With the success of Marvel’s “The Avengers” movie and recent release of “The Amazing Spider-Man” film, Disney has the opportunity to further introduce Marvel characters to a whole new generation of fans and it seeks to do so in the digital space. The “Avengers Origins” digital storybook series, available on iOS devices, are modified versions of existing Marvel storybooks adapted by writer Rich Thomas with art by Pat Olliffe. The stories are based on the original comic book origins of the 1960s. So far, Disney Digital Books has released three digital stories in the “Avengers Origins” series based on Spider-Man, the Hulk and the Avengers with a mystery fourth installment on the way. CBR News is pleased to exclusively announce that Stan Lee will return as narrator for the fourth book.
CBR spoke with Disney Digital Books and Digital Media Senior Producer Mike Zagari about Lee’s return to the series, the roots of “Avengers Origins,” the augmented reality digital storybook adaptation of “The Amazing Spider-Man” film, the process behind building a digital storybook and which characters may be getting the digital treatment next.
CBR News: Mike, tell us about the “Avengers Origins” digital storybooks and how the initiative got started.
Mike Zagari: We began the Marvel franchise to correlate with our print books. We started with making “The Amazing Spider-Man: An Origin Story” as the first adapted book. I was able to work with Marvel and secure Stan Lee for that project and since then, he’s been on board for “Avengers Origins: Hulk” and “Avengers Origins: Assemble,” which we also launched this past year. Now, this fourth book is another in the “Avengers Origins” series. It will be teased for now since Apple wants to keep the specific product information under wraps, but it is another origin tale based upon the original Stan Lee story from the 1960s.
I wanted to skew the origin a little bit more towards a younger generation of fans, so I worked very closely with the same editorial team from the print books. However, what we’re trying to do on the digital end is add a lot more interactivity — activity and games to keep kids immersed and make them feel like they’re actually part of the story.
How does the team over at Disney Digital Books decide what kinds of interactive aspects to include in the adaptations, and how does that help drive the story in a new way?
I think when it comes down to telling the Marvel stories, we want to make sure all of these interactivities, activities and games still fall within context. So, for the “Spider-Man: Origin” app, when Peter is first bitten by the Spider, you get to force the spider off of Peter’s hands. This is accomplished by using the actual advantages of the iOS devices by physically shaking the device. In one aspect, it’s leveraging off of what these devices are capable of doing and on the other hand, it’s keeping it within the actual storytelling that Stan and the original Marvel team, which in this case would be Steve Ditko, created with Spider-Man.
Stan Lee, who has an incredibly iconic voice, comes back to reprise his role as narrator for the fourth time in this mysterious new app. What has it been like to see him in the recording studio?
I’ve got to say, Stan has been absolutely fantastic to work with. Not only is he completely professional, he’s also witty, as you probably can see and hear. He’s also able to keep it entertaining and keep it lively. It’s amazing what he provides. Obviously, he knows these characters better than anyone, so to have him be able to retell these stories is the absolute best situation we can be in.
With the success of “The Avengers” film and the recent release of “The Amazing Spider-Man,” have you found there to be a positive effect on sales? Has the film’s meteoric success impacted the editorial direction of the books at all?
Currently, these four storybooks don’t correlate exactly with the actual films that are out now. They’re based upon the original Marvel series from the ’60s, only adapted for a newer audience and younger generation of fans.
The fifth product, which we launched last week, was a Spider-Man AR book app, which is available both on iPhone and iPad, does correlate with “The Amazing Spider-Man” directly. We were able to work closely with Sony and Marvel studios on the project, and the retelling of the actual film itself also incorporates imagery of Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone and uses, again, technology from these devices referred to as augmented reality — having 3D objects from the devices interact with visualizations of the user. A good example from that app is we have the capability of putting on the Spider-Man mask. Again, this is the specific mask that was made for the new Spider-Man film, so it falls very closely to the texture and look and feel from the mask that Andrew Garfield himself wears in the movie.
We’re keeping open to using all these advanced technologies in all the devices. Again, it really comes down to good storytelling. If it correlates with the character, the universe and the story we’re trying to tell, then it’s ideal and we’re going to use it. That’s why it worked really well with the Spider-Man app, considering you have a chance to be Spider-Man and feel like a hero — it’s integral to the actual app itself, that it’s part of the story.
I think the big thing we need to make clear to the audience is it’s not directly correlated with the film. One of the changes we had for our “Avengers Origins: Assemble” app, which tells the origin story that was based on the original 1960s version, is that in our game — a 3D, third person view game — you can choose several characters. In the original story aspect, we have Ant Man and the Wasp, because again it’s based on the original story, but since the movie was being released simultaneously, we decided to go with Black Widow in the actual team. You can play as her, but this is more along the lines of a kid-friendly version of Black Widow and not necessarily exactly representative of the character in the film.
You mentioned these digital books are great entry points for kids in terms of introducing them to Marvel characters, but what about in terms of education? What’s the advantage of these apps when it comes to helping kids to read?
Again, like a traditional print book, these are great entry points into having a child learn to read and in the same capacity, it’s beneficial to the parent to read along with the child and introduce them to the story. But this interactive product allows the child to choose to start with the narration and hear Stan’s voice, and then turn off the narration so they can read it to themselves. We’ll hopefully be upgrading all of these to have features allowing them to send the read-along narration to each other.
I think one of the more fun activities is matching the hero accessory or helmet with the character. That, again, is educational in the context that the child understands which characters go with which property by the wording of identifying each secret identity. It also correlates by being an entertaining part of the app and utilizing everything the app can do.
Tell us a bit about the process behind adapting the art from the original print books.
We work very closely with our Marvel editorial team and it just so happens that these four projects are available already in the print space. What they did was make two layers so we can repurpose it in these instances. We go back in and we make sure that the artwork itself is layered in a way that will match when we’re trying to accomplish both educational and entertaining aspects of the app. A good example is when we wanted to release Captain America from the ice. We actually did not have a layered version of the ice separated from Cap, so we went back in with the digital team and repurposed some of the art so that we could separate it, allowing the user to actually melt away the ice with their finger and reveal Captain America.
From your experience, what’s the major advantage of working in the digital space for these projects?
I think one of the biggest advantages of working in the digital space is the concept of updates. A product can never be finished, it can always be evolving. Some other fantastic updates we’ve added, besides all the games and activities, was localizing all of our apps. So, “Spider-Man: Origins,” the storybook, is actually available in six additional languages right now and we are going to be launching within the next two weeks the “Avengers Assemble” app in all eight languages. These updates are free to the user, anybody who owns it already, and it adds incredible value to the product not just nationally, but internationally.
The response worldwide has been incredible — even in countries that we wouldn’t normally associate with Spider-Man, the response has been really positive. That’s why we’re continuing to localize our apps. An exciting part with the Spider-Man movie app is we are the closest we’ve been to updating it with localization, and that will be happening in the next two weeks. This one is the first we’ve been able to localize, including launching with ten different languages.
What can you tease about the future of the “Avengers Origins” digital books?
Right now, we are looking to expand the universe. A lot of these products and characters we’re going to be working with are up to our discussions with Marvel, but we are definitely expanding the universe and you’ll be able to see even more of your favorite characters within the next couple months leading into 2013.
I do know that generally speaking, “X-Men” is a big one that’s on our plate. We’re looking forward to not only telling stories with these characters but also being able to do interactivities, activities and games with them.