How do you improve on a comic book while keeping it true to its form? That's been the question for major comic publishers since the advent of the Internet. New technology makes lots of options possible, from immediate downloads and "smart panel" viewing on tablets to games and similar digital extras.
The latest advance in comics technology is Marvel's Project Gamma, a digital initiative that integrates original music into the experience of reading a comic. Debuting at South by Southwest Interactive this week, the new project aims to enhance the experience of reading a comic by adding themes, sound effects and mood music.
"If you're a comic book reader, you've probably had that experience at least once in your life where you're reading a comic book and you've got your iPod on, or a stereo in the background, and there's that moment where lo and behold, the two converge. They seamlessly integrate, but it only lasts for a minute," Axel Alonso, Editor in Chief of Marvel Entertainment, tells Rolling Stone. "The challenge here is to lengthen that experience, to take control of that experience, and ultimately make the creators a part of that experience.”
The Gamma demo incorporates electronic music into each panel of a digital comic; as readers flip from panel to panel (using existing Smart Panel technology) the theme changes, sound effects blend in and the pace speeds up or slows down. There's no stopping or abrupt shifting – if you skip ahead multiple panels, the soundtrack catches up, and if you go back one or two, the music shifts back again. You can linger on a panel as long as you want and the music will change subtly as it loops.
"The reader controls the pace of the reading experience. It's interactive," Alonso says. "No two readers will have the exact same experience."
There will be thematic elements for familiar characters – similar to film soundtracks – and much more, according to the Marvel team. They emphasize that this technology is just in the beginning stages – and that they're not afraid for this to be an experiment that may not work.
Peter Phillips, Senior Vice President and General Manager of Marvel Digital Media Group, tells Rolling Stone that the idea came out of internal discussions and was passed on to his team. Working with two agencies, Momentum and Cord, they developed a way to break down score music into "stems" and parts that connect to the panels. "It's like a lab, basically, putting it all together," he says.
Like many of Marvel's digital experiments, Alonso and Phillips stress that they want to make Project Gamma available to readers to encourage trial use, which means keeping it affordable. They don't have a price point in mind yet, but note that many of their digital extras have been free or very low-priced, and that they want to keep new products friendly to impulsive buyers.
They also have no official release date yet, saying they aim to have Gamma available in 2013. "We're building it so it's scalable – so if we wanted to, we could put it into lots of our books," Phillips says. Alonso adds that Marvel comics writers like Kieron Gillen and Jason Aaron seem like natural fits for the project.
"Imagine the potential down the road. I know a lot of people in hip-hop like Pete Rock or the RZA; all this terminology is very familiar to them. They're composers," Alonso says. "Being able to work with guys like that, theoretically being able to build an audio library like this, is fascinating to me. There's no absence of composers out there who are huge comic book fans."