?The problem with motion comics is that they are by their
very nature a lesser product. Not possessing the nuances of a comic or the
visual flair of a cartoon, these things are weird creatures traveling through
the night in search of their own identity. That may sound a bit grandiose, but
think about it. Motion comics are designed for people who are too lazy to read
a graphic novel. Yet they are also crafted in such a fashion that their
inferior animation is their primary selling point (there’s a thesis in here
somehow about how the seeming half-assedness of motion comics is a reflection
upon contemporary America’s overwhelming ability to settle for mediocrity, yet
I’m far too lazy to write it). Motion Comics have been called the Cliff’s Notes of
the comics industry, and that sounds like a fair assessment. Yet it seems that
they are also, to make a timely reference, the Rodney Dangerfield of fandom.
Just because you probably should read a graphic novel as opposed to watching
one brought to life with the least amount of effort doesn’t mean that there
aren’t some motion comics that are worth your time. Come to think of it, some
of these are actually quite exceptional. You see, as long as you view motion
comics as a companion to their source material instead of a replacement, they
offer up a lot of enjoyment. So I’m going to stop poo-pooing them and begin
giving them the respect they deserve. Here then is a look at the 10 best
motion comics released. Thus far anyways.
10) Iron Man: Extremis
Warren Ellis is most famous to regular Topless Robot readers as the man who made “tender, passionate love to our childhoods” (with his enormous dick, natch) through his work on G.I. Joe: Resolute. He merits inclusion on today’s Daily List for his six-issue Extremis story arc in The Invincible Iron Man, which was adapted for the motion comic medium last year. The story has an ennui-stricken Tony Stark reuniting with an old colleague who was working with an experimental serum called Extremis that got into the wrong hands. Obviously, things go bad and Stark experiences a substantial amount of self-doubt before saving the day. I’m deliberately simplifying the story a bit here so that you can experience its surprises for yourself, but the best bits include a compelling interview in which Stark is challenged by a Michael Moore-styled documentary filmmaker and a new take on Iron Man’s origin that directly influenced the one featured in his big screen debut (which also was heavily inspired by Adi Granov’s visual take on the character as is featured here). Another connection to the Iron Man feature film is how the portrayal of the Sal Kennedy character — a Zen-spouting Dude who disapproves of Stark’s career choices — seems heavily influenced by Jeff Bridges. Sadly, the scene Kennedy appears in is a bit heavy-handed and pretentious, so when he appears you can feel free to schedule a snack/bathroom break.
9) The Walking Dead
Remember Daniel Kanemoto’s fake credits sequence for The Walking Dead? It was the first taste the world had to how much fun a motion comic based on Robert Kirkman’s long-running zombie title could be. In order the promote The Walking Dead TV show, AMC hired Juice Films (more on them in a bit) to, um, bring to life Tony Moore’s artwork. The result was this stand-alone adventure that demonstrates the potential that a regular The Walking Dead animated series could have. Since the paths of the TV show and comic have diverged, it would be fun if AMC released more of these motion comics to their website. Sadly, that would be cost prohibitive and could possibly take away interest from the live-action show. So for now, we are left with this one-off. Yet I still crave more brrrraiiiinsss…
8) Batgirl: Year One
?Available on a DVD with the equally worthwhile The Batman Adventures: Mad Love, Batgirl: Year One chronicles the early days of the future tragedy victim as she irritates/befriends Batman, flirts with Robin, battles Killer Moth (whom I can’t take even remotely seriously after watching The Monarch on The Venture Bros.) and hides her secret identity from her pop. The true strength here is some fantastic voiceover work that reflects the enthusiasm and self-doubt of Batgirl that was the heart of Scott Beatty and Chuck Dixon’s comic. In the story, Barbara Gordon/Batgirl is a young woman trying to carve out her own niche in life while being constantly overshadowed by the achievements of her police commissioner father and a certain bat-obsessed vigilante. Kate Higgins’ portrayal of the character is layered with courage, vulnerability and self-awareness. Her performance seems effortless, and it allows viewers to connect with Batgirl’s plight on an emotional level. While punctuated by brief moments that foreshadow Barbara’s unfortunate future — most notably a comment by Doctor Fate and a cameo by The Joker in the Batcave training area wearing his outfit from The Killing Joke — Batgirl: Year One is mainly a joyful valentine to DC’s most underrated heroine.
