Marvel @ SXSW: Quesada Opens The All-Digital "Infinite Comics"

For a long time, cutting edge comic creators and readers have been talking about how the digital age makes for an "infinite canvass" where comic stories can roll out endlessly panel after panel rather than in a classic magazine or book print format. But even in an era where every major mainstream publisher has an app to sell digital comics for tablet devices and phones, no commercial comics company has made an attempt at producing new content that capitalizes on the infinite canvass concept. Today, Marvel Comics made official their plans on that front with a new program called Marvel Infinite Comics.

Announced as part of their appearance at the South by Southwest Interactive conference in Austin, Infinite Comics is one plank in Marvel's new digital product branding "Marvel ReEvolution" (which you can read more about here on CBR right now). Starting April 4th, 2012, the publisher will release new comic stories built for iPads and tablet devices and on sale in the comiXology powered Marvel app for $.99 cents or free with a purchase of "Avengers vs. X-Men" #1. The debut story is a Nova comic by Mark Waid and Stuart Immonen, the first of three Infinite Comics tie-ins to the upcoming "Avengers Vs. X-Men" event (read more on the story and the Infinite Comics format with Mark Waid here).

To help parse out the whys and wherefores of this particular SXSW announcement, CBR News spoke to Marvel Chief Creative Officer Joe Quesada about where Infinite Comics came from and why now was the time to launch. Below, the artist describes his own history in the digital realm and how it impacted the final product, how he and Waid bonded over a love for cutting edge comic creator Yves "Balak" Bigeral and what's next on the horizon for the format.

CBR News: Joe, let's start as close to the beginning of all this as we can. My understanding is that you've been championing the idea behind Infinite Comics - original comics content designed for tablet devices - for some time now.

Joe Quesada: Yeah I have, but sometimes you have to wait for just the right time for the right idea. As you know, these days I only have enough time and bandwidth to get involved in the larger stories and ideas in our publishing division, but Infinite Comics is something really near and dear to my heart, so when the opportunity arose to pull the trigger on them I jumped at it.

The Marvel Comics App expanded pretty quickly once tablet devices like the iPad came along, but how soon after that did you guys begin planning to make content for this platform specifically? Did you have some kind of "Eureka!" moment with an iPad that drove you to work in this arena?

There were two "Eureka!" moments, the most recent happened in summer of 2009, about six months before the iPad was announced, but it actually began long before that.

In 1996, a young John Cerilli, then the Editorial Director of Marvel Interactive (yes we actually used "Interactive" back then), was producing a series of "Cyber Comics." These Cyber Comics were only available on AOL at the Marvel Keyword and then later published online in something we called The Marvel Zone. The Cyber Comics employed this very cool Flash-based tech that allowed the reader to click through the story and control the pace.

In 1998, John asked Kevin Smith, Jimmy Palmiotti and I if we could produce a Daredevil "Guardian Devil" #0 Cyber Comic. I was really taken by the whole idea behind them and sensed that there was something there, but at that time in the history of publishing and the digital world, it was nothing more than a fun novelty. "Hey look what we can do with comics on your computer kids!" The general public just wasn't clamoring for their comics in that fashion yet. That's why very few people even remember these Cyber Comics if they were even aware of them at all. Still, it was an interesting experiment and certainly got me thinking.

Now flash forward to '09; that's when I came across the Deviant Art website of a French artist and animator named Yves Bigeral on which he clearly demonstrated his vision of what he thought the future of digital comics could be. I was absolutely floored, not only was it similar to those old Cyber Comics, but Yves took it to a whole other level as well as explained in very simple terms how it was the best methodology, and I couldn't have agreed more. The next day I was running up and down the halls of Marvel showing his technique to anyone who would listen. For a while now we had all been struggling with trying to envision what the future of digital comics could be - what form they would take, what they'd look like, how they'd be constructed - and here Yves crystallized it all in one brilliantly elegant solution. Here was something that used the digital platform and all the tools that make it great yet still keeps the purity of what makes comics "Comics." Still, the time wasn't right, so I kept it in my back pocket and then in January of 2010 came the iPad.

