“It’s about creating a new grammar. Not just for comics, though that’s where we’re starting, but eventually for all types of stories. A new era for storytelling.” This is the bold claim that Madefire founder Ben Wolstenholme told me last week, while showing me Madefire’s plans for the future. Those plans include changing the way we think about storytelling, disrupting comic books, and harnessing the power of the iPad in new and creative ways.
The “new grammar” is key to understanding what Madefire is trying to do. Not grammar in the sense of punctuation and spelling, but a new language, or a new medium. A new way of expression.
If that sounds like a lofty goal, even idealistic, that’s because it is. It’s the sort of thing people talk about, but never really try, because it’s so hard to do. Sure, it’s one thing to create a new interface for how people communicate via email, but it’s something different entirely to try to change how people express themselves creatively.
Lofty as it is, from all appearances Madefire and Wolstenholme do seem like they are on to something.
The process starts with an idea for a comic book. Right now, the company has signed up creators like Dave Gibbons, of “Watchmen” fame, Bill Sienkiewicz, and Liam Sharp. The creators were approached by Madefire to produce exclusive content that isn’t just about bringing comics to the iPad, but more importantly, about pushing the entire storytelling process forward.
The comic creation process follows a normal route. The story is written, and the artwork is created. But what’s drastically different are the tools used to bring this artwork to the iPad.
Madefire has created a browser-based tool for compiling the comics. Creators can use simple Photoshop files and upload them, with the tool automatically filtering the layers to create 3D, gyroscopic scenes. The tool can be used to simultaneously create an iPad and, eventually, an iPhone version of the comic. The tool is focused on making it simple for the creators to create immersive experiences for the reader.
Not to over hype an unseen background tool, but it really does make a big impact on the final product. The tools allow the comic to really push the limits. To illustrate this, take the covers of the comic books the company has published. Once a Photoshop file is uploaded, with all of the layers, it is imported and rendered by the tool. Then, instead of simply being relegated to a static image, the entire image is tied to the gyroscope, giving it the feel of a very real 3D situation. When you move around the iPad, the entire image moves, making it entirely immersive.
So what’s the difference is between Madefire and Comixology, the largest comic provider for the iPad? The real answer is that although Comixology does have the majority of historical titles scanned in and available for the iPad, the company isn’t pushing the limits.
According to Wolstenholme, the companies are playing two different games. Comixology brings old titles to a new platform, without considering what the new platform has to offer. To be clear, it’s not that Wolstenholme is against classical titles, but that there is more innovation possible when you take off the limits of a paned, 21-page comic book.
As of today, Madefire is an iPad application that brings the comic book industry into the 21st century. The application launched this month, and so far the feedback has been great.
“I know it’s normal for startups to tell you this, but the feedback really has been surprising,” Wolstenholme told me. As he flicks through the App Store reviews, there are hundreds of comments that are all five-stars, with two negative complaints. One of which, according to Wolstenholme, was written by a competitor.
App Store reviews shouldn’t normally be considered as a professional critique, but Madefire has really struck a chord. Even I, someone who isn’t a longtime comic book reader, find the experience worth coming back to.
And that’s what Apple apparently sees in the technology, because the company has been wholly supportive of them, even going so far as featuring the application in the “New and Noteworthy” and “What’s Hot” sections of the App Store. It’s not just Apple, either, as the company is receiving advice from Flipboard founder Mike McCue. These close ties to Apple mean that the platform is only available for iOS, with an iPhone version coming later this year.
Aside from the technology and stories being crafted for the platform, there is the underlying passion of Wolstenholme and his cofounders, Eugene Walden, and Liam Sharp, which is driving the company forward. The passion to change storytelling started when Wolstenholme, who had previously started the London/San Francisco-based branding company Moving Brands, realized that there was a world of potential here.
Reminiscent of Push Pop Press, which was acquired by Facebook, the company is gutsily trying to create the next “era of storytelling.” Yup, the thing that’s been around for millenia. It’s either crazy or brilliant, but I’m inclined to go with “a little of both.” This crazy passion for change, and a path to force that change, is what will likely give the company a leg up over the competition.
[Illustration by Hallie Bateman]