In 2007, video game artist Daniel Burwen came across Steven Kinzer's book Overthrow: America's Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq and was "blown away" by its overview of American geopolitical chicanery. The result of Burwen discovering Kinzer's book is Operation Ajax: How the CIA Toppled Democracy in Iran, an unusual interactive digital graphic novel and app developed for the iPad by Burwen's company, Cognito Comics, which combines comics, animation, gaming, and e-commerce in an innovative digital package.
Operation Ajax is the story of the CIA efforts to overthrow the government of Iran in 1953, packaged as an interactive digital graphic novel that offers a range of multimedia elements seamlessly woven together. While its chapters open with animated sequences that make it look like a film, its pages are organized as comics, although the panels are dynamic, filling in the page as you read. The panels also offer additional information in the form of "dossiers," supplemental content about each character revealed as the reader moves further into the story. The Operation Ajax app and the first three issues of the graphic novel are already available for free (issues 4 and 5 are .99 cents) on the iTunes store. Cognito plans to release the full nine-chapter graphic novel app in the late summer of 2011 (price to be determined), while the first three chapters will continue to be offered for free to promote the book and attract readers.
After years of working on high-profile video game projects for companies like EA Sports and Activision—Burwen specializes in creating detailed and realistic 3D art for commercial games—he said he was "burnt out. I wanted to do more than work for big budget gaming companies." That's when he came across Overthrow, which also led him to Kinzer's All the Shah's Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror. Burwen said, "I wanted to bring these stories to a larger audience." A movie would "take a lot of money and time, so I thought maybe a graphic novel. We could probably do it faster and cheaper than a movie," he said.
After approaching Kinzer at a bookstore signing to tell him he wanted tell the story of the Iran coup in the form of a graphic novel, Burwen said he was "floored" when Kinzer, an award-winning foreign correspondent and former New York Times bureau chief, not only agreed with him about creating the graphic novel but wanted to work on the project. Burwen hadn't anticipated Kinzer's enthusiasm and at the time didn't have any funding or a script. As he began to work on the script and to do additional research into the coup, "the iPad came out and it unlocked all kinds of possibilities for this project."
Asked his reaction to using graphic nonfiction to tell the story of the CIA coup in Iran, Kinzer said that one reason the U.S. has found itself in trouble around the world is that, “too many Americans don’t understand our history.” He emphasized that, “a graphic novel and iPad app gives an entire new group of people an appealing way into the story of how the United States helped end democracy in Iran half a century ago.” Kinzer said that communication tools, “have always had to adapt as learning habits change,” and that “visual tools are increasingly important for both education and entertainment.” And while he said that “a graphic novel or iPad app is not a substitute for a book, these are ways to tell stories in new and interesting ways.” He emphasized that “Operation Ajax makes use of some innovative approaches and we’re only at the beginning of tapping into the potential of these new technologies.”
Burwen also recruited Mike deSeve, an Emmy-nominated animator, director, and screenwriter, who has worked for DreamWorks, MTV Films, Children's TV Workshop, among others, as well as FlickerLab, a New York City animation and app developer. DeSeve oversaw the story development and artwork, bringing together traditional comics skills, animation, and digital authoring. With Kinzer on board, Burwen got funding for the project from a venture capital firm and brought in Tall Chair, a software developer that created the Active Reader System, a proprietary digital comics reader for the app that also doubles as an authoring tool. Cognito Comics and Tall Chair plan to license the Active Reader System authoring tools to other producers interested in creating multimedia comics.
Katie Edmonds, Cognito Comics' creative producer, called the software "a transmobile platform" and said, "Tall Chair turned the reader software into a product ready to be licensed. It's a solution for anyone who wants to do content like ours for the iPad."
Since launching the free Operation Ajax app in December 2010, Burwen said the app has been downloaded about 10,000 times. The digital graphic novel has been designed with print in mind, and Burwen expects to talk to publishers about a possible print edition. The full digital graphic novel will also incorporate sound and offer "an even richer experience," Edmonds said. "Right now it's like a half-done video game."
Burwen said he has private investors, but they are not after a quick return. "The idea is to create new technologies and get people talking about what we're doing. They want a return on investment, but not just monetary. They want it to be really good, a different model, and, in this case, one with a social benefit."