Marvel's Augmented Reality

From what I understand, more than a few issues of "Avengers vs. X-Men" #1 snuck out to the public a week early, along with the as-scheduled issue #0, because of some advance shipping with no particular special notice in the Diamond boxes not to put the issues out with the other new comics.

It would be pretty hard for Marvel to blame retailers for this, I would think, since the company has a track record of weird release schedules, and this wouldn't be the first time in the last year that two consecutive issues of the very same comic hit the stands on the same day. So it's not like retailers would have necessarily been primed to take notice of this surprise early shipment.

"Avengers vs. X-Men" #1 is out there, then. I was able to find a copy easily.

And with it, comes Marvel's new attempt at jazzing up the stale old single issue floppy -- Marvel's "Augmented Reality," which, as the early demos showed the world, allows you to actually, gasp, hear the clanking of Iron Man's armor!

I tried out the Augmented Reality (AR) app on "Avengers vs. X-Men" #1, and I'm here to tell you all about it.

First, a prologue: I'm self-aware enough to know that my exploration of Marvel AR might seem like yet another case of a longtime reader whining because the comics aren't the same as they were when he was 10 years old. "Wah, change makes me sad," and that kind of thing. I understand that criticism of something new can sometimes come from that point of view, intentionally or not. I also know that I've personally been criticized in the past for comments about Photoshop-heavy effects on comic book pages, and for my admittedly-negative review of the "Spider-Woman" motion comic when it originally premiered. In the first case, an artist actually emailed me to tell me that I would probably have been one of those guys who complained about the use of pigment back in the days when humans were first drawing on walls with sticks, and in the second case I was accused of "bias, vengeance, [and/or] depression" because I dared to point out how terrible the Jessica Drew voice acting turned out to be.

I'm sure that I will yet again get barraged for pointing out the obvious: if something isn't good, then it isn't good whether it's a new "innovation" or a high-tech update of something old. Photoshop effects that call attention to themselves and don't add anything interesting to a comic are bad uses of Photoshop effects. Motion comics are silly, in general, and particularly ridiculously bad when they take dialogue that might work well on the page and then give those words to sub-daytime soap opera actresses to read aloud as if they were auditioning for an Ed Wood film.

And Marvel AR? Well...it's not all terrible.

I think Marvel AR has some major flaws, and enough production glitches to make me surprised that they didn't try it out for a few months on some other comics before unleashing it along with what is reported to be its best-selling comic of the year. I understand the logic of tying it in with "Avengers vs. X-Men," and drawing more attention to AR that way, but now issue #1 of this series is forever bound together with the weak first attempt of what might become something actually useful for a little while, before paper disappears forever. But, yeah, the AR concept has some value. And it could become something worthwhile. Just not yet. Not used in this way.

The equivalent of this effort would be if "Secret Wars" #1 had come with a little pouch on the inside back cover, holding a floppy disk that you could slide into your Commodore 64 and get some pixelated animation and maybe some character bios.

That's what this first iteration of Marvel AR will look like, given a few years of hindsight.

But if, when I was 12, my copy of "Secret Wars" had come with such a disk, then I would have been pretty excited, even if I never would have slid it into the computer after the first use. Still, you have to start somewhere, and though the "Secret Wars: Magic Mystery Disk" never existed, other electronic enhancements soon came along to try to spice up boring old comic books. Remember Questprobe? Or, years later, the entire CD-rom market that, in retrospect, provided proto-motion comics?

None of those were any good either, but here we are today, with the internet and the world wide web and that is good.

The best enhancement for comics, as we all have learned, is Wikipedia. That's the go-to resource for any additional material and supplementary information about comic book characters and creators. Or, if that doesn't have what you're looking for, there are, let's see, probably thirty million interviews with comic book creators available online, and you can find almost any comic book-related answer you're looking for. I know that when I'm writing, say, an article for "Back Issue" magazine, it takes me about ten seconds to find out what James Owsley had to say about his work on "Power Man and Iron Fist." It's like those issues come with their own built in AR app, it's just called Google and you have to type a few words into it.

What Marvel is doing with AR isn't quite like that, but its close enough -- the stated aim, according to the initial press release, is to "Go behind the scenes of your favorite comics, see new footage, hear from creators, catch yourself up on past events and more" and you can do almost all of that stuff, particularly the "and more" part, just by bopping around online. So Marvel has taken the expanse of online supplemental materials (provided through comic book news websites, creator's own blogs, the Marvel site itself, YouTube, etc.) and then narrowed it down to allow...almost nothing.

