When the history of apps is written by some enterprising doctoral student in decades hence, I hope she or he is smart enough to see how these device-based software platforms did not “change the game” for digital media so much as bring some of the best ideas of a decade and a half of digital dreaming to fruition. The combination of lean-back engagement, touchscreens, personalization, and programming consistency and robustness in the smartphone and tablet app environments make possible ideas that felt unwieldy on the desktop.
The iPad didn’t invent second-screening. It was there for years in play prediction games from ESPN and others. Digital magazines were limp and unexciting on a desktop or even a laptop, but suddenly they become engaging on a tablet, even when they aren’t especially interactive. And the tablet makes more practical and portable the on-demand video streaming that, if you recall, was a simple side-business for Netflix only a few years ago.
Another deferred dream of digital was the interactive comic. Years ago comic book artist and theorist Scott McCloud envisioned a new age of comic creation online, with multimedia providing a new dimension of motion and sound previously unheard of in comics. That dream never really came about. While daily Web comics did generate a niche business and audience with a few breakaway hits, the desktop once again proved to be a bad platform for a digital idea that seemed theoretically to offer so much promise.
After all, why shouldn’t the intrinsic kinetics of comic art (people in constant motion with visualized “bang” text sound effects) be perfect for multimedia? Warner even launched a full “motion comic” version of its landmark Watchmen comic series at around the time the film version appeared. The original art was made dynamic and voice-acted in a series of twelve online video shorts. I watched and reviewed the entire series myself, but I am not sure anyone else did. Again, an interesting idea didn’t seem to match with the platform.
Some publishers are revisiting the digital-only animated comic model in test issues within the Comixology app. But the new player in the digital comics space Madefire recently came onto the iPad with a comics player and distribution engine that seems specifically designed for the multimedia comics experience. They have on board one of the authors of the Watchmen series, artist Dave Gibbons. But the model is aimed at independent comics creators who want to play with the interactive tool set Madefire is offering.
In the free intro issues I have tried the effects are impressive if unevenly applied. The cover art of one comic has the hero float atop the background so he shifts as you tilt the iPad. Most of the other comics fill the screen with a single frame and lay over music background. Speech bubble fade on and off the screen. Static portraits of characters slip in and out of frame.
The Motion Book format, as Madefire calls it, is so obviously still beholden to original comic format that it is difficult to separate the cool new effect from anything that actually enhances or changes the aesthetic experience. For now, I come out of the first efforts still unsure whether the effects were worth the bother.
Which is to say only that motion comics are in a typical media infancy where it can only port and re-tool the medium from whence it came. The creators have yet to find the uniqueness of the platform. What is energizing about the app is the prospect that devices give this stillborn interactive comic notion a real infancy at all. Perhaps now we have at once the technology, the user experience and the business models to support sustained innovation here.
In so many ways, the eventual history of digital media is destined to see the Internet as we have known it for the last 20 years as curious preamble, a kind of pre-historical primordial soup. Out of the desktop ooze we drew the genetic material for a real creative revolution that people and artists were waiting literally to get into their own hands.