Madefire is the home for some of the most interesting and creative comics and comic-like items published. Their platform has enabled tremendous innovation in comics and is helping creators create unique material that combines the intimacy of comics with the immersive world of video games. Ray Sonne and Jason Sacks had the chance to speak with two of the heads of Madefire in this fascinating interview.
Ben Wolstenholme: We’ve recently moved more into the front room. So we’re actually gearing much more towards that than we thought we would be. So the Xbox is important.
Jason Sacks for Comics Bulletin: That’s interesting. So you’re seeing people reading the motion books on their large screen TVs then.
CB: Via their Xbox.
Wolstenholme: Yeah, we’re finding. Very early on we announced to Android TV, releasing just before Christmas.
Liam Sharp: Yes.
Wolstenholme: And frankly I haven’t got a ton of data yet, but we’ve been doing testing on like front room reading and just found that it’s a lot more exciting than we’ve realized.
Sharp: Yeah, I mean we had kind of an epiphany two years ago. Ben and I and Dave Gibbons did an interview in New York at the Apple Store. They’d rigged it up with a big screen behind it and the sound system and they played it through. It was just like actually this is going to work on a big screen. It was really palpable. We hadn’t witnessed it before then. But it was kind of a big surprise just how well it worked, I think probably because of the interactive level and how clear it was, and also just being able to hear the sound through a system.
You know, for saying how small those files are, I just take my hat off to the tech team because it’s incredible the quality of everything that they’ve managed to achieve. So we’ve been on that mission to made TV reading viable since then really.
CB: It makes sense because it’s such an immersive environment when done right. It feels like a video game type deep environment.
Sharp: Yeah. Yes, definitely got that feel. It’s very much a hybrid. It’s its own medium. The difference between printing on paper and it being on a screen is that the art is painting with lights, so you get much more vibrant colors and the motion and everything. It is additive rather than anything else.
Wolstenholme: I was just going to add on the grammar front we’re really interested in the reading versus watching or playing experience. So we’re very focused on it still remaining something you are in control of and that you are reading through at your own pace, so you don’t get that anxiety or feel like you have to keep up with something that’s running ahead.
It’s just become very easy with a little click of your mobile device to link to a set-top box or console. I think the genre of being able to add to your narrative and being able to augment stories in worlds that might be on television, film, or gaming is growing, the obvious example being Injustice, which is one of the most successful motion book series we have on Madefire.
Injustice is obviously, as you guys know much better than me, a game and derives its popularity from that. So you’ve got an audience who are already very significantly console-oriented who might want to know more about the characters or the worlds around them. So you can kind of dive between motion books and games, films, or television. They’re a lot easier to make than your average game.
That’s how we are looking at it, that reading has a role in amongst all these other modes.
CB: Right. It’s all part of the larger continuum. Right.
Ray Sonne for Comics Bulletin: I was actually wondering about a couple things, including the process of how you came up with the Madefire app. And how did you come up with all its features, like right now we are connecting it to video games? So did you come up with the moving panels in connection to video games and the background music?
Wolstenholme: I can take a start at that and then Liam can probably add much more.
Generally, CB, Liam and I and Eugene sat down and thought if we didn’t know about print and we wanted to tell a visual story with words and pictures on an iPad or an iPhone, what would we do? We really just kind of tried to let ourselves be creative with what the potential was. And of course you can do all sorts of things with sound and motion and layering and depth. But in a way it was like there’s a lot of capability and possibility, but we need to make sure that this is makeable by creators, that it’s not too complicated and that we remain a reading experience.
So we ended up thinking we can work in layers and we can have transitions and effects, but generally this should be something that is linear that you move through as a reader. It’s not like a massive non-linear, jumping around everywhere. But there is a story, so everything is in service of the story. And really we just wanted to use these devices to be able to add to the story with kind of sound and movement and depth if you want to as a creator. So that’s basically how we got to it. Really, in a way we were thinking if we didn’t know about print, what would we do with words and pictures, storytelling?
CB: Cool. How does that work? So MONO and Captain Stone is Missing, Both use these features a little bit differently. Like in MONO we have a good look at the battlefield via the moving panel. And that’s kind of to create some kind of intensity in the atmosphere. Whereas in Captain Stone is Missing, you try a more creepy approach were you use the dreamscape in order for that panel. So when you are coming up with a story that you tell, how do you decide which parts will be great for that panel, like which one will be the most atmospheric?
