Sometimes the good stuff comes out of nowhere. When I agreed to take a look at a new iPad comics app during my time at SDCC, I expected to get a dull technical explanation and five minutes of p.r. speak from a flack in a suit. Instead, I saw the most amazing comics app I’ve ever seen – MADEFIRE – and was pointed towards a chair… whereupon comics giants Liam Sharp and Dave Gibbons joined me for a conversation about their role in creating and using this amazing “motion book” software. It was an incredibly pleasant surprise all around.
Thanks to Brooke Unverfurth for her invaluable transcription help.
MM: This is Marc Mason and I am here in the Comics Waiting Room with Dave Gibbons and Liam Sharp. Good morning guys.
LS: Good morning.
MM: We are here today to talk about Madefire, which I’ve just had demonstrated to me and I don’t even quite know how I would describe it, because it’s an utterly different application for comics online. How would you guys describe it?
LS: Well we’re definitely not sort of thinking about it as a comic, particularly. I think, we’ve got it as a “motion book” at the moment, it uses words and it’s a reading experience, so it’s still words, it’s still pictures, but we, I guess, we’re really thinking about doing something that’s native to the platform that we’re using, which is the iPad at the moment, rather than thinking about it in the paper term. So that’s kind of…
DG: I mean, to me, it seems very much a new medium, because you’ve got your roots in comics, but the possibilities are opened up by today’s technology. You can do things you couldn’t do in regular comics while still maintaining what Liam just mentioned as being a reading experience. It isn’t an animation, it isn’t a thing that you expect. It’s still an immersive reading experience that you have to put some work into.
MM: Yeah, you used the term “motion book” and we’ve had the term motion comic before, but this is well above and beyond anything we’ve seen in a motion comic. Where did this come from? Where did this start from?
LS: It really started with me – the co-founder Ben Wolstenholme, who has got a background in branding and has done some amazing things with technology in that medium space. And I guess, because I’ve done a bit of publishing myself, we had MamTor™ Publishing, I was aware how difficult it is to get new material out there in the print media. Everything is becoming a lot more boutique these days, so it’s like an opportunity with digital space to get material out to as wide an audience as possible. Once we started looking at the digital side, and talking about that, the iPhone started coming out – then then the iPad came out, and everything about possibilities shifted quite a bit, so we started thinking, “Well, what can this do?” We can have live lettering in here. We can have links. We can have stuff that is more like a story cloud and it doesn’t have to be linear in the same way that it was. I started thinking, well, the iPad is smarter than a piece of paper. Let’s see what it’s capable of. Let’s evolve that. We were introduced to Eugene Malden who is the tech founder and he really sort of brought a whole new level to it as well.
DG: I actually have some experience with motion comics because when the Watchmen movie was out, they came up with the idea of turning the Watchmen into a motion comic. And I was a bit reticent about it at first. What really made me think it was a good idea was I showed it to my two, as it were then, teenaged stepdaughters who didn’t read comics or anything, but when they saw the motion comic, they went “Wow! This is really cool!! How can we see more of this?” And it was an interesting experiment to do that motion comic, which was basically taking the original print issues and cutting them up and animating them, to see what worked and what didn’t. And the people who did it were really experts and put a lot of hard work into it, but we could see once it was done what worked and what didn’t. And the thing we’ve learned from that, with the Madefire thing, and we’re actually building on that, because what we’re witnessing, and what we’re a part of as well, is the evolution of a new medium, and that is thrilling to me, you know I’ve always loved comics, but I’ve always loved technology. I’ve been an early adopter of the iPad, the Mac to do artwork on, and it’s really interesting to be at the crossroads of two passions of mine and see how one can inform the other and we can come up with something that I think is new.
MM: I would agree with that. I think one of the things that they showed me was a page in one of the stories where I could do a 360 view of the entire scene. And I’m curious because both of you are very accomplished artists, how you would approach doing this sort of thing from the creative side, because you’re not just doing flat panels anymore, you know, 4/6/9 panel grid, you’re having to adapt your style of art and thinking to what this can do. Is that difficult? How do you do it?
LS: That’s actually my favorite thing so far. Last year when I came over for a few months, I’ve just moved over four months ago now, but when I came over and we initially got funded, one of the things we were talking about in an early meeting was like, we were sort of going through all the things – the wish list of what could be possible, and I just got a little app on my phone that you could take a 360 degree photograph, and then swipe it and look at everything you’ve just taken. You could go back to England and sort of look at a whole panorama of the scene that you’ve been in America. And it’s a pretty powerful thing. I just said to the guys, what if we could do this with a comic? You could pretty much be inside a comic page, which is… crazy… as a concept. So it seemed like a pipe dream, and then Eugene turned up one day and said, actually guys we can do it, I’ve figured it out. And that was just the real moment. And actually the process isn’t so bad. You have to create a landscape piece of art, the equivalent of four pages of the iPad page. And you drop it into one tool which creates the six sides of the view, as if you are on the inside, and it leaves a hole in the top and the bottom. You take it back and fill those holes in, and then you chop each piece up into a square, and then you drop it into a template with a tool that we’ve made. Which sounds complicated, but it’s actually, once you’ve done it a couple of times, which I have now, it all makes sense and it’s just really exciting. The possibilities of that are really exciting. Steve Niles has got some ideas about doing a story which is all of those, so each page is one of them and might be the inside of a haunted house or something like that, so every time you come back into the room, something’s changed and you have to move it around to find out what’s different.
