Digital comics are moving past simply being print comics with some built-in navigation between panels, as has mostly been the case with the first wave of digital comic providers like Comixology, Graphicly and iVerse. Berkeley, California-based Madefire is one of the companies looking to push the envelope and see what kind of possibilities exist when you concentrate on the screen, rather than the page.
Madefire is unusual on a number of fronts. It’s a venture capital-backed media play in Silicon Valley. It has relatively large names in tech attached to it. It has very large names in comics attached to it. It’s also pursuing original content.
Its co-founders are Ben Wolstenholme, Liam Sharp and Eugene Walden. Wolstenholme originally came to Silicon Valley to open a San Francisco office for his Moving Brands digital agency, so he comes from the world of digital branding and marketing.
Sharp is a well-travelled artist who’s drawn everything from Superman to the X-Men to Aliens. Sharp was the artist on the Gears of War comic that was the overall bestselling comic of 2008 while barely registering a blip in the Direct Market, so he knows a little about engaging a non-traditional comics audience. This is Sharp’s second go-round with publishing, having fronted his own Mamtor label a few years ago. Walden, the technical founder, was also the founder of NetDoubler back in the 90s and worked on one of the early mobile web browsers at the former phone.com.
That’s a pretty interesting mix that only got more interesting when Sharp pulled in legitimate comics legends Dave Gibbons, Brian Bolland and Bill Sienkiewicz and the creative side. Then Wolstenholme pulled in Toni Schneider from True Ventures and Automattic, Flipboard CEO Matt McCue and former Apple senior v-p Sina Tamaddon on the business end.
Madefire has initially been released as a free iPad app. From within the app, you can download individual comics—which Madefire is calling "Motion Book" chapters. Madefire's initial lineup includes Dave Gibbon's "Treatment," a collaboration with writer Robbie Morrison and artists like Doug Braithwaite and Kinman Chan; "Captain Stone is Missing" by Liam Sharp and Christina McCormack; "The Engine" by Guy Adams and Jimmy Broxton; "Mono" by Ben Wolstenholme and Liam Sharp; "The Irons" by Haden Blackman and Gary Erskine; and "Houses of the Holy" by Mike Carey and David Kendall.
In the comics industry, there’s always concern about what the boundary is between a comic book and a cartoon. Madefire didn’t do themselves any favors by calling their product “Motion Books,” which brings to mind the motion comics category. While motion comics have had their moments of mass popularity (Crossgen’s motion comics were very popular on AOL’s “Red” channel, circa 2003-4), motion comics are currently very unpopular with the Direct Market frequenting comic book crowd. Madefire isn’t motion comics. Wolstenholme goes out of his way to emphasize that his app is about reading, not watching. While there is a soundtrack to the comics, as well as occasional sound effects, all the text is left alone to be read. That much is still a comic. The rest is a little different.
While the level of experimentation varies from title to title, some more like a traditional comic, some more unusual. "Treatment: Tokyo" uses the navigation to trigger small changes in what we’d normally call a panel, showing the passage of time and exploring the moment in a way similar to how manga depicts moments, but in a way that wouldn’t directly translate to print. On a recent visit to Madefire’s offices, Sharp showed me another title where the word balloons pop up as you read along, but in different patterns than right to left, so you know what direction to read them in by the order they appear.
“We are seeing them as a new medium for which we are evolving a new grammar,” explains Sharp. “They use skills that are shared with traditional comics—in that they are about reading, and are a collected series of images and words—but we can literally break out of the comic panel box now. Time becomes the constraint by which the story is captured, and the reader chooses when to move on by tapping the screen and interacting with the content. It's not a passive, watching experience. It's still all about reading. “
That time constraint ends up being the basis for the installments. Wolstenholme elaborated that they found 10-15 minutes was the optimal reading time and that, while the speed of reading does vary from person to person, this usually translated to 10 pages of traditional comics being the basis for each serialized chapter of a Motion Book. Interestingly, Graphicly’s Micah Baldwin spoke about 8 pages being the average reading session for a digital, back in February. Wolstenholme is the second digital comics executive to be using that sort of a metric and this might indicate the different reading habits of the online platform or perhaps just the habits of a different audience than the print market.
Apple is the only platform Madefire is available on, at the moment. They launched with an iPad version and are working on an iPhone app. Concentrating on the Apple market is common for the area, partially owing to the user interface advantage the iTunes Store has over Google Play (the Android equivalent).
The business model for Madefire is a little up in the air. Currently, as is frequent with Silicon Valley firms, they’re concentrating on acquiring audience share and want to have their main title available for free for as long as possible. One option is to charge for the content. Wolstenholme says that the $0.99 price point is “interesting,” but they’re far away from a decision on that. Another option is to charge for third party content.
Madefire has opened up their creation tools to third party creators, who can make their comics available for download through the Madefire app. There is software in place to allow these third party creators to charge for these downloads. While all this is currently free, taking a cut of the download fee is possible model.
Print editions, while not an initial concern are also something that could be in the cards, with the stories breaking up into the 60-100 page range, making them closer to European albums than U.S. trade paperbacks.
Licensing could also be an option, as there is “shared-ownership” for the properties Madefire is funding (though the third party users retain full rights).
The lack of clear path to revenue may sound very foreign to publishing executives, but this really is normal for The Valley where user bases come first and companies are sometimes bought to integrate a popular product with no revenue streams into a larger platform. While they could always pivot to more of a services-based model, Madefire is currently looking to be both a publisher and digital comics platform.