7) Superman: Red Son
Mark Millar’s Elseworlds tale of a Superman who landed in Russia instead of the U.S. following the destruction of his home planet world is condensed into a briskly paced 80-minute adventure that will thrill alternate comic history fans. You can watch the first 14 minutes above, though be warned as the next sentence will probably seriously impede your enjoyment of this. Here goes: Russian Superman totally sounds like Dr. Zoidberg. Don’t believe me? Just jump to the 7:55 mark. Perhaps Supes should have challenged Lex to a clawplach?
6) Spider-Woman: Agent of S.W.O.R.D.
Back in 2008, artist Roland Becerra’s short Dear Beautiful detailed how the mysterious arrival of a new type of flower in Connecticut was a harbinger for a zombie apocalypse. The film used slightly animated paintings that made the undead look like tragic romantic figures. This exact type of uncomfortable beauty is on display in the Spider-Woman: Agent of S.W.O.R.D. motion comic, and it’s a joy to watch. Like She-Hulk, Spider-Woman was created to be female counterpart to a Marvel A-Lister although never really quite caught on as well as initially hoped. But just as John Byrne and Steve Gerber did with Shulky, Brian Michael Bendis found a way to deconstruct the character to make her fascinating to readers who may have been oblivious to her first incarnation. Following the events of Marvel’s Secret Invasion — during which she was impersonated by the Skrull queen Veranke — Jessica Drew/Spider-Woman is pissed. So when she gets enlisted by counter-terrorism agency S.W.O.R.D. to get vengeance, she jumps at the opportunity. Needless to say, she experiences more self-empowerment in each episode than audiences do in an entire Lady Gaga world tour. And thanks to the stunning art by Alex Maleev, she looks great while doing so to.
5) Batman: Black and White
Based on the popular anthology, this is the longest running motion comic to date. There are 20 episodes to choose from, but I’d recommend the above “Case Study” (written by Paul Dini and illustrated by Alex Ross) or “Here Be Monsters” (think David Goodis by way of Darwyn Cooke) as your starting points. As those names indicate, the diversity and amount of talent on display here is unparalleled in comparison to other motion comics. Because these stories are often moody and noirish character studies, I’d recommend alternating back and forth between episodes of Batman: Black and White and the comedic Batman: The Brave and the Bold if you truly want to immerse yourself in the Dark Knight’s schizophrenic mindset.
4) Astonishing X-Men: Gifted
Are you a Joss Whedon fan who feels burned that his Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season 8 motion comic didn’t make the cut? Fear not, because this motion comic by the Firefly auteur is so good it’s, well, astonishing. Ugh. Sorry. Anyways, the story involves a new a roster of X-Men led by Cyclops (who seems more interested in schtupping girlfriend/team member Emma Frost than taking command) as they deal with the duel threats of a possible mutant cure and a new alien enemy who, of course, has a secret agenda of his own. As you would probably like to forget, the mutant cure plot thread also made an appearance in X-Men: The Last Stand. However I’m pleased to report that it’s handled much better here. Peppered throughout six brisk-moving episodes is the sly wit that has won Whedon his legion of faithful followers. But the humor on display — and there’s a lot of it — never overshadows the drama. A highlight of the series is a fight between Wolverine and Beast, who is seriously considering taking the cure to finally rid himself of his ever-changing mutation. The scene transforms from a fierce battle to a discussion of the self vs. the greater good that is so riveting to witness that the crude animation is the furthest thing from your mind. It’s story that counts here above all. Whedon crams a lot of it into a brief running time and still manages to resolve each character arc in a satisfying manner. Even Lockheed gets a moment to shine here, and he’s partially responsible for the series’ best joke. Exactly why does Kitty love him so much? Hmm.
