The movie “Captain America: The First Avenger” hits theaters today, the latest in a slew of comic book-based movies that have dominated the box office in the last decade. In fact, “Captain America” is the fifth film based on a comic book to emerge in 2011 alone, following “The Green Hornet,” “Thor,” “X-Men: First Class” and “Green Lantern.”
The popularity of comic books at the movies has made the medium hotter than ever, and now this phenomenon is crossing over into business content delivery. SmarterComics has published more than a dozen titles on business and self-improvement in the comic book format. Some of these books are original content and others are adaptations of popular business books like The Long Tail by Chris Anderson and The 80/20 Principle by Richard Koch.
Franco Arda, CEO and founder of SmarterComics, left investment banking two years ago and was working on several start-ups. “I had a lot of notes [that] I had written [during] the last 10 years and I wanted to write a short book for my daughter to guide her in her success. A text-based book, I thought it looked boring,” Arda said.
“Also, it was ideas of negotiations, statistics, trends of becoming a millionaire, and it was sometimes a bit dry.”
So Arda spoke to a comic artist and developed his first comic book, Fortune Favors the Bold. He then moved on to developing prototypes of comic books based on already published books, showed these to colleagues, and the idea went over well. SmarterComics began putting out a steady stream of titles.
The process starts with a script. It’s “similar to a movie script, so each panel, you describe it,” Arda said. “We know exactly what the book is going to look like in terms of text and situations and the artist knows what we’re looking for but he can still be artistic in the sense that he gets freedom in each panel but still is guided.”
For learning and development professionals looking to use this approach in their own content delivery, Arda emphasizes the importance of the script. “Any idea that they try to transmit, it’s very important that somebody understands the combination of text and artwork very well,” he said. “Because if you have a little bit of text and mostly illustration and they support each other … it’s clear. If they don’t match each other, it doesn’t work and that’s a beginning mistake [we made]. Now we got a professional scriptwriter — actually two.”
One of these scriptwriters is Cullen Bunn. Bunn writes for Marvel Comics — he’s done a couple issues of the book Deadpool and is involved in Marvel’s ongoing event Fear Itself. He also writes a title for Oni Press called The Sixth Gun. But prior to getting started writing comics, Bunn worked in the corporate world for 15 years as a trainer, making him a perfect fit for his work with SmarterComics.
Bunn described how his process with Arda begins. “He sends me the book and I read it and pull out the key points and then figure out how to adapt that to a comic book format,” he said. Bunn then writes the script, sends it to Arda and it’s sent to a freelance artist.
Bunn spoke of the difference between writing a comic book for a general audience versus a business one. “When I’m writing a traditional comic it’s pretty much my idea and I just go for it, and in many cases it’s telling a story from page one to page 22 that I’m coming up with from the ground up,” he said. “When I’m adapting one of the business books, it’s more a matter of making sure I’m getting the ideas of the author and presenting them in a way that makes it easily digestible to the reader but also flows well. I concentrate a lot on memory triggers so someone reading the book sees the artwork in the panel, the dialogue and/or the caption for that panel.
If I’ve done my job, that imagery will form a memory trigger that cements it in their mind.”
The importance of these “memory triggers” is something Bunn has carried over from his time as a corporate trainer. In fact, he said he wishes he’d had books like this when he was a trainer. “I wish this idea [had been] around when we were doing training or when we were trying to get business ideas around to our company because I think it’s so much easier for [employees] to pick up this comic and read it and remember it,” he said.
However, the comic book process has its limits when applied to the business world. Bunn said some of the tricks-of-the-trade he can apply in writing traditional comics would not fly with a business audience. “With comics you can do things visually with the panel borders that indicate a flashback for instance or indicate that you’re maybe seeing the story from some other character’s point of view or you can play with time and space,” he said, adding that regular comic book readers know to expect the use of these kind of devices and understand what they mean. “I’m thinking about people who may have never read a comic maybe reading this, so I had to avoid some of those more off-the-wall techniques and make it a very traditional, what-you-see-is-what- you-get kind of story.”
According to Arda, people either love or hate SmarterComics’ products. “The hating was clear, because let’s say people are used to reading three, four hundred pages in a few days or week; they’re not going to turn to comics because it’s just a different medium [than] they’re used to reading,” he said. “But those people who maybe have a little time for reading or have difficulty in terms of concentration or whatever, they love the concept because it doesn’t feel like reading.”
Another part of the appeal here is how well these comic books adapt to being read on mobile devices. “Particularly for smartphones, reading text-based books can be a bit tough, but [with] comics, on an iPhone for example, you get about 300 panels and you can read them within an hour,” Arda said. “Even for a smart phone there’s just enough text and the pictures still look great and you can read them wherever you are. For example, if you have a book on sales, it can be like a five-minute refresher on your smartphone [while] you’re commuting to work, queuing somewhere or going to get your coffee.”
Daniel Margolis is managing editor of Chief Learning Officer magazine. He can be reached at email@example.com.