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Wolstenholme gleefully swipes through, searching for a specific panorama. He finds it and begins toggling through the image of a war-torn English village — rendered in a full 360-degree drawing — until he finds the title character sneakily cloistered in a third-story window. When asked who drew it, he responds, "Me."
"The one word you hear most often in comics is 'no'," says Ben Abernathy, editorial director for Madefire. He should know: His previous job, as editor of DC Comics' digital division, was to approve creative decisions on behalf of one of the two biggest comics publisher in the United States (Marvel being the other). Generally, the comics industry has been slow to embrace digital, reliant on a complex infrastructure surrounding its print product. Typically, comics are pre-ordered by retail shops through Diamond, the exclusive print comics distributor. That's roughly 1,800 shops nationwide served by one distributor. For all intents and purposes, there's still no room for digital in that model.
"There was a lingering distrust of digital comics that was taking a while to shift," says Sharp of Madefire's nascence. "Retailers were worried. Fans were protective of their beloved medium." It's only fitting then that Madefire should splinter from the comics mainstream in the middle of start-up country, a land of "yes" and a speculative frontier where ideas can trump proven revenue streams.
And 2012 may be remembered as the year digital comics truly arrived. Tech culture blogs like Fast Company published top 10 digital comics lists for the first time, touting not just Madefire but independent creations like Operation: Ajax and Bottom of the Ninth as stunning digital-only experiences.
However, Madefire's most significant competition is Los Angeles-based Comixology, the leading distributor of digital comics for major publishers DC and Marvel, as well as independent houses like IDW and Image. A majority of its service revolves around a straightforward digital reproduction of print comics viewable on iOS, Android, and Kindle platforms.
Comixology's exclusively web-based content, available on a handful of titles, is centered on a "guided view" tool. It's a less elaborate version of the motion book experience offered by Madefire — no audio, animation, panoramas, or other rich media capabilities. The user swipes through as the action unfolds, like a slide show. It has an appealing simplicity. More importantly, it's the kind of measured response to the digital market that has major publishers (and their properties) in Comixology's corner. As Comixology Vice President Chip Mosher notes, this step into digital-exclusive content enhances the reading experience "without abandoning what makes a comic 'a comic.'"
It's a subjective point, but a fair one. Comics are participatory reading experiences and both Madefire and Comixology have worked to avoid producing something like the initial, much-hated attempt at non-print comics: motion comics. It's a term the Madefire team avoids like kryptonite; motion comics are widely regarded in the comics industry as a joke.
"Yeah, no one likes those," sighs Abernathy. For all the hidebound and reactionary opinions that abound in the comics industry, it's hard to dispute the central qualm: It just isn't a comic anymore. Art from what was originally a print comic book is salvaged in the form of a linear animation — characters amble about like cardboard cutouts and voiceovers replace word balloons. "Creatively they're typically regarded as really low-budget cartoons," explains Abernathy. On the surface, it's hard to tell the difference between a motion comic and Madefire's motion books until you sit down and interact with the thing.
Motion comics fail essentially because they happen at you; a "hot medium," as Marshall McLuhan defined it, like television and print comics, refusing consumer participation. Madefire's comics, like the Internet itself, are resolutely participatory — "cold" — with interactive page layouts and a story to be manipulated at the reader's pace. Madefire's comics live on this interaction.
This issue of participation lies at the heart of two of motion books' chief distinctions. The first is the user-directed experience, one that expands and contracts at the reader's pace. The other is building a motion book, a process that depends on the sophisticated yet intuitive motion books tool they've been tweaking and promoting as much as the stories they tell through it. That process has been the sole focus of Madefire co-founder Eugene Walden.
On its first anniversary, Madefire holds its monthly story night. In addition to several iPads and iPad minis strewn about the studio, there's an ample supply of New York-style pizza from nearby Rotten City Pizza, chocolate chip cookies, cakes, and bottles of local beer. It's less storytelling and more cavorting to some decidedly un-nerdy dance music. The proceedings break to allow the founders to say a few words. While Sharp takes a walk down memory lane with his decidedly more sentimental speech, Wolstenholme talks business. His enthusiasm is