Mild-mannered reporters by day, Greg Phillips and Nick Duke share an intense love of comic books that has made them the Hard-Traveling Fanboys. But with that love of comics and the characters they feature comes an intense interest in the various adaptations that have been made of comic characters. Each month, in Off the Page, the Fanboys will take a look at a piece of comic-inspired media, whether that be a movie, television show, live performance or even a radio drama.
Nick: It’s time once again for another installment of the Off the Page with the Hard-Traveling Fanboys, and this time out, we’re doing things a bit differently. We’ve reviewed some television shows, a movie and even a video game, but this time out we’re taking a look at a fairly new form of adaptation — the motion comic.
Greg: Motion comics are … unique. Imagine a hybrid of comic books and animation, and you get the general idea. They take the original comic art on each panel and create effects such as moving lips, scene transitions and fluid movement. The first pseudo-motion comic I saw was Ultimate X-Men way back in 2004 or so. I still have my copy, in fact. The best I’ve seen, on the other hand, is probably the “Watchmen” motion comic released around the same time as the film.
This week, we’re discussing one of the few motion comics available on Netflix, the second volume of the Joss Whedon/John Cassaday Astonishing X-Men series, known as “Dangerous.” The first volume, “Gifted,” is inexplicably unavailable on Netflix.
Nick: Yes, the entirety of Whedon’s Astonishing X-Men run is on Netflix, with the exception of “Gifted.” However, it can be found online for those enterprising souls who would wish to watch that volume before digging into this one.
And during the course of this review, you’ll see the different perspectives that come from having or having not seen that first volume. Greg saw the volume a few years back, while I have yet to watch it. Neither of us has read Whedon’s highly acclaimed run and I have to say after watching volume 2 that I certainly wish I had tracked down “Gifted” beforehand.
Greg: It should be noted that these motion comics also have sound effects, music and voice acting added in, and those are probably my favorite characteristics of this particular storytelling medium. The animation itself does little for me, as it’s not smooth enough to be considered actual animation and often comes off “choppy.”
Astonishing X-Men was a mixed bag, visually. There are moments of beautiful, fluid visual storytelling (all because of Cassaday’s stellar artwork), but there are also some frustrating transitions and, frankly, a couple of action scenes that came off cheesy due to the animation.
Nick, what were your initial impressions of the look of this motion comic?
Nick: Yes, if you’re looking for smooth, fluid animation, I’d suggest you look elsewhere. The idea behind this and virtually every other motion comic I’ve encountered is that the art is presented to you in as similar a fashion to its printed version as possible. Imagine something more akin to a Powerpoint slideshow with limited animated transitions.
Because of this, I don’t mind the animation too much. The intent is clearly to preserve an authentic look rather than adding too much motion that wasn’t originally depicted or suggested by the artist.
Like you, the music and voice acting is certainly the best addition. While the “Watchmen” motion comic you referenced earlier features just one male voice actor doing the voices for every character, Astonishing X-Men brings a full voice cast. There are some notable misfires in the voice-acting department, namely Emma Frost and Colossus, but other than that the voices are all pretty decent performances that feel in line with their comic book counterparts.
What about your take on the voice acting?
Greg: I really enjoyed the actors. I’ll start with the two misfires you mentioned. Emma seemed to be written British, but the voice actor fails to maintain a consistent or believable accent. If Emma wasn’t British here, the occasional accent (and usage of English slang) makes even less sense.
I had less of a problem with Colossus. He had a stereotypical, over-the-top Russian accent, but that’s how he’s always been written in the comics. I admit, though, that he dropped the ball on some of the weightier emotional scenes.
Beast bothered me somewhat, but admittedly that’s probably because it’s so difficult for me to hear a different take on the voice. Everyone who has tried since the ’92 animated series has gone for a Kelsey Grammer vibe, but this actor went a different route.
