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  • “Watched any good books lately?”: The Formal Failure of the Watchmen Motion Comic
  • Drew Morton (bio)

In an interview, the comic-book writer Mark Waid described the new media phenomenon of motion comics—a hybrid of limited animation and comics—as being “unfortunate.”1 Similarly, when asked for his opinion, the comic-book writer, artist, and scholar Scott McCloud remarked that the medium was “a sad, temporary, abomination.”2 Indeed, in the seven years that have elapsed since the release of one of the most noteworthy of motion comics—Watchmen (Zack Snyder, 2008)—the medium has evolved out of its former existence and into tablet-friendly applications and “motion books.” In this space, I would like to consider the formal attributes of the motion comic and how it does and does not remediate aspects of its two parental media. I do so not to redeem the medium of the motion comic but to use Watchmen to explore the aesthetic incompatibility of comics, animation, and film.

One of the main reasons motion comics are frowned upon as being “unfortunate” and an “abomination” is because they openly challenge the romantic notion that each work of art should exist as a unique and original object. Yet as the box art for Watchmen: The Complete Motion Comic prompts us, “Watched any good books lately? Be in the know!” However, Watchmen, like the bulk of motion comics ranging from the 1966 syndicated television series The Marvel Superheroes to the 2010 title Buffy the Vampire Slayer, is merely a scan of the original comic text with the addition of limited, rudimentary animation. The compromise this hurried process of stylistic remediation—the representation of one medium’s formal attributes within another—produces leads to text that is not as ontologically rewarding as animation or comics. For instance, the “animation” of the motion comic is often produced by the suggestion of movement (through zooms, pans and tilts, and montage) rather than smooth and fully rendered character metamorphosis. [End Page 132] Similarly, an essential formal quality of the comics medium, juxtaposed panels structured by a multiframe, is often avoided altogether.

This formal incompatibility and the difficult process of stylistic compromise that arises from it may come as a surprise for some readers. After all, early animation was partially born from comic strips. The early animated films of Winsor McCay (Little Nemo, 1911) and J. Stuart Blackton (The Enchanted Drawing, 1900) can be tied back to their work as newspaper cartoonists and vaudevillian lightning-sketch artists. Moreover, the reliance of both comics and film on montage and visual storytelling has led some media studies scholars and industrial figures, such as Avi Arad, the chief creative officer at Marvel, to remark that “comic books are basically . . . highly detailed storyboards.”3 However, as I hope to illustrate here, and as the writer and artist Art Spiegelman has stated, “Comics are not storyboards for movies at their best.”4 To ground this observation, let us briefly define these separate media from a formal standpoint.

As Craig Smith has argued in one of the few pieces of scholarship devoted to motion comics, they are incapable of being “simply defined with a singular mode of animation practice.”5 This is because their formal attributes vary widely from title to title. For instance, some motion comics have limited motion within the panels (Watchmen does), while others suggest it through the aforementioned limited animation of camera movement and montage (as the 1966 syndicated television series Marvel Super Heroes does). Some employ multiple voice actors (Marvel Super Heroes does), while others take the audiobook approach of casting one performer (as Watchmen does). Finally, additional stylistic characteristics—like the representation of text and the comic-book multiframe—lack representational norms.

Thus, because of the formal fluidity of the motion comic, the logical starting point for beginning a definition would be to define these remediations in relation to their parental media: animation and comics. For the sake of brevity, as academic disputes regarding definitions are frequent (especially in the field of comics studies) and could easily bog down a brief essay, I define animation as the illusion of frame-by-frame movement not produced by a live-action, twenty-four...


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pp. 132-137
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