DC’s ‘Batman: Arkham Origins’ MultiVerse Graphic Novel App: Choosing The Wrong Adventure
Yesterday DC Comics launched its new Batman: Arkham Origins - A DC Comics MultiVerse Graphic Novel app, which serves as a choose-your-own-adventure style motion comic prequel to WB Games Montreal's video game of the same name. Befitting of its status as a video game tie-in, this is a "freemium" experience. You download a free 8-page setup before reaching a fork in the narrative road and pay more (it's being serialized, you see) for the full range of story content as it's released. As a bonus, readers who pay to read halfway through the story get a code to unlock a new playable skin in the Origins game. Those who pay for a season pass get the first skin, plus an additional costume for Batman to wear.
In an interview with Wired, Hank Kanalz, SVP of Integrated Publishing at DC Comics, characterized the effort as an experiment. Financially, this model could prove to be a success -- especially with its downloadable content (DLC) incentives for hardcore gamers. Creatively? So far it leaves something to be desired.
"Motion comics" have never really done much for me. Adaptations of existing comic book material feel like subpar cartoons and most original motion comics content feels like boring video game cutscenes. Still, you've got to keep an open mind and try new things. When you stop doing that, you become a dinosaur and then a meteor comes from space and messes with the climate and you become bones to be dug up by people in glasses millions of years later, and who wants that? This attitude serves me well enough because I was really impressed by DC Digital's presentation of its new Batman '66 comic. It's good in print. It's good as a digital comic. It's good as a motion-enhanced digital comic, or DC2 as the company calls such technology. The reader's power of choice makes all the motion-y stuff additive and showcases the talent that worked on the comic because it emphasizes the strengths of the medium from start to finish.
The Arkham Origins comic app doesn't really do any of that. Apparently engineered externally by motion comics outfit Madefire, this product is but one very specific thing. So who's it for?
I mentioned hardcore gamers seeking exclusive DLC earlier, and as cynical as that presumption may sound, on paper it's a pretty solid way to get comics in front of new or lapsed readers and remind them that Batman is a comic book character. There's a big audience out there that primarily knows Batman not just from movies and cartoons, but from the massively successful Arkham franchise. Since Arkham Asylum dropped in 2009, the games have sold well more than 10 million combined copies -- and that's not even counting however many copies Origins has moved since October. Video game sites report on Batman and Batman-related news constantly. To a lot of fans, Batman is very much a Video Game Character like Mario or Sonic as much as he's anything else. It's a noble mission, welcoming those people to the still vital medium from which he came.
But how is a meaningful message like "Aren't comics worth paying money for regularly?" supposed to get through to this potentially massive audience when an eight-page comic has three writers and eight artists -- none of whom besides "cover" artist Bryan Hitch are exactly marquee creators, incidentally -- and when it's as perfunctory a superhero comic as Arkham Origins? DC Digital has distinguished itself with digital-first content that frequently showcases to great effect what the unique realm of cape comics and its standout talent has to offer. Indeed, more DC digital-first titles landed on ComicsAlliance's Best of 2013 list than books from the publisher's main line. What's been delivered with this app is something decidedly less exciting.
Now, obviously it doesn't take a superstar creative team to turn in a fantastic comic book, but it does take an idea and some style. The creators behind Arkham Origins simply don't have much to work with, here. The artwork is in a very plain, photorealistic mode that's more reminiscent of DC's New 52 line than what we've come to expect from the company's west coast office, and aside from the enduringly reliable hook of an inexperienced Batman, the plot is devoid of any interesting characters -- sacrilegious for a character with a world as rich as Batman's.
The structure of Arkham Origins' story is sound. In the 8-page setup you can download for free, we find Batman on the trail of a crime boss. He beats up thugs trying to send the guy a message. After a few weeks, Bats makes the jump to bigger fish, seems to enjoy torturing a guy, and then goes to his Bat Computer to decide which of the main bad guy's three underlings to stalk next.
No matter which baddie you choose to pursue, that’s where you hit a paywall, which makes perfect sense and is where this project becomes intriguing from a digital market perspective. Readers can pay a buck to finish the 23-page chapter. From there, they can choose to buy eight more chapters, which will cost $1.99 a pop as they're released biweekly over the next four months. Provided readers in for the long haul (or short haul, just for the DLC), they can spend $15 and effectively subscribe to get all of the content as it becomes available.
The $15 amount makes financial sense for DC. It's about the going rate for a newer video game's DLC pack, or the cost of a comic book trade paperback or inexpensive hardcover. And remember, for diehard Arkham Origins players, this app is video game DLC that gets you "Injustice Batman" and "New 52 Metallic Batman" playable skins.
Thing is, the free portion of the app isn't fun like the games. You only get once choice and it's "Which dude do I follow?" As a teaser, there's no hook. You're not dramatically compelled to continue. Unlike the Arkham Origins game, where Batman's dealing with exciting costumed villains like Deathstroke, Bane and Shiva, your choices are three schlubby crooked cops with no obvious differences -- nobodies. The major selling point of this app -- the MultiVerse; the choose-your-own-adventure aspect -- is undermined by offering three identical choices. Instead of contemplating whether you'd like to follow Batman on the Joker's deadly trail or see him tussle with the invincible Bane or chase down the elusive Catwoman, you simply guess which generic baddie might offer some additional entertainment, but with no basis on which to make that leap. It's utterly undramatic and quite surprising given the nature of the Arkham series.
If better stuff is coming in subsequent chapters (Penquin is shown in preview art), it's not readily apparent.
Finally, the multimedia component of the Arkham Origins app, facilitated by Madefire, is far less impressive than what DC demonstrated with the DC2 presentation of Batman '66. There's some moody music that's well-suited for the dark tone of the story and there are tasteful sound effects, but it's all kind of sitting on top of a conventional comic book that -- as usual, for motion comics -- looks like it was kind of cut up and shaken around a bit to simulate animation. Most strangely, instead of illustrated action accompanied by actual audio sound effects, panels in Arkham Origins include lettered sound effects like "Whudd" and "Blam" even as those sounds play at the same time. It's like Batman '66 on TV, only it's not ironic. Why would DC and Madefire integrate both? Is it thoughtless vestigial craft or does DC plan on collecting this stuff in a print edition later and just wants to get all the lettering out of the way? Either way, it's unwelcome dissonance.
There's a panel near the beginning of this comic where Batman says, "Anything built has a weak point." So far, whether you're looking to this app for more Arkham narrative, an impressive digital reading experience or an outright great Batman tale, this app seems to be a weak point. Unless you just want the DLC costume codes, anyway.
Innovation requires experimentation, and that's what DC is doing. It's refreshing to see the company come out and say as much upfront, even if this particular effort isn't satisfying. DC's digital-first line has largely resulted in acclaim -- on this site and elsewhere -- and this anomalous app could be the first wobbly step in a more satisfying direction for readers. If technology is a body, then content is the brain. If DC can shake the gimmicky trappings of motion comics tech and focus on story, it won't be nearly as hard for readers to run a mental cost–benefit analysis between digital comics app content and, say, a serviceable pizza.