DG: Yeah, I mean I think from an artistic point of view, and as Liam says, if you describe it, it sounds kind of complicated. It’s nothing like it’s complicated action to do, and of course Madefire also has got a tool which enables artists to assemble these things and it’s a really, nice clean piece of software. Which means if you have a reasonable technical grasp, as I think inevitably most artists nowadays have, because we all use Photoshop and stuff, if you can think of it, it’s really amazing to do to do with this tool. What it actually does, it extends your range. Because before, in comics, if you really wanted to do something that would blow people’s minds, the biggest you could go would be like a double page spread, or if you’re Jim Steranko, six double page spreads. You can cut out the comic, and assemble and put your head inside. You can now do that on this tool. So ok, you can now go beyond the double page spread. And the feeling it gives me, we were talking about this earlier, is what the iPad becomes when you’ve got this tool on there. It’s actually like a window that you can look through, and look through anything you like in a way that the comic relays the panel to the brain, a static picture behind, this is a frame, but there’s a moving world behind, and that’s a tremendous development that anyone could do before.
MM: It’s extraordinary, and I honestly came into this thinking to myself, oh, it’s another app, but I’ve never seen anything like it, and it definitely made me interested in seeing more of it and seeing what it can do, so you guys definitely hooked me in.
LS: I mean, one thing that is really key to it is we really care about the works of the pictures and we want it to be a reading experience. We don’t want any of the stuff that it does to be a gimmick. It has to service a story, it has to have a point and a reason for it. Because we’re kind of too old and long in the tooth to be messing around with bells and whistles if it’s not going to service the story, you know? It’s a bit like, to some extent, the silent film era, and then they made talkies. I think we’re in that pioneering stage of things and it seems a shame not to kind of run with it and see what could happen. I think the talent we’ve got is capable of exploiting that.
DG: I think the other thing that I really really like about it, and it’s something I’ve always liked about comics, is an artist can get their idea out there in a very pure form, you don’t have to compromise, it’s not like when you wanna make a movie, there’s only so much money that is going to be invested, so many people involved, it inevitably becomes watered down. With Madefire, you can come up with your story, your pictures, you can get it directly to the reader and potentially to many many many readers. And that, as an artist, it’s the pinnacle of what you want, it’s the ability to get your undiluted vision to as many people as possible.
MM: Absolutely. Gentlemen, thank you for your time today.
LS: Thank you very much.
Want a little controversy? Turn your eyes toward Jeffrey Kaufman. The indy comics writer/publisher who spends his days as an officer of the court has returned to the shelves with a new graphic novel provocatively titled WHORE. Why tempt fate and turning off retailers with the title? I asked him back at SDCC, and here’s what he had to say:
MM: This is Marc Mason in the Comics Waiting Room and I am here today with writer Jeffrey Kaufman. Jeffrey, hello.
JK: How are you doing, Marc?
MM: Good! Provocatively, you are standing in front of a large banner that says, “WHORE.”
JK: Yeah. You know, other than some parents wanting to kick me in the face, I feel pretty good about it. I feel pretty good. And women slapping their husbands. That’s my favorite too.
MM: Understandable. Now the book is actually not about a female who turns to the sex trade, it’s about a dude, correct?
JK: Yes. It’s about Jacob Mars. He’s a guy who does anything for money. He’s downsized from the CIA, owes about $100,000 in alimony and bills and has to take whatever job his handler can get him.
MM: Now what was the decision like to leave the word “Man” off the front of Whore?
JK: I think the idea, you know, when I think of “manwhore”, I think of it, it’s like a joke. One thing Mars isn’t. You know, he’s got to do these things. He might find some amusement in it, but you know, it’s about the check to him.
MM: So the decision was to play it more straight, then?
JK: Everybody wanted me to use a different title. Because half the stores aren’t going to carry this.
I said, but that’s who Mars is. And you know, I can be stuck in my ways in certain things and not care, but Mars is a whore. He knows he’s a whore and that’s the best way to describe him. I’m not going to change it.
MM: Now we were just chatting a second ago and you were talking about how you reached this point with the graphic novel. You started out writing pamphlet floppies and you had an interesting go of it, correct?
JK: Yeah, I did thirty-one single issue books as my own publisher and working with other companies and I just got beaten like a baby seal. I had to walk away for six months and when I finally got the opportunity to come back, I wanted to just write full stories. So I wrote the first story of Terminal Alice where I killed eighty-two people, and they had two sex scenes, one in a coffin. Well the only way to follow that up is with something worse. And the only guy I could think about was Jacob Mars. I mean Mars is a truly, true – I mean, his moral compass hasn’t pointed north since the ‘90s. So… it’s fun to write for a guy who has no accountability.
MM: What interests me about what you just said is you went through those thirty-one issues and you took a beating…how did you not just throw up your hands and quit?
JK: I’m an idiot. I’m a fan boy. I’m an idiot. I don’t…having a dream is a difficult thing. And knowing when to quit is for much smarter people than me. I just couldn’t look at myself until I’d given every little bit that I had and I still have it, so…I keep going forward.
MM: So you’re feeling good these days and you’re still working forward and going for it….are you thinking about what’s next for you?
JK: Well, this book came out. We have two other graphic novels following, Angel Fall and then Wildwood. It feels good. It feels good knowing what you’re doing, you learn from everything. Learning from failure is the key. And when I see something weak in a book, I don’t repeat it. When I used to act a certain way…I also produce these books. So being the art director and forcing things to happen instead of just sitting by, you know, there’s a responsibility. You have to treat this like a business. And if you don’t, you know, your failure is your fault, and your fault alone.
MM: Sound advice indeed. Jeffrey Kaufman, thanks for talking with us today.
JK: Hey, it’s always a pleasure.
Thanks to Brooke Unverfurth for her invaluable transcription assistance!