Sharp: What’s interesting is every single one of our books has a very different feel. The stories really dictate how we use the tank. We were really keen that whatever we did shouldn’t be a gimmick in any way and it should service the story. And so often when we are reading through scripts or we are creating our own stories, it becomes really apparent that any given moment…
For instance, in MONO as you’ve just described, you are looking at a panorama of a battle and there’s no better way to see than imagining yourself standing in the apex of that storm and looking in every direction and seeing the battle all around you and seeing the town in ruins. Really being part of it and also being able to find Mono in that landscape and see him up in that little crow’s nest, scribbling away in his journals.
Whereas in Captain Stone, by the same token it seemed perfect that you could embed yourself inside somebody’s head and have a really kind of potent, visceral kind of psychological moment with the story.
They both work in different ways. One’s looking outwards. One’s looking inwards. But when you’ve got the headphones on and you’re with it, it’s very personal and it really puts you in the moment. So different things in the story suggest different tricks and different approaches.
One of the things that we also realized, and Dave Gibbons was a big factor in this, he said that we’re sort of creating a new camera, and we are cameramen, not puppeteers. And it became just really important to use the stuff in fresh ways. So when you’re reading the script, sometimes it will suggest a whole new way of doing something. I was going to say that the thing we’ve found is that comedy and horror are particularly good because you’ve got this aspect of timing that you didn’t have before. So those things are a lot of fun to play with.
CB: You have a long history of doing regular comic book art. Like I was telling you, I’ve been working on my book about comics in the ’90s and your name is all over a lot of the solicitations there. For you as someone who was so grounded in comics (you were doing traditional work for fifteen/twenty years, how did you-
Sharp: Twenty-eight years now.
CB: And it’s not just you. There is Dave Gibbons and Bill Sienkiewicz who are also doing work in this new medium as well. How did you approach that kind of transition from just a purely creative standpoint?
Sharp: Well, part of the reason why we have these people attached is their vision has been realized. They’ve been part of works that changed the industry completely.
Bill Sienkiewicz did it several times actually, notably with Moon Knight initially and then Elektra: Assassin and then you can move forward to StCB Toasters, which was really pushing the envelope of what was print storytelling. Very, very influential work.
And of course, Dave Gibbons, what can you say? Watchmen is one of the most influential and the best-selling graphic novel of all time.
So those guys, Dave in particular, I’ve known for many, many years. If you are going to go and start developing how storytelling is going to work in a medium, you really want to be going to the visionaries of the medium that you’re in. That was the thinking more than anything. How do you do it with authenticity in a way that is very true to storytelling first and foremost?
We realized that when we started doing this that it was a difficult time and there was a lot of worry, particularly in the print world, about how it was going to impact on regular comics and the stores and all of that. And what we’ve seen is that print’s gone up increasingly year and year over the last two, three years. So it’s great for us to know that it hasn’t impacted on printed and that the audience is actually growing. We think that we’re actually feeding that audience by introducing new people to comics in a different area, in the digital area.
So, stepping back a little bit, the reason we got into this in the first place – there’s two reasons- Ben and I came together around storytelling primarily. I’ve got a print publishing company called Mam Tor, which started ten years ago with my wife who also co-writes Captain Stone. That Mam Tor, it was a great thing to do, but it was very, very hard to make any kind of living out of it and to get the material found, you know? Print was really struggling, and when you’ve only got one outlet through Diamond really, if you are going to get found in that previous catalogue, you better be doing something very big and very noisy.
If you haven’t got the budget for that kind of fanfare, then you’re kind of screwed. You are also going to get screwed on the print and the cost of print because you only got probably one or two books in the year. You are going to have the same problem with paying for advertising space within any of the traditional outlets for that, whether it was Wizard magazine at the time or Previews itself. The cost for independents to hire that kind of advertising space is a lot more than it is for the bigger companies that are established and have a lot of concessions having large amounts of material that they are pushing through the outlet.
So really it was a matter of necessity. I had stories I wanted to tell, having been around the industry as you mentioned, Jason, for so long. I was getting to a point where I really just wanted to tell some of my own stories. You can only draw other people’s characters for so long before the bug starts to bite and you really need to get a few stories out into the world.
