Animation in Digital Comics

Animation is a special affordance of digital comics. Print comics may emulate motion (e.g., flip books, lenticular printing), but it’s expensive and time-consuming to reproduce. In digital publishing, duplicating an animated image costs the same as duplicating a static image. As a result, motion has become a common element in modern digital comics.

While it can still be time-consuming to design animated images, most modern digital art-making programs can produce gifs. Gifs (graphic interchange format) are the only truly well-supported digital image type that can include, and loop over, multiple frames. Many programs can also publish video files, but these are much larger and more difficult to control online. Animated images can be incorporated into digital comics pages the same way static panels might be.

Design considerations

Motion drastically changes the composition of a comic page. Like a bright color on an otherwise black and white image, it commands attention and may distract from other elements. To use motion effectively, it must be implemented thoughtfully. Here are a few important things to consider when adding animation to a comic.

Representation of time

hotel california animated title
Hotel California digital cover

Animation happens over discreet, regular intervals of time (e.g., 30 frames per second), but comics are read at the pace of the reader. What’s more, unlike a page of prose, a reader may absorb each panel multiple times as they take in the surrounding page composition as well as each individual panel. As cartoonists, we can influence the passage of reader time through page design, negative space, panel size, and other tools, but we cannot control when a reader encounters certain elements.

This unique passage of “reader time” forms a special relationship between the reader and the text. When we incorporate animation into a comic, we run a great risk of disrupting that special relationship. Pay special attention to how animations affect the flow of time across your panels, pages, and story. Avoid animating dialogue or narrative boxes, or otherwise interfering with the reader’s ability to read at their own pace.

Autoplaying vs user-activated

Looping action in Take It: A visual history of the Los Angeles Aqueduct

Animated gifs on webpages autoplay by default—unlike videos, which require special permissions from the user’s browser/device. Autoplay is most common for animated digital comics, and works well in most page compositions if thoughtfully designed.

When a cartoonist codes their own digital comics, they may have the opportunity to play user-activated animations. This means listening for a specific user behavior (e.g., clicking, hovering, scrolling, etc.) and playing an animation as a result. This device can be very useful for giving the reader narrative agency or adding feedback as a “reward” for reader behavior.

When incorporating user-activated animations, make sure to consider alternative outcomes, in case a reader cannot perform the action (for example, there is no “hover” state on a touch screen interface). Make sure your story is not stalled or broken if the reader does not perform the expected behavior.

Loop vs single-play

Polymorphic action in How to Protect Yourself Against Sphearphishing

In digital comics, seamlessly looping animations require the lowest design overhead. In the background, looping, ambient animations are excellent mood-builders and can add powerful dimension to a page. Subtle, natural movement like light, wind, or water is a great place to start.

In the foreground, looping animation can be thought of as analogous to polymorphic action. Neil Cohn defines polymorphic action as “show[ing] a single entity repeated in multiple positions of an action while remaining in a single encapsulated frame.” Animated elements in an otherwise static panel build on this comics tradition.

Single-play animations are typically only effective if they are user-activated. When a single-play animation is not initiated by the reader, it grounds that element in “real time,” which will almost certainly not align with “reader time.” However, when designed with “reader time” in mind, single-play user-activated animations can be great immersive narrative tools. They may also provide valuable feedback for other narrative actions readers may take within a digital comic.

A word of caution:

Because it commands attention, motion can be overwhelming! Avoid animating more than 20%-30% of a page, as this makes a page difficult to fully absorb. Make sure that motion is adding to, not detracting from, your narrative.

Finally, bear in mind that flashing lights may cause seizures, migraines, or other health problems for some readers. If you use rapid, high-contrast, or flashing gifs, add a warning to the top of your page so readers can make informed decisions about when or where to read your comic.

Have fun!

Motion is a really exciting, ground-breaking tool for digital comics. Experiment with how this can drive sequential narratives and have fun!

More animated comics

I used my own work as examples in this post to avoid republishing other work without permission. Here are some more excellent animated comic examples:

For more digital comics, check out my ongoing article collecting the Digital Comics Ouevre.

Digital Comics Oeuvre

A non-exhaustive and highly disorganized list of unique digital storytelling largely accomplished through comics.

Standalone Comics

Collections

Comic-like games

Stories told using “Juxtaposed pictorial and other images in a deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or produce an aesthetic response in the viewer” (Scott McCloud, Understanding Comics), but with greater focus on user-participation and game-like mechanics.