Everyone else, however, was pretty fantastic. Kitty Pryde has perhaps the most prominent role, and it’s a strong performance. The voices of Wolverine, Cyclops, Xavier and Abigail Brand are flawless and added a lot to the overall presentation. The banter between Kitty and her teammates consistently amused me. Oh, and I have to give major props to whoever voiced the Thing in his cameo appearance. That was as good as or better than any Ben Grimm voice I’ve heard! I also felt the music helped set the stage for the climactic scenes in each issue.
Nick: It wasn’t so much the inclusion of an accent for Colossus that bothered me so much as it was the performance of said accent. I thought, like the Emma Frost voice, that the accent waxed and waned at times and the inflection, as you said, never changed, even when a scene called for a more emotional pronunciation rather than “Da! Is good!”
I also very much enjoyed Kitty Pryde in this. I’ve always been a big fan of her Ultimate counterpart, but haven’t been exposed to a ton of her mainstream stuff. Glad to see the character felt largely familiar to me.
The music, while mostly generic superhero action themes that you’ve likely heard done better in other places, did provide much needed cues to the audience for when the tension was rising, something that was unable to be provided by the animation due to its limited nature.
Greg: As helpful as it was most of the time, did you feel it sometimes overwhelmed the dialogue? There were one or two instances where I had to rewind to focus on what a character said. A minor problem, but worth noting. Did you have the same issue at all?
Nick: Nah, not really. However, I watched a portion of the motion comic on my iPad, so the audio clarity may have been helped by my closer proximity to the screen.
The only thing that had me lost at times was the inclusion of characters I was largely unfamiliar with. The core team of X-Men I certainly knew, recognized and embraced, but new characters like Wing, Blindfold, Abigail Brand and Ord were the ones that largely confused me. Since I hadn’t seen volume 1, I had no clue what these characters were referencing when talking about past events and didn’t fully understand their connections to one another. The subplot involving Professor X was also confusing to me, but I suppose that’s largely due to my lack of X-Men continuity knowledge.
Greg: Yeah, that’s one area that might be open to criticism from a storytelling standpoint. Anyone who missed the first “season” of Astonishing X-Men would have no idea about the mutant cure, which directly led to the events unfolding involving Wing, an otherwise unremarkable and unmentioned character. A newcomer also wouldn’t know about Colossus’ return after years of being presumed dead. The motion comic does very little to break new readers in, and I imagine that could be jarring. It had been four years since I’d watched the “Gifted” video, so even I was a little confused at times. Ord, the primary villain from “Gifted,” returns here in a very small cameo.
The main plot of “Dangerous” involves the Danger Room’s sentience taking form as a humanoid creature known as Danger. It also involves Colossus’ attempts to reconnect with his teammates and the outside world after years in captivity. The season gets off to an action-packed start, with the X-Men joining forces with the Fantastic Four to fight a monster.
Whedon’s dialogue really shined in this one. He hit all the right character beats — Emma Frost is annoyingly cocky, Cyclops is a strong leader with emotional issues, Wolverine is a badass who prefers not to overthink things (“I really like beer.”), Colossus is a naïve but lovable brute, Beast is the rational thinker, and Kitty is the heart and soul of the team.
Did the characterizations and dialogue work as well for you?
Nick: Oh, no real issues here with the characterizations or dialogue. I liked it all for the most part. If I had to make a complaint, it would likely be about the Emma Frost and Cyclops relationship. It seemed there was a romantic tint to their relationship that didn’t really make sense given Emma’s over-the-top bravado and arrogance, especially given Cyclops’ desire to see the team united in pursuit of its goals.
I think my favorite bit of dialogue, though, may have come during an exchange early on between the Thing and Wolverine. “Didn’t they make a cure for your kind?” “You got something against mutants?” “Mutants? I meant Canadians.” Great stuff.
