Interactive Comics – Part 1

Good ideas that are abandoned have a history of reappearing.

With virtual reality headsets being the next pop technology wave, hacker collectives white knighting in real life, 3D printers, Turing alluding AI, flying drones, and a media that is interchangeable from its corporate interests, clearly more than a few pieces of cyberpunk fiction have bubbled their way into reality. Sure, they have a slightly different coat of paint (less neon, more Mondrian), but the essence remains: I have a slick piece of metal and glass in my pocket that can consult the known history of mankind in milliseconds. Fiction made that possible.

The one they left behind.

The one staple of the future I was promised that never fully materialized is interactive comics. The key ingredients:

  1. Beautiful sequential art
  2. Good writing
  3. Reader interaction

While we have nearly everything else on the list, we don’t have interactive comics. Why?

I’ve been working on an interactive comic for a long time. During this process I now see why no one has ever truly attempted this on a large scale before.

Here are nine reasons why interactive comics aren’t a thing…yet:

  1. Comics Code Authority: Imagine a universe where Rock and Roll was feared by society so much that laws were passed regulating its content. Rock (as we know it) would be dead end. No topics of weight could be covered and if they were they’d have to be veiled morality tales. Since no adult would stick around to listen to this handcuffed art form, the industry eventually caves in and sells directly to children.If you take away an art form’s ability to express all diverse human experiences, then it ceases to be art. CCA destroyed comics future for generations, and reduced a medium into a genre of people in tights.The reason that the cyberpunk writers even mention comics is because they were the last generation that experienced them pre-censorship, before the CCA. They wanted the same wonder for their kids, but added a technological twist. But 1980′s kids didn’t see comics in the same way. While many artists see comics as a fun avenue of expression they also can’t see it as a profitable career. This, alongside the literary restrictions, is a major reason the CCA turned the brightest minds away from the genre. And if you think the Comics Code doesn’t impact comics today, keep in mind that DC was under their restrictions until 2011.
  2. Publishing Model: Publishing in comics is broken. You place your book in a 500 page catalog with thousands of others, each differentiated by a thumbnail and a 60 word description. Then you hope to be found. Publishers with money buy ads to dominate the conversation. Or worse, they snuggle up with writers for reviews, meaning relationships and money are as valid as end product.And yet comic book publishing isn’t broken because too few artists have exposure, the real issue is that the barrier of entry is low enough for everyone to get in. Artists often write, draw, edit, and publish their own works without a single note of outside advice. Then stores order these books on their thumbnail, not on the merit of the work.The reason this works against interactive comics is that trying something new is a risk for stores. When you have to spend money in order to launch something it better work. Even when the big players launch traditional comics they may not pay off. The culture of comics publishing restricts innovation. While many amazing smaller/mid-size publishers continue to innovate and support pioneering comic artists, the battlefield is riddled with the bones of similar firms. Those publishers know they are fighting an uphill battle and it takes only one mistake to close shop.
  3. Reader Expectations: I’m not going to say its all the fault of distributors or publishers; readers have remarkably low expectations. When the most heated discussions are about costumes or character reboots it kind of makes me wonder why any artists continue to try. Had customers demanded something new, it would exist.
  4. Comic Stores: I love comic shops. But I do feel like an abused spouse in spite of everything we’ve been through. Their incentive is to sell enough to keep the doors open. Shelf space is limited, and catering to a risky or niche audience isn’t worth it.
  5. Monthly Schedules: When you have a monthly comic you can’t make the best comic possible. The art must be able to be completed quickly, so longer stories are unrealistic. Interactive comics require length by their very nature. They need multiple paths to layer upon each other to subtly lure the reader into the belief that their experience is the only one. Having a Choose Your Own Adventure comic end after 4 choices would be pretty boring. Sorry Adventure Time.
  6. Motion Comics: In the mid 2000′s comic companies began producing motion comics, and many believed they would fill the gap for more lush interactive experiences. Instead of creating a new genre, they commissioned reaaaaalllllllyyyyyyy boring animations with low production values. This bad experience soured what little adventurous spirit readers had.
