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D2Comics Digital Comics Digitally Debut

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D2Comics claims their new product — digital video comics — to be “the evolution of comics”. And they just might be, though as we all know, evolution is a long, loooooong process.

What precisely are “digital video comics”? The first things the phrase brings to mind are  preview “trailers” for upcoming comics, those videos that populate the Big Two webspaces and the more universal sites like YouTube and Vimeo. These tend to be intriguing little ditties, though little else besides. They splice together static images, panels and promotional pin-ups that scroll and shake and zoom about, accompanied by music tracks and folied-in sound SFX. Personally (being a touch dated, like balsamic vinaigrette), I thought of Crossgen’s 2003 DVD compilations: discs that offered six or seven issues of their then-current titles, which, in CG’s own words, brought “comic books to life with amazing voice-overs…and colorful images!”

In both cases, the DVDs and the trailers, there are things to love and things to shrug about.  Trailers are meant to entice, to give a hint of flavor and rouse a little excitement for an upcoming or otherwise unknown work. But due to the nature of the static image and the moving image, the fact that comic book images are crafted and meant to flow in a particular sequential way, while motion pictures are crafted to inform via fluid action, the trailers are only worthwhile as dressing. If they try to be a salad, to offer details and the blow-by-blow action of a story, they prove less than captivating.

The Crossgen DVDs, however, did strive to tell an entire comic book epic, via cleverly cropped artwork, a little flash-style animation, and a thorough voiceover/acted script. It was surprisingly well-done, especially for the times (and in comparison to all other attempts at similar gimmickry), but ultimately, as readers unanimously read the comics first, long before looking at the DVDs, it’s difficult to call it anything else than a gimmick.

Now, five years into the far-flung future, and what do “digital video comics” offer that neither trailers nor the failed DVD/CD digital comics of the early 2000s did?  Yeah, therein lay the rub of this particular tragedy.

What Digital Video Comics (DVCs) Are and Offer

They’re downloadable videos accompanied by the specific software necessary to view them. Included with each is an approximately 15-20 minute video that comprises one-to-two issues of comic book material in trailer-like form, with an original soundtrack, animations, and sound effects, though unlike the Crossgen DVDs, these have no voiceovers or actors, only effects with the occasional “ahhh!” and “ugh!” thrown in for a little zing. Also included are commentary by the creators, live interviews, and behind-the-scene featurettes, just as found on any major movie DVD.

A quick Google search will bring up a list of vendors that sell D2Comics’ DVCs for direct download, though the premiere retailer is Direct2Drive , selling each title at $2.99 a pop or $9.99 for the complete bundle of currently available titles. After purchasing and subsequently downloading (make sure you’ve got some mother-lovin’ space, too - each video is 150-300MB!), an installation of the program is required, and then an unzipping of the video itself (so, technically, you’ll need double the available memory, as you’ll have to, at least momentarily, hold both the zipped and unzipped versions on your hard drive concomitantly). Then let ‘er rip and a menu pops up, sweetly designed like every DVD menu known to man, and therefore intuitive; extras available with one click, the video itself with another, a relatively easy control set-up throughout.

What Comics Are D2Comics?

In two words: Steve Niles.

In five: Steve Niles and Thomas Jane. Currently, D2Comics has released nothing but creator-owned Niles books, including those co-created by superstar Tom Jane: Bad Planet, Alien Pig Farm 3000, Strange Cases, and The Cryptics are the current sum total. That’s a nifty selection, and at the offset, they seem an honest match; Niles’ books are highly cinematic, decompressed, already a movie shown in stills rather than anything more fitting to old-school sequential style. So how do these movie-like books fare as digital videos? I hadn’t yet read any of the actual comics, so I went ahead and kept it that way, at least initially. I watched the DVCs first, so as to have zero expectations, and then I read the comics immediately thereafter, for perspective. Here’s how they held up:

Alien Pig Farm 3000

With a bluesgrass banjo-harmonica-fiddle score and a fast-paced, irreverent plot, APF was definitely fun to watch, although it ended far too soon, on a cliffhanger and with very little having yet occurred.  I found out when I turned to the actual comic that the video comprised the events of both issue #1 and issue #2 of the four-issue mini, which was baffling. Talk about decompressed storytelling! This was my first clue that the other side to Niles’ “cinematic flair” coin was actually a weakness — an overall character-lite and event-lite story.

The makers of the DVC managed a few skillful touches here and there, though overall the video controlled the action, allowing it to flow only at the pace it wanted, showing one panel and then the next, though not until it was good and ready. This proved damn frustrating; I never thought about how personal the flow of a comic was to any individual reader. No matter how dynamic a page’s layout, it’s every man or woman’s own speed that determines how the panels and moments fit together in their eyes and minds. So when that very freedom is wrestled away, the whole experience turns exceedingly lackluster, regardless of the video’s attempts to spice up what amounts to a frill-less slideshow of your grandparents’ trip to a comic book museum.

When I read the printed comic after, I found the flow of the story much more precise, moments the video cut out (sometimes no more than a single panel) fleshing out the action, the characters, and the pace into something much more natural and, frankly, artful. I went back and looked over the Crossgen DVDs (yes, I still own them) and found that they adhered to the original art and layout of the comics they showcased, whereas the D2Comics editions were selective in which moments and panels to use.  APF 3000 wasn’t, I would soon learn, the worst offender in this, but already it was a noticeable flaw.

