Marvel's Evolution of Digital Comics Looks Really, Really Good

Comic fans love talking about the "future" of comics. But impossibly, the "future" always ends up looking a heckuva lot like what we've always had. Sadface!

Now Marvel's setting out to create comics specifically for digital. No more scan-and-sell with the same content, layout, and philosophy as the print version. The result, the new SXSW-announced "Infinite Comics" (and to a lesser extent a new AR app) that leave you wondering why things haven't worked like this all along.

Infinite Comics

Simply, Infinite Comics is a new kind of digital format that lets artists control and alter the visual presentation of comics. Creatively, it gives writers and especially artists a whole new way to tell their stories. Where and when word balloons, caption boxes, or layovers go on the page are controlled by the artist, not publisher, and they can all pop in or out to highlight a moment or pace a scene. Other tricks like changing the depth of field of a panel, a slow zoom, or inserting a flashback on top of a scene, add "a sense of motion without motion," as Editor-in-Chief Axel Alonso put it.

It's a totally new and creative way to use the space and panels of a comic to tell stories, but it's still unmistakably a comic book. The same wasn't true of Motion Comics, Marvel's last attempt to step the comic format forward. "The better motion comics get, the more it's animation," Chief Creative Officer Joe Quesada said.

The same goes for things like Comixology's Guided View technology, which shows readers one section of traditional comic pages at a time. It's very useful on smaller screens, but fans complain it reduces beautiful and thoughtful page layouts to a panel-by-panel slideshow. Infinite Comics sidesteps that by keeping the old panel layout and format intact.

The first Infinite Comic will go along with Avengers vs. X-Men #1, Marvel's big crossover event this year. It'll come free with the printed and digital versions, and available to buy separately if you just want to check it out on its own. It'll be written by Mark Waid and illustrated by Stuart Immonen, so at the very least the Infinite Comics experiment will give readers event tie-ins with top notch talent.

I got a chance to see most of the first issue a few days ago, and it looks and works great. Reading it uses the same muscles of consumption as reading a comic, but in a more active way. The way your attention is herded around the page and the pacing is measured uses a lot of the same director's tricks that super talented artists already use, just more efficient. It'll take some time for creators to learn how to maximize the new format, but this is a very exciting start.

Marvel AR

Marvel's other announcement is Marvel AR, which is a free AR app that will let you use your phone to view behind-the-scenes content in the printed versions of marvel comics. The cover, for example, will have a trailer for the comic that catches you up on what's happened in the story previously. It's pretty cool on its own, but imagining a comic store lined with comics you can walk up to and instantly see the covers come to life with previews feels a lot like the future. The internal content will be a lot like a director's commentary on a DVD, or have pre-colored pencils of an especially beautiful panel.