At last week's Comic-Con every sci-fi, superhero and action film and TV project was trotted out to the core fanboys in what is now an annual Sundance Festival for geeks. Arguably, the grand gray father of all comic superhero worship is Stan Lee, and bless his heart the man is proving as relentless as one of his own super-villains. Thankfully, Lee is much more likeable than Dr. Doom. But man this guy has given birth to more digital comics projects than Star Trek has had spin-offs. The latest cross-platform project announced last week is Stan Lee Comics, a line of print and digital titles that Lee and partners Archie comics and A Squared Entertainment hope to weave into animated and live action projects, webisodes, games and merchandise.
To Lee's credit, he has been pursuing the digital platform as a comics venue for a number of years. I can' even recall the number of companies he has formed, Web projects launched, heroes created over the past decade. And now finally he is putting himself into the line, with the "Stan Lee and the Super Seven" comics line that is slated to launch as an original made-for-video animated film. This is a comic book "reality series" in which Stan befriends seven aliens. Another hero franchise "Airwalker" is being promoted within the HBO "Entourage" series.
The last we heard from Lee he was touting a Disney partnership at last year's Comic-Con, the motion-comics series Time Jumper, which launched online and in an iPhone app.
I await correction by a fanboy, but I don't recall that Time Jumper got any significant traction, or at least I can't find any sign of fan fervor after its release last summer. Translating comics to the digital medium has been a puzzling challenge for years. Static panel-based comics have gotten a following, and a number of endemic Web brands like Penny Arcade have matured into real franchises. But attempts to enhance the format with animation still fall a bit flat. <>Time Warner opened a unit last year dedicated to making "motion comics" like the new Jonah Hex series and Batman Black & White. Most of these attempts at reviving the spirit of severely limited animation just lack the punch of ink on the page. In a motion comic the 2D art work is shifted about to mimic low level animation. Usually the reader misses the full effect of the frame and never gets to see the impact of a full page, arguably one of the most attractive parts of the comics reading experience. An ambitious animated version of the Watchmen series resonated somewhat if only because the story, character and art were so compelling to see close up.
Otherwise, the irony of comics on the Web is that they work best when not put into full motion. The latest releases of comics reader apps for iPhone and iPad from both DC and Marvel are wonderful in the way they animate the viewing of the comic rather than the images themselves. Many of these readers will zoom into specific panels and move you through the story in detail. The blend of art and text in the comics medium makes them perfect for LCD displays where the lush colors and limited bursts of reading seem to fit the use cases of smart phone and tablet.
We're still waiting for a motion comic that really moves us as well as this next generation of digital comics readers. After all, in comics, the real action happens between the frames, in your head.