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Comic Books Spring to Life as Video Games

First came the comic book superheroes – Batman, Superman, and Spiderman rising like pop-culture phoenixes from the pages of comic books. Then came the video games, the pixel-heavy phenomenon that captured and held the attention of American youth for entire afternoons and late into the night.

The next inevitable step toward satiating the entertainment appetites of 18- to 34-year-old males was casting the comic book superheroes as the stars of video games.

So went the evolution of the youth-oriented video-game culture, catapulting the gaming category into the No. 1 spot of the children’s entertainment industry.

The business is poised to lead the entertainment industry into the future. Industry experts predict that the next frontier for the gaming business will be the creation of entire franchises released simultaneously for maximum marketing effect.

John Kuraica, director of the Game Art & Design and Media Arts & Animation programs at The Art Institute of California – Sacramento, says he sees a trend toward companies releasing comic books and graphic novels in tandem with their related video games.

Kuraica, who has worked as a senior environment artist for Electronic Arts, LucasArts, and several smaller studios, says that some companies develop traditional and digital graphic novels that tell a deeper story about the game’s characters and their world. These graphic novels are then distributed, sometimes for free, to help create awareness for the upcoming game release. Many of the graphic novels are available on the iPad and on large social networking sites, where they often acquire substantial numbers of “fans.”

“They’re crossing boundaries and genres,” says Kuraica, who worked on the game “Dead Space” for Electronic Arts. “In the past, people who would purchase comics didn’t necessarily play games. Now the marketers are trying to cross-promote novels with games. I believe that we are just seeing the beginning of this trend.”

There’s often a common storytelling thread between the graphical art of comic books and the interactive element of video games, particularly as some games now focus on narrative over “hack-and-slash” game play.

The main technical distinction between comic book and video game design is the difference between 2D and 3D art.

Dave Bogan, an art director at Telltale Games, works with a concept artist early in the process to set a game’s style, especially when the team is building a 3D game translated from a 2D comic.

“You’re responsible for translating that into 3D and having it hold up, because a lot of 2D stuff is very stylized and actually does not work in three dimensions,” Bogan says. “You’ve got to solve certain problems and make certain sacrifices to translate it into 3D.”

Comic artists attempt to draw characters from the most appealing angles, Bogan says, meaning that certain angles that need to exist in a 3D game are never created for a game development team to use.

For example, the company’s “Sam & Max” video game characters, based on the independent comics from Steve Purcell, are truly 3D and viewable from any angle. But when translating the characters into the video game “Strong Bad’s Cool Game for Attractive People,” the art department at Telltale Games decided to keep most of the characters 2D by only showing the 3D models from certain angles. When translated into 3D, Bogan says, the characters “fell apart” when viewed from certain angles.

“There’s a reason the comic artists never draw the unseen angles,” Bogan says. “Because the character looks ugly, or off-model, or unlike himself or herself from those unappealing angles.”

Sculptors are another subset of artists who create 3D characters based on comic books. Take the example of Ben Misenar, a 2007 graduate of the Industrial Design Technology program at The Art Institute of Seattle who sculpted the seven figures of the recently released game “Heroclix Blackest Night Starter,” based on The Green Lantern character from DC Comics.

As a freelance sculptor, Misenar creates game pieces both digitally and with traditional materials such as pliable metal, kneadable epoxy, shaping tools, and putty.

In Misenar’s world, translating a character from a 2D comic book to a tangible 3D model is a much different process from what Bogan’s art department follows. Still, like video game design, the final product is a combination of creativity, technique, and technological skill. Success is in striking the right balance of hands-on modeling and digital manipulation, Misenar says.

“Digital and traditional sculpting are both valid methods for production, but it’s important to understand their respective strengths and weaknesses,” Misenar says.

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