Animation On The iPhone

A small-press comic book publisher called Catastrophic Comics has launched a new iPhone application with animated comics voiced by big-name actors. The animation is crude, yet artfully done. Will the application become the savior of the small-press comic book world?

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ALEX COHEN, host:

This is Day to Day from NPR News. I'm Alex Cohen. Sailor's Nuts, cocktail recipes, the sonnets of Shakespeare. These are just some of the many, many things you can now get delivered to your iPhone or iPod. One of the newest apps is something called Amotion Comet. Reporter Joel Rose has more.

JOEL ROSE: "Sparks" is a hardboiled super hero story set in the 1940s.

(Soundbite of movie "Sparks")

Unidentified Man #1: Every cop and supers looking for you, Sparks. Christ, I got to ring somebody.

Unidentified Man #2: You want to hear me out first, pal.

Unidentified Man #1: Deal. Smoke?

Unidentified Man #2: You got a lot of tape in there? Because I got a lot of story.

ROSE: Motion comics like "Sparks" fall somewhere in between animated cartoons and old-fashioned comic books. Each episode is about seven minutes long. While a few elements move, a car here, a cigarette lighter there, most of the penal is static. It's the dialogue and sound effects that gives "Sparks" the punch of animation.

(Soundbite of car crash)

ROSE: But at just a fraction of the cost.

Mr. CHRISTOPHER FOLINO (Writer, "Sparks"): Unlike a cartoon, which can take anywhere from, you know, three months to six months to make, this is relatively quick. You can make these in three weeks.

ROSE: Christopher Folino is the writer of "Sparks" and the co-founder of a small indie press, called Catastrophic Comics. Folino says the company originally put out "Sparks" as a glossy comic book. But he says the costs were starting to add up.

Mr. FOLINO: We just got to the point where by the fourth issue we had to stop and look around and go, you know what? This isn't quite working the way we want it to.

ROSE: That's when Folino and his partner, William Katt, decided to try motion comics instead. Katt has some experience in the superhero business, having starred as the "Greatest American Hero" on television. He says that experience came in handy as the executive producer of "Sparks."

Mr. WILLIAM KATT (Co-writer, "Sparks"): This is not Shakespeare. So actors come into the room when they look at the dialogue, they put their own handles on it. And you try and cast it well so the actors suit the characters that they're playing.

ROSE: Katt and Folino posted the first episode of "Sparks" on iTunes in January. They say it's the first motion comics specially designed for the iPhone and iTouch, although they're not the only comic book publisher testing the waters.

(Soundbite of movie "Watchman")

Unidentified Man: Rorschach's Journal, October 12, 1985. Dog carcass in alley this morning...

ROSE: Industry heavyweight DC comics produced a series of motion comics based on "The Watchman," the beloved comic series that's also been adopted into a big-budget movie due out next month. This month, Marvel comics announced it's planning to sell its own motion comics through iTunes, but many in the business are still skeptical.

Mr. BILL WENEY (Manager, Fat Jacks Comic Crypt): It's novelty right now, something new. It's in the in look. I can put it on my phone.

ROSE: Bill Weney manages Fat Jacks Comic Crypt, a story that's been selling comic books and graphic novels in Philadelphia for 30 years. He says the idea behind motion comics is not brand new.

Mr. WENEY: When everything was coming out on CD ROM, a couple of companies experimented with putting comics on CD ROM in this exact way, with small animations, and voice overs, and things like that, and they were awkward. They were, you know, you pop the disc in your drive, and install some software, and it didn't really work.

ROSE: But Christopher Folino hopes this time will be different. The writer of "Sparks" says motion comics could make it easier for new talents to get noticed.

Mr. FOLINO: Any kid who's really good at Photoshop can go ahead and do this, and you're not going to need to rely on the traditional way to break into the complex anymore. You're going to basically be able to go and put it on the iPhone.

ROSE: And sooner or later, Bill Weney says one of those Photoshop whiz kids will find a way to utilize the device itself in the storytelling.

Mr. WENEY: Like with the iPhone, with the touch screen and motion sensitivity, how about a comic that takes advantage of that? So when you're moving through the story, you're using the touch screen to do something. That'll be different than just picking up a book and reading it.

ROSE: Still, Weney isn't worried that motion comics will replace the comic book any time soon, but he'll be watching to see where they go next.

(Soundbite of movie "The Spirit")

Mr. GABRIEL MACHT (As "The Spirit"): This city is afraid of me. I have seen its true face.

ROSE: For NPR News, I'm Joel Rose.

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