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Project Gamma brings intelligent audio to digital comics

Marvel Comics makes some serious sound waves at SXSW 2013 as it announces a plan to give its digital comics a smart soundtrack.

Marvel Comics expects to give fans a background score to listen to as they read their comics before the end of 2013, the entertainment company and publisher announced at SXSW 2013.

AUSTIN, Texas--From the band Love and Rockets lifting its name from the famous cult favorite Hernandez brothers' comic, to a suspiciously-coincidental Jack Kirby and Frank Zappa meeting, comic books and music have a long history of influencing each other.

The fusion of music and comics as directed by the comics' creators has been limited to a list of recommended tunes in the letters pages of the book -- until now. Today, Marvel Comics raised the curtain on a plan to turn that history on its ear with a digital comics-and-music fusion code-named Project Gamma.

Project Gamma is, in the words of Marvel Editor-in-Chief Axel Alonso, an "adaptive, non-repetitive score" that changes as a person swipes from panel to panel through a digital comic. Marvel is working with the production companies Momentum Worldwide and CORD, whose composers and producers have worked on "Harry Potter," "Drive," "The King's Speech," and "Looper."

"This is our first foray into a new dimension for comics," Alonso said from the floor of the Palmer Events Center here a few hours before Marvel's South by Southwest panel. "We'll get better and better as we move along."

Because it's adaptive, the score for each comic will change depending on the speed at which the reader flips through the panels.

Marvel refused to say which of its two digital comics platforms Project Gamma would be available on, but as I swiped through an iPad demo of the project that Alonso said was finished only the day before, it was hard not to notice similarities to Marvel's Comixology-powered iOS app's "panel guided view."

But regardless of what format Project Gamma finally takes when it makes it to the public, it was apparent that it worked as Alonso promised in the few minutes I was given to explore it. (No, I did not get dosed with Gamma rays. There will be no Hulking out.) The background music was different for each panel, and it didn't loop even after lingering on a panel for more than 30 seconds. This is important in comics, since the speed at which the reader moves from panel to panel can influence the pace of the story.

Effectively, Marvel has created a way to give its books cinematic musical scores without sacrificing the core reading experience. Alonso also said that the handful of "top Marvel writers" to whom he has shown Project Gamma have been impressed by it.

"What's going through your head when you read Thor: God of Thunder? Is it classical music? Speed metal? A little of both? Most writers have scores in the back of their heads. Kieron Gillen suggests a score in the back of Young Avengers," Alonso said, explaining that this is a natural fit for comics writers.

Marvel has not announced a release date for Project Gamma, although Alonso said that he expects it to be available to the public before the end of 2013. Gamma's price point, debut comic, and final name have yet to be determined, said Alonso.

He closed with an enthusiastic statement that sounded right at home among the startups vying for attention at South by Southwest: "I have no doubt that fans will respond positively to Project Gamma."