Comic books and videogames share more than you probably realise. Both mediums are relatively young (compared to others) and as such have gone through similar processes that many forms of entertainment are forced to endure in the quest for acceptance, validation -desired or not- and diversity.
Yet for all this, the symbiosis between the two has rarely been a smooth ride. In fact, many comics-to-games and vice versa have suffered quite badly, with some godawful examples (Superman 64, stagger forward) outranking the good ones by a fair degree. Thankfully, there's been a large upswing of quality in the past decade which curiously coincides with the generally large upswing in quality of the comic book related movies out there now.
The reasons for this are far too numerous to go into here, but part of them can be traced to the factor that comic books and videogames are both being taken far more seriously than they were before. It's sad to say, but this is marginally through a realisation that these mediums can earn people stupidly large amounts of money and has thus have companies who previously disparaged them, now wringing their collective hands among dreams of cash falling from the sky; forcing a little more attention and consideration to their output. But mercifully, another reason would be that people who have grown up playing games and reading comics are in better positions of power now to make a difference and treat them both with the respect they deserve. And hell, it's worked with Japan's healthy manga scene for years.
And so, as videogames and comic books merge for the kill on an annual basis, as Spider-Man 3 has us enthralled on paper and the big and small screens, as we look forward to Batman's next outing across all mediums, there's a relatively quiet yet simultaneous revolution going on. Comic books are slowly entering the realm of digital distribution and viewing, where you can buy and read them online, while gaming consoles have gained the ability to go on the internet and better yet, offer motion controls to take advantage of this and the games themselves.
Funnily enough, despite Nintendo not being interested in creating a multimedia console per se, Wii is there to capture this all.
Nintendo's machine has taken some fantastic, if unintentional steps to bringing comics and videogames closer to each other's bosom. If you so require, you can go online with Wii, buy a few comics via it, and then read a couple more, all fairly intuitively with the remote. Yes, PC users have had this option for a while, but the little white console from Kyoto brings this ability to more people than ever before and in a very welcoming fashion.
"Like comic books, the limits are the imagination, but Wii is revolutionary in that it adds a completely new and unique way to interact, and BE a part of the game." - John Layman, writer for Project H.A.M.M.E.R.
That said, some comic book professionals aren’t quite yet convinced by some of these aspects the digital era brings. Jimmy Palmiotti, writer and artist of titles such as Painkiller Jane, The Monolith and Uncle Sam and the Freedom Fighters, explained his reasons: "People want to hold [comic books], read them at leisure, not on a computer screen and so on. I do believe animating them is fun, even in flash… but it's limited. Most people do not read for extended periods of time on a computer unless its headlines or articles pertaining to their interests. The move from paper to tech is going to be a slow one… hell… look how long it's already taken. Slow, slow, slow. I have a PlayStation Portable, but would never read from that tiny screen for more than a few minutes… I do believe my brain would just explode."
John Layman, another comic book writer who has penned a number of titles like Gambit and Armageddon & Son, agrees. "I am an old fuddy-duddy, and can't imagine anything other than comics and trade paperbacks printed from dead trees and sitting on my bookshelf. That being said, this year I made the jump and purchased those 40 years of Spider-Man and X-Men and Fantastic Four and Avengers CDs, the ones that have a huge backlist of PDFs of every issue. I was able to save a huge amount of shelf space my respective Essential volumes were taking up.
"They are a great way, as a writer, to have the reference that I need, and these are books I don't pick up with any regularity. But am I ready to switch to regularly reading comics on a computer screen? Probably not. But, as I said, I am a cranky old man."
However, this scepticism doesn’t sour their appreciation for gaming or the potential that comics and games have together. Palmiotti has worked on well received action romp, The Punisher and most recently, Ghost Rider, while also professing to further work within the medium. "I have… on the horizon a videogame that is going to be the next state of the art project to hit in a few years," he divulged. "I will be a consultant on that project as well as a few others in the mix, but… all this stuff is top secret 'till it's announced."
Layman's also immersed in numerous videogame projects, most notably the ominous Project H.A.M.M.E.R., due for Wii later this year. Sadly, the large looming cloud of a Nintendo-printed Non-Disclosure Agreement means he's unable to talk about that title for a while yet.
All the same, both writers see the potential Wii has in making more of comic book games, especially superhero ones. "Like comic books, the limits are the imagination, but Wii is revolutionary in that it adds a completely new and unique way to interact, and BE a part of the game," said Layman. "It makes you less sedentary, and makes you participate more. That's what it's all about, right? Putting yourself in the shoes of a comic character for the duration of the game. The Wii is freaking brilliant that way. But as far as specifics, the sky is really the limit."
Palmiotti concurs, suggesting the motion control would be ideal for the action driven cut and thrusts of superheroes. "Well, the obvious [thing would be] fighting for any superheroes, the sword fighting for a Red Sonja or Conan [game] and so on. The application is only limited to the creativity of the programmer. Believe me, they are working on things right now with this technology that will blow you away. Eventually the boots and body sensors will catch up and then the eye movement sensors… it's only a matter of time."
The constant desire for better and more innovative tech only helps to serve gaming in terms of control and physics, but increases the directions a typical comic book game can go in terms of gameplay.
"Just look at the side-scrollers of ten years ago and compare them to the vast 3D worlds gamers can immerse themselves in now," explains Layman. "It's not just comic based games which have improved... it's all games. In this case, comic properties are just along for the ride. Of course, the improvements makes it easier to replicate the powers of a hero, when there is an entire 3D cityscape for Spider-Man to swing through or the Hulk to smash his way across. And more memory, better technology, means better graphics, and the potentially for characters to not just look better, but to have more to do.
"I think each generation of game has gotten successively more sophisticated and satisfying. You can see the even in the jump from, say, the Spider-Man to Spider-Man 2 to Ultimate Spider-Man games. The second Hulk game [Incredible Hulk: Ultimate Destruction, written by comic scribe Paul Jenkins] was much better than the first (the movie tie-in with the cel-shading). Usually, whatever I think is better is whatever game is the most current, that successfully learned from the mistakes of the previous game."
"Having written two comic properties to videogames, you can take what is presented in the book and create your own little interactive mini movie." – Jimmy Palmiotti, writer for The Punisher [game]
The ever-increasing involvement of comic creators in related games, who lend their much needed authority and knowledge to projects, is a huge plus for any project, forming a mutual melding of mediums and bringing us closer to more even-handed and well-represented combinations.
"With The Punisher game we went in and took his world of gritty city and crime scenarios and interwove them to create an amalgam of the movie and the comic… and took the best of both worlds and created a game that took a further step technologically speaking into making the character interactive," said Palmiotti, who had a large part in the game's creation as well as its story. "Comic book fans went nuts over the comic book references we included and the non comic people just loved the gameplay and the idea that you could interrogate the bad guys to change the gameplay."
On the general symbiosis of comics and games, Palmiotti explained further the future possibilities. "Having written two comic properties to videogames, you can take what is presented in the book and create your own little interactive mini movie. Granted, unlike a comic which takes a month to create, these games take years… but it's an exciting process that we will be seeing more and more in the future."
Yet, even with all this optimism and –please excuse the marketing speak- synergy, there's still something comics and gaming share that veers us towards a darker side; something that Wii is very much going to be caught up in, more so than other consoles.