The Uncanny Z-Axis

Furthering the case for comics in 3D

Last week I saw a post from Ron Brinkmann’s Digital Composting blog about viewing comic books on the Vision Pro. Using the iPad version of Apple’s Books app1Which I admit I kind of forgot existed, he experimented with both The Sandman, spreading multiple pages into a panorama across his space; and an older issue of Detective Comics, which could be displayed like a museum piece, letting him get close enough to see the half-tone printing in full detail.

Static pages wouldn’t require any effort from comics publishers or artists. It’d give you the opportunity to turn a comic into a kind of museum exhibition, walking around the layouts and seeing them unbound by the restrictions of a page or a screen. It’s basically a no-brainer.

And because it’s a straightforward idea with no real downsides, I filed it away as “would be nice, but probably will never happen.” Or gain enough traction for anyone to pay attention to it, at least. The Marvel Unlimited app doesn’t show up as a compatible iPad app on the Vision Pro, for instance. And ever since Amazon acquired Comixology, it’s been nothing but repeated demonstrations of how we can’t have nice things.

So if it were just publishers and comics creators saying, “Okay, sure, you can look at PDFs on your headset. Knock yourselves out, nerds,” I’d be inclined to think of it just as the most niche of niche applications. But the more I think about what could happen if publishers and creators made a real effort to adapt comics to 3D, the more I think it could be one of those rare cases where minimal investment results in a big win for everyone.

Here’s the pitch: 3D-enhanced versions of comics, designed for headsets like the Vision Pro and the Quest. It doesn’t necessarily need to be an entirely separate production; I can imagine it working something like the Guided View mode from Comixology’s early days. More of a new presentation of existing works, with the occasional release designed specifically to take advantage of it.

While it is pretty cool to imagine expanding past the borders of a page or a tablet screen, I think the most compelling part is the potential for going deep. As in: positioning elements of panels, or even entire panels, at different depths.

Marvel Snap does something similar with card upgrades, where a character breaks through the card borders and then jumps off of the card back. Is it a gimmick? Obviously. But it’s still a neat effect, even on a 2D phone screen. It could be even more impressive with a device built for displaying 3D.

And it could be another tool for storytelling, as well. Word balloons set off the page could more clearly convey their reading order and emphasis if they were placed at different depth. Sound effects and visual effects like explosions would have more punch if they appeared to be punching their way out of the background. The entire reading order of a layout could be made clearer and stronger by positioning the panels not just in 2D space, but ordered from back to front.

With a device that has gaze detection, like the Vision Pro, a dramatic panel could be waiting patiently in the layout until the reader looks at it, at which point it bursts forward.

The featured image on this post is the best three panels of any comic book ever, a section of Hellboy: Box Full of Evil. There’s already so much going on with the pacing of that sequence, that makes the gag land perfectly. But imagine what you could do with some simple layering tricks. Hellboy’s panel could leap forward out of the layout, emphasizing his surprise. And the entire last panel could be partially obscured, or even hidden in silhouette, until the reader’s gaze hits it. The gun could poke out of the panel towards the reader, and the BLAM BLAM could punch out from the background even farther.

Is it worth the effort and expense for publishers to do any of this? Possibly. If it were just for the gimmickry, or even to give artists more options for layout and pacing, it’s unlikely that it would ever go beyond a niche, if it happened at all. But comics are all about intellectual property these days.2For better or worse. (I say mostly better, if only because it expands the audience). At worst, any appearance of a character in an attention-grabbing format like what I’m describing can act as advertising for whatever movie or TV property a studio wants to promote. At best, it could be a proving ground for new characters, giving them a (slightly) wider audience than that of people who read traditional comics now.

The old Marvel “cartoons” from the 60s are infamous for having catchy theme songs and the absolute lowest production values imaginable. Often, they were just art taken directly from the comics and crudely moved across the screen in place of actual animation. At the time, the goal was to fill up air time with as little cost as possible. That’s not an issue any more, since there’s already more “content” than a human could possibly watch in their lifetime. But even back then, they had a side effect of keeping characters in viewers’ consciousness. Since I didn’t read Marvel comics, those cartoons — as unambitious as they were — were my first exposure to characters like Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, and Spider-Man.

And now, there are better tools to make variations of comics pages. Separating a bunch of existing art into layers for 3D presentation sounds like it could be an extremely tedious and time-consuming job3For pages that are laid out traditionally, at least. I don’t have a clear idea how common or rare it is for comics to be made entirely digitally at this point.. It’s also one of the very few jobs where it’s ethical to let machine learning handle the drudge work. It already excels at separating people and animals in photos from their backgrounds.

There’s one aspect of the Vision Pro that’s been getting gradually clearer the more I use it: how much Apple is trying to position this as a platform. The question of “what is this good for?” still persists, as does the sense that this will take at least a couple of iterations to truly come into its own. The hardware and the operating system both feel very opinionated to me, not so much in terms of what you do with it, but how you do the things you do.

I’m not so enamored of the Vision Pro4Or the company, despite all evidence to the contrary that I’m going to try and spin the lack of a “killer app” into a positive. But the lack feels less urgent and less relevant now than it did before I started using the device.

Having a killer app necessarily limits how you think of the entire platform; the iPad is now “my Procreate5Or more accurately, Pixaki, since I’m mostly doing art for the Playdate machine,” the PS5 is “my Jedi Outcast machine,” and the Quest is “the thing I use to play Half-Life: Alyx.” (Using my Windows PC, which is now just “my Steam box.”) I still think of the Mac Plus as the box I used for HyperCard and Dark Castle. In a sense, it’s still too early for the Vision Pro to be narrowing its focus. Assuming Apple has the patience to weather sluggish sales and critical first impressions, ideas will be able to percolate and eventually coalesce into something that’s a unique must-have. Until then, there’s enough of a novelty factor to make familiar apps just a little more “delightful.”

In other words: no, chasing a niche market of comic book fans by adding some 3D gimmickry will never be the “killer app” that justifies the existence of the platform. But it would be a delightful twist on something familiar, which has been Apple’s MO for most of its existence.

  • 1
    Which I admit I kind of forgot existed
  • 2
    For better or worse. (I say mostly better, if only because it expands the audience).
  • 3
    For pages that are laid out traditionally, at least. I don’t have a clear idea how common or rare it is for comics to be made entirely digitally at this point.
  • 4
    Or the company, despite all evidence to the contrary
  • 5
    Or more accurately, Pixaki, since I’m mostly doing art for the Playdate