Part one of the six issue Marvel motion comic Iron Man: Extremis debuted on iTunes, XBox Live, PlayStation Network and Microsoft Zune today for $1.99. This afternoon, in a special panel discussion at the Chicago Comic and Entertainment Expo, I was able to watch the first 20 minute episode of the series and listen to Marvel Editor-in-Chief Joe Quesada and Iron Man: Extremis producer Ruwan Jayatilleke discuss the project and the state of motion comics in general.

An adaptation of a popular 2005 Iron Man story from writer Warren Ellis and artist Adi Granov, the plot revolves around a military-sponsored nanotechnology serum called Extremis. When the serum is taken by an anti-government militia man, Tony Stark must become Iron Man to stop him. Unfortunately for Tony, when he is defeated he must use the Extremis serum himself to save his life. As a result of taking the serum, Tony gains significantly advanced strength and agility, but he also becomes more aggressive.

Thematically, the story shows Tony Stark as he struggles with the guilt of being a former weapons manufacturer and, as Iron Man, being a sort-of weapon himself. Both Warren Ellis’ revised origin for Iron Man and Adi Granov’s art from the Extremis storyline were major influences on John Favreau’s 2008 Iron Man film.

Motion comics occupy a unique space in the sphere of comic book consumption. While they are certainly more involved than traditional comic books, they don’t quite reach the complexity of a full blown animated film. As such, they are the perfect type of content for comic companies to sell digitally via mobile devices such as the iPhone or the new iPad (a tactic that Marvel has been pushing aggressively to gain new readers).

Iron Man: Extremis is Marvel’s fourth motion comic outing to date and the company’s most impressive offering by far. Purely from a visual perspective, Extremis is worth watching. Using complex CGI technology, Extremis enhances the already stunning artwork of the original comic book, literally allowing Granov’s characters to pop off the page with bright and richly textured colors. If I owned an iPad or a similar digital devise, I could easily see myself buying something like this for morning commutes.

As rich and satisfying as the visuals were, however, I was less impressed by how the characters were animated. The basic idea behind a motion comic is to bring a static comic book page to life. Unfortunately, to accomplish this task, the animators must sometimes force physical action that seems unnatural or stiff.

For instance, in a comic book panel, you might see a static character simply pointing toward the sky. For a motion comic, however, you will see that same character’s arm swing from the ground toward the sky. In a traditional animation, this scene would be drawn over a sequence of frames, allowing for the arm to raise in one smooth movement. With motion comics, however, the movement is much more rigid. In general, this was not a problem and I definitely enjoyed the comic, but in certain scenes I found it to be distracting.

Luckily, Marvel is just touching the tip of the Iceberg when it comes to their motion comic technology. When I asked Joe Quesada about the stiffness of the characters, he explained that the technology was constantly evolving and would improve with each new release.

“Remember the first CGI movies, or what special effects used to look like? All this stuff is in its infancy, and literally every minute new technology gets developed and its stuff that we apply to what it is that we’re doing.”

Quesada also noted the limitations of motion comics such as tight deadlines and smaller budgets.

“The trick with motion comics is to apply very sophisticated technology within a certain shortened time period…If we had millions and millions of dollars to spend on these and months and months and months to really devote to every single nuance, then it would look like sophisticated computer graphics…My goal with motion comics personally from an artistic sense is to someday look at these and go, “Wow, those are incredibly archaic” to where we’ll be five years from now.”

Producer Ruwan Jayatilleke added that for Marvel’s next motion comic project (the subject of which he wouldn’t disclose), the company would be employing new techniques and taking advantage of new technologies.

“I would say for our next project…the solution that I’m looking at is we get to play a little bit more with 3D architecture and actually building a depth to the environment.”

For a closer look at Iron Man: Extremis, check out  the first trailer for the series below.

If you’re interested in downloading the first episode, you can find it on iTunes here.

Do you think motion comics are an interesting new medium? Would you purchase Iron Man: Extremis?