First released in 2011 by Cognito Comics, Operation Ajax: How the CIA Toppled Democracy in Iran is an innovative interactive, multimedia graphic novel created by Dan Burwen for the iPad, that retells the story of the overthrow of the government of Iran in 1953. This month the digital graphic novel has been reformatted and re-released for the iPhone and iPod and will be priced at $ 2.99 for a limited time.
Created by Burwen, a videogame artist specializing in 3D artwork, Operation Ajax adapted the work of author Stephen Kinzer nonfiction work, Overthrow: America's Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq, turning it into multimedia comics work that incorporated limited animation, sound and photography to create an unusual work of comics nonfiction using a digital canvas. Indeed at the time Burwen said, he was “burnt out” on commercial videogames and was looking for a new project to work on when he came across Kinzer’s book. The result was Operation Ajax, which won and Webby Award and was runner up for both the Best App Ever Awards and the 2012 CES Mobile Apps showdown. CNN called Burwen's presentation at Comic-Con, "one of the most electrifying digital media panels" at the San Diego show. Now Burwen has updated the comics app for the iPhone/iPod Touch, a far smaller digital canvas to work on.
“We’ve reformatted every page to take advantage of the phone,” Burwen said during a Skype phone call from Europe, “we’re treating the phone as a high value space, trying to take it out of the short-attention-span theater to longform content." Operation Ajax tells a complex story using panels that dissolve cinematically into the next image, a soundtrack, sound effects, archival news reels and limited animation that manipulates panels, characters and intra-panel scenes while enlivening the storytelling without becoming full-on animation. Indeed the interactive comic walks a fine line between traditional comics layouts and keeping the rich multimedia effects from overwhelming the story. The app even features a “documents’ section that allows the reader to rummage through a file cabinet full of dossiers on the characters—among them Winston Churchill, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi the Shah of Iran, overthrown prime minister Mohammed Mossadegh, Averell Harriman, John Foster Dulles—at the heart of the historic event and the graphic novel's narrative.
Burwen said the work "translates well to the iPhone,” although “the docs/dossiers section don’t work quite as well but it’s all in there. We did bump up against some limitations but the reading experience doesn’t suffer.” Adding support for the phone, Burwen said, adds more storytelling features for the future, “if a character is using twitter or making a phone call, the reader has a phone in their hand and we can actually use the phone call in the story.”
Indeed Burwen said their biggest problem so far has been the usual one, “discoverability,” or really the lack of it and the problems in getting content to standout in the App store. “People are ready for this [multimedia graphic novels] but there’s 870,000 titles in the app store. It’s a big problem; it’s a big bucket and Apple can’t seem to come up with something to fix it. The store doesn’t work for anything more than 99 cents and it’s a grab bag of stuff,” he said. “The challenge is getting valuation of the content, right now it can’t really support the kind of million dollar production that rich media requires.” But, he said, it could work as “one piece of a larger narrative. Digital comics can be a rich tool for multimedia. It can be a proving ground,” and it “pushes the boundaries of storytelling.” And he said it’s also “still a fraction of the cost of producing a movie or videogame and you can use it to judge an audience’s reaction to the material.”
Burwen also pointed to several new multimedia comics apps in the marketplace—“it’s good to see others working in this space,” he said. Among the new digital comics/animated ventures are MadeFire, a new digital venture to release multimedia comics for the iPad, andBottom of the Ninth, a particularly innovative work by filmmaker and animator Ryan Woodward that uses standard comics layouts as well as eye-popping full 2D and 3D animation in spectacular fashion to tell the story of a phenom girl pitcher that takes a futuristic Major League Baseball circuit (the “New Baseball League”) by storm. (Bottom of the Ninth has also launched a Kickstarter project to fund the rest of the series).
Burwen said Cognito will continue to expand into new stories as well as continue to work to improve the technology supporting it, looking to make it easier to use. Cognito has also signed with the entertainment incubator company BoomGen, which is based in Brooklyn and L.A., and is working to “expand Operation Ajax into film, education and gaming.” The project has been optioned for a movie, Burwen said. “We can’t wait until this whole thing goes mainstream. We think it’s really powerful.”