It's no secret that Mark Waid has been pushing for more digital comics and more experimentation in digital comics for years now. From his time as BOOM! Studios Editor-in-Chief working on early digital releases through to recent experiments in digital storytelling, the writer has made the changing landscape of comics one of his personal creative goals of late as well as one of his most frequent conversation topics to anyone who would listen at cons.
Today, Waid's own research intersected with Marvel Comics' digital plans at South By Southwest Interactive in Austin, TX where the publisher revealed that he'd write their first "Marvel Infinite Comics" made straight for tablets like the iPad. You can read more on Marvel's new ReEvolution plans on CBR as well as our interview with Joe Quesada about the overall plan for the Infinite Comics line, and Waid noted, "Joe himself called me up, and of course he's known me forever, but he said 'I've got this thing I want to talk to you about, but it's top secret. How much digital comics stuff have you experimented with, and how much have you seen?' And we got a laugh out of that because the answer is 'All of it,'" Waid said. "I started explaining to Joe things that you could do with the format and ideas Marvel maybe hadn't thought about yet. And in very short order, I stepped up and volunteered to put this thing together for them because I'm very evangelical about this whole approach to comics storytelling."
Available April 4th for $.99 cents or free with a purchase of "Avengers vs. X-Men" #1, the first story stars new Nova Sam Alexander on his way towards "AvX" after his first appearance at the hands of creators Jeph Loeb and Ed McGuinness from Marvel's "Point One" one-shot. "We started the digital process a little far along as far as 'Avengers Vs. X-Men' was concerned, and Joe had a pretty clear idea of where we could pick up," Waid said. "This was Nova fleeing from space and spinning off of the 'Point One' stuff. He's fleeing Phoenix and trying to warn the Avengers, and that folds into the start of 'AvX' #1 from Nova's perspective. It was up to me and Stuart to use that premise not only to launch these amazing visuals of a kid flying through space but also to set up what's going on in his head and explain some of the 'Avengers Vs. X-Men' back story for anyone not up on the print stuff and to create a conflict and resolution so it's a story unto itself.
"I'll be frank, this first round of Marvel Infinite Comics is as much about technique as it is about story. It's as much to show off what we can do visually as it is about Nova because a lot of what we're showing from his point of view is material that dovetails to 'AvX.' And also, Jeph Loeb has a very, very, very strong idea of who that character is. In a lot of ways, I was taking my cues from Jeph about the character."
Waid promised that his next few Infinite Comics will up the stakes for the characters playing a part in "AvX" before the format expands out eventually to other parts of the Marvel U. But for now, the writer's focus is entirely on innovating what can be done with tablet-first digital comics – comics being the operative word.
"The most challenging part has been how to use new tools and tricks without having it look gimmicky or straying away from what the core of comics is," he said. "In order to better explain what I said, let's look at motion comics. Just speaking for myself and not for Marvel, I've never been terribly fond of motion comics as the previous experiment for how we do digital comics because adding voices or movement or cheap animation or whatever only ever seemed to me to be a weird hybrid of bad animation. The key to comics – from my point of view, and I know a lot of my digital brethren feel the same – is that you can play with storytelling techniques and the things digital gives you, but the unshakable thing you can not lose in comics is that the reader gets to control the flow of information. The reader has control over the timeline under which he controls the material. There's no sound cues. There's no voice or motion that the reader can't control. Otherwise, it becomes something else. What's unique about comics is that as a reader I can take 20 minutes to read a story or two minutes or two weeks. I can go back and forth at a whim. Basically, it's still a series of images that's up to me to turn into a film strip in my head."
The Nova story that will soon be in readers hands employs a number of new techniques for dolling out the moments of a comic narrative including captions and dialogue that fall into place over an image one-by-one at the readers command and panel transitions created by a change in focus from foreground to background. "That was Stuart Immonen," Waid said of the latter notion. "That was his brainchild as we started talking about this and how to use it as a storytelling technique, which I love. In a sense, it's a film technique, but it's not a cheap trick. It's the same thing you would do if you were putting those panels side-by-side on the page. But this allows you to consolidate the space and get the story across that way.
"It's the same for the art appearing before the captions or the captions rolling over the art. It's the same effect you would achieve with a print comic, but there it would take you two or three pages to do that. You see that all the time – an image of a character and then a stat of that same image with a word balloon to indicate a pause of time. This is the same effect, but it's consolidating it in a way that looks cooler and in a way that print comics just can't do yet."
Waid admitted that this work has forced him to rethink the way he approaches many elements of his craft and rely on more help from his artists. "This is forcing me to find a whole different way to write, and that's something that didn't occur to me until I sat down and wrote 'Page One, Panel One.' I can't approach this in a traditional panel-by-panel beat form because I didn't want Stuart to feel like his hands were tied. I wanted him to really be able to experiment with the flow of it and the staging and really take control of the story on a visual level. What I worked up for Stuart was a two or three-page, single spaced outline hitting all the beats and moments we needed with some rough dialogue, but I said, 'I want you to take a co-plot credit on this story and really take visual control. Don't act as though you're drawing my script. Act as if you're a filmmaker who's adapting my short story.' And he did great with that."
In the future, Waid will bring in a name from outside Marvel to push the boundaries of Infinite Comics a bit more. "The next installment is another big step past there where I went to the artist Balak – a French artist who was a guest of honor at San Diego this year for his digital comics work," said the writer, who's been prosthelytizing for the artist publicly since NYCC 2009. "I think this guy is the Orson Wells of digital comics. I really do. I think he's groundbreaking beyond belief. His work and dissertation on digital comics as well as the comics he's been making in France have been the single greatest inspiration in this for me. So I was not hesitant at all about telling Nick Lowe and Joe Quesada over at Marvel 'Please let me put you in touch with this guy.'
"And when Balak and I were sitting there blocking out the next one of these, it was the same thing. I write a two-page story outline with the beats, and then I say, 'I want you to go wild with it. Come up with new images, new ideas. I'm going to suggest stuff, but don't be bound by that. Go nuts. It's always easier to pull back if we have to.' And then I go back and tailor my dialogue and captions and the rhythm of it to what's on the screen. It's a much more collaborative process, and it involves the artist taking much more control over the pacing of the story than he does in normal print comics. But I'm fine with that. I think as we're all learning how to do this and use the tools, it needs to be more collaborative."
Waid has offered up some basic guidelines on screen ratio as it relates to the majority of tablet devices and other basic formatting issues to Marvel, but he wrapped saying that he'd rather ask questions than make rules. "None of these are things that I personally invented. Our subculture has been in heated discussions about this for seven or eight years about this kind of stuff. I'm just glad that I've been able to come to Marvel and explain my ideas, and I'm flattered that they embrace that. We're able to distill not just my inventions or Balak's inventions, but we're standing on the shoulders of all the guys who came before us."
For more on Marvel Infinite Comics, see CBR's interview with Joe Quesada!