  • The Wolf Among Us (Telltale Games, 2013) Digital comic thriller based on the award-winning Fables comic books (DC Comics/Vertigo).
  • The Empty Kingdom (Merlin Goodbrey, 2014) Your kingdom lies empty before you; all your subjects fled; all their stories told. And yet you take up your sword. And yet you don your crown.
  • Reigns: Her Majesty (Devolver Digital, 2017) Greed and jealousy still conspire against the benevolent queen. Outwit and outlast those that would seek to depose you and your husband by swiping left or right, making just (or unjust) decisions on all manner of royal matters.
  • Framed 2 (Loveshack Entertainment, 2017) Rearranging the panels of an animated comic book to alter the order of events and change the outcome from disaster to success.

2019 Book List

Here are some books I’m reading in 2019, loosely organized. I’ll be updating this over the course of the year, so check back if you’d like to follow along!

Technology

read

★★★★

Don’t Make Me Think by Steve Krug

Great primer on interaction design—when in doubt, don’t make your user think!

currently reading

CSS the Missing Manual by David Sawyer McFarland

Art + Design

currently reading

The Laws Guide to Nature Journaling by John Muir Laws

to read

Steering the Craft by Ursula K LeGuin

to read

Just My Type by Simon Garfield

Culture

read

★★★

Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman

Interesting analysis about how messages change with evolving media. In particular, his observation that we’re living in Huxley’s dystopia and not Orwell’s is very interesting/compelling. However, this text is really subjectively judgemental about how “nEw MeDiA iS rUiNiNg OuR mInDs” and it distracts from his good points about the evolution of human communication. If I could get a less salty version it would be a five star book.

read

★★★★★

Bullshit jobs by David Graeber

Excellent analysis of professional time-wasting culture. This book made me think a lot about how I spend my time at work, and why I do it in the first place.

where do we go from here book cover

currently reading

Where Do We Go From Here? by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Travels with Charley

to read

Travels with Charley by John Steinbeck

to read

So You Want To Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo

Fiction

read

★★★★

The moon is a harsh mistress by Robert A. Heinlein

Really great revolution story, though the libertarianism got a little heavy handed

read

★★★★★

Killing Mister Watson by Peter Matthiessen

Fictionalized account of a string of murders in post-colonial Florida. Very exciting and historically a very interesting read.

read

★★★★★

Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie

The main character is a SHIP that has a human(ish?) body and I LOVED IT

read

★★★★★

The Dark Forest by Liu Cixin

This whole series has been a little slow to start, but I loved this book. Liu’s Cosmic Sociology and Dark Forest theory have had me thinking a lot about how we approach others in the world.

read

★★★★★

The Great God Pan by Arthur Machen

A mysterious woman is murdering socialites by exposing them to a twisted, wild power. I’m working on an interactive narrative adaptation of this story, check back for more!

read

★★★★

A Darker Shade of Magic by V. E. Schwab

A pretty novel take on the alternate magical universe. The world-building is a little dramatic, but the characters are great.

a gathering of shadows book cover

read

★★★

A Gathering of Shadows by V. E. Schwab

Not as good as the first, but still a fun vacation read.

read

★★★★★

The Tsar of Love and Techno by Anthony Marra

A series of short stories revolving around a pastoral painting from the beginning of the Soviet Union through the Second Chechen War. I resisted reading this book despite several highly trustworthy recommendations because I think the title is really stupid. Don’t repeat my errors.

read

★★★★★

Death’s End by Liu Cixin

Final book in a great that series examines this question of what it means for humanity to persist in a cosmic society. It’s the first sci-fi story I’ve read that imagines alien societies the way we currently imagine xenophobic nations—self-obliterating weapons and all. This was one of the most innovative sci-fi series I’ve read in a long time, and the critique of international weapons policy and what it means to go to war was spot on.

the forever war book cover

read

★★★★★

The Forever War by Joe Haldeman

Considered foundational military sci-fi, The Forever War was actually commentary on the Vietnam war. Exciting, well-told story about the effects of war on the individuals that survive.

Comics

read

★★★★★

Redlands Volume 1 by Jordie Bellaire and Vanesa Del Rey

Really exciting story, complex and compelling characters, and gorgeous art. Can’t wait for the next one!

america volume 1 book cover

currently reading

America Vol. 1 by Gabby Rivera and Joe Quinones

to read

The Prince and the Dressmaker by Jen Wang

to read

Black Hammer Volume 1 by Jeff Lemire and Dean Ormston

to read

Redlands Volume 2 by Jordie Bellaire and Vanesa Del Rey