When Ben and I reconnected after not seeing each other for a number of years because we were friends when we were a lot younger, just catching up, it was like, “What are you up to, Ben?” And Ben, it became clear, had numerous stories of his own to tell. This incredible drawing talent that had been festering the background while he was CEO of Moving Brands and it was just being wasted on… Well, it wasn’t being wasted, but we weren’t seeing it. There was no way for us to know what Ben was capable of. Only he wouldn’t say that himself, but it was just a shame to see Ben’s beautiful work just not being able to get out there and nobody knowing about it.
I started talking about digital and Ben had all this experience with Moving Brands and all the amazing innovative stuff they were doing there in digital areas. We started banging our heads together and talking about what might be possible if you took that into a digital space.
CB: And you came up with something that, as you were saying, has an authenticity, but it also feels different, which I think is what is really intriguing about it to me.
Wolstenholme: I was just going to jump in with Bill and Dave. I think it is okay to casually speak on their behalves and say that they always seem to feel like this is a quite natural extension of words and pictures storytelling.
I know that Dave often comments (we’ve done a few interviews over the years) what he likes about comics is how direct the vision is from your head through to the reader. Because there is not that many people in the middle compared to a film or a game or something like that. So it’s very direct from the creator to the reader.
The move to digital, I think they care about words and pictures storytelling and this to them feels like a very natural extension of that. They are very keen on getting a direct story from the creator’s head through to the reader, and comics are a very direct line. You really need a pencil and paper.
I think they like the fact that we are making tools in the digital platform that’s like a pencil and paper for people to get their books out in as direct a way as possible. I can’t speak for obviously… I’m drawing my first comic, so I’ve got no idea what’s like really to do a print versus a motion book.
It seems like all the guys I’ve spoken to who are forward thinking about this, they really see it as storytelling in words and pictures, and kind of love print and also wrapping their arms around digital for the fact that it’s really just that.
Sharp: I think what Ben said on there, it’s really about the story. When we come together and talk about things, when I talk to Dave or Bill, what we enthuse about is telling stories with words and pictures. That’s what we’re good at.
So if you are going to evolve reading in a digital space, the people you want to be talking to are the best people at mixing those two things together. And we really did have the best, you know. I think it helped us early on as well to get acceptance because people read about the people involved and thought, “Well, if those guys are a part of it, then it’s probably going to be worth a look.”
We’re really proud of the fact that in the whole time we’ve been launched, we’re still sort of a five star app. We’re still top of the iOS App Store in the Reading category, in the number one slot. And we’re five star. That says a lot to us. We can’t believe that and you can’t buy that. You can’t get that position unless you have earned it. It’s not for you to decide either. It’s not something that you can engineer. It’s there because it works.
CB: Yeah, I’m laughing because I am well aware of that, yes. Those arbitrary negative comments can be a challenge to deal with so it’s a real achievement to get such a positive set of feedback.
Sharp: Amazing. Ben often says if anyone is feeling down, all they’ve got to do is go to the iOS store and just read the comments. It does remind us what we are doing and why we are doing it and what the feedback is, which is pretty much across the board astonishing.
Wolstenholme: Yeah. We’ve been very lucky. We’ve been at the top spot since San Diego, I think. And it’s mainly due to reviews. But anyway, I think Liam just said that.
CB: Yeah, I wanted to know: what do you find to be the most challenging? Unlike other comic books, you guys have music, which I am assuming you guys make yourselves because I know Liam’s name was on the Captain Stone is Missing credits for the music. So how do you make that first off? And secondly, what do you think is the most challenging part of making your comics in this format?
Sharp: Actually for most of the stuff we have a team now that do all the music. In the case of Captain Stone, I did do a lot of it. But that was just happy circumstances in the sense that I’ve been making music for a long time just as a hobby, really, and when we came to this, I had this ridiculous library of material that I was able to pull over and use. So that was just a very happy coincidence in my case.
But generally we have people that make music for the books and they are very experienced. We’ve had a few different people doing different music for different books, and if somebody wants to make their own book and import their own music, it’s really basic. You import it as an mp3 just as a layer, just as any of the other assets for the story inside the tool.
It has parameters. It has volume settings and time settings and loop settings. It’s just very, very basic mix tool that is built into the motion book builder tool. Again it is a funny thing with the sound because we were going to put them out silently, which seems incredible now when you look back. It literally was two months before we launched, we went, “We should probably try sound.” People had talked about it in the past and didn’t like it.