Here's the link if you want to check out what he did. Be forewarned, there is some adult language.

Talking particulars, what were the main challenges - both from a technical perspective and a creative one - that you guys had to crack before bringing out some original digital material like this? In other words, what are the things that a Marvel Infinite Comic needs to have to make it work best?

The two most immediate challenges were having an audience who was digitally savvy and a proper widespread platform to deliver it on. Truthfully, we could have produced a comic like this years ago, but it wouldn't have stood a fighting chance.

The next hurdle - and this is one we are currently crossing - is how artist and writers apply themselves to this new style of building a comic. Is it any harder or easier to produce than a standard paper comic? How much content is enough, how much is too much? These are things that we'll be learning the as we go, but that all depends on how the fans responds.

From an artist perspective, I can tell you that the possibilities this technique allows us thrills me to no end. There are whole new sets of tools that we get to play with to tell a story. From a nuts and bolts perspective, there are areas where we can save time; reuse of backgrounds in an artful way is one that comes immediately to mind. On the other hand, you have to think about how to tell your story in a much more thorough fashion. If you're a comic artist without great storytelling skills, you're going to have a hard time with this.

As for technical issues, we're still exploring many of them. Because this is new, there are certain effects that we'd like to use, but initially comiXology's app is made specifically for our needs, so they're working hard to eventually get us there. They've been great to work with, but they're reader is built on a very specific platform and we're throwing them a curve ball here, so I think there are many more storytelling tricks that you'll see our creators using in the future that may not be possible right at this very moment.

One debate we heard a lot when motion comics were first showing up was that adding animation and other film-like transitions to comics took away some of the "comic-ness" of the stories. Obviously, releases on the Infinite Comics platform won't be animated like a motion comic, but what kinds of discussions have you had about where the line is drawn on what storytelling choices you can make while still making a project a comic first?

We haven't had too many conversations yet about where to draw the line, but I agree with you. Motion comics are pretty wonderful, but they've grown into something else - a hybrid between comics and animation and in some cases when done as beautifully as "Thor/Loki," just animation.

What I found so compelling with Yves technique is the beautiful simplicity of it. It's essentially an animatic, but what makes it a comic is that the reader controls the timing in the same way that they control the turn of the page. That's a key component of comics as is the artists and writers ability to guide your eye across that page and through the story. In an Infinite Comic, all those attributes are there only there is no page. There is only the screen and on that screen the possibilities are endless.

Looking at the Nova comic you guys are launching with, readers will see a few tricks of the trade on display, particularly the way captions and word balloons can tumble in as a form of panel transitions. Were these kinds of aspects things you've discussed with and disseminated amongst creators working on these comics in advance, or do you think those storytelling changes will come naturally once people play with the format?

I think we're only touching the surface. Stuart, like all of us working on the Infinite stuff, is discovering things as he goes. By the way, that's why he was our first choice to do this. Not only is he a brilliant draftsman, he's also one of the best storytellers in the industry.

And yes, the great thing about Infinite Comics is that even the writer gets to play with the medium in ways they never have before. Not only can the artist guide the reader through the story, but the writer now has control of not only the pacing of the visuals, but the pacing of their narrative. It used to be that the only tools a writer had to pace their narrative in a standard comic was the placement of their balloons and caption boxes, the number and sequence of panels and the turn of the page. Now in an Infinite Comic, they control the caption boxes and how they're delivered to the reader. It's pretty damn sweet.

One of the other cool things about the Infinite Comics technique is that it's going to allow us to tell different genres of story in a much more effective fashion. For example, I've always found that horror never really quite translates to comics like it does in movies, and it's incredibly difficult get that visceral moment of shock that all great horror movies do so well. The reason for this is the reader's ability to control the timing and rhythm of a scene with the turn of the page as opposed to the control a director of a movie has over their audience. With an Infinite Comic, while you control the timing of the panels and captions, you don't know what the next panel or caption is going to be. This allows storytellers scare as well as shock and surprise us in ways we've previously not been able to do in comics. So there are little things like that that I think creators will be experimenting with as we move forward.

