I have a little guilt over it — like Kotaku bossman Stephen Totilo — but I’m doing most of my comics reading on an iPad nowadays. While the convenience is great and the work can look better on the screen than in print, it’s a little weird that comics are still so static on smart devices. Comics legend Jim Lee thinks so too and, as co-publisher of DC Comics, he’s doing something to change that.
Yesterday, the House Superman Built announced two new technology tweaks that they’ll be rolling out for select comics in the future. DC2 will bring limited animation and moving camera angles to the superhero adventures and DC2 Multiverse fuses that motion approach with the branching paths of a choose-your-own-adventure. Lee cited those sequences where Batman would say a line like “There’s 15 ways to take him out”, saying that Multiverse is a platform where creators could show each one of those takedowns.
The first DC2 project will be a Batman 1966 comic that spins out of the iconic camp TV show that starred Adam West and an Arkham Origins series will be the first Multiverse project. Expect the first one to show up sometime this summer, possibly around this year’s San Diego Comic-Con and the video game tie-in shuld be out around the same time as the upcoming Batman title.
Gizmodo’s Peter Ha and I had the chance to talk to Lee earlier this week about the new initiatives and find out how the company’s planning to roll out the new approaches to digital publishing.
Peter Ha: You talked a bit about previous attempts at motion comics and where you felt they went wrong. Can you elaborate on that?
Jim Lee: They took the control, the pace of the story out of the viewer’s hands. It was a passive experience like watching a low budget cartoon. I think that’s probably what didn’t resonate with the readers. I think having areas where you have to make prompt and smart decisions pay off for you within the story engages people in a way that the motion comics wouldn’t.
But the motion animation is limited to a very short bit of time, so again, it feels like it’s all being prompted by the user or reader, and to me that makes a difference between a passive viewing experience and makes it an active reading experience.
Peter Ha: Yeah, the Watchmen one in particular was pretty bad. There was only one voice actor.
Jim: Yeah, you know what, that’s the thing. If you noticed, we didn’t do any voice acting because that’s something that really is an art unto itself and you have to wait for the dialogue to be said. We didn’t want that. If people want to read this quickly we don’t have it. Ultimately, I would love for people to be able to toggle some of these things off if they didn’t want that in their reading experience so it’s customisable that way.
Peter: What’s going to drive the decision on which titles are going to get either one of the technologies?
Jim: I think it comes down to the content that best works for the technology. That meant Arkham Origins — with its sandbox world that they have in the game — can fit perfectly with Multiverse technology, and BATMAN ‘66 with it’s kind of fun, wacky representation of Batman’s world works great for DC2 so that’s really been our guiding light because otherwise I think you hit the nail on the head, “What does the term what gets this treatment or not?”
You just can’t do it willy-nilly without any sort of strategy. Our strategy has always been find the right pairing. Because some of this technology has been around for a while. Actually, when Digital Publishing first started, we were being shown versions of trade paperbacks that had all these incredible bells and whistles but they had nothing to do with the reading experience, like Wikipedia call-outs to any word that you found.
If there was a fireman that was mentioned, if you clicked fireman, it would show you what a fireman does. That, to me, doesn’t do anything to reinforce the brand of what you’re reading, the type of story you’re reading. Early on we really shooed doing that kind of stuff and focused on really delivering the best stories in the best format possible.
Then, we started doing a lot of work with Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment and that started unlocking some ideas as far as what we could do to better support what they’re doing, how to create some digital content or products that would be more enticing possibly to gamers and that’s where that came from.
I would imagine that we would have had more collaboration with WBIE as they continue rolling out games. If you look at the game space, there’s a lot of pressure on games to deliver great gameplay sometimes at the expense of elaborating on the story because there’s only so much information you can put on the disc.
They’ve got to really focus on gameplay. We’re able to come in and do interstitial material or background material that really fleshes out the world and to be able to do it with some innovative technology to me is a big win for our business and theirs.
Peter: As far as Multiverse is concerned, it obviously changes the storytellers’ efforts because it put a little more load on your plate because you have to figure out how many different paths there are in any given story.
Jim: There’s a ton of pre-planning that goes into it. It’s a whole other logistical step that you have to go through before you even start writing out the synopsis or drawing panels.
Peter: Do you think that you would want to do that extra work with existing books?
Jim: I would completely want to do it. Yeah. I would completely want to do it. Yes, absolutely. I would want to test the waters. As a creator, you’re defined by your ability to take on challenges and to me this is one of the ultimate challenges because it’s about coming up with a very extensive plan, and then enacting that plan and that’s sometimes very tough for creators.
Because a lot of times with story lines we start off with a general idea of where the story is going to go and we change in midstream and as the saying is, as the characters start talking to you and telling you where they want to go, you don’t always have that luxury with this because you want to pre-plan all of this.
