Madefire’s Comics Bring a New Visual Grammar to the iPad
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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 Phone.com 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.
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 … Next Page »