But we thought if you are controlling the reading experience, it might be different and it might add an extra layer of atmosphere. And we’d be foolish not to at least give it a go. Anyway, if you don’t like it, you can just turn the sound off. So we figured that was good enough reason. As soon as we tried it, it changed the experience so profoundly that it is hard to imagine any of them not having sound. In fact, when you read one that does, there is something lacking.
CB: Yeah, I noticed the comparison between that and the print that there is such a different experience partially because of the music.
CB: It really enhances the distancing and the movements of the panels. It really does add another layer.
Wolstenholme: We worked hard on trying to make sure the reading was the primary thing. So sound is generally in two areas: sound effects and cityscape, wind, stuff like that- mood based things. Then there is some music, but it tends to be more ambient. The sound effects are for punctuation, but then there is more ambient kind of sound.
We provided a big library of sound effects for free in the tool. But then people tend to upload and use their own material or work with existing. It is a mixture. But reading is number one, so we try to make sure it is in service of setting more mood and dimension rather than overtaking the reading.
CB: You just talked about something I think is very interesting, too. I know your platform isn’t necessarily open source, but because of the type of users that you have, everyone’s continually coming up with new ideas. It must be an interesting challenge to kind of stay on top of it and also kind of drive software requirements.
Wolstenholme: Yeah, Eugene who is our co-founder and CTO (who you have met, Jason) with the crazy mustache.
He’s a very established toolmaker and we are very lucky. He is an extremely experienced engineer. He built the tool to be very expansive already. As Liam said already, these kind of layers and time and you can have lots of different layer types (a sound layer, visual layer, lettering layer, parallax, things like that). He’s a very broad thinker when it gets to that.
I would say that we are constantly fighting to keep up and keep on top in one way. But also there are many days where Eugene will come and look at what people are doing on DeviantArt with the tool, and he’ll say, “Oh my god, I didn’t realize the tool could do that.
There’s a ton of potential in the tool already that we feel we’ve barely scratched the surface of, if that makes sense. So it is kind of looking and learning at how people are using it. Also, we’d been publishing on our tool for, I think, nearly two years before we went public, so we’d learned a lot about kind of stressing the system and seeing what we needed to make motion books. It’s very robust. I don’t think there has been any downtime since we’ve been using it for three years; it’s insane.
I’d say we are learning all the time and that feeds the road map, of course, in engineering. But it’s also exciting because people are using it in ways we never thought possible already.
CB: You were just so lucky to have that amount of time to work with the app before you released it live. You can really see the results with the robustness of the APIs and stuff.
Sharp: Yeah, the tool has been incredible. The fact that it has never been down is pretty amazing. We were definitely nervous when we were rolling it out. Part of the reason it took as long as it did was because we rolled it out in stages to be sure of that robustness.
There’s a lot of people using it now. I really get thrilled when I go onto DeviantArt and see how people are innovating it and trying new things and doing things that we might not have expected.
One of the things that’s been really fun is that people are just doing things like building a parallax image with layers that gives a kind of sense of depth. And that’s almost become a thing in its own right, just a bunch of grades making parallaxes not necessarily with a story involved or anything, just these 2½D images with depth. It’s a lot of fun.
But then we’ve had other people really pushing what can be done with it. The one guy did a kind of magic book, which was hilarious.
CB: Oh, that’s so clever. Right.
Sharp: Yeah, he just kind of took photos of a pair of hands. It’s got a very Python-esque type feel where the hands clap and then something else would be revealed, sitting on the palms. It’s really charming and completely fresh. None of us thought of doing anything like that. It’s a real thrill when people come up with something entirely new.
CB: Yeah, that’s a little bit more like something you’d expect see done in Flash or something.
Sharp: Yeah, it’s much easier to use than Flash. It’s got a much, much… The output is very immediate and the entry point is very easy, so it’s a very user-friendly tool.
CB: That’s fantastic. I think it was three years ago at San Diego that we first talked about Madefire and the app and where you saw it going at that time. How do you see your progress at this point?
Wolstenholme: Yeah. So the big thing for us was I think when we were sitting on the stand at San Diego, we had just launched the tool to the public. And I think maybe there were two Polish girls who had done a story called Milk for the Ugly.
Wolstenholme: We were finding that we had the big studios and publishers working with us, but we also had this kind of really exciting creator-first movement starting to happen where people can just mess about and try stuff. I think you are the first to know this actually, but Milk for the Ugly is now over a million reads.
