In many ways Marvel have led the mainstream comics industry in terms of their support for digital initiatives, experimenting with a range of new forms and distribution models since the late 90′s before settling upon their current offerings. I would argue that many of these initiatives are unnecessary – and that companies like Marvel should be putting resources toward getting the fundamentals of digital distribution right before experimenting with new forms – although it is good to see a company playing with these ideas and seeing what works. I won’t cover ComiXology here as I’ve already written about my thoughts on the platform, but here is a brief analysis of some of Marvel’s other digital initiatives and their potential:
At it’s core Marvel Unlimited is one of the best ideas for the comic book medium in recent memory. Comic book narratives by their nature – particularly in sprawling ongoing universes like Marvel’s – provide ideal content for unlimited streaming cloud services. Database and hypertextual narratives can thrive in this environment with users able to jump around content at will, without being constrained by artificial barriers to the narrative like issue numbering and purchasing extra content. Hyperlinks in digital comics are currently undervalued, and it seems amazing to me that you can’t link between panels within comic narratives considering the complex references to past and future narrative events. This is one of the ways that in it’s implementation Marvel Unlimited is somewhat let down. I have only briefly played with the interface, although have read several user comments which criticise it’s usability. Similarly, the six month or more restriction on new content being added to the service makes it far less compelling considering the publisher’s focus upon immediacy and events in their narratives.
I remember when Marvel were doing their user survey which was obviously part of the development of Marvel Unlimited, asking questions about what users would be willing to pay per month for certain amounts of content and limitations. I hope that Marvel keep revising this initiative and are listening to what users want from these kinds of services. The potential for this to be ‘the future of comics’ which is written about by the media is more likely than any of the other services currently offered by the industry.
Motion comics are another form which Marvel have experimented with, adding movement and audio to existing works to provide a more cinematic experience for the medium. I would argue this takes comics futher away from their key appeal, with the nature of motion comics being that they place audio-visual layers over content, drawing it away from its original intent. Conversely, I’ve read user comments which speak highly about the form, so there are obviously distinct kinds of readers who appreciate it. I prefer forms like this when they add value to an existing product, rather than add some unnecessary and undefined feature. Other platforms like Madefire have also appeared which run with this idea and offer some interesting new works. It would be nice to see these kinds of works create useful layers for users rather than just ‘features’. They could consider areas such as accessibility and usability and attempt to solve these problems through digital affordances. Accessibility is one area where audio layers could work, providing an audio track for blind people which takes cues from the script and expands upon what is being told visually. This could be on top of ‘alt’ attributes, if they aren’t already being used.
Marvel Infinite Comics
Infinite Comics are a form which Marvel have experimented with for a few years now, taking cues from independent creatives and playing with the possibilities of digital reading devices. These are closer to the intent of the comic book than motion comics and capture ideas about digital affordances in a more distinct way. I find this experimentation interesting and think there will be increasingly playful works which come out of this idea, drawing readers toward digital platforms and expanding readership. On the other hand comics are still inevitably tied to print, and creating content which is only usable on digital channels could be restrictive for multiple-channel works. Also, this can again appear to be a superficial form which adds features rather than value. DC’s new initiatives follow many of these same principles Marvel have identified in this idea. Personally I would like to see these publishers get the fundamentals of digital comics right before attempting these kinds of new formats, establishing the digital market with pricing, adaptability, accessibility and usability that are widely acceptable to users (No, ComiXology does not achieve this just yet, but they could).
Marvel AR (Augmented Reality)
Marvel’s experimentation with Augmented Reality is one way I think publishers can start to do really interesting things with the medium, more so than with Infinite Comics or the audio layers I’ve already mentioned. Right now these AR layers are adding extra editorial information and some story context, but the possibilities for creating new experiences go further than that. What if these layers were hidden and became part of the narrative, giving users a reason to use AR and make it a part of the user journey? Users could spend extra time searching for hidden content and that extra piece of information which builds the story. This reminds me of the issue of Wired where they added hidden codes in the magazine, which then gave information on future episodes of Lost. Scott Dadich demonstrated this at Semi-Permanent one year and it is one of the better plays on interactivity I’ve seen for print content. Simple translation options could also be implemented effectively through AR, with apps like Wordlens offering initial versions of this which will only get better with time.
This is unrelated to Marvel, but the layered storytelling features highlighted in the recently created Sequential app seem like the kind of good idea that is starting to emerge from the industry. It’ll be interesting to see if the interface advances pushed by new platforms like this are picked up by the major digital platforms – and to what extent these are going to be considered proprietary features by each company. This is one of the ways which platforms are finding to provide added value to their content, as Marvel are doing with their AR. It is in finding practical applications for these features, rather than simply adding them because they can, that we will see real advances for the medium and hopefully more experiential forms of expression.