Another major issue: the art by Don Marquez, while tight in the comic, didn’t translate into blown-up, zoomed-in panels that stretched across an entire computer screen. Even minimizing the screen to its smallest size (and you can’t go too small, because there’s no voice acting, so it’s important to keep the text readable), the art still seemed overly elongated and, comparatively, when I read the comic itself, not even in the same ballpark of beauty. Even worse, once again when I went back to the Crossgen DVDs, the art there, on a television screen bigger than my computer screen, held up magnificently. Hmmm. As for the extras, now here ’s where things got worthwhile. Thomas Jane, Todd Farmer, and Don Marquez sit and shoot the poop for twenty plus minutes, totally at random, just talking, talking, talking, which was very cool. On the down side, it was like a non-interactive panel at a big convention: informative in very vague ways, but hardly necessary and not what one would call engaging.

Bad Planet

A much more thrilling story, and maybe (I thought) a more suitable vibe to its sci-fi subject matter for a video version.

Whoof. Nope. The story seemed wholly unmoving, stuck at maximum drama, the music score forever swelling in perpetual crescendo, screams every other panel, stock sound effects of mass destruction. It was epic in scope, to be sure, but in the realm of the motion picture, it seemed…tired.  Bad Planet was a very movie-like comic, but saying something is “a very movie-like movie” just isn’t a compliment. I discovered later that the video near-completely ignored the first issue of BP, leaping right into the opening of issue #2, starting at the beginning of the invasion of Earth, then backtracking slightly to establish a few characters before charging ahead. The video ends around the end of issue #2, but all the set-up, all the actual characters and story beats that weren’t sheer destruction and terror from issue #1, just … missing.

Bradstreet and Larosa provide the art in BD, and it’s what the series’ rep truly stems from. Dark, majestic, detailed, did I mention dark? It’s beautiful. In the comic. Blown up for the video? It’s just this side of unwatchable, appearing flimsy and unattended. I don’t know how anyone can make Bradstreet look rushed and ill-considered, but somehow, D2Comics has made it happen, and knowing about fractal digital imaging and the complete un-necessity of allowing such a thing to happen, that’s just plumb criminal, and the worst of D2Comic’s sins (and if they are using fractals, this whole concept may just need to wait for better technology).

Strange Cases

This was the sweet surprise of the bunch, not simply because it was selected, but because it was good . The tone and flavor suit the presentational style of a DVC far better than the more violent, action-oriented epics of Alien Pig Farm and Bad PlanetStrange Cases being a more whimsical (if only fractionally less deadly), episodic ongoing, it wields a television-pilot friendly pitch: a group of monster hunters invited to the mansion of a mysterious benefactor, to be assigned a nigh-impossible (though well-paid) tasking. It’s a conceit that lends itself to shorter, self-contained shorts, and so it’s the first DVC, unlike those of the previous two series, to stand alone as a complete origin story.

Even better, the art by David Hartman is naturally looser, heavy ink over left-behind pencil sketches, the final product thus proving impressive when zoomed in upon for close inspection. The humor of the book works with the pacing and the chosen motion of the visuals’ movement. Even the extras attached to this one are illuminating and fun without falling into the awkward, almost voyeuristic territory of watching Tom Jane act uncanny for fifteen minutes straight.

I discovered (when I turned to the actual comic) that Strange Cases was the lone lad of the initial D2Comics lot that was created, from the ground floor, to be a “multi-format collaboration with D2Comics”, or, in other words, it was made specifically with the DVC format in mind as well as traditional print formats. It shows.

The Cryptics

After the wonderful surprise that was Strange Cases, I predicted The Cryptics to be a book that’d prove equally as excellent, its art by Ben Roman from the same school as Hartman’s (and even more stylized, in fact), humor its central spice, the episodes even shorter and more succinct, being a collection of almost strip-sized short-shorts. Sadly, it seems the balance of factors that make a good DVC is a finely-tuned thing indeed. Roman’s art does come across in the DVC format better than Bradstreet’s or Marquez’s, but his usually crystal-clear animation-style lines of blur under the magnification, and prove less impressive than they normally do. 

Additionally, the humor of the comic depends entirely on its visual timing, and the timing outright fails when the panel-to-panel motion is slower than instantaneous. Any pan, or slide, or scroll, and the humor falls flat.  The Cryptics DVC does make a commendable argument that the property itself might make a brilliant animated short or feature, but as a static-image video, a sort of half-way thing between the two…not so much.

Commentary by Roman and Niles is good, though. Nothing that’ll blow your mind or truly illuminate, but it’s lucid and good-natured and hey, you get to see the creators and hear them blah blah blah. That’s always worth watching.

And so…

If this is the evolution of comics, it’s nothing but a beginning, a first freak mutation that may or may not grow into anything that ultimately even resembles its origins, but sure, it may be the first sign of a change nevertheless.

The big problem is that DVCs aren’t very groundbreaking or new in their own right; they are, at best, bastard children of past comics-on-DVDs and comics-on-CDs, the video equivalent of digital-art comics of the 80s. Something that’ll hardly appear impressive past its fifteen minutes of prime-time fame, a thing exceedingly of its time, destined to be sniggered at and have older folks, fifteen years later, place a hand to their cheek and moan: “Oh, man, I used to love those things…can you believe it?”.

If you feel like giving the property a try, I highly recommend D2Comics’ Strange Cases, and to D2Comics I can only say: look into establishing properties made for the DVC format like SC, and let go of those books that aren’t tailor made to become panel-by-panel videos, otherwise the art becomes purely second-rate. Comics and videos are visual mediums, and if the visuals aren’t up to snuff, the point is automatically moot.

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