Marvel Project Gamma: Comic Books Just Got Their Own Soundtracks

Marvel's new Project Gamma is the answer to a pretty simple question: What if comics had their own soundtracks?

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Simply, Project Gamma adds music to comics. But not like a standard soundtrack (Marvel calls it "adaptive audio" and compares it to a score, actually). It adds musical elements and occasionally sound effects as you turn panel to panel or page to page, and it does it dynamically, instead of looping the audio. That means that if you flip to the next panel mid-bar, the software will wait to transition until the next bar. It sounds really smooth as you use it, even as you go backwards through panels and the audio is rolled back. There will be two mix types—for panel viewing and full-page—but we didn't get to hear the full page version.

The goal here is to add emotional resonance to comics—the way you tense up when ominous musical cues come up, or swell as the the-hero-is-winning-now notes hit—and to do it at your own pace, without disrupting your reading (which is why none of the music has lyrics). Audio shifts as you move scene to scene, from character to character. A heavier beat might drop as a big fight starts. Ron Perazza, who came onto Marvel for this project, says, "You might see audio cues that are associated with a specific villain foreshadow his appearance later in an issue."

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Like last year's Infinite Comics (which are now being published weekly), Gamma could benefit from some restraint. If the analog is a movie score, no movie is going to blast you with non-stop audio movements from beginning to end. Gamma sounds impressive in practice, but it comes across as overly busy. Storytelling usually needs more negative space than is possible here.

But then, it's probably best to think of Infinite and Gamma as more tech demos than finished products, more toolbox than canvas. A more holistic launch of Marvel's Digital Comic of the Future would hopefully see these technologies, plus whatever is coming in the next few years, rolled into one comic... that doesn't feel the need to cram all of its new tricks into every single panel.

Illustration for article titled Marvel Project Gamma: Comic Books Just Got Their Own Soundtracks

As for how the process will work creatively, Marvel Digital SVP Peter Phillips said, "It could be a single composer, or it could be a team." He stressed that it was still early in the process to determine how things will look once Gamma goes live—there still isn't an official launch date for it—but that the goal is to have it be in mainstream books. That means a monthly schedule, which probably means if it's not feasible for one composer to do it alone, more will be added.

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Marvel Editor-in-Chief Alex Alonso stresses, though, that writers will retain influence over the comic. "You've read comic scripts now, where writers put suggestions like suggesting a color palette," he says. "Gamma will be a similar process."

Marvel is being mum about the underlying software that goes into the dynamic mixes, since it seems like the actual launch is a little far off. A lot of details are missing, actually, like price point, and what titles Gamma might launch on. Phillips said to "look at what we've done in the past," which probably means a similar entry price as Infinite's ($1 for the first issue) and launching alongside a big event.

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DISCUSSION

WinterRose
WinterRose

I'm more interested in what the themes themselves will be. I would imagine if you have character themes, the temptation would be to use the themes for the movie adaptations that worked. I'm pretty sure you'd want your comics to sync with your successful projects that are still hitting and working...

Which is great if they worked... But what happens when you get themes for problem characters like the Hulk? Do you pull out The Lonely Man from the 70's for Bruce Banner on the road, then switch off to the Ang Lee theme? Or the Edward Norton Theme? Or the one from the Lion's Gate Planet Hulk feature? Or feature bits of all of them from time to time along the line? What do you do for the themes to the movies at the other studios like X-Men and F4? Do you have to get the rights to use em, or do you compose new ones?

Then you get into characters that don't really have themes of their own that are recognizable ones. Particularly villains. For the life of me I don't remember any of the themes for The Red Skull, Magneto, The Abomination, or Loki. Nothing say... as iconic as the two themes for Superman and Lex Luthor from the old John Williams soundtrack. Most of the Marvel films nowadays seem to smack of one main theme and a lot of more mood pieces as filler.

If you're doing these character themes for the comics, they're ones that presumably are meant to last for years. Ones that if you're re-introducing or foreshadowing the return of some villain or hero... or using the musical beat to suggest a character's influence over that part of the story or plot, then they have to iconic and recognizable in the same way that the old Williams themes are today for Superman 30 years from now. So that the music becomes a recognizable shorthand for that character's presence.

I'd be curious as to how the composers get into the character and feel them out. Get into them emotionally and build a theme around that. Would you start by talking with the writers of the characters' most iconic arcs and see what kind of music they were thinking of when they wrote em?

This is a BIG undertaking... the sheer number of heroes and villains to theme and score in addition to individual plot themes and themes for plot devices alongside incidential beats... Let's see how it works.