Thursday, November 5, 2009

Graphically Speaking: MarvelFest's Debut of the Astonishing X-Men

Words: Miles Archer

As I stood in Union Square Park last Wednesday evening amid droves of costumed hero-worshippers at MarvelFest NYC, I couldn’t help but wonder what the big deal was. Sure, this was an event organized to promote the iTunes release of the new Astonishing X-Men motion comic, so I had to expect at least the requisite amount of hubbub that attends every new X-Men product launch. Heck, since Apple was involved and the motion comic was adapted panel-by-panel from Joss Whedon and John Cassaday’s acclaimed Gifted storyline, I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised to see the excitement level around this project soar from hubbub status right past hoopla all the way to full-fledged hullabaloo. It looked like the cold wet weather had put a bit of a damper on the event though, and so just before the digital clock installed in the fa├žade of 1 Union Square South showed seven o’clock, it seemed like we had settled comfortably into hoopla. But a moment later, there was the smiling two-story-tall image of Joe Quesada, the most powerful man in comics today, projected onto the building, proclaiming motion comics like Gifted were about to revolutionize the way fans experience Marvel’s characters and stories. Hello, hullabaloo.

Yet for all Quesada’s enthusiasm, I was skeptical. Far be it for me to second-guess Marvel’s King Midas, but I just couldn’t see what was at all new or exciting about motion comics. After all, weren’t those old Marvel cartoons from the sixties with the catchy theme songs also motion comics, even if they weren’t called as such? Like Gifted, the sixty-five episodes of The Marvel Super-Heroes produced by Canadian animation studio Grantray-Lawrence in 1966 all featured scripts adapted from the comics on which they were based. And similar to the way Gifted adapts Cassaday’s stunning artwork from the static comic version, MSH used photocopies of classic images drawn by Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko and Don Heck to tell the story through a sequence of still comic panel images, with some animation of character limbs and lips.

Unfortunately, the visual effect that Grantray-Lawrence’s techniques produced in these proto-motion comics was, well, crappy. Compared to the amazing fully-animated products Disney and Hanna-Barbera were putting out, audiences of the day couldn’t help but see The Marvel Super-Heroes as a shoddy, low-budget cartoon production. Despite the rollickingly awesome theme songs, The Marvel Super Heroes was not renewed after its first syndicated season, and Grantray-Lawrence folded in 1967.

Now, like Bucky Barnes, the motion comic is back after forty years in the grave, and I was just as unsure about the wisdom of this comeback as I originally was about Bucky’s. Contemporary motion comics such as Watchmen and Spider-Woman: Agent of S.W.O.R.D. have been released to broad audiences and mostly favorable reviews, but these were produced using essentially the same sequential static image presentation format used by Grantray-Lawrence, albeit with tighter storytelling and better production value. While I personally found them both entertaining, I likened the experience to having a comic narrated to me by a cast of voice-over actors (or one actor, in the case of Watchmen) with an accompanying score and some sound effects - interesting, but not enough so to have me rushing to my computer to download episodes for two bucks a pop, and definitely not revolutionary. Then again, I was wrong about Bucky, so I figured I should probably give Gifted a fair chance. I wasn’t disappointed.

From the opening credits it was clear that this new production had taken the motion comic format several steps forward. Produced for Marvel by Neal Adams’ Continuity Studios and directed by Cassaday and Adams, Gifted simulated cinematographic techniques such as panning and tracking shots, zoom-ins and crane shots to enhance the already cinematic qualities of Cassaday’s artwork. Cassaday and Adams also found inventive ways to use motion to mimic the kind of special effects you would expect to see in a live action film. In Gifted’s debut episode, the effects produced through the application of such techniques were most dramatic in the opening Tildie Soames nightmare sequence and in the Kitty Pryde flashback scene at the X-Mansion shortly thereafter. Lights flashed and pulsated, jaws snapped and blood spattered in the former scene and Kitty phased through walls and was haunted by moments from her past in the latter. Whedon’s well-honed television and screenwriting skill was also evident throughout, as dialogue was crisp and kept the action moving.

Characters’ legs moved when they walked, their lips moved when they talked and their facial expressions even changed. The action in Gifted was still at times choppy and awkward, but it was still a marked improvement over that of its predecessors, and it was only when I considered just how much of an advance this one motion comic represented for the format as a whole that I finally got what Joe Quesada was saying. If creators like Cassaday and Adams continue to push the envelope with motion comics, moving them closer and closer to full animation, they could eventually devise the most faithful possible means of representing comic stories and characters dynamically on the big or small screen.

Consider an extraordinary comic-to-film adaptation like The Dark Knight – no matter how strong the story and direction were, no matter how amazing the costumes and scenery or how committed the acting performances, whenever Batman appeared on screen, audience members were aware on some level that what they were watching was Christian Bale in a Batman suit. On the other hand, Marvel fans downloading Gifted: Episode One from iTunes this week will be able to watch the actual X-Men acting out the story as it was written by Joss Whedon in almost exactly the way the action was rendered by John Cassaday in the static comic version. Cassaday even created additional artwork for the motion comic to fill in the gaps in the animation – if this technique were to be leveraged more heavily, it wouldn’t be difficult to foresee a not-too-distant future in which other Marvel storylines are adapted as fully-animated motion comics directed and animated by the artists who originally drew the static versions.

Until then, at the very least, Quesada may have found another way to sell episodic content to an audience that seems less and less willing to pay for individual hardcopy issues. In my view, that in itself is worthy of a little hubbub and hoopla. If he can eventually take motion comics to even greater heights I might even join in on the hullabaloo.

Miles Archer loves crime comics, old school hip-hop and The Super-Friends. He has profiled some very interesting artists in film, music, fashion and comics for publications such as Mixer, Mass Appeal, YRB and Big Shot. He doesn’t have his own website yet, but hopes you won’t think any less of him as a person because of it. He lives in Harlem with his wife and what must be the last standard-definition television on the eastern seaboard.