You’ve got to pre-plan not just one satisfying ending, but possibly two or three other possible endings based on the choices that the readers’ make. I also love being able to do something that might be seen by someone who is not a comic book fan. It’s always gratifying at conventions when kids come up and go, “Hey, here’s Batman #600, the first comic book I bought.” In the future it’s going to be, “Hey, I remember Batman: Arkham Origins: Multiverse. That was the first comic book I ever purchased.” To me that’s the big win here.
Peter: Going back to video games and the work that you guys could potentially be doing with the game studio division, does that mean we’re going to see more I guess video game-based comics? More so than before?
Jim: We have a very close and great working relationship with WBIE, but we’ve also done stuff that’s in support of Warner Bros Television whether it’s Smallville or Arrow. I think it’s anything that works for the technology and the channels we’re creating. I think there’s a lot of things that we can do. I’m looking forward to it.
Evan: I asked Geoff Johns his thoughts on a hypothetical Superman video game maybe a year ago. It’s the white whale of superhero video games. People say it can’t be done. The stigma and challenges are too strong. How would you approach a Superman video game from a creative standpoint?
Jim: I actually have a game idea but I can’t talk about it. [laughs] No. I think there’s a number of ways you can do it. There’s a number of ways. Yeah. To me as cool as Batman is, Superman to me is the ideal character for a video game. But I think also the technology has to catch-up. You’re talking about a character that can demolish buildings or a fight with a villain would take out a whole city.
Before you couldn’t really destroy any of the environment that you’re interacting with. The technology in games has gotten to the point now where everything is destructible or getting close to it. Once you reach that level I think you can do justice to Superman and his power set.
Evan: Are you saying Injustice is a big step towards that?
Jim: Injustice is a great step towards that. If you look at Injustice, it’s not just about bashing the opponent, they actually interact with the environments and there are a lot of objects that you can use so to me it’s just an evolution of that that will get you to I think and if you play Injustice and see Superman he’s bad-ass in the game, from his finishing moves to his power set. Visually, it’s just a stunner. I don’t think there’s any reason it shouldn’t be a huge franchise.
Evan: Who is your go-to character in the game?
Jim: I would say Green Arrow because right now I’ve figured out a way to shoot people with arrows and they can’t advance them. Yeah, I’m sure there’s a way to do it but the kids haven’t figured it out yet. I’ve stymied the eight year old.
Evan: I’m aware of it. It’s funny that you mentioned that about Injustice because the fighting community, the players who are really deep into that genre, they say it’s all about controlling space, about managing movement. I’m going to let you go here so that way when you come, I’ve got something for you…
Jim: I’ve got my 12-year-old who backs up until I’m underneath something and they grab it and throw it at me. Like whatever. They’re taking full advantage of all of the things that are available within the game. I’m kind of a random button masher but I’m able to still hold my own with that.
Evan: What else have you been playing? I know you’re a very, very busy man. What are you looking forward to in video games?
Jim: BioShock Infinite. Skyrim, that’s an older game but something you can still play for ages. Probably the next Call of Duty. I’ve always liked the franchise. Just as an aside, it’s interesting in that game particularly, they are actually trying to create narrative. Meaning when you get to the final final boss, you’re just pushing buttons. There’s no skill involved. You just have to push that button to complete the knifing of the killing.
They have to put that in because if they don’t now you’re watching a movie and gaming is all an active process just like reading is. You can see that we’re approaching the same problem from different directions. I found that pretty interesting. As they’re getting into the business of telling more stories through gaming now we’re trying to add some gaming elements within a story. You can see that there’s some similar tools and toolsets that we’re both borrowing from.
Evan: A lot of readers who were on board with the re-launch feel some of the energy has waned from when the New 52 reboot happened. I personally feel as a reader like a lot of the creative direction is coming from the top down and not more organically from creators themselves. They’ll get a head of steam but then an event is scheduled and stuff gets derailed. Can you talk about that a little bit?
Jim: I can talk a little bit of the perception of that. I would say it’s not necessarily reflective of a reality in that we’re not going to go out and publicly state what’s happening behind the scenes. To me all the coolest products I have done commercially and critically are all products that were collaborations between editors and creators. That’s ultimately how the best stories are produced.
The company has to reserve the right to want to take character in fresh bold directions and I think creators need to reserve the right to tell the stories they want to tell and it’s all about the interplay between that. I’ll tell you some of the most successful comic book runs were instances where there was tension between the creative groups.
It doesn’t always have to be everyone is singing and dancing in step down the yellow brick road. There’s cool things that happen when you pair people unlikely creators together in teams when you have editorial teams challenging the creative teams and vice versa. I would say it’s a little overblown and I can’t really speak to what’s really happening behind the scenes. But I would say that’s one take on it.