics interest with my boardgame hobby. And here I go again. But this time, it is my secret identity as an app developer that collides with my comics obsession.

We live in an era of digital disruption, where electronic distribution of entertainment has savaged the music business, turned the book business upside-down, hit video games below the waterline, and cut the pins out from under the DVD business. In every case the drumbeat has been the same — more frictionless distribution of content, more choices for consumers, and a sharp decline in power and profits for stakeholders dependent on the previous means of sales and distribution.

read more: The Digital Disruption — Connectivity & The Diffusion of Power

Aside from concerns over digital piracy, comic books have thus far largely escaped this disruption. We’ve been hearing about digital comics for so long that it’s hard not to figure digital is the future of comics … and always will be. Despite recent high-profile shifts to “day and date” distribution of digital comics alongside print, digital comics have been slow to make inroads versus the print market. Digital comics are available through on-line subscription and various apps, but we haven’t seen headlines about great sales success using these channels.

As an app publisher, I can tell you that when a company characterizes their sales success in terms of all-time records or a percentage of increase that … they aren’t terribly proud of their sales figures. If you sell a million units, you shout it from the rooftops. If you shift a lot of free copies with mediocre paid conversion, you trumpet that downloads are up 500%. It’s how the game is played.

There are a lot of theories about why digital comics have been slow to take off. They’re too expensive. They’re inconvenient compared to print. They’re too easy to get for free.

read more: “Comic Book Comics” The Rise of Digital Comics & Piracy

It might also be that comics aren’t relevant enough to make the transition to this new era. Like radio dramas, model railroading, and CB radio, comics may be on the path to extinction, with most folks content to get their superheroes at the movies, while I circle the wagons and review thirty-year-old comics here at Longbox Graveyard.

Might comics somehow reinvent themselves to reverse their decline? Even setting aside the digital question, the overall trend of comics sales has been flat or down and to the right for years if not decades. Are comics as we know them on the verge of extinction? What changes must comics make to compete for hearts and eyeballs in this new digital world?

With pretty much zero ballyhoo a comic appeared last month that I think marks a watershed moment for digital comics. Don’t feel bad if you missed it. Even with my intense interest in comics and apps I would have missed it entirely if I hadn’t been reading my usual business news.

The book is called Operation Ajax, and I think it pretty much cracks the code for digital comics.

Check out the video:

Let me admit right away that I am in love with this work — as a history wonk, a comics fan, and an apps freak this project could have been created specifically with me in mind! Let me also admit that as a hard-nosed developer working full time in the app space I know full well that the upside prospects of an iPad-only graphic novel based on the real world story of CIA operations in Cold War-era Iran are … challenging, to say the least.

But let me dispel the first thing that probably crossed the minds of veteran comics fans when they saw that video.

Operation Ajax is not a motion comic.

Operation Ajax is a comic told with motion. And that makes all the difference. Where motion comics are caught in a ghetto somewhere between comics and animation, Operation Ajax instead uses the movement and sound toolbox of motion comics to advance the art and create what I feel is the first comic book genuinely native to the digital form. There’s no spoken dialogue in Operation Ajax — this is still a reading experience. But it is a reading experience that embraces technology rather than merely accommodating it. Operation Ajax isn’t a bunch of pages ported to an iPad and then viewed through the knothole of a moving window settling on one panel at a time. Instead the art and words have been built from the ground-up for this new form, layering atop one another to tell a story in a way comics fans will find familiar, but that is at the same time new thanks to how the Ajax storytellers control pace and presentation in ways that paper comics cannot match. But Ajax still has much in common with standard comics. Most critically, rather than abandon comics page form in favor of single-panel viewing, Ajax retains a conventional page architecture to tell story with juxtaposed images while at the same time presenting its panels in an original and technologically appropriate way.

