Madefire’s Comics Bring a New Visual Grammar to the iPad

Allow me to geek out for a moment. (Okay, for the entirety of this article.) I was 13 years old in 1980, when George Lucas released The Empire Strikes Back. Like every other boy my age, I had enjoyed Star Wars, but I can’t say that I’d been bowled over by it. I saw it as a Flash Gordon-style space adventure. But when I walked out of Empire, fresh from the revelation that Vader is Luke’s dad, I was awed to the core. Lucas had suddenly revealed the true, epic ambition of his story, and had changed the way audiences related to the characters. Watching that movie was like discovering that a favorite childhood storybook was actually a portal into a fully layered world, populated by troubled adults with complicated pasts (plus, of course, cool spaceships and a John Williams soundtrack).

We can argue later about whether Lucas delivered on this promise in Return of the Jedi and the prequels. But I have a good reason for bringing up this bit of ancient history. My first look at Madefire’s new iPad app this week was an Empire moment. The Madefire app and the seven original graphic novels that come with it—including one written by Watchmen co-creator Dave Gibbons—have completely altered my sense of what a digital comic can be, and what to expect from this new medium in the future.

Starting today, you can try Madefire’s app, too. Just as important, the Emeryville, CA-based company—which has raised about $2 million from True Ventures and a group of angel investors including Apple software chief Sina Tamaddon—is opening up the authoring toolkit behind the reader app, giving creators of comics and graphic novels an exciting new way to construct and publish visual stories.

It’s about time. If you’ve seen the titles that Marvel, DC, and other comic-book publishers have ported to the iPad and other tablets, you know that the genre hasn’t really grown much beyond its roots. Most iPad comics are simply flat, digitized versions of their print companions, with the same old six-or-so-panels-per-page layouts. (The only real innovation in these apps is the option to view one panel at a time, rather than having to zoom and pan around a page manually.) By throwing out a lot of the crusty old comic conventions and introducing a few new ones, Madefire’s so-called “motion books” allow creators to mix words and images in a kinetic way that stops short of true animation, yet still smacks of cinema. Finally, we’re getting digital comics worthy of the iPad.

“In the digital comics that have been tried so far, there is a kind of apologetic feel,” as if the publishers are trying not to shock an aging readership accustomed to static, print comics, says Madefire’s chief creative officer Liam Sharp, a British comic book artist known for his work at sci-fi magazine 2000 AD and U.S. comic book titles like X-Men, Spider-Man, Superman, Batman, and Spawn. “We are taking the tropes of the medium and trying to see if we can create something fresh, using layers and sound and all of the technology in the iPad.”

That is exactly what Madefire has done. The first issue of the flagship title Treatment, created by Gibbons and illustrated by digital artist Kinman Chan, dispenses with panels altogether. Instead, the action in this near-future televisual thriller—think Blade Runner meets COPS—is broken into scenes, with each scene resolving itself in layers (a tap on the “forward” button on the right edge of the screen brings up a new layer). Speech bubbles pop up in the order spoken, new characters sidle in from the edges of the canvas, and objects sometimes jiggle around, allowing you to peek behind them.

It’s a completely new way of presenting action. “The way people have been writing for us, they ditch the page metaphor and start to think in sequences,” says Madefire founder Ben Wolstenholme. “Dave [Gibbons] talks about trying to evolve a new grammar. We want to make people look at the fabric of storytelling—left to right, top to bottom—and break that fabric.”

Sharp and Wolstenholme grew up on the same street in their English hometown. They also went to the same school, Central St Martins College of Art and Design in London, but diverged in the late 1990s—Sharp went into comics and graphic-novels world while Wolstenholme opened a … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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2 responses to “Madefire’s Comics Bring a New Visual Grammar to the iPad”

  1. Yay, someone finally invented game cut-scenes from 1992. Oh wait … Just another “old thing now special again because it’s on the ipad” story. As you were.

  2. Cymru Pride says:

    This is news worthy ??   Wasn’t this in the movie BIG ;-)
    And as already stated – in every game since the conception of Sierra or LucasArts… 
    OH, a comic book writer bought an iPad, and had the little light bulb on the head thing happen…. carry on.