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The Spider-Woman “Motion Comic,” Direct Market Implications and a History of the Format

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One of the more interesting pieces of news to pop out of the New York Comic Con is Marvel Comic’s dual launch of Spider-Woman as both a monthly comic and as a “motion comic,” the buzz word du jour for limited animation cartoons.  This has some interesting implications for the direct market, but since this sort of thing actually has a been around in a few different formats for a fairly long time, perhaps something should first be said about the history of “motion comics.”  If you just want to skip ahead to the direct market analysis, scroll down to the next header

A Brief History of Motion Comics

Motion comics, for most intents and purposes, are cartoons where you take comic book panels and animate portions of them.  Maybe a mouth will move, an arm will swing (while the rest of the background remains static), a flying character will fly across the screen against a static background.  There are voices, sound effects and music like a “normal” cartoon.  This really goes back to the pre-Internet revolution days of 1966, when “The Marvel Superheroes” literally did panel-by-panel adaptations of the early Marvel Comics.  The first original motion comic, technically speaking, may have come from this show, as I recall hearing that some of the Sub-Mariner episodes were created specifically for the show.  While existing for years in re-runs, this wasn’t long lived, in terms of producing new episodes.

In 1994, the then-popular Ultraverse of Malibu (later to be sold to Marvel) released one wave of “CD-Romix,” essentially motion comics on CDs, one issue per episode.  It didn’t take.

You could make an argument that the popular cable cartoon, Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist, was little more than a motion comic, during its limited animation run from 1995 to 1999 on Comedy Central.  Certainly the animation was similar.  Respectable four year run. 

In 1996, Marvel started a short-lived line of “CyberComics” that practically no one remembers with animation and sound effects.  It lasted a couple years, but was nearly invisible to direct market fandom.

In 2003, Intec Interactive entered the motion comic derby, issuing DVDs of Marvel and CrossGen comics under the title “Digital Comic Book Series.”  While this was relatively short-lived (1-2 years) as a DVD concern, Crossgen did something else with the episodes.  Incredibly ahead of its time from a technology and digital distribution perspective (but burning through too much cash and bankrupted by an inability to get follow-on investment), CrossGen had entered into an agreement with AOL to showcase their material digitally on AOL’s “Red” channel, aimed at a teen audience.  As is the case with online distribution, this opened the material up to a non-direct market audience, and a much larger audience at that.  I have been told that those early motion comics were some of the most popular content on AOL’s Red channel.  To emphasize, popular with a general audience, but relatively unknown to the direct market fan.

2008 saw DC adapt Watchmen to a motion comic format, Marvel adapt Stephen King’s “N,”  and MTV, of all entities, adapt Robert Kirkman’s Invincible.

That’s a quick overview.  You can probably add a few more motion comics to that timeline.  Suffice it to say, there’s a quite a bit of history with motion comics, or whatever buzzword you want to call the format.  Marvel has a significant amount of experience with the format, be it online, televised or on DVD.  This isn’t exactly virgin territory, so much as territory that historically seemed more appealing to non-direct market devotees. 

The Direct Market Implications of Spider-Woman

I suppose you have to start out with the chicken and the egg question with Spider-Woman.  Is the comic an adaptation of the semi-cartoon or is the semi-cartoon an adaptation of the comic?  Writer Brian Bendis seems to waffle between the semi-cartoon being the main product and there being one plot adapted to two mediums.  In the wider world of media, this is like the screenwriter also writing the novelization.  At this point to can also talk about Star Wars being adapted to comics or Darren Aronofsky adapting Pi to a comic for Dark Horse.  Complimentary good or replacement good?  Too early to say.

Since the semi-cartoon is being released ahead of the print comics, call it one-to-two weeks since Marvel hasn’t finalized the schedule yet, Marvel would seem to be going on the principle that semi-cartoon is a form of marketing for the print comics.  Generally speaking, this is a sound a principle with the rule of thumb being a 1% conversion rate depending on how the content resonates with the audience.  The announced channels are inclusion with Marvel Digital Comics Unlimited (DCU) subscription program and paid download (price not yet determined) on iTunes with the possibilities of more outlets to be named later.

