If you frequent comic shops, you’ve probably noticed the veritable explosion of videogame-based comics that have appeared in the last three years. Whether it’s World of Warcraft, Mass Effect, or even Prototype, comics inspired by videogames have become a common occurrence.
Believe it or not, Sonic the Hedgehog was one of the first videogames to make the transition to comics, with a manga series published in 1992 by Shogakukan. The same year, Sega also signed a deal with Archie Comics to produce a Western comic based on the blue speedster; this series, also titled Sonic the Hedgehog, started during the height of Sonic’s popularity but has continued running to this day.
Street Fighter was one of the next videogames to make the transition to comics, with a manga series published in Family Computer Magazine back in 1993. The manga lasted for a year – being published in English in 1994 – and had a large enough impact to spawn Gouken, a character that appeared in later Street Fighter titles.
Skipping across the Pacific, Western comics didn’t see another videogame series until Tomb Raider in 1997 when Top Cow Productions signed a deal with Eidos to publish comics based on Lara Croft’s adventures. The series was fairly successful, included multiple crossover events with the famous series Witchblade, running from 1999 to 2005.
After Tomb Raider gained some success, a handful of companies jumped on the bandwagon as well. Over the course of the following decade Konami signed deals with IDW Publishing to produce series based on Castlevania, Metal Gear Solid and Silent Hill; Bungie signed with Marvel to create comics based on Halo; even Blizzard signed a deal with WildStorm Productions to create a series based on World of Warcraft. It seemed like the videogame industry was giving more attention to its comic-reading consumers, though the idea didn’t truly take off until 2008.
The World of Warcraft series had started with a bang in late 2007 and carried that success directly into the next year, ranking sales high enough to compete with established comic properties like Daredevil and Ultimate Fantastic Four. Meanwhile, in March of 2008, the original Dead Space videogame was released, and with it came a marketing campaign that few had seen the likes of before.
The developers had created an incredibly rich setting they believed consumers would find compelling. The only problem was that, in the context of a game, it can be difficult to fully explain backstory while still engaging the player. The addition of in-game video, audio and text logs helped, but did little to explain the history of the Marker or what the Church of Unitology was.
EA Redwood Shores decided to explore their world by branching into other media, designing a six-part comic and a feature-length animated movie that would serve as prequels to the game itself. The comic explained what happened on the colony after the Marker was discovered, while the film explained what happened when the Marker was brought up to the Ishimura, the setting of Dead Space. These, together with the game, allowed the team to create a cohesive story explaining everything players needed to know about the universe of Dead Space and the immediate backstory of the game.
The choice to make a comic was easy: EA had already hired award-winning writer Antony Johnston to help develop the script for Dead Space, so why not ask him to do a comic as well? Of course, they needed an appropriate artist to match the horrific setting, and found a perfect match in Johnston’s friend Ben Templesmith, an artist who brought the horrific world of 30 Days of Night to life with his frightening visuals.
Though there were a handful of videogame comics that came before 2008, the success of the World of Warcraft and Dead Space series proved that comics could be a valuable partner for the videogame industry. This was especially true with Dead Space, as Visceral used so many different types of media to showcase the Dead Space universe it was hard for people not to take notice. The months that followed the Dead Space media blitz were littered with many other development studios announcing they were signing deals to bring their franchises to the comic page.
In April of 2008, DC Comics announced that their imprint WildStorm Productions would begin publishing series based on Epic Games’ Gears of War and Radical Entertainment’s Prototype. In July of the same year, it was announced that WildStorm would also be publishing series based off of Capcom’s Resident Evil and Devil May Cry properties, as well as DICE’s Mirror’s Edge. Beyond this, Blizzard announced at Blizzcon 2008 that StarCraft would be getting the comic treatment, also to be published by WildStorm.
In 2009, BioWare announced a deal with Dark Horse Comics to produce both online comics and a physical mini-series based on the upcoming Star Wars: The Old Republic, as well as a Mass Effect comic to be released concurrently with Mass Effect 2.
Publisher EA liked the idea of videogame comics so much they teamed with IDW Publishing to create a brand-new imprint called EA Comics, which was announced in late 2009. This imprint has since released two titles: Army of Two and Dragon Age, the latter of which was written by none other than Orson Scott Card, the bestselling author of the Ender’s Game series. Though no new series have been announced through EA Comics, one can only imagine what grand plans EA has for their big-name titles.
Even Eidos, which had much success with the Tomb Raider comics, returned to the comic fold and signed a deal with DC Comics in 2010 to produce a mini-series based on their upcoming Deus Ex: Human Revolution.
What does this mean for the future? With the advent of eReaders and tablet PCs, our society is quickly moving away from print media to media derived exclusively in the digital realm. Comics might be a big thing right now, but how will companies like Visceral Games transfer their success with print to this new form of media?
In a manner of speaking, they already have: When the original six-part Dead Space comic was released, Visceral took the static comic and provided faux camera effects to make it look like it was animated. They even went so far as to remove the printed dialogue and provide voice acting to truly create an animated movie experience – the “motion comic.” Other developers have started to adopt the style as well; Eidos announced that the Deus Ex comic will be adapted to the motion comic format for the Collector’s Edition of the game.
But motion comics are only one way that comics are becoming more digitalized. In 2010, shortly before the release of Dead Space 2, Visceral Games released Dead Space: Ignition, a downloadable title that served as a prequel to their newest game. Though the game was critically panned, its interactive comic presentation was a significant step forward in the digital media front as it blended comic presentation with videogame action: though the cutscenes within the game are illustrated like a comic, most major actions the characters took in the game were represented by minigames the player had to complete.
Other companies are starting to realize the trend and are beginning to act on it. Even before Visceral started their Dead Space media blitz, Konami released Metal Gear Solid: Digital Graphic Novel on the PSP, back in 2006. The graphic novel was actually more of a game, requiring players to search through panels of the comic to find intel in order to progress. In a similar vein, when BioWare released Mass Effect 2 on the PS3, they again teamed with Dark Horse to include an interactive motion comic titled Mass Effect Genesis which allowed players to simulate making key choices from the original game (which PS3 users would not have had access to).
This blending of comic presentation with videogame action seems to be gaining serious attention as developers and publishers realize that comics are well-suited to showcasing game worlds. In doing so, they are also pushing the boundaries and creating interactive titles that blur the lines between digital and print media. Perhaps, in time, all comics will be fully interactive.
Until then, I’ll just sit and read my picture books.
Nick Jewell is a part-time videogame journalist and an educated musician. He spends his time being jealous of the people who went to E3 and working on his blog, Loading Checkpoint, as well as the site Digitally Downloaded.