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 digital advertising agency called Moving Brands. The agency wound up building iPhone and iPad apps for some of its clients, and when the two classmates got together a couple of years ago in London, Wolstenholme asked Sharp how the iPad was changing the comics world. “The answer was not much,” Wolstenholme says.

“Then I was over here in San Francisco working for a couple of brands in the True Ventures portfolio, and I thought, ‘There has got to be a way to tell these stories in an iPad-first way,'” he continues. Automattic CEO and True venture partner Toni Schneider connected Wolstenholme and Sharp with Eugene Walden, a software engineer and user-interface architect who’d built some of the earliest mobile browser technology at and OpenWave in the 1990s, and the trio started early development of a HTML5-based reader that would be able to present graphics, words, animations, sounds, and other story elements in a more interactive away. True agreed to fund the experiment, and Madefire was born.

The Madefire Store

Sharp says the art in most Madefire titles is created in the traditional way—using pencil and ink. It’s then digitally colored in Adobe Photoshop, and the images are imported into Madefire’s authoring tool, which lets artists position each layer, specify its behavior, and add lettering, transitions, sound effects, and music. The finished digital comics and graphic novels live on Madefire’s servers and are downloaded to the reader app on demand.

There’s lots of action in Madefire’s titles, but no one will confuse them with the “motion comics” released by Marvel and DC, which typically use voice acting instead of lettering. “Motion comics were great and they were fun and forward thinking, but ultimately as soon as you’ve got a voice actor, it becomes a passive experience,” says Sharp. “The thing about comics is they’re not passive. You are reading, choose where to focus, interpreting the imagery. We were very keen that we should remain interactive.”

Sharp and Wolstenholme collaborated directly on a new title called Mono; the first issue is included in the Madefire app. The title character is a Neanderthal-like “throwback” who supposedly served the British government as an assassin, super-soldier, and spy from the Boer War through the Cold War. Here, the story is told largely through traditional panels, but they slide or dissolve into view at the right moment. Near the end of the first episode, the story makes a stop at a battlefield outside Caen, France, which is represented through a fully navigable, 360-degree panorama. Exploring the image is like standing inside the comic. (There’s an even more bizarre and disturbing panoramic scene in Captain Stone, a Madefire title that Sharp created with his wife Christina McCormack.)

“My view is that there is a time for a nice flow of image, words, image, words, and that should probably be 70 percent of the read, but then there are splash pages and dream images and fight scenes and flashbacks and cutaways and reveals where we have a huge opportunity to punctuate the story and surprise or shock the reader,” says Wolstenholme.

So you won’t see page after page of static panels in Madefire titles. You also won’t see any familiar superheroes. “We are trying to do all-new, original material,” says Wolstenholme. “There is very little new material breaking in the traditional comic industry. Marvel and DC have all these amazing characters already, and it is quite hard for people to break into that market with new characters. The Treatment is a great example of that, and Captain Stone.”

“This century needs its new creations and its new myths and legacies to get behind,” adds Sharp.

The business of Madefire, for a while anyway, will be to promote those new creations, not necessarily to make lots of money. Wolstenholme says the company intends to give away all new episodes of its seven launch titles. It will also let individual artists or small teams use the authoring tool for free (though larger publishers will have to buy licenses). Madefire will also carry creators’ titles in its in-app store, keeping a minimal cut of whatever price the creators decide to charge. “The whole mindset is about getting these tools out to be used,” says Wolstenholme. “We will take the smallest margin we can. We are really about adoption, for as long as we can sustain that.”

While Sharp and Wolstenholme decided to start out with a focus on comics and graphic novels, the reader and the authoring tool could obviously lend themsleves to other types of visually rich publications—say, cookbooks or textbooks. “We felt we should go out with a genre that has a lot of magic in it, but we believe this tool will work for any type of storytelling,” says Wolstenholme. “We can’t wait to see what people will build with the tools.”

But will they get a chance to see? If you’ve watched the Silicon Valley scene for very long, you’ve seen plenty of startups with cool, potentially disruptive technology platforms get scooped up by incumbents before their products even get a proper test in the marketpalce (Siri, Chomp, and Instagram are memorable recent examples). With that in mind, I asked Sharp and Wolstenholme what they’d do if Marvel, which is owned by Disney, or DC Comics, which is owned by Warner Bros., came knocking. (Together, these two companies control 86 percent of the comics market in North America).

Wolstenholme gave a diplomatic answer. “We would be thrilled to work with them, but we do think there is a lack of new material and a lack of new technology, and we feel like if we gave up on that mission to quickly we would have really missed a huge opportunity to stand for something special,” he said. “I don’t think anybody has established a great reading experience for the iPad, so our first goal is to really try and nail that. We feel there are a lot of new stories that can be told and need to be told.”

Sharp put it more succinctly: “We want to create the first digital classics.” Judging from the launch titles, they’re on their way.

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.