I asked Paul Duffield, illustrator of our online comic FREAKANGELS, to write to you about whatever was in his head today. Unusually for comics artists, he can form sentences very well, and this is what he had to say:
A few weeks ago I was asked to do an interview for a dissertation about motion comics because of my background in animation. It’s not something I’d ever given much thought to, but surely I should be full of positive things to say since they combine my favourite disciplines. Instead I was left with the tricky task of trying to explain why I’m not keen on them, wondering all the time whether I was just being a big snob about the whole thing.
The problem is, film (including animation) and comics are very different creatures, but I’m of the opinion that they are too freely associated with each other academically and creatively. When editing in a film is discussed, it’s a very direct and tangible topic that can be measured in seconds and frames. Short of appealing to the subjectivity of conscious experience and all that, you have to admit that the editor of a film is almost completely in control of the watcher’s experience. But for the creator of a comic comics that’s not the case by half.
If you consider adapting a double page spread in a comic to film, it might take up as much as 2 or 3 minutes of the watcher’s time, but when seen on the page the same sequence can be casually scanned by a reader in any order and in less than a few seconds. Obviously that doesn’t tend to happen when the reader is in a proper flow, but it is real issue when the text-to-image ratio gets too dense, or when a layout is confusing. The reader can be distracted by events in the future that they glimpse on the opposite page, or have their attention grabbed by a particular drawing for any number of hard-to-predict reasons. The comics creator can hope to guide the reader in the right direction, but reading a comic will never be the same passive experience that watching a film is.
For me, that’s how a comic is defined: a page exists all at once but is read bit by bit. It’s a unique storytelling property, and it leads to the wonderful fact that comics are a different work of art on the level of the story, the page and the panel… and the equally frustrating fact that it’s often hard to herd the reader into appreciating that during a casual read.
By that definition, there’s not much “comic” in motion comics, since they tend to be presented just like an animation, or more precisely like an animatic, which is a stage that animated films sometimes pass through in early production in order to test the timing of a storyboard. Consequently, all the effort in producing a motion comic tends to go into creating the illusion of movement in a static frame, leaving little scope for the animated elements to actually add to the storytelling or characterisation. When it comes down to it, there’s nothing to distinguish something claiming to be a “motion comic” from other low-budget animation beyond the superficial comic trappings left over from the cut-up original.
This isn’t to say that they can’t and haven’t be well done before, but I think there might be a deeper problem at work – if a motion comic is constructed out of frames from pre-existing comics, they have to present parts of a now-missing page, (literally ripping bits of art out of a larger piece of art), and because they’re low budget, they offer very little to replace what has been lost. I’ve never found the result as engaging as either the original comic, or a purpose-built animation. And if a motion comic is actually a purpose-built animation, then there’s no need to call it a comic – it’s not one.
Ideally, I’d love to see animation and comics in a new fusion-genre with its own unique storytelling properties, but most attempts seem to fall into the sort of lacklustre animation I’ve described, or into experimental webcomics with interactive or animated features (the only successful one of which I’ve ever seen is When I am King). With the internet and internet devices being what they are, I wonder if we’re seeing a new medium spending a bit too long in its infancy, or just the illusion of one that just doesn’t have anywhere meaningful to go. I guess time will tell.
Paul Duffield can be found at spoonbard.com when he’s not drawing FREAKANGELS.
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