Wolstenholme: Well over a million reads. It is a free book because the creators chose to make it a free book. It’s a really amazing thing that we can start to produce some scale for people getting their IP out.
So I think in terms of how we are doing, it’s sometimes hard to tell. I mean, I think the move to digital is happening increasingly. I don’t think it has really caught light quite yet. I’m very excited about our positioning as it gets hotter and hotter. For us it is really important that we play really well with creators, and that is creators as individuals as also like the creative visions at publishers. Publishers and creators are all looking for a way to find audience and we can provide that with our platform.
So I’m really pleased about how expansive what we’ve built is; we’re across iOS, Android, Windows, web. We’re across TV already, you know. You are going to see lots of announcements of lots of other screens and places that we’ll be across.
So, yeah, in a way we are just kind of executing now that the technology platform is in place and we are fully rolled out as of basically San Diego last year. We are really just focusing on adoption and, as you noted, keeping an eye on what people want and blowing that up. We also keep publishing, so we are authentic to our own platform. We are really proud of the material that we are doing.
It wasn’t my book, but it was cool to see Brian Wood and Sergio Sandoval with MONO voted for best digital comic recently in one poll. And then we best app reader. So I think whenever we lose sight of where we are going, we kind of look at “Are creators using it? Yes. Are readers loving it?”
Really, that’s yes. What we need is we need more and more scale. So we are just focusing on that. And that’s not something we will ever be happy with. The bigger this can be of course the more exciting.
Wolstenholme: I think you might know this already, but we are in a partnership with Titan where they are publishing the print comics. So we have the motion books rolling out. We also have the print books, the comics, in your comic book shop.
CB: Oh, okay.
Wolstenholme: I am not sure. Did you know all that?
CB: I don’t think I knew you had them in the comics shops. That’s an interesting twist.
Wolstenholme: Yeah, it’s great. This is really Liam who said this, but we just always felt like it’s easier to kind of make something with time and depth as a motion book and then flatten it off into a PDF for print than the other way around. We realized that now with Mono and Captain Stone, which are rolling out in comic book shops near you.
Sharp: Honestly, the reviews that Ben’s getting are pretty much all four out of five. They are amazing reviews and they are well deserved. The book’s really beautiful. I highly recommend picking up the print version of both that and Capt. Stone. But it’s really exciting for us to finally take it to print as well. So now we have the whole spectrum.
As Ben was saying, it is part of the journey that we always hoped to be on which was to be able to take our stories onto multiple platforms from digital away to print.
CB: Right. It just all fits very organically. People like it in one format. Maybe a different cohort will like it in a different format. They will have a different experience with the content. It’s a whole slew of different ways that people interact with it, which is very interesting. Just from a slightly more objective standpoint, it’s a fascinating question of how people engage with content these days when you have multiple possible ways of interacting with it.
Sharp: I was just going to say the full experience is the digital version. If you want to get the full immersive, as immersive as possible experience, absolutely Madefire is the way to go.
You’ve got the sound, you’ve got the motion, you’ve got a very intense personal reading experience. But if you love it so much that you want to have a print version so that you can stick it on your shelves and go back and look at it whenever you like, then it’s nice to have that too. It’s almost like the book of the motion book.
Wolstenholme: Yeah, there is a quality that print can be, the physicality of course, that digital can’t have and there is qualities that digital can bring that print can’t. I think the problem with digital is it’s pretty much scanned in print. That means it’s a lackluster version of a wonderful print book in our view.
What we’ve tried to do is bring some qualities to bring that premium feel to digital so you are not just missing that print book. You are actually getting something else. You lose the physicality, but you are getting sound and movement and something with dimension. I think to be able to charge the same amount for a digital experience, or perhaps even more depending, it’s important to move into the digital space in a native way rather than just scanning in print.
CB: Right. I really enjoyed how I had an element of control over the Madefire comics over the ones at Comixology.
Wolstenholme: Yeah. Yeah. You’ve also got print books on our reader, so we have like a long tail of material that is much more… As I’ve said, we love print. So if people really want to see a whole page in the printed layout or read through in a panel mode, you can do that on the app as well.
There’s loads of what we call print books. But we really felt like we take a digital-first approach. It still seems like we’re the only people who are really championing that that I’ve seen.