Digital comics are a mostly weird entity in the industry. There’s no denying the significance of physical media; like few other fan bases, comics readers want physical books to collect and read. But digital comics are nonetheless a huge part of the industry’s continued rise — sales jumped an impressive 33% from 2019 to 2020 (from $90 million to $120 million), according to The Beat.
Within this space of expectations versus reality, publishers are still trying to sort out the best path forward and to appease as many fans as possible. (Case in point: it was only recently that DC put comics up online in under a year of their publication.) In recent weeks, however, there’s been a huge move by both DC and Marvel toward making further inroads into digital comics. Marvel launched its lineup of Infinity Comics, or “in-universe stories designed for phone and tablet” featuring heavy-hitters like Wolverine and Captain America. Meanwhile, DC partnered with Webtoon for a series of Batman Day comics. Though decidedly different in scope, these two “projects” resulted in some great digital comics.
More than that, though, each new initiative represents a deliberate recognition by the Big Two that more needs to be done to embrace digital comics, and that there’s plenty of revenue and attention to snag within this dynamic space. So, how effective have they both been, and what’s all of this ultimately mean for comics at large? We gathered members of the AIPT staff to review several of these titles — not only to address the content but what it means for the characters, their respective canons, and the medium in general. It’s a brave new world for comics, and this is only the start of some intriguing new adventures for readers and creators alike.
Written by Jonathan Hickman, Art by Declan Shalvey
They’ve always been hugely popular, but there’s no denying the X-Men have had a renaissance of sorts in recent years. Is it the relevance of the team and their larger message and narrative as being extra relevant these days? You know it! But it’s also been the work of Jonathan Hickman (and, by extension, his many wonderful collaborators) injecting new life into the whole X crew. Like few other ongoing “events,” the entire age of Krakoa has been a deeply compelling way to explore the politics and culture of mutants in profoundly new and interesting ways. But just how much more can be done after holding luxury galas and interdimensional combat tournaments?
If the X-Men Unlimited series, part of Infinity Comics, is any indication, a lot, actually.
The bulk of the issues available thus far (just the first five or so as of writing) really demonstrate what makes this entry in the Infinity Comics lineup so effective. Everyone is aware of the X-happenings in recent years, and people either flock to it with gusto or avoid it entirely for fear of being lost in the web of geo-political superhero shenanigans that Hickman and Co. have concocted. A lot of the context and layered storytelling is stripped away for what’s basically been a standalone story for Wolverine to travel around, beating up A.I.M. and other ne’er-do-wells. You need not really understand a lot of the subtext here, and even if you have a passing awareness of what Krakoa is, not to mention things like the Quiet Council, you can enjoy what’s basically “The Misadventures of Logan.” That’s because Hickman recognized the sort of stories that work best with Infinity — short, to the point, and generally light on the deeper context — and gives people something that feels like a shiny version of a ’90s storyline.
But if you are an X-pert in all things Krakoa, you get the chance to enjoy another aspect of this massive storyline. It’s a kind of tangent to the larger events and machinations, and a way to demonstrate that not only is this saga so much bigger than we could ever dream, but there’s so many layers that it could become the new norm and not another temporary kick to the status quo. That’s what excites me the most, and I want something like Krakoa to last forever. (Mostly.) If only in that spirit that of what Krakoa represents: one of larger development and growth spiraling outward forever, adding and diversifying the adventures of these dynamic characters. I think about something like the art, which manages to be both a perfect choice for the format, but also how it still feels connected to the larger aesthetic and vibes of the Krakoa saga. (Artist Declan Shalvey has such a great way with scene-building and also the feeling and characterizations of these heroes and villains.) It’s fun and frivolous, but if you read deeper, there’s so much else going on to discover through re-reads and deep dives.
This sense of balance is so important to showing not only the power of this story, but that it can exist in different formats and iterations, and thus it’s meant to be enjoyed by fans of all levels of dedication and understanding. Could Infinity Comics be another passing fade or hackneyed gimmick, as is a real fear regarding Krakoa, which has resulted in good if not slightly bizarre options like X-Corp? Sure, especially because there’s already some great devices out there for reading digital comics. (ComiXology’s Guided View feature is a game changer, and often poorly imitated elsewhere.) But these X-Men comics show that we can tell big stories and have these massive canon-altering changes and still engage people in real and important ways. It’s about giving people the in-depth stories of, say, Way of X right alongside the playful yarns of X-Men Unlimited. In a way, they both enhance and balance out the other, and in that sense, we get comics as they were meant to be: exactly the kind of drama and adventure we all need to pull from them.
Plus, any excuse for even more Wolverine comics is always a good thing.
Written by Jay Edidin, Art by Nico Leon
Beyond providing the obvious thrill of seeing Jay Edidin’s byline on a Marvel comic again, Captain America tells a timely, urgent story about far-right terrorists and the cracked mirror that allows some Americans to view their treason as heroism. Like Ta-Nehisi Coates’ recent Cap run, this comic is alert to the ways Captain America has been appropriated by reactionaries on the political right and gracefully shows Cap reckoning with that experience directly.
The comic takes place almost entirely in Philadelphia, a convenient setting for its significance to the founding of the United States, and puts Cap in the uneasy position of interfacing with a domestic terrorist group. Despite his opposition to giving them any legitimacy, the Pentagon knows how much they value his symbolic power and how desperate they are to claim it as their own. They prod him to visit with the terrorists, and the comic proceeds along the lines of a tightly-wound thriller. Edidin, a co-host of the influential Jay & Miles X-Plain the X-Men podcast and writer of last year’s marvelous X-Men: Marvels Snapshot alongside veteran Marvel artist Nico Leon, don’t revolutionize the “infinite comic” format, but use it well to accentuate the slopes and narrow hallways of Philadelphia’s Old City.
