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‘Action Double Feature’ Is Everything We Want In Digital Comics [Review]

This week saw the release of Action Double Feature #1, and it’s one of the most exciting comics I’ve read in a long time. Released digitally through a dedicated iPad app and a downloadable PDF by Four Star Studios, ADF is a showcase for its creators to take risks with brand new concepts and characters, and as the name suggests, it’s split between two short stories: Jack Kraken, by Hack/Slash‘s Tim Seeley and Ross Campbell, and The Answer by Dennis Hopeless and Mike Norton, the current artist of DC’s Young Justice.

But it’s not just that it’s a pair of solid adventure stories by some fairly well-known creators that makes it so exciting, although it’s certainly got that going for it. What hooked me, though, was that it reads like someone found a list of everything I want in a digital comic and did it.

For starters, there’s the fact that it’s 99 cents. That’s not exactly revolutionary — there are plenty of digital comics available through the comiXology app for $0.99, including Atomic Robo and Archie’s entire digital catalog — but considering that it seems to be the magic price point that everyone wants digital comics to be, it’s a pretty good way to start.For that dollar, you get two eight-page stories and a few pages of bonus material. It might not sound like much, but aside from being divided up into two stories instead of one, is very similar to the “Slimline” format that Warren Ellis and Matt Fraction used for Fell and Casanova. Plus, the bonus material’s actually pretty great, as you get to see the roots of Seeley’s Jack Kraken in the extremely Liefeldian drawings he made when he created the character — originally called The Gripper — when he was five years old.

Seeley includes a series of notebook paper designs to show how the character evolved — including one where he’s sporting lobster-like chitinous armor that actually looks really cool — but sadly, the name that accompanied his shiny cybernetic limbs and mullet was changed, robbing reviewers like me of the chance to use lines like “go out there and win one for The Gripper.” Which, now that I’ve actually typed it, is probably for the best.

As for the stories themselves, Four Star’s website says that they’re experimenting with ideas that take wouldn’t otherwise get a chance in the print market, and they’ve ended up with the kind of fun, zippy and accessible adventures that you’d expect from comics creators having a good time telling stories. With Jack Kraken, Seeley and Campbell are telling the story of a guy who — true to his original name — has stretchy, tentacle-like arms and legs and works for an organization that monitors interactions between humans and the supernatural.

With only eight pages to work with Seeley scripts a surprisngly dense adventure that sets everything up, including the mystery of Kraken’s secret identity and great recurring bit where he’s reprimanded by his partner for using words like “ghost,” “bigfoot” and “mermaid,” which are considered by the monsters in question to be offensive racial slurs.

It’s a great gag, but it also underscores an interesting aspect of the story, in that he’s not just fighting against monsters, but also trying to keep them from fighting each other, with at least a modicum of mandatory civility about it. It’s the sort of thing that, like Atomic Robo and Proof before it, is inevitably going to be compared to Hellboy, but I’m pretty sure there’s room in this world for more than one story about a creepy dude punching ghosts in the face.

The Answer, on the other hand, reads a lot faster, but functions as an absolutely beautiful showcase of Norton’s art under beautiful colors by Mark Englert. It’s basically a James Bond story starring a guy with an exclamation point on his face who battles against buxom swimsuit terrorists in Hawaii while yachting with tourists, and that is awesome. Unlike Jack Kraken, which is very much a complete, standalone story, The Answer has the feel of a an old-school serialized adventure strip in a very good way.

Both stories are touted by the website as being All Ages books that aren’t just for kids, but Action Double Feature isn’t quite sanitized to the level of prudishness that term might suggest. There’s an “ass” and “damn” floating around in there and in The Answer, someone does get a knife to the face in silhouette, but it’s the sort of thing that I wouldn’t have batted an eye at if comics didn’t use the term “All Ages” to refer almost exclusively to stories where the Avengers convince Galactus to eat pancakes instead of planets (which I love). It’s the same level of violence and swears that you’d get from DC and Marvel books of the ’70s and ’80s, which were exactly the comics I was reading as a kid.

In short, I enjoyed the content quite a bit. It’s the format, though, that absolutely blew me away.

The PDF that’s up at DoubleFeatureComics.com contains both stories and the bonus material, but the iPad version — which costs the same 99 cents — is enhanced to fully take advantage of the digital format in ways that I haven’t seen from anything else I’ve picked up. It’s available through its own app, and while the interface is slightly more clunky than you see from comiXology in that there’s no zooming in or out, there are animated “page turn” transitions that are nice but just slow down the reading process, and there’s a double-page spread in the PDF that just gets chopped into two pages in the iPad version. Even with those flaws, however, it more than makes up for it with the features.

For starters, there’s an option turn on commentary from the creators on every page. It’s fantastic and makes it almost a necessity to give the book a second read to see annotations on how it all came together, the process behind the comic, and even the reference used to create characters:

It’s fascinating, especially in Jack Kraken, where Seeley takes readers through the process of working with a character that he’s been creating in one form or another since he was a kid. There’s a line in the commentary about how he created a sexy lady sidekick for him at the age of 13 that’s worth 99 cents all by itself.

On the art side, it’s even better. Action Double Feature also provides the option to strip away layers so that you can see the art without the lettering…

…without the coloring…

…or even go all the way back to the penciled roughs:

These kinds of process pages are something that comics go to almost every time there’s a need for bonus material and I’ve very rarely actually thought they were worthwhile, but being able to switch back and forth between them on every single page adds a ton of value to the experience. It makes reading even a fairly simple adventure story multiple times enjoyable and interesting in ways that go beyond just what’s going on in the story itself.

Unfortunately, those features are only available on the iPad — according to Seeley, they couldn’t do a PDF the same way without making the file size prohibitively huge — but I’ll admit that it does help take out some of the sting of paying $600 for the hardware to see something that’s been so thoughtfully optimized for it.

Either way, it doesn’t end here. Action Double Feature is set to continue with more work from Seeley, Campbell, Hopeless and Norton, and the website promises contributions from B. Clay Moore (’76), Phil Hester (Wonder Woman) and Chris Burnham (Batman Inc.) coming in the future. It’s a great model for publishing done with great talent in a great new way, and I loved it.

In short, it’s everything I wanted out of digital comics, and now I just want more.

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