It is difficult to describe, and any screen shots I provide are an inadequate representation of the full work. The video gives some sense of Ajax but the app must be experienced for the promise of this form to be fully appreciated. The reader still controls the overall pace of the story by tapping the screen to advance the story from panel to panel, but because the reader cannot glimpse ahead to preview panels before he gets to them — and because of the way panels appear, move, evolve, and relate to each other — the experience of reading Ajax is unique. It isn’t static like a comic, but the motion of Ajax isn’t remote like a movie. The reader interacts with the motion and pace of Ajax as he would by reading a conventional comic, but the methodology of the form more closely approximates storyboards for film, while simultaneously feeling fresh and not some lesser aping of cinematic form.

The Ajax format is particularly effective in building tension. Operation Ajax tells a complex and multi-layered story of Iranian politics and espionage, and it opens with a frightened CIA operative caught up in Iranian mob — a mob he is trying to spark into chaos by tossing a bomb into their midst. The agent rushes down an alley, trailing his local Iranian asset; he opens his brief case and is instructed on how to prepare his bomb; the fuse is sparked (and we hear it burn down); the agent is framed against blackness with the bomb burning in his hand, his companion urging him to throw …

… we push in while the agent is frozen with panic, the bomb threatening to blow his arm off; there’s no time, he’s going to be killed!; the bomb arcs through darkness, explodes (you see this explosion right at the beginning of the video above); then the shocked and disoriented face of the agent blurs and bleeds into a watery reflection as we move forward in time a half century, and a now ancient ex-CIA spook peers into the water from the back of his boat, his memories stirred up afresh by overhearing a radio report of violence in the Middle East.

The technique works in quiet moments, too, as in this multi-screenshot sequence that shows how a haggard Shah of Iran feels as he gets toward the end of his rope:

Everyone I’ve shared Ajax with has had an “oh shit” moment seconds after starting the story, understanding as they watch the panels unfold that the storytelling world has changed in a fundamental way. Market indifference or the choice of topic or the vagaries of App Store marketing may determine Operation Ajax’s fate irrespective of the quality of this presentation, but there is no doubt in my mind that this work charts a new paradigm for how graphic novel stories can be told using touch tablet technology.

And it arrived like a bolt out of the blue! The project is massive — 210 pages of art in an eleven-chapter graphic novel, supported by character dossiers, reproductions of historical documents, and period newsreels. Operation Ajax is smarty written, expertly drawn, entertaining, thought-provoking, and at the cutting edge of graphic novel storytelling in its use of technology. Where did this thing come from?

I had to know!

And so I tracked down two of the principles behind Cognito Comics’ Operation Ajax — Ash Aiwase and Daniel Burwen — and asked them all about it!

Longbox Graveyard (LBG): Can you provide a brief history of Cognito?

Daniel Burwen: Cognito Comics was started by myself in early 2008. I had been working in the video game industry for a few years at EA and Activision, and was looking for something more meaningful to work on than the next Tony Hawk sequel. I took a teaching gig and ran the company out of my small apartment in Oakland for several years while my writer, Mike de Seve, finished the script. When we started to go into art production in early 2010, I moved the company into a dedicated office in the Mission district of San Francisco next to Tall Chair, the company who provides us with The Active Reader (technology employed by Operation Ajax).

LBG: How did you come to tell this story? Did the idea for this graphic novel predate Cognito and the interactive form that you have used, or was this always conceived as an iPad project?

Daniel: After the Iraq war broke out in 2002, I was left asking a lot of questions. When I discovered Stephen Kinzer’s work Overthrow, I felt like I had found the missing pieces. I knew I wanted to use my talents in art and tech to bring these stories to a wider audience, but was not sure how to do that easily with video games at the time. I thought a traditional print graphic novel would serve my mission better, and after pitching Kinzer at a book signing (he said yes), we were off and running. It wasn’t until the iPad was announced in early 2010 that I considered changing the format for this new platform.

LBG: Tell me about the creative team on Ajax. Where have they worked before, and which characters or projects have they handled?

