Publishers rethink comics for tablets

DC Comics chief creative officer Johns re-evaluates medium

When readers opened “Aquaman #1,” last fall, they saw sinister bioluminescent creatures ascending the black waters of the Atlantic. Swirling upward in six vertical panels across two pages, the layout was a coup for DC Comics chief creative officer Geoff Johns after the publisher pledged to release each new issue in its 52-book reboot day and date in print and on digital platforms such as tablets.

The increased usage of tablet computers is forcing comicbook publishers and scribes like Johns (“Green Lantern,” “The Flash,” “Superman”) to consider new ways of designing their books.

Tasked with writing stories that would play in print and pixels, Johns had to re-evaluate the medium since readers of digital comicbooks are ignorant of page breaks, focusing on stories panel by panel instead.

“Every panel becomes a page, which I find really fascinating,” Johns said. “Right when I saw that, I thought about how that could change the way you look at comics.”

Although the impact of a double-page spread diminishes and folded pullouts disappear completely in digital, Johns said digital readers spend more time on individual panels, slowing down and taking in details before moving on. He compares the experience to reading Japanese manga, which paces slower with only a few panels per page.

“It’s weird to go back and look at some of the old comics now,” Johns said. “If you read something in this fashion you will notice stuff that you skipped over so quickly because your eye takes in the whole page instead of the panel individually. I think that’s probably one of the biggest advantages of digital.”

Without pages to structure the narrative, big character and action reveals don’t need to hide after a page turn to prevent wandering eyes from skipping ahead. Now every panel has to keep readers wanting more.

A few pages after Johns introduces his slimy ocean villains, Aquaman defeats a band of armed crooks attempting to rob a big city bank. Now on land, the action unravels in successive horizontal panels to exploit the iPad’s ability to spin from portrait to landscape modes and punctuate the stories’ transition from water to land.

“It’s just a subtlesubconscious change — it feels different,” Johns said. “It’s like when Hitchcock used to shoot those angles, kind of canted angles in his films. It would be a normal room but because an angle was turned, it would feel a little bit off. I think there are certain things we can play around with.”

Animation would seem a likely addition to the digital format, allowing characters to move freely and transition between panels. But previous attempts at motion comics, which pile on animated elements while attempting to keep the medium’s storyboard format, have a decidedly underwhelming, choppy feel.

Johns, who co-produced Warner Bros. “Green Lantern” film, also is wary of sound effects and voiceover. In the same way, the film adaptation of a popular novel can never live up to the scenes and characters readers envision, sound effects can rob fans of their mental score and create an unwanted distraction, he said.

The scribe has even begun scaling back internal dialogue so the text won’t bite into DC’s brawny, saturated art. Digitally, the illustrations glow with a hypnotic brilliance.

“I would rather let the art and characters expressions speak for themselves, let the reader experience it as more of a subtle experience rather than slamming you over the head with their inner thoughts,” Johns said.

There are more changes on the comic horizon. Johns predicts the digital format will soon give readers interactive access to character bios and links to past stories, while a digital edition of the author’s “Flashpoint” comicbook lets readers break down the page piece by piece, removing color to reveal the original black-and-white penciling. All five issues of “Flashpoint” include such a “Digital Deluxe” version.

“The mythology of DC’s comics is so deep you could layer on a whole other experience on top of it,” Johns said.

Some of DC’s new digital books have zoomed in on certain panels or pulled back in dramatic modes to enhance the imagery in a filmic way.