Creativity with digital comics

Smart comics publishers and creators are (finally!) aggressively pursuing digital platforms for their comics. Right now it’s mostly as another form of distribution – you can get your comic books and graphic novels at specialty comic shops, book stores, libraries, oh yeah and also on your iPhone or iPad and online. There’s still quite a lot of toe-dipping but that will change the more it’s acknowledged digital comics are the only growing sector of comic sales right now. *

It’s great to have a digital replica of print, but there’s also a lot of room for experimentation to create a new experience. Some are already starting to surface.

Graphic.ly started with a focus on recreating the comic shop community atmosphere by allowing users to comment on specific comic pages and panels within their digital comics reader. That’s an interesting start, but what has me excited is seeing a couple of new apps launch with very creative uses for integrating digital aspects into a story without losing the sequential art part of comics (the reason I think motion comics aren’t working).

Ave! Comics has released a digital version of the biography graphic novel Johnny Cash: I See a Darkness by Reinhard Kleist, originally published to decent acclaim last year by Abrams ComicArts. It does what has become the standard panel-to-panel “guided reading” animation thing on your iPad or iPhone, but it adds a soundtrack to the reading experience. Tracks from Johnny Cash’s stellar catalog, including the legendary At Folsom Prison, come in and out of the story as you arrive on certain pages. The trick is that the app searches for specified songs in your iTunes library. If you don’t have them, you can buy them for 99 cents through iTunes or just read without them. So there’s the potential for hidden costs (unless you happen to have a very extensive collection of Cash songs on your iPad or iPhone, which I suppose isn’t entirely out of the question if you’re buying a biography of Johnny Cash). Despite that, it’s still a very cool idea. On the iPhone, it’s broken up to 3 separate apps for $1.99 each but the iPad’s HD version is one $4.99 app for the entire story. The soundtrack-less print edition is $17.95. Here’s Ave! Comics’ demo video (don’t be scared by the French iPhone used in the video):

Another example is PadWorx‘s Dracula: The Official Stoker Family Edition, currently rated #1 on the iPad Book Charts and selected as iPad App of the Week. This uses a prose book instead of a comic or graphic novel, but it’s worth looking at it for ideas. Despite being abridged, the book boasts all sorts of interactive elements to create a fun spooky factor every few pages of text. Critters, dripping blood, foliage and other elements obscure the text until you clear them away. Over 600 illustrations, original music from indie rock bands, and hundreds of sound effects further enhance the mood. Hidden text unlocks special bonus material: vintage adaptations such as the 1920s silent film Nosferatu and the 1930s radio play with Orson Welles as Dracula. So far it’s been well received, with an average 4.5 star rating on iPad. Like the Johnny Cash app, this one is priced at $4.99. Here’s a teaser trailer:

Purists might find the constant bells and whistles gimmicky and distracting from the source material. I can understand and appreciate that perspective. But I don’t think anyone is expecting these to supplant the original material. Like watching Max Schrek as Count Dracula run around in Nosferatu or Joaquin Phoenix as Johnny Cash in Walk the Line, it’s just another way to experience the story yet still maintain core elements of the medium’s language.

*Print sales may be sagging but they’re still larger than the relatively new digital sales, since digital is still establishing itself. While some are predicting the end of print comics (and print in general), it’s rarely that black and white. I think we’ll eventually level out where the two will co-exist. But it probably won’t be 50/50.

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