  7. Video Games: This is tough to admit, but I often wonder if comics are relevant in a world of video games. Yeah, the graphics are nifty, but its the interactivity available within video games destroys what most interactive fiction is capable of. What can interactive comics uniquely offer that video games cannot?I do believe that there is a place for interactive comics as a successful independent genre of comics. While video games are visceral experiences that reflect reality, comics are rad because they don’t need to parrot real life. They can decouple time from action, visual representation from what we see, zip from place to place in the blink of an eye, and require the reader’s agency in between to fill in the gap each step along the way.Video games have bad stories not because they are written badly. The budgets of video games are enormous, and have multiple expert writers from other industries working on the final scripts. Video games have bad stories because they rarely engender agency from the player. The user experiences everything, but feels nothing. Only in the rarest of cases is agency achieved, and these are gaming’s crown jewels. Yet, agency is comics greatest strength. When comics are combined with the ability to choose I feel the experience here is wonderfully unique. [Note: I'm convincing myself here as much as I'm theorizing.]
  8. Degree of Effort: Comics are fucking hard to make. I can’t imagine a profession bound to drive a person insane, which is perfectly lovely because most comic geniuses were peeking over the edge of the building before they began anyways.But an interactive comic adds in an interesting wrinkle. If you have a character make one choice you have to draw two new pages, but if you have them make two choices you draw four new pages. Seems simple right? It is, except that this keeps spiraling upward as you give more options. There are a ton of controls to fix this. You could duplicate pages and swap text to reduce effort, you could give the appearance of choice but lead to the same conclusion, or you could have a series of choices that ultimately get pulled together with a similar end state. In my upcoming book I do all three, but I’ve resisted the temptation to cheat the reader from a personal experience. I owe the reader a unique path that is custom illustrated. Taking cheap corner cuts to save me time lessons the impact of the experience, one which I hope they’ll realize more intimately on their second or third run when things are nothing like they appear.The final bummer of this is that if you create a 500 page choice book, the odds are a reader will see 1/4 of those options. For a comic, a 125 page book is around an hour read. Hard to have an epic life-changing experience in one of those, eh?
  9. The Cost: My personal beef with comics is that they are too expensive. While I truly understand the time commitment made by creators, the fact remains the consumer gets to decide the cost. The consumer tends to determine value based on how they get paid for things: by the hour. So when you can count the dollar per minute cost, you feel ripped off even if it took 800 hours to build.Interactive comics would need to be aggressively priced to compete. In a world of $1 apps the idea of playing $4 for a 15 minute experience is absurd. If the comic can appeal to a large audience then it may be able to take the low cost/high volume gamble and win.Ironically, I took a complete bath on my graphic novel Nothing Left to Lose because of this viewpoint. I see comics as an art form, and not a way to make money. So pricing comics low was my way to get them into readers hands. While I sold thousands of copies, I lost thousands, not even including my time. As a consumer I want more, but as an artist I can’t see any other way.

Fiction writers clearly have the ability to not only create entertainment, but to define the blueprint for the future. The idea of interactive comics was placed before a culture for inclusion into this blueprint.

To me, I feel this is a calling to take this spark and make it reality. Is this one of those hidden gems that we can dust off and see it take flight? Or are interactive comics only inspirational to those children of the 50′s, while the modern people have moved beyond the need for pictures defined by space?

Let’s find out.

This is the first article in a series about interactive comics.
Part 1: 9 reasons why interactive comics aren’t a thing…yet
Part 2: 18 Reasons Interactive Fiction Fails

  • http://operationajax.com Daniel

    Hi Josh,

    Before you start, you might want to check out this:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kvNfmr6oUJ0

    Making of:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wP9p08LrZCo

    Happy to lend my thoughts on the process.

    cheers,

    db

    • Pixelton

      Thanks so much for your note Daniel!

      I’ve read Operation AJAX in 2011 and I was really impressed. It really stood out as piece created with passion, and genuine vision. I added it to my inspiration folder instantly. Congrats on achieving such a tough mix!

      I’m watching the SXSW presentation right now. I really appreciate the kind offer to share your thoughts as well!