Speaking of creators playing with this format, I don't think it'll come as a surprise to most fans that Mark Waid is writing these comics right out the gate. When you reached out to him to work on this, what did he bring to the table from his own research into this new technology that helped Marvel overall?

There were several reasons why we asked Mark. First, he's one of my favorite writers and people in this industry. Secondly, he has a great working relationship with Stuart. And third, he's working on a very similar kind of storytelling technique on a few of his creator owned projects. But then we got an added bonus. When I pitched Mark on the project and explained the Infinite Comics technique as well as Yves tutorial, Mark laughed and said that Yves was a dear friend and he knew exactly what I was talking about. This was amazing news as I felt that since Yves was the initial inspiration for all of this, I was hoping we could get him to do at least one chapter, which he's in the middle of right now. I've seen the layouts, and it's breathtaking stuff. You can tell he's the master at this.

Let me also add, like Yves, there are several creators in the comics industry who are experimenting with digital comics and some are employing techniques similar to what we're doing. Reilly Brown is someone who comes immediately to mind. At the end of the day I think we're all going to learn from each other and we're end up in some pretty amazing creative places.

On the particulars of the story, we've heard Axel talking for a while about Nova being a lynchpin character for Marvel moving forward. What is it about this new take on the classic character that you, Jeph Loeb and the rest of the animation guys have become so enamored with, and why was he chosen as the launch character for Infinite Comics?

Marvel fans who love our Cosmic Universe and characters have been asking me for well over two years if we're ever going to do something significant with that corner of the Marvel U, and for the last couple of years I've had to bite my lip and simply say, "Wait and see. We have big plans." Well, that time is starting to slowly creep up on us, and Nova is a very important part of that. Some fans think that it has to do with our upcoming "Ultimate Spider-Man" animated show (premiering on the Marvel Universe block on April 1 on DisneyXD), but here's news for you, it's the exact opposite. The reason Nova is part of the "USM" cast is because we have such big plans for him in publishing and these plans started percolating several years ago.

As for Nova being the lead in this first Infinite endeavor, that had more to do with the particular story we wanted to tell. I'd love to lie to you and tell you that it was all part of the synergistic plan, but this one was just sheer luck. Still, we'll take it.

One thing we've heard from folks like Dan Buckley is that Marvel comics these days are meant to live in as many formats as possible. Since Infinite Comics are made to synch so strongly with the tablet reading experience, does that make an eventual transition to print tougher or even impossible?

It could, but it all depends on the story and the creative team. But I think that's where you can get into trouble. We gave Stuart very few parameters with this first story with one exception, we told him not to worry about print. Draw the story and only concern yourself with how it'll work on a tablet. If we can translate it to print later, great, but let us worry about that. This is where I think many attempts at digital comics fail. Either they're a print comic that is reconfigured to work in digital, or it's a comic that is designed for digital, while also keeping how to build the inevitable print version firmly in mind. What happens is that, when it's all said and done, you end up with something that is neither fish nor fowl.

Overall, what kind of content are you most excited to see in this format moving forward as both a reader and a creator? How often can we expect to see new Infinite Comics launching, and what's the element of the program folks may miss in all the flash of swiping through these rad panels?

With respect to what kinds of future content I'd like to see, well the sky's the limit if you ask me. I just want to see how fans react to this technique first. As for how often can you expect to see Infinite Comics? Right now it's way too early to speculate. Like everything we do, it's really up to the fans. Our current plans consists of three Infinite Comic installments for "AvX," but you never know. If the reaction is great, we may do one or two more. As for what our next set of Infinite Comics will be after "AvX," you're going to have to wait and see what we do next. You know we always have something up our sleeve.

To Infinity and... oh wait.

Check out CBR's interview with Mark Waid on the first Marvel Infinite Comic right now!

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