Impact City review by Jason Thompson

Posted by on November 10th, 2010 at 12:01 AM

Nekozumi (with app design by Mangako)
iPhone & iPod Touch
Free (chapter one); $1.99 (chapters two and up)

One of the core strengths of comics, like prose, is that you can read them at your own pace. All the art and text is there to be seen as quickly as your eyes can process it and your hands can turn the pages (or use the mouse). Attempts to mix comics with limited animation have been around ever since the first Web-comics, but it’s not by accident that the most popular Web-comics are still the ones in traditional formats. Of course, Web animations are also extremely popular, even very limited animation, like Zero Punctuation and the works of Brad Neely, which are basically just slide shows with soundtracks. But screw with the balance just a little bit — take away the ability to read a comic at your own pace, or remove the soundtrack from an animation and put all the dialogue in text balloons — and you have a bad user experience which combines the worst aspects of both media.

Impact City, a manga by French mangaka Nekozumi with an interface developed by Mangako (www.mangako.com), promises a better read because it’s specifically designed for the iPhone and iPod Touch. Unlike the jillions of scanlated analog manga available online or on apps like MangaDL and MangaRock, each panel fits into the iPhone landscape view (there is no portrait view support) so you won’t need to scroll and zoom to read the manga on a tiny screen: “No more zooming!” Mangako’s app description boasts. “The TDC™ (True Digital Comic) Technology developed by Mangako gives the opportunity for digital creators and story tellers, to build a project that fits into the device it is meant to be read on.” If that were all, though, it wouldn’t be very different from the iPhone comics from companies like Tokyopop and NTT Solmare, which fit manga into one iPhone-screen-sized panel at a time, the equivalent of panning-and-scanning old movies from widescreen to 3:4 ratio. (It’s worth mentioning that this entire small-screen problem is irrelevant on comics apps for the big-screened iPad, such as Viz’s recently released iPad app.) In Tokyopop and NTT Solmare’s digital comics, the reader taps the screen to go from panel to panel. The real distinction of Impact City is that, instead of flipping the pages by hand, the comic plays automatically, like a slide show. You can drag a slider to go forward or back among the panels, but there’s no preview image to show which panel you’re aiming for, and once the art appears on the screen, there’s no way to stop the story from ‘playing'; all you can do is adjust the playback speed, from “Very slow” to “Fast.” Dialogue balloons fade in and out, and a few camera movements and limited animations are mixed with the 2D, black-and-white slide show.

Unfortunately, Mangako, the developers of Impact City, make one critical failure: they don’t let you just turn off the slide show mode and read it as a comic. By forcing the reader to read at a predetermined pace, Impact City falls on the “animation” side of the tenuous “animation/comic” divide, and as an animation, it’s bad. Even the fastest speed was a slow read for me. Fight scenes which might have been dramatic with the reader’s mind filling in the action, and Scott McCloud’s magical “between the panels” effect described in Understanding Comics, are reduced to crude limited animation. The lack of a soundtrack (although you can input your own music and play your own soundtrack through the app) means there are no audio cues, so if you get bored and glance away from the phone, it’s easy to get lost. For that matter, for a work whose stated design goal is to be iPhone-native, there’s no good reason why the art isn’t in color or a less high-contrast B&W; imitation of print manga tropes seems to be the only real answer. Lastly, the pause function is restricted to artificial “page breaks”; when you pause the comic/video, it often resumes playing a little bit before or after where you paused.

To its credit, Impact City does use the iPhone medium in some other interesting ways. In addition to reading the comic, you can look at character information, download a selection of color artwork to your iPhone, and watch a video interview with Nekozumi, although the interview didn’t work on my iPhone 4G and I had to watch it on YouTube. You can also choose the language for the text: English, French, German, Spanish or Japanese. The most fun enhanced-comic feature may be the clickable info boxes which show up at points in the story. There are different icons for gazetteer-style information about terms in the story (often feeling unfortunately irrelevant) and personal notes from the author, like the asides which manga artists occasionally write in the margins. (“I love drawing the Tricksters with their jack-o-lantern heads atop bodybuilder frames……my mother tells me it’s no surprise that I can’t sleep well if I spend my days drawing things like that.” “I remember an episode of Gintama, where the protagonist explains that manga character should be recognizable just by their shadow.”)

The app engineering of Impact City may be forward-thinking, but the actual content is less so. Kaelan, a teenager gifted with the power to “turn the body’s energy flow into matter” to summon a Caduceus staff out of his arm, returns to his childhood home of Impact City in search of the secret of his vanished parents. (He also wants to become a “jouster,” this manga’s name for a champion tournament fighter.) He runs into Master Fox, a chibi talking fox who runs a dojo and trains Phoenix Unutsi (Kaelan’s mohawked friend-or-is-he-a-rival?) and Ciel Bluskuro (an “independent, feisty and impetuous” girl first spotted standing on top of a pile of beaten-up punks in an alley). The characters don’t do things as much as things happen to the characters: first, Kaelan is spied on by the Sphynx cats, three sneaky talking cats named after different kinds of pasta; then, Kaelan, Ciel and Phoenix are attacked by the Tricksters, evil minions who deliver threatening dialogue (“How interesting! Von Dice’s son! We knew you’d come back to avenge your father some day!”). A few pages/minutes later, it’s the next day, and Kaelan and Ciel forget about this foreshadowing and decide to enter a fighting tournament just to raise some money. The world-building is as light as the mood: Kaelan, who can generate a magic staff out of his body, reacts to a flying opponent with a shocked “That thing can fly?! Now I’ve seen everything!”

In short, it’s all very much in the style of the world’s manga-iest manga, with the cute asides of shojo and (less successfully) the action of shonen, in a setting which reminds me a bit of Dream Gold: Knights in the Dark City (or is it just the similar names?). The setting is in any case a weak spot: there are a few nice cityscapes in the background, but they are too obviously separated from the figures, and the Photoshop-texture brick alley in the fight scene gets old fast. The character art is crisp, particularly in the bonus color pieces, but some of the profile shots are awkward and the character designs are far too thoroughly steeped in Shonen Jump and Wings for any surprises to peek through. Impact City‘s biggest flaw as a manga, though, is that the emotional reactions to the action just aren’t there, neither the characters’ reactions nor in our reactions as readers. The first chapter is free, but the second chapter (and the as of November 1st not yet available third) are available as in-app purchases for $1.99. As an app designer, Mangako makes mistakes, but at least they show a willingness to take risks. As an artist, Nekozumi produces a passable imitation of tween manga, but doesn’t take any risks that might make Impact City something more.

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all images [©2010 Nekozumi]

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