Posted by on Apr 10, 2012 in Digital, Guest Posts | 13 Comments

Reilly Brown is one of those guys I’m referring to whenever I admit that I’m not making these digital techniques up out of whole cloth–I’m standing on the shoulders of others. The Power Play digital comic he does with Kurt Christenson–


–is really well-done and comes highly recommended, and we can all learn a lot from him. Let’s start now. His posting contains a ton of worthy recommendations for other digital comics that I’ll be linking into the sidebar ASAP.  Reilly, take it:


The Art of Digital Comics

There has been a lot of attention paid to the business side of digital comics lately–to the distribution models, the price points, the cost overhead–and as exciting as all that spreadsheet filler is, let’s talk about another aspect of comics, which is my favorite part–the actual art form!  Not only does the advent of digital comics mean new ways to do business, it also gives us an opportunity for new, innovative ways to tell stories.  New techniques that aren’t even possible to accomplish in print.

More than the various business models, THIS is where you should look if you want to get a glimpse of the future of the medium.

First of all, I just want to clarify– usually when people talk about digital comics these days they’re referring to the app-based comics such as those provided by Comixology or Graphicly, as opposed to web comics, which are internet web site based comics such as Penny Arcade or PVP.  However, to be as inclusive as possible, when I refer to “digital comics” I’m including all of those together and more.  Pretty much any comic that is read on a screen as opposed to a printed page is a “digital comic” as far as I’m concerned.

So anyway, with that explanation out of the way, let’s start with Comixology, which is the best of the comics apps for mobile devices– all other comics apps are a step or two behind them when it comes to actually reading a comic.  The thing that puts Comixology ahead isn’t just their library (which is the largest of the comics apps), but their “Guided View” reader interface, which doesn’t try to pretend that the comic you’re reading is on a sheet of paper, but crops and frames the panels of the story to work best on the screen that it’s presented on.  It doesn’t fight against the fact that it’s a digital comic like so many other apps do, and the way that it pans from one panel to another, or fades to a new images, or zooms in and out really can add to the story if utilized properly.  Now, most comics available on Comixology were originally made to be read in print, so most of that potential is wasted, however if you read enough comics on there eventually you’ll see the random panel transition that accidentally is made cooler by Comixoliogy’s programming, or where the Comixology people just decided to go out of their way to do something cool for the hell of it.  One of the first things I ever saw on Comixology was the Free Comic Book day issue of Atomic Robo, by Brian Clevinger and Scott Wegna, and when Robo’s attacked by the bad guys in the snow who simply appear from nowhere my eyes lit up to the potential the digital reader had.

Another comic on Comixology that takes advantage of the their reading format is Valentine by Alex de Campi and Christine Larsen.  This one, however, doesn’t accidentally stumble upon interesting digital techniques, but takes full advantage of them by design.  Not only are all the panels sized to specifically fit the iPhone screen, but the opening scene of the series, where the camera pans over a battlefield as the text fades in is truly beautiful storytelling.  More things like this show off EXACTLY the type of thing that comics artists should be doing more of now that they’re not bound to the printed page.

However, with all the doors that Comixology opens for ambitious storytellers, it’s not perfect, and there are still other storytelling methods that it is yet unable to accomplish.  One is the shockingly simple slide-show technique shown off by Yves Bigerel (aka Balak01, also endearingly called “the French Guy” by comics artists who are unable to pronounce his name).  In his “About Digital Comics” piece, Bigerel shows a pretty brilliant way of telling a story using images in a way that is similar to animation, taking full advantage of the fact that on the screen he can control exactly what you’re looking at, and what order you see the panels. As often as comics artists mention Bigerel’s comic as a cool way to tell a story, I’m continuously surprised by how few people have actually pursued it.  It should be said that this can ALMOST be done with Comixology with their ability to fade from one image to another, but a fade and a clean cut aren’t exactly the same thing and have different feelings to them.  The perfect app would give the artists the ability to pick the kind of panel transitions they want to get from one panel to another.  Perhaps that’s something for an ambitious app programmer to consider in the future.

The potential’s not all in the panel transitions, however, because with digital comics it could be possible to show things in the actual panels themselves that aren’t possible in the printed page.  Things like… animation!  Now, I’m not talking about making a cartoon instead of a comic, and if you go too far down the animation path, those lines run the risk of being blurred as we’ve seen in those embarrassing “Motion Comics” from a couple years ago, but consider the wildly popular web comic MS Paint Adventures by “Andrew.”  Here he uses simple repeating animated gifs to illustrate the individual panels to make a comic that resembles an old school text adventure game.