Captain America is a deeply humanist character and this comic never forgets that central trait. He is shown rejecting the entreaties of casual racists who mistakenly see him as a fellow traveler. (Their language is thankfully omitted from the text, one of several times Edidin playfully censors words “you can’t say” in a Captain America comic.) He, of course, proves to be no friend to the terrorists, who neatly resemble the January 6 insurrectionists in their warped sense of national purpose and connection to leading political figures. That central irony of Cap — representing American power in its multifaceted ugliness while opposing it by his actions — is key to Edidin’s story and a reminder that comics as good as this depend on hiring people as insightful about comics (and politics) as Edidin.
Written by Alyssa Wong, Art by Nathan Stockman
Finding out Marvel Unlimited would introduce new vertical comics was something I wasn’t immediately excited about. Having had a chance to read them, though, I’m still unsure if it’s a novelty or the future of comics. Likely some form of these comics will co-exist with other digital options, and I could see Alyssa Wong and Nathan Stockman’s Shang-Chi clearly fitting that bill.
This comic feels more conventional as it uses clearly defined panels with borders and it uses white gutters. Opening on the city of Seoul, South Korea, we see a forest at its base that leads to a tail drawing you down to Shang-Chi uttering “uh” and the conversation with Leiko Wu. The creative team continues to use word balloons in this dynamic way throughout the story, starting with text, and allowing you to scroll to read more and then eventually reach the tail of the word balloon to see who is speaking. It’s a neat way to use the vertical space, although more than once I found myself scrolling down quickly to see who was speaking.
There are other ways of stretching the vertical line of the book, like a scarf Shang-Chi wears leading to an elevator, although that abstract use doesn’t quite work since it’s not saying anything. What does work, however, is how the vertical space forces the reader to see one specific thing making it more difficult to look ahead and “cheat” so to speak. You’re stuck looking at a specific thing unless you want to take the chance of scrolling ahead and getting lost.
It’d be interesting to find out how close color artist Triona Farrell was with the project since there’s a color hue change used to draw the eye as you scroll.
The use of vertical space is strengthened in the second issue of this series thanks to the black gutters, but also imagery filling out the screen a bit more. A long hallway fight scene in a birds-eye-view also stretches the space more naturally. The use of clouds in the beginning and ending chapters is a good example of how filling out the space with something helps make this format feel valid and worth reading.
Overall, this story is a fairly good one, and it’s clear the creators are learning new ways to use the format. It’s also a good example of how using traditional panels with gutters can feel off or strange in this format.
Venom/Carnage Infinity Comic
Written by Karla Pacheco, Art by Scott Hepburn
Have you ever wanted to read Carnage calling Venom daddy over and over? Ever needed Carnage’s manic energy to manifest in some kind of fever dream comedy bit? Look no further than Karla Pacheco and Scott Hepburn’s new Marvel Unlimited comic! This story has all the energy of Pacheco’s great Spider-Woman series, but in this case liquid aliens get to some rather crazy hijinks.
The story has Venom basically attempting to stop Carnage from killing millions of people just outside of Las Vegas, barely preventing the death of bystanders. From there, the story shifts to Las Vegas proper, where there are plenty of fun sight gags, some silly bits of dialogue from Carnage (who clearly knows his pop culture), and some seriously serious Venom bits, too.
The visual story stretches to the corners maximizing the format well which is aided by the stretching Symbiote goo of these characters. There are times when you can see where the art doesn’t line up between panels originally, although in some cases characters break across these deviations adding a vertical through-line. The story never goes too vertical, but it utilizes the space well.
Batman: Wayne Family Adventures
Written by CRC Payne, Art by Star Bite
For years, decades even, fan fiction has operated on the fringe of the comics industry. Admittedly, that fringe is a not-insignificant number of fans who have been clamoring for something exactly like Batman: Wayne Family Adventures. For DC Comics to partner with Webtoon to create this comic, it’s a sign of the times and the comics industry’s evolving relationship with the fans. It’s an acknowledgement of the gulf between the direct market comics and an entire world of formats and genres that have yet to be explored by the Big Two.
Where Marvel’s new Infinite Comics are pretty standard superhero fare aimed at people already reading standard superhero fare on the Marvel Unlimited app, DC is reaching out to a massive new audience with Webtoon; in their language.
Wayne Family Adventures is a lighthearted slice-of-life comic focusing on Batman’s innumerable proteges. The first chapter sees Duke Thomas, a.k.a. The Signal, moving into Wayne Manor. It’s a cute introduction to the cast that let’s Bat-veterans see their favorite characters in a new light, but doesn’t assume the audience knows who’s who. Even Bruce Wayne and Alfred Pennyworth get caption boxes explaining who they are.
It reads like something fans would write about the Bat-family. With scripts by CRC Payne, the series takes a relationship-first approach to the characters. It’s less about crime fighting and more about the people behind the masks and their sometimes over-the-top personalities. But don’t worry, there still is some crime fighting to be done. And with anime-inspired art by Star Bite, Wayne Family Adventures resembles its contemporaries on Webtoon, even if it doesn’t necessarily take advantage of the vertical scrolling format.
The creative and production team behind the series are all folks who were in the webtoon game to begin with, DC isn’t trying to shoehorn it’s direct market creatives into their world. This move makes the entire partnership a lot less cynical in its scope. Working with Webtoon doesn’t come across as something DC has to do to expand its audience and sell more comics, it reads as something they want to do.
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