Daniel: We worked with a few guys that those in the comics world might recognize. Steve Scott (Batman Confidential, X-Men Forever, JLA) did the bulk of our covers. Jim Muniz (X-Men, Hulk) did some early character designs for us and helped set the overall visual style. Steve Ellis (Iron Man, Box 13, High Moon) did a chapter for us.

Ash Aiwase: We also worked with Xeric award-winning writer Jason McNamara (The Martian Confederacy, Full Moon) to adapt Mike’s script to comic book format; I actually met Daniel at one of Jason’s signings, and that’s how I wound up getting involved with Cognito Comics.

LBG: How did your understanding of the graphic novel format change in telling the story using this technology?

Daniel: I think the hardest part was learning how to make comics. Ajax is entirely built off traditional comics, and it’s because the traditional compositions work in print that the animation and interactivity works in the iPad version. Figuring out how to create a compelling animation style that honored the print page legacy was key. It was very easy to over-animate the content, and I discovered it’s a fine line between creating a poor film experience versus a rich reading experience.

an Operation Ajax master page, prior to formatting & editing for the Active Reader

LBG: To what degree do you feel this new form requires content be created with it specifically in mind? Would you expect that an existing graphic novel could be edited and be presented in this new form?

Daniel: I think there is strength in both approaches. We are now starting production on our second comics project, and the pages are formatted in landscape. It really changes the animation style and it seems like there isn’t a single solution that solves every problem. There will always be creative approaches for translating print content across different platforms. However, being able to start with the tablet in mind allows for some really cool techniques that just aren’t there with print.

Ash: We’ve toyed around with the concept of putting legacy comics material on our platform, and the results were very surprising — we had a lot of fun giving print pages the Ajax treatment! That being said, you’re right in that you can do a lot more with material that’s been created with The Active Reader in mind.

LBG: Why this story? Is it a passion project for anyone on the team? Iran is at the center of some very scary world headlines right now — do you worry the audience may reject your work, thinking it has a political agenda?

Daniel: It’s a passion project for me personally. I do not want to see the US start another war in the Middle East. I think if more Americans were knowledgeable about the Foreign Policy record of the US, we may not have ended up invading Iraq. My hope is that by bringing this story to a Western audience, that audience will learn something new, question their assumptions, and perhaps the relationship between Iran and the US will change for the better. We definitely tried to focus on presenting information as opposed to editorializing, and I hope people will see Ajax as a source of information from which to further refine their own views and opinions.

LBG: What is next for Cognito? Will you continue to do similar real-world historical projects, and/or will you tackle more conventional comic book material? Do you wish to license your platform to other publishers?

Daniel: While I have a soft spot for socio-political work, it was a long and exhausting haul to get Ajax out the door at a level we felt proud of. Our next piece is not political and much more modest in scope, with the intent of pushing the boundaries of this new medium. I sincerely hope to do another work like Ajax in the future, there are many more stories like this that I would love to help tell.

Ash: We’re full steam ahead on a couple of internal projects and have also been talking to a number of people who are interested in collaborating in this space. I think we have some exciting times ahead!

Thanks to Daniel and Ash for making time for Longbox Graveyard!

Look, I’m a comics fan and an app developer but I don’t have a dog in this fight. I don’t plan to be part of the crusade to transform comics for the new digital century. But as a fan of the form I would love nothing better than to see this technology and these storytelling methods take root, reach a wide audience, and change the way we experience graphic novels. Regardless of your interest in the subject, or where you stand on the issues confronting comics in their digital transition, you owe it to yourself to buy this app right now for your iPad — or beg, borrow, or steal a friend’s iPad to experience Operation Ajax. Time will tell if this is a pivotal product or an historical oddity, but today, at this hour, I think Operation Ajax is the apex of graphic storytelling on the iPad.

Don’t miss it!

(Update: Operation Ajax is now available for iPhone, and there is an “app tour” video for the comic HERE).

NEXT WEDNESDAY: #29 “D” Is For Deathlok!

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