At least, it seems like almost nothing in this first use of AR in "Avengers vs. X-Men" #1. At the expense of the garish and distracting AR icon on a handful of panels throughout the issue -- it's as bad as those "bugs" on the bottom of your television screen, sometimes jumping up and down to promote some upcoming Fox show that you don't ever plan to watch -- you get a grand total of one clunky (but well-narrated) motion comics backstory segment, one awkward introduction by Axel Alonso (who looks incredibly uncomfortable in front of the camera), a few panels of blurry pencils fading into inks fading into colors to show "process," one short creator interview that's barely longer than a sound bite, and a stat sheet for a character who you would have learned all about anyway if you just read the first issue of this series (which, admittedly, may be confusing to new readers, since the first issue is actually #0, but as the DC Nielsen surveys demonstrated, there are basically no new readers coming to comic shops anyway, just lapsed ones, and they would know about zero issues by now, surely).

That, in total, is the Augmented Reality experience. Not one piece of it is as valuable as a single 500-word interview with one of the members of the creative team. It's barely flash and no substance.

I will say this: I showed it off to my two kids (ages 8 and 11) and they were both thrilled with AR at first. When the cover starts to come to life (motion comics life), they were both visibly excited about the possibilities. By the end of the issue, after showing them the rest of the AR panels, they were deflated. Watching the process panels was like making them eat their vegetables. And they could not have cared less about a certain writer talking about how much he liked receiving a certain page of art in his in box.

Who, then, is AR for? Anyone with an internet connection can get more useful behind-the-scenes information with a few keyboard clicks, and you can't use AR without an internet connection (and an iOS or Android device) anyway. Kids, or my kids at least, thought the first incarnation of it was pretty boring by the end.

What Marvel AR wants to be, desperately, is a visual, paper-to-internet version of hypertext. It wants to be able to give you more information about what you're reading, but its limited by the fact that Marvel actually has to produce the content it wants to supplement its story with, and all of that takes time and money, so you get Axel Alonso standing impatiently in front of a green screen and you get this penciled panel becoming that inked panel before your eyes. Who wants that? The same people who watch side-by-side storyboard-to-film features on DVDs? Does anyone really watch those after their initial curiosity wears off?

It's also particularly inefficient to use. If I'm reading my comics on the couch, I can barely get Marvel AR to work. I have to hold the comic still, and pull my iPad back almost back to my face just to get the panel correctly framed in the camera, then if I try to change positions as the supplementary material is running, it disappears, and I have to reload it. I could stabilize the frame by double-clicking on the image, but since I'm holding the comic at arm's length and pulling my iPad in next to my body, it's not a simple maneuver. The best results come from laying the comic on a table and standing over it in a well-lighted area. More of a dissection zone than a comfortable reading experience.

Marvel AR is not a complete loss. It's unwieldy and the icon detracts from the actual comic itself, but the idea of embedded supplementary material could provide great possibilities. Imagine reading "Winter Soldier" as Ed Brubaker chimes in by talking about some of his favorite espionage stories of all time. Or imagine reading "Iron Man" and getting, I don't know, a clip from the History Channel about the use of machines in wartime...ah...I can't even fake it...you're better off just reading the comic slowly a second time and listening to the most relevant Word Balloon podcast episode you can find.

Marvel AR might work as a mostly-ignorable supplement for the digital comics. And maybe that's what "Avengers vs. X-Men #1 Infinite" #1 will give us. That would be a much better use of the content, and wouldn't involve the extra layer of goofing around with the app and iPad or iPhone or whatever. My code won't work yet, so we'll have to wait and see about that.

When I said that Marvel AR is "not all terrible," I suppose what I was referring to was the theoretical possibility that it could someday be mildly interesting (as long as they abandon that AR icon and replace it with something that blends into the art better or shrink it down so it isn't an eyesore), and also this: it was nice to see a couple of the panels of John Romita Jr. art in pencil form, even if the images were less-than-clear.

My kids, though, were not the least bit interested. They just seemed to want more stop-motion images and sound effects. If they ever learn about animated television, their heads may explode. They'll have to make do with their sticks and their cave walls until then.

In addition to writing reviews and columns for COMIC BOOK RESOURCES, Timothy Callahan is the author of "Grant Morrison: The Early Years" and editor of "Teenagers from the Future: Essays on the Legion of Super-Heroes" anthology. More of his thoughts on comics can be seen regularly at the Geniusboy Firemelon blog.

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