As mentioned previously, Juice Films also handled The Walking Dead motion comic. Sadly, all of the company’s employees have not been seen or heard from since a muttering, bearded Englishmen with a penchant for dark magick is rumored to have paid them a visit. You see, if Alan Moore hated the live-action Watchmen film, you can only imagine how much he despised having his work transformed into a barely moving comic in which every character is voiced by the same person. But the thing is, I love this for exactly these reasons. As the sole voiceover artist involved in this project, Tom Stechschulte had the thankless task of creating a unique vocalization for every character. Somehow, he pulled this off and made the goofy gimmick work. But that’s not the only unlikely success story to come from what many of you may see as a sacrilegious undertaking. (Let’s face it, even attempting to adapt the story in any form, especially one as basic as a motion comic, takes some serious cojones). By breaking Watchmen up into half-hour chunks, the folks at DC have given us the greatest comic-based TV series that never was. Even if it is in a rudimentary form. The story adjusts to the episodic format remarkably well, so much so that it was even broadcast internationally on stations like the BBC. One of the criticisms that Zack Synder had to endure with his film adaptation was that he infused it with a bombast that some felt disrespected the source material. No such problem here. Above you’ll see the infamous squid sequence is recreated with downright poetic reverence for the original. This is a haunting sequence that, if I wanted to be transformed into a newt while I’ll slept tonight, I’d say is more effective here than on the printed page. And those on-screen word balloons may be a bit jarring, but they sure do allow for some hardcore movieoke sessions, eh?
Eleven years after his death and Charles Schulz’s Peanuts strips continue to be printed daily in newspapers across the country. I’m guessing this is so because life is still the bitch that constantly pulls the football of your dreams away from you at the last minute. (Certain truisms never lose their relevancy). Likewise, the Peanuts motion comics capture the humor of daily disappointments in brief vignettes that all basically involve people being shitty to Charlie Brown in the worst imaginable way. More traditionally animated than the other entries on this list, these Peanuts shorts don’t elicit huge laughs. Instead they offer up dependable chuckles that make you forget for a second that you are trapped on a rock spinning through the cosmos on an inevitable course to oblivion. Video comfort food really.
1) Axe Cop
The Internet has given us many wonderful things: keyboard cat, five-minute obsessions like Chatroulette and Friendster, endless pornography, this website and, best of all, Axe Cop. The legend of Axe Cop began in late December of 2009 when then 5-year-old Malachai Nicolle had his stories of an axe-wielding policeman adapted into a comic book by his 29-year-old brother, Ethan. The resulting tales of heroism and humor fed the Internet’s voracious appetite for fun memes, and the titular character became an online star. Axe Cop and his revolving array of allies and enemies (can someone please make a Pretzelhead toy stat?) get involved in adventures that are the embodiment of childhood imagination. What the elder Nicolle brother has done here is crafted his younger sibling’s creative flights of fancy into humor-packed stories that rank alongside of Ben Edlund and Steve Purcell’s best work. The result is not only artistically pleasing, but a genuinely touching tale of brotherly love. But is Axe Cop’s entire raison d’etre to fulfill the potential that motion comics have as a medium? It seems possible. As of this writing there have been four Axe Cop motion comics released so far, each better than its predecessor. Ethan Nicolle’s illustrations are brought vibrantly to life through some impressive animation, great voiceover talent — including Futurama‘s Maurice LaMarche — and the greatest cartoon music since the 1960s Spider-Man series. Alternately silly and sublime, the Axe Cop motion comics brilliantly compliment their web comic counterpart without overshadowing them. Know this my friends; happiness is nothing more than a mustached cop beating the shit out of dinosaurs with his axe.
Chris Cummins is a pop culture writer and Archie comics historian who has contributed to The Robot's Voice, Den of Geek US, Philebrity, Geekadelphia, Uproxx, and Unicorn Booty. He is the co-producer and co-host of Nerd Nite Philadelphia, and is regularly involved in producing and hosting New York Super Week events. In 2014, Chris began Sci-Fi Explosion, a mix of live performance, trivia and funny clips celebrating the weirdest in science fiction that regularly travels around the United States. He wrote the introductions to the compilations Archie's Favorite Comics From The Vault and (with Paul Castiglia) Archie's Favorite High School Stories. You can find Chris on Twitter at @bionicbigfoot and @scifiexplosion.