The early twentieth century bore witness not only to the emergence of the ‘standalone’ printed comic book, but also to the birth of the animated film. In many ways, comics have often been associated with their moving image counterparts, as noted by Paul Wells who suggests that ‘the comic strip was to help provide some of the initial vocabulary for the cartoon film’ (Wells 1998: 12). This is of particular relevance in the silent cartoon era when speech balloons and other graphical devices were employed to convey additional narrative exposition.
The similarities between the comic book panel and the film frame are also frequently referenced to draw comparisons between both mediums, as the following statement from Paul Atkinson demonstrates:
The most obvious candidate for comparison between animation and comic books is the frame/cell in animation and the panel in comic books because both describe a spatial field and are, when treated separately, static structures that have to be combined to simulate movement (Atkinson 2009: 270).
Movement in the comic book can be understood in relation to the graphic quality of the line – a fact that is often neglected in the over-emphasis on the cinematic/animatic features of the comic book. Scott McCloud, Paul Atkinson and Will Eisner have all commented on the various ways in which movement and time are depicted in the comic book medium. The subject of movement and time in comic books arguably provides a fertile ground for discourse in emerging hybrid forms such as motion comics.[i]
Although film and comic books share a similar form of systematic structure, they can also differ radically. Firstly, there is the ‘gutter’ between the panels of the comic book, which plays a significant role in the reading process. The intricacies of movement between individual animated frames and the longer durations of movement and perception of time in the gutter space between comic book panels, produce very different impressions on the reader/viewer. It is also important to consider the changes in spatial orientation that occur between panels in the comic book, compared with the animated frame:
Indeed, the individual panels have much more in common with the cinematic shot than with cinematic frames or animation cels, for the panels often describe a whole movement such as individual utterances in a dialogue or the gesture of a character. If the panels in a comic book were sequenced and projected at 25 frames a second, they would not produce animation-like movement (Atkinson 2009: 267).
Atkinson’s statement reveals the fragmentary nature of comic book panels, however animation directors must find suitable methods to produce a coherent moving image narrative that is directly appropriated from the comic book source. This often proves to be a challenging prospect to motion comic directors such as Mike Hasley from Magnetic Dreams,
We find some of the panels, just because of the way the character is posed, lend themselves to movement, while some are nearly impossible to manipulate in this way. We are finding new techniques as we go, programming a few of our own tools and mostly just learning and getting better as we go forward (Dietsch 2011).
It is therefore important to recognize that an individual comic book panel can depict a fleeting moment with absolute clarity, or conversely it can depict a time signature of seconds in the case of an extended dialogue between two characters, or a multi-image object tracing its trajectory from left to right. Noted comic book artist and author Scott McCloud argues that ‘Our eyes have been well-trained by the photograph […] to see any single continuous image as a single instant in time’ (McCloud 1993: 96). Similarly, Atkinson suggests that:
Visually, it would appear that a panel is meant to contain a single moment –so should we presume a paragraph-long speech by Wolverine implies that he is just hanging still in the air while he speaks? Even the “now” of a panel has a beginning, middle and end (Atkinson 2009: 255-256).
Similarly, panel four of the following George Herriman Krazy Kat comic page depicts the mouse Ignatz throwing a brick at Krazy Kat. While the characters are frozen in time, the speed lines, as well as ‘ZIP’ and ‘POW’ depict time passing.
This sense of a beginning, middle and end in the comic book panel enables the animation director of a motion comic to create a narrative trajectory of motion via the inherent initial shape and implied movement of the characters.
By regarding a single panel as a cinematic ‘shot’, it is possible to determine that the range of objects and characters moving in time (albeit in a static medium), directly influences our perception of time and movement in the comic book panel. As the reader/viewer traverses the comic book medium into the moving image of a motion comic, it becomes necessary to consider the formation of a similarly cohesive narrative structure in the resulting moving image sequences. Motion comic production processes benefit greatly from the original comic book artwork and narrative elements, but it is crucial that the animation director correctly ‘reads’ and conveys the fundamental sequence of events that occurs within, and between each panel. Without an impetus for action, the animated sequence may appear disjointed, or lack the quintessential narrative essence of the original comic book panel.
While the initial marketing ‘hype’ of the motion comic may have faded in recent years, there is clearly an on-going evolution of the practices and processes involved; including a recent announcement by Madefire comics regarding their collaboration with the Oculus Rift and Virtual Reality. An upcoming exhibition for the 2017 Fumetto comic festival and the recent exhibition by Submarine Channel also suggest that the motion comic is beginning to be regarded as an innovative and evolving art form.
Atkinson, P. (2009) ‘Movements within Movements: Following the Line’, Animation 4.3.
Dietsch, TJ (2011) ‘The Family Dynamics of Thor & Loki: Blood Brothers’, in Comicbookresources.com <http://www.comicbookresources.com/ page=article&id=31613> [accessed 6 April 2011]
Eisner, W. (1990) Comics and Sequential Art. New York: W.W. Norton and Company.
McCloud, S. (1993) Understanding Comics. New York: HarperCollins.
Wells, P. (1998) Understanding Animation. London: Routledge.
Dr. Craig Smith is a senior lecturer at Canterbury Christ Church University, Kent. He completed his PhD in Film Studies at Queens University Belfast on the emerging field of ‘Motion Comics’ in 2013, and his current research interests focus on the interplay between comics, animation, transmedia, and digital interactivity. Published work includes ‘Motion Comics: Modes of adaptation and the issue of authenticity’, and an upcoming book chapter on comic book writer Warren Ellis. You can follow him on Twitter: @motion_comix
[i] I have written about movement in the motion comic elsewhere, see ‘Motion comics: Appropriating and adapting comic book artwork’ and ‘Motion Comics: The Emergence of a Hybrid Medium’.