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Astonishing X-Men: Motion Comics, Why Bother? [Review]

I’ve got to admit, I’ve been pretty skeptical of motion comics since they first hit the scene a few years ago.

Part of my skepticism comes from the fact that I’m a die hard snob about comics as a medium: I believe very strongly in the idea that comics are as valid as any other form of entertainment, and don’t need to be anything else. That’s not to say that I don’t ever want to see things that originated in comics crossing over to other media — I’ve got a copy of “Batman: Arkham Asylum” in my XBox and I’m one of the few people who thought the extended dance number in “Spider-Man 3″ was a hoot — but a good comic is an end unto itself. It doesn’t need to be made into a TV show or a movie, and I certainly didn’t think it needed to be run through Flash and jazzed up with voice acting.

But I also believe in trying new things before I dismiss them outright, so when a copy of the upcoming motion comic adaptation of Joss Whedon and John Cassaday’s first arc of “Astonishing X-Men” — a comic I like quite a bit — came across my desk, I gave it a fair shake and watched the whole thing.And when it was over, I came to the conclusion that a lot of people had worked very hard and put the cutting edge of technology to work in order to make the 21st century equivalent of those crappy Marvel cartoons from the ’60s.

But without the charming theme songs.

Maybe it’s just me and the fact that I’m an increasingly cranky old man, but I honestly do not understand these things. I can understand doing a shot-for-shot adaptation of a comic, like the “Sin City” movie, and while I don’t really share it, I can even understand the desire to see a “Watchmen” movie, because the actors and director can bring something new to the table. But motion comics exist in this weird No Man’s Land between comics and animation; they’re essentially just the art from the comic being shown to you while a bunch of people literally read the comic out loud. I was absolutely floored when I found out there was a motion comic made of “Mad Love,’ because that’s a story that already exists as both a comic and an episode of “Batman: The Animated Series,” two formats that between them do everything a motion comic does, only better.

The creators of the Motion Comics have essentially created a radio play set to pictures. They’re like the read-along Book-and-Record sets that came out from when I was a kid. The only thing missing is “Turn the page whenever you hear Wolverine’s claws go ‘snikt!’”

Presumably the major attraction here is the motion — that’s the word they stuck at the beginning, after all — but it just doesn’t measure up. I think that’s a problem that’s going to be inherent in the form, as it’s repurposing art that was created to be static on the page and work within a structure of panels and layouts, and it’s being used here for an entirely different purpose than it was intended, with predictable results. It’s not that it’s bad art; John Cassaday’s easily one of the better artists working in comics today, but when his work is made into a motion comic — which he co-directed with Neal Adams, whose Continuity Studios did the “animation” — it just doesn’t work.

It’s choppy, especially in the action, where the way that the figures move is closer to puppets made from cardboard cutouts — albeit very well-drawn ones — than actual animation. Even the slower scenes, which you’d think would lend themselves better to being taken from static art, come off strange thanks to weird forced-perspective head-turns and the bulbous way the figures move when they’re meant to be walking. It’s also really noticeable in what doesn’t get animated. In “Understanding Comics,” Scott McCloud writes about how comics are largely about what happens between panels, with the reader completing the actions that aren’t shown in order to form a logical story.

In motion comics, though, that space between the panels is taken away and replaced with animation, but because it’s all drawn from comics, there will be scenes where someone will suddenly be holding something without actually picking it up. It’s a sequence that would make perfect sense on the page, but because there aren’t any panel borders to separate one sequence from another, it just ends up being jarring.

Visually, the effect reminds me a lot the early episodes of “SeaLab 2021,” except that even there, they were using art that had been created for television, putting it a step above what Continuity is doing ten years later. I will say, though, that it did give me the ability to make an animated .gif of Wolverine snacking on an endless slice of pizza.

So it’s got that going for it.

On the audio side of things, it holds up a little better. What with the fact that he’s mostly known for his television work, It shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that Joss Whedon’s dialogue translates pretty well to people actually saying it out loud, although there are lines (“my Stepford Cuckoos!”) that just don’t play well and every time Emma Frost has to say “bloody” or “sodding,” it’s a wince-inducing reminder that she doesn’t have the British accent everyone writes her with. Personally, I would’ve liked to see them stick her with what she ought to have, an over-the-top Claremontean Boston accent, but sadly, the world remains free of lines like “Get ovah heah, Summahs! There’s a wicked huge Sentinel out inna gahden!”

As for the voice acting that is there, it is all over the map, but by and large, it’s pretty comparable to what you’d get in your average well-made video game, and certainly worlds better than the ’90s X-Men cartoon. I was especially impressed with Mike Pollock’s voice for Beast, as he gives him the cadence of a nerdy scientist with the underlying animalistic growl of…well, of a beast. Same goes for Dan Green’s Colossus, who isn’t nearly as overblown as I was expecting him to go with the Russian accent.

Of course, the further away from the main cast you get, the more the voices tend to feel rushed. Nick Fury, for instance, sounds so much like Wolverine that I was convinced it was the same guy doing both — a guy that had to have actually talked like that — but it’s not. Even some of the better ones falter from time to time; thanks to the voices, the scene where Wolverine confronts Beast about his desire to use the mutant cure on himself comes off as a lot more flirty than I’d originally read it.

Then again, I guess there’s really only two ways to go with a line like “You beast,” and sometimes you choose to go with the way that makes Wolverine sound like he’s channeling David Bowie. Which, on one level, is actually pretty awesome.

But while it might make a pretty fun radio play, the voice acting doesn’t make up for the fact that the visuals actually lose a lot of what makes them so striking in print, because of their transition to a format in which all the “panels” are the same size; and the way to add impact to a shot is to show it again in slow motion, thus making animation that was already choppy seem even choppier.

The first chapter (adapted from “Astonishing X-Men” #1) is up courtesy of Marvel on YouTube, and it might be a huge oversimplification, but to me, it feels like a comic for people who will do anything they possibly can to avoid reading. Either that, or they’re way into seeing Wolverine eat pizza.

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