This all sounds, at least to me, like outreach to the general media-consuming population.  Sell them on a cartoon (don’t kid yourself, this is what the general public will think Spider-Woman is) and suck them into the print version.  On the other hand, this is another move to start making the DCU subscription more appealing to the average direct market comics fan.  As it was originally created, the DCU program was all reprints and of limited value to the established fan with a decent collection and the ever-expanding presence of trade paperback reprints.  A lapsed fan or a new fan without their own library, on the other hand, finds a large quantity of stories they haven’t seen before, thus making it more effective as a general consumer product.  Marvel recently introduced original webcomics that would later be printed as comic books (initially monthlies, not tpbs), either in specials or the “Astonishing Tales” anthology.  Adding the motion comic semi-cartoon a week or two ahead of the print edition by best selling Bendis and you’re starting to give the direct market people some new material that might make them think about subscribing.  The iTunes component also will let interested direct market customers get the material without the subscription.

In a way, this is an extension of the experiment with Stephen King’s “N” motion comic and the original material with DCU.  Add bigger direct market names, add a recognizable character (while traditionally more a b-lister, Spider-Woman was front and center for Secret Invasion and this is definitely a Secret Invasion spin-off) and then sit back and see if you can find any correlation between download levels and sales levels.  Not enough time has passed to determine how well the (magazine format) print editions of these webcomic originals sell, but Astonishing Tales with a more diverse set of genres and lesser-known characters will be a definite sales contrast to be studied.

While I have some reservations about marketing a spin-off of Secret Invasion to non-direct-market readers (will back story be an issue to Joe Consumer?), you have to give Marvel some credit for stepping up and putting a proven creative team (Bendis does most of the talking, but Alex Maleev is a top flight artist) on such an experimental project.  Bendis is talking a little marketing smack about taking the motion comic in a new direction and we’ll have to wait to see how and if this is accomplished, but this is an important experiment.

This also marks the second time, Marvel will be using iTunes for paid downloads, the Stephen King’s N motion comic being the first.  Since Marvel is already selling digital downloads of single issues for cell phone in Europe, does this mean we might be seeing single issue downloads on iTunes in the next 12 months?  I don’t know, but it makes a fellow wonder.

There’s also some talk about ways for retailers to participate.  How’s that?  Well, as with most things in this discussion, there’s a historical precedent.  CrossGen, prior to experimenting with the motion comic, put their entire library online on a subscription basis in a package they called “Comics On the Web” (COW).  When promoting COW, they set up an affiliate program so any website sending over a new subscriber would get finder’s fee payment.  Could be a comic shop’s web site.  Could be a radio station’s website.  Affiliate is affiliate.  Most retailers didn’t participate in that because most of them were incredibly insulted that the comics would be available online.  Fast forward to 2009, I think we all realize online is where a certain amount of the readers are going to be.  Comics on the Web has a strong resemblance to the structure of Digital Comics Unlimited, so I don’t find it at all unreasonable for an affiliate program to materialize for the Spider-Woman motion comic.  For a company that fell to bankruptcy, CrossGen’s digital moves in its final days look better and a better as time goes on.  While they ran out of money before they could turn the fiscal corner, their lessons don’t seem to be lost on Marvel.

While the motion comics look to be intended for either the computer or the iPod/iPhone, it probably is worth starting to look at the new digital frontier: digital readers. They’re a release generation or two away of being ideal for comics, but the Kindle’s and Sony Readers of the world will be the battlefield after computers and iPhones.

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2 Comments

  1. “They’re a release generation or two away of being ideal for comics, but the Kindle’s and Sony Readers of the world will be the battlefield after computers and iPhones.”

    I’m pretty skeptical about this. Amazon has sold 500,000 Kindles last year, according to some Citigroup analyst. This is not nearly enough to be considered mainstream. The new Kindle 6-inch e-ink screen can display 16 shades of gray, versus four on the original. Color e-ink is absolutely mandatory for comics but it’s still under development. The current storage capacity is great… for books. It wouldn’t hold lots of comics, though. Amazon could switch to a color screen in the future and boast the storage capacity over time but it won’t help reduce bill-of-materials costs. The Kindle is already expensive as it is, and comics are not exactly Amazon’s priority. Going forward, eBook readers will compete with cellphones and mobile internet devices, which can do more than just read books. This fight will be interesting.

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