Illustration by John Hersey
It's really happening: Barnes & Noble keeps closing stores, Newsweek published its last print issue, and the thriftiest tablet on the market costs less than three new hardcover novels. Storytelling certainly isn't dead, but everyone from creators to publishers find themselves negotiating growing pains as print sales continue to decline. Depending on who you talk to, the growing dominance of web-based media is either an opportunity for growth, poison in the well, or business as usual. This translates into an open playing field where many are experimenting with telling stories using new technology.
Two Bay Area creative firms are seizing the moment with two unique apps for the iPhone and iPad: Madefire, a Berkeley-based company that's redefining digital comics, and Ying Horowitz & Quinn, the San Francisco-based firm responsible for the multimedia novel The Silent History. Both apps emerge from teams who have evolved the traditional publishing ranks to include creative-minded engineers — specifically those fluent in designing for the mobile web — in addition to marketers, creatives, and editors.
With tech in their DNA, they were able to develop interactive elements using the innovations of mobile devices along with the stories themselves, ensuring a more seamless integration of cutting-edge tech and storytelling. And both Madefire and The Silent History use a traditional publishing idea — serialization — to keep readers satisfied with new content; new chapters are seamlessly pushed to your mobile device.
Madefire is taking a classic serialized medium — comic books — and evolving them into interactive motion books, designed exclusively for digital. Madefire's motion books feature animations, panoramic views with 360-degree navigation, and punchy music and sound effects in an immersive story environment that feels like walking through a comic's innards. Creators are able to manipulate individual characters and backgrounds via the company's proprietary motion graphics tool suite, yielding a rich experience that unfolds at the pace of the reader's swipes on a mobile device. Swipe: A new character emerges in a dense cityscape. Swipe again: He's suddenly run through by an assassin's blade. Swipe again: scene change to a sweeping panoramic view of downtown Tokyo, which can be zoomed in on and investigated for details in the art. This interactive storytelling experience is more like a user-directed digital animation and distinctly unlike its predecessor, the "motion comic," which merely repurposes print comic artwork into a stilted cartoon.
These attempts to bring print comics to digital market saw a fever pitch of activity in the mid-'00s, but were greeted with a slap in the face by the comics' community, derided for their lack of creativity. Madefire feels that slap, but is doing something decidedly different: designing stories exclusively for the digital environment. They are, as Watchmen co-creator Dave Gibbons proudly proclaims on Madefire's website, "creating a new grammar" for comics, and indeed for storytelling. It's a revolution in the making ... if they can find an audience.
Madefire's Berkeley studio is the kind of ultra-modern loft space that looks better suited to a SOMA designer than a comic book company. Its wood and steel frame, dominated by an enormous window array at its center, suggests an austere start-up environment within — its contents uniformly clean, minimal, and in varying shades of Apple's signature silver and white.
That's only partly true. What fills the spaces between in this cozy loft space is art — comics, to be exact, most of which are print-ready pages from the notebook of Madefire co-founder Liam Sharp. Sharp has worked as a professional illustrator for clients such as Marvel and U.K. magazine 2000AD for 25 years. He and his cohorts are wolfing down a quick lunch — most of them preferring to stand — amid the happy chaos of humming monitors, flow charts, and various other tasks.
Sharp is a gregarious, stocky Brit with a strongman's build and bald head not unlike Batman nemesis Bane, with a hearty smile in place of a face mask. "The pacifist Bane," he amends. Various robots, beasts, and other arcane beings line the wall behind a half-dozen of Madefire's engineers, animators, and editors.
The juxtaposition of austere exteriors and expressive interiors is an apt metaphor for the motion books experience on the iPhone. That contrast seems to extend to two of Madefire's principals: Sharp as the company's creative firebrand finds a crucial foil in the front-facing, business-savvy Ben Wolstenholme. Wolstenholme is the former CEO of Moving Brands, a U.K.-based branding agency with offices in S.F. that originally brought him to the Bay Area. He and Sharp grew up together in the U.K., where they both attended art school. Sharp, an urban warrior with his shorn head, piercings, and combat boots, appears the exact opposite of clean-cut Wolstenholme, who in designer jeans, oxford shirt, and Adidas sneakers looks every bit the preppy ad man on casual Fridays.
Yet Wolstenholme lights up like a comics geek when he presents Mono, one of Madefire's ongoing titles, on an iPad mini. Mono is one of their earliest titles, with three issues to its name. It is the story of an ape-human hybrid with a weaponized tail and his adventures as a spy serving the British Crown in the mid-20th century. It's a brooding adventure-fantasy period piece whose settings and characters wouldn't be out of place in a Terry Gilliam film. On the iPhone, Mono impresses with its painterly style of illustration and its grim palette; on an iPad, it's several degrees more absorbing. The dark renderings take on a new dimension as Wolstenholme zooms in to pick up details in the background. The immersive experience is like walking into a painting that yields to every inquiry.
Wolstenholme gleefully swipes through, searching for a specific panorama. He finds it and begins toggling through the image of a war-torn English village — rendered in a full 360-degree drawing — until he finds the title character sneakily cloistered in a third-story window. When asked who drew it, he responds, "Me."
"The one word you hear most often in comics is 'no'," says Ben Abernathy, editorial director for Madefire. He should know: His previous job, as editor of DC Comics' digital division, was to approve creative decisions on behalf of one of the two biggest comics publisher in the United States (Marvel being the other). Generally, the comics industry has been slow to embrace digital, reliant on a complex infrastructure surrounding its print product. Typically, comics are pre-ordered by retail shops through Diamond, the exclusive print comics distributor. That's roughly 1,800 shops nationwide served by one distributor. For all intents and purposes, there's still no room for digital in that model.