Meanwhile, the plot involving Danger wasn’t nearly as interesting to me as the interactions between the X-Men were. I honestly could have done with just a story about them sorting out their differences with nothing to fight and been just fine. Besides, the story’s main point seemed to be to illustrate that maybe Xavier isn’t such a noble guy after all, and I feel like anyone who has more than a cursory knowledge of the X-Men has known that for some time and come to terms with it already.
Greg: This story is definitely one of the lynchpins in the “Xavier is a massive jerk” argument. Emma and Scott actually are in a relationship during Astonishing X-Men, so that explains the romantic element. Now, one’s feelings on that particular relationship are another matter entirely. But I felt it was in keeping with the relationship established firmly in Grant Morrison’s New X-Men run. For those unfamiliar with that, however, it can be confusing why Scott’s attraction to Emma is anything more than physical.
I completely agree about Danger. I didn’t find the villain as intriguing as Ord was in “Gifted,” and the fights felt by-the-books and forgettable. I also felt some of the dialogue for Danger was a little ham-fisted. The character design reminded me of a Flash villain from the Geoff Johns/Scott Kolins run on that book, which caught me off guard.
The strength of the story, however, was the character interactions. In what has become something of a Whedon trademark, the plot isn’t nearly as interesting as the characters themselves, whose simple everyday conversations are enough to carry the entire project. Kitty and Colossus awkwardly trying to reignite an old flame, Scott and Emma developing trust issues, the team’s disgust with Xavier … it’s all well done. And while there is plenty of humor thrown in, I didn’t feel it distracted at all from the importance of the scenes.
I also enjoyed Whedon’s focus on the team element. While Kitty gets more screen time than the rest, this is never a Kitty Pryde story. It’s an X-Men story, plain and simple. That’s a strong accomplishment in any team book. If I had a complaint, it’s that Wolverine does very few useful things compared to the rest of the team. But given the comics and movies often give Logan all the big moments, I shouldn’t complain too much here.
Nick: Agreed on all points. This also doesn’t stand alone as a story very well because by the project’s end, Danger is very much still a threat to both the X-Men and any viewers who hate robot voices that seem to have come from 1950s sci fi.
Greg: Or mid-’80s Rocky sequels.
One thing this story did do was make me want to pick up and read the comics it translated. I’ve read bits and pieces of Whedon and Cassaday’s run, but never enough to really get engaged. This, and “Gifted” before it, offer enough of the puzzle to make me want to see it fully pieced together.
As a standalone work of art, I’m not sure how necessary this motion comic is. Does it really enhance the book? I’m not sure. Does it provide an original experience? Not really. But what it does do is provide some solid voice work to a pretty compelling piece of comic book storytelling. I feel like the printed product will have a more visceral effect on me, but this one left me wanting a bit more from it. How about you?
Nick: Yeah, without the context of the larger run, I don’t really know that I can give this volume any kind of overwhelming praise. Yeah, it was entertaining for the most part and the characterizations were on point, but it just feels incomplete. Many books these days are “written for the trade,” where each 6-7 issue story can largely be viewed as one standalone thing. Sure, plot threads cross over frequently, but the main thrust of the plot is usually resolved by story’s end. Not so here, as it’s clear that Whedon was building a story larger than could comfortably fit in one trade paperback. I’m certainly interested in seeing the rest of the story, but unlike you, I may give it a shot in motion comic form before I try the printed version.
Well, I guess that about does it for us this week. Be sure to come back next week, as we drop another edition of Countdown. This time around, in keeping with last month’s edition that focused on comic book animated series and the ongoing celebration of Batman’s 75th anniversary, we’ll be counting down our five favorite episodes of the iconic Batman: The Animated Series.
Greg: As always, we welcome your feedback on Facebook, Twitter (@gphillips8652 and @nickduke87) and on our PTB email accounts (GregP@placetobenation.com and NickD@placetobenation.com). Tell us your thoughts on Whedon’s run as well as motion comics in general. Do they work? Are they valuable? Let us know!