Another example of using looping animation to great effect in a comic is Zac Gorman’s Magical Game Time.  He uses animated bits in many of his comic blog entries, usually just as an accent to his illustrations, but the effect is impressive, and something that’s clearly not possible to do on simple newsprint.

All the things I’ve mentioned here are merely examples of individual techniques made possible in various digital media.  All of them are very cool, and ripe with potential.  But… what would a comic look like if it pulled all of these tricks together into one basket?  If a comic could pan from one animated panel to another, zooming in or out on text that pops up at a click?  It might look a little bit like this recent game by Square Enix, Imaginary Range.  It’s billed as a game/comic hybrid, and the way it works is essentially a comic with video game puzzles thrown in when the characters encounter an enemy.  It’s a wonderfully interesting experiment.  Ignore the game aspect for a minute, and just check out the comic sections where they use all the techniques mentioned above in unison.  Something like this might require a bigger budget than the average comic, especially if music’s going to be involved, but imagine an entire graphic novel done in this method.  Is that something that the future of comics could look like?  Personally, I can’t wait to see!

and check out my new comic, Power Play–


  1. Mike
    April 10, 2012

    Ohhhhh….a soundtrack! I’d never thought of that, but what a brilliant idea. I’ve always thought (not a brilliant insight by any stretch) that comics were closest to TV or movies as a medium (as opposed to novels). The soundtrack is huge part of TV and film. Imagine the tension that could be built with the control of reveals that digital provides coupled with an appropriate mood instilled by music. Now I’m not entirely sure how this would be accomplished since a major premise most are working with is that comic pacing needs to be controlled by the reader…otherwise you have a weird movie/animation/slideshow hybrid. But it’s definitely worth thinking about.

  2. Balak
    April 10, 2012

    Hi, “french guy” here!
    Very interesting points made by Reilly.
    I’m a bit wary about the use of sound, though.
    I like to think about the reading experience as a silent one. Plus you’ll be forced to have some kind of a loop as in video games, who can gets irritating and gets in the way of the storytelling.
    it would remind me exactly of that kind of japanese video-game cut scenes, and i’m not a big fan of those.
    to me, reading a comic book (digital or not) is like reading an article on the internet. Do you remember at the early ages of the internet, you’ll go to a page and a midi music pops out from nowhere without you asking? you get that today as well on some tumblrs. it irritates the hell out of me. you want to read, at your own pace, and suddenly music jumps at your face, and disturbs you. Plus, I think it would complicate the process of making digital comics, to a benefit I don’t really see. But hey, I don’t know, this is just me.

    Animation in a whole topic on his own.
    Again, I have a very simple rule: is it funnier, does it have more impact if I add that specific animation HERE. If the answer is yes, go for it.
    Can be a loop animation, or a brief one.
    And i’m putting a LOT of emphasis on BRIEF.
    One of the most common mistakes are to make long animation, where th “reader” turns back to be a “viewer” and have to wait for the end of the animation to proceed. As soon as you take the pacing away from the reader, you have lost the game.
    Speaking of “game”, this is exactly where you have to take the best part about video-games. I often say that the click to the next event in your comic should be felt by the reader as a click on the X button of your controller the make your character jump or shoot.
    this is where the animation can be highly effective; for exemple you ‘ll have a guy punching another guy: click>punching animation (about 0,5 seconds), that’s cool as long the reader feels he did this himself. If you do click>punching animation rolling over for a few seconds (where yo have to wait for the animation to be over), you are not doing it right (from my point of view).
    this can looks like subtilities or small matters, but to me it’s the core of the problem, something you have to remember where creating your digital comics.
    One more thing: animation is an artform on his own, and should not be taken lightly, as it was with motion comics (who were not animation, but “things moving”). So when you are making an animation in your comic, you better know what you are doing or it will have a cheap look that will drag the experience down.
    My best advice should be to try to master the storyteling possibilities without animation first. You don’t even need animation most of the time. Once you are comfortable enough, you can go for it.
    Walk before you run! this was the biggest mistake the industry made when adapting comics to the screen in the cd rom era and the early internet days.
    We can put sound and make the picture moves and everything! and make the reader choose like a RPG! and add voices, and bonuses, and, and…. and the storytelling was completly forgotten.

    well hu… but anyway, i agree with most of what reilly said!

    • Wes Sturdevant
      April 10, 2012

      Balak is dead on when he says that you have “lost the game” the moment you take the pacing of the reading experience away from the reader. Comics are READ not watched. That is the line digital comics can not cross. The moment you turn your reader into a watcher by taking control of the pacing, you are no longer making a comic. I’m not saying its a bad thing, I love good animation, but you can’t call it a comic…not even a digital comic.

  3. Reilly Brown
    April 10, 2012

    Good points.
    I linked to the comics that I did because I think they’re all done well. There are others out there that use any or all of these tricks that, in my opinion, aren’t as successful.

    The trick to using animation in a comic is to use it as an accent to the illustrations– like you said, Balak, you don’t want the reader to sit and wait for the animation to be over, because once that happens they’re watching and not reading, and that makes all the difference in the world.

    Similarly, I think music can be used well as an atmospheric thing. No lyrics or sound effects or anything like that. You should be able to get through the comic just fine with the music turned off if you want, but it should add some production value if you have it on. Imaginary Range used it well.

    As for the video game cut scenes– well, I think we’re just of a different mind when it comes to that, because I always loved those! In high school I always thought that Mega Man X 5 was a brilliant video game/comic book hybrid, and would have loved to see more comics done in that format.

    But you do bring up a very good point about being too ambitious too quickly. The key is solid storytelling, and anything that’s not in the service of that should be avoided.

  4. Tim Simmons
    April 10, 2012

    Speaking of Imaginary Range, did anyone check out the “motion graphic novel” that Ashley Wood did awhile back for Metal Gear Solid?
    As I recall, it was a PSP exclusive (not owning a PSP, I didn’t get a chance to check it out)–

    Trailer for it here:

    Now, I know we all hate motion comics– but the format might have interesting applications for SLIGHT movement within panels that are activated by the reader.

  5. Erik Burnham
    April 10, 2012

    I don’t like equating comics more with motion pictures than novels; comics are unique — they share the ability to use visual imagery to tell the story with movies/TV, and an easy way to look into the characters’ interior that novels also have. But comics offer things that neither of those can as well.

    Sorry, that just stuck out. Sorry the post isn’t more thoughtful, but I’m typing on a phone. (;

  6. Adam Geen
    April 10, 2012

    I LOVED that Ash Wood Metal Gear thing.

    I agree with the sentiment that less is more as well. I think we have to be wary about playing with too many things. Baby steps.

  7. Kurt Christenson
    April 10, 2012

    There’s so many factors to take into account before the entire process will be refined so that the average non-comic reading smartphone/tablet/device owning individual can easily access and search for original digital content.

    And accessibility is the reason I read comics digitally now. I do live in NYC so there are comic stores to go to, but I hate not finding what I’m looking for or having to go weekly to avoid that. Plus, I just don’t want to store any more back issues.

    But we’re discussing the artistry of digital comics here, so in the end I think Infinite Comics nailed it. It utilized a few different techniques and each one added to the impact of the story (which by itself was really well-written). I think keeping it simple and effective to that level is what will draw and keep new readers attention.

    The bells and whistles I think will come with individual APPs which a friend of mine did a good example of, REVENGER by ROSHOW, which has a simple 10 page short story you can read in panel-to-panel format OR full comic page, with a script and thumbnails to show more behind-the-scenes.

    I think adding a mixtape/soundtrack option there, or whatever else may come along, will be the future but that’s going to take awhile before we’re there. I really wish I could remember what the movie was but this guy made a short film that had music cues and you controlled the pace of the film by swiping. It was really WAY ahead of its time, even just in programming.

    Oh and the animated gif aspect is probably going to be huge as high-fashion is now using photo-motion online and I’m seeing it extend to other areas as well. We are living in the future that I dreamt of in 1991 that’s for sure.

  8. Eric Rich
    April 11, 2012

    Am I the only person that reads a digital comic like a physical comic. You know, page by page? I can’t stand to read them any other way. One of the many reasons I love my new ipad. It’s a truly mobile device that can read a comic in this format just fine. It even handles two-page spreads well. “Landscape” comics can go the hell away now please.

  9. John Rogers
    April 11, 2012


    You know the “landscape” comic pages are just … pages, right? The additional storytelling elements aren’t necessary — I won’t be doing them in mine. But TV is widescreen, movies are widescreen, why not explore having another visual medium, comics, as widescreen?

  10. Adam Geen
    April 11, 2012

    I was also anti-landscape but I’m warming up to the idea.


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