Saturday, October 10, 2009

I see the future, and it is in MOTION!

Spider-Woman: Agent of SWORD, Episodes 1-3

Written by Brian Michael Bendis
Art by Alex Maleev
Spider-Woman/Jessica Drew – Nicolette Reed

In my first foray into comics blogging, I thought I’d discuss something that doesn’t even technically qualify as a comic. Paper is for Luddites, motion comics are the future, so what does the future look like?

Short answer: a really cheap cartoon with an impenetrable plot.

Long answer:
After her solo title was canceled in 1983, Jessica Drew vanished into character limbo while the Spider-Woman name got passed around to various heroines, none of whom found any lasting success. In the mid-2000s, Brian Michael Bendis pulled Drew from obscurity and placed her on his high profile revamp of the Avengers. Spider-Woman: Agent of SWORD is the first serious attempt at a Spider-Woman ongoing in more than 20 years, as well as Marvel’s first go at motion comics.

Considering that motion comics are sold through iTunes rather than the Direct Market, you’d think that Marvel would target the casual “I liked Downey, Jr. in that movie” fan. But Marvel is nothing if not predictable, and instead the story launches out of the last mega-crossover, Secret Invasion (also by Bendis). Jessica Drew was apparently kidnapped by Skrulls, a shape-shifting alien race, and replaced by the Skrull queen. So the Spider-Woman that readers had been following for the last couple of years in New Avengers was a fake. Now the real Spider-Woman is back and she’s understandably pissed. Lucky for her, Abigail Brand, director of S.W.O.R.D. (Sentient World Observation and Response Department), offers Spider-Woman a job hunting down Skrulls, thus allowing her to work out her issues and beat up illegal aliens at the same time. Spider-Woman’s first assignment takes her Madripoor, the crime capital of Asia. As these things always go, her mission quickly goes to shit and she’s on the run from HYDRA (like G.I. Joe’s Cobra, but no ninjas). And just when you think things can’t get more complicated, in episode 3 Spider-Woman is targeted by the Thunderbolts, a super-powered hit squad run by Norman Osborn, the Big Bad of Marvel’s current Dark Reign mega-crossover. In other words, it’s a story only a hardcore superhero fan could love.

Thankfully, Alex Maleev’s artwork is easier to appreciate. His penciling is fairly realistic and detailed, but he applies multiple layers of color to his work, causing every image to appear dark and washed-out. While the coloring can make certain details hard to see, it effectively establishes the mood and atmosphere of an espionage thriller.

The main attraction though of Spider-Woman: Agent of SWORD is neither the story nor the art, but the format. Each motion comic episode runs about 10 minutes, and consists of three types of visuals. The first type is a sequence of still images accompanied by dialogue and other sound. During conversation scenes, the same images are frequently re-used. The second slightly more sophisticated visual involves moving an image in the foreground while keeping the background still. The third type of visual, which is used for the vehicle chase scenes, is just low budget computer animation (which seems like cheating to me).

Many critics have accused Spider-Woman, and motion comics in general, of simply being low budget animation, and there's a pretty strong case for that. But comparing motion comics only to animation ignores their biggest flaw, namely that they sacrifice the communicative aspect of comics without replacing it with the advantages of actual animation. While it probably goes without saying, comics are a sequence of artistic panels accompanied by text. But there’s more to reading a comic than just proceeding from top-left to bottom-right. Artists can influence the pace at which the reader progresses through panels, sometimes by encouraging the reader to linger on a single panel or to move swiftly through a sequence. The layout of panels, their size, the level of detail, and the amount of text are all part of the communication between creators and readers. Motion comics take most of that away. Every “panel” is now just another background that fits the aspect ratio. And the pacing of the story is set by the motion comic producers rather than the artist and readers. Motion comics, in short, are something less than comics AND something less than animation.

Of course, motion comics do have one element that comics can never have: sound. The music and sound effects in Spider-Woman are used quite well, adding to the atmosphere of the story but generally remaining unobtrusive. The dialogue and Spider-Woman’s inner monologue are another matter. Bendis has a peculiar approach to the English language, which seems to consist mostly of repetitions, redundant statements, and pointless asides. Presumably Bendis is going for realism, but I can happily say I’ve never talked to anyone who speaks as strangely as the characters in this comic. I feel pity for the voice actors who had to read his lines and try to make them sound like something non-assholes would say. Nicolette Reed, who voices both Spider-Woman and Madame Hydra, doesn’t seem to quite know what to do with her lines, so Spider-Woman comes across as flat (and British?) while Madame Hydra quickly becomes obnoxious. But her performance seems Oscar-worthy compared to her co-stars. Particularly shameful are the “actors” who voice the Madripoor police detectives, who seem to take the Breakfast at Tiffany’s approach to portraying Asian men.

So the execution of Marvel’s first motion comic is not so good. Maybe a better example would change my opinion of the medium, but I doubt it. Still, it gave Marvel an excuse to come up with another corny character theme song. Behold, the Spider-Woman music video!

Update: the entire first episode is available for free for a limited time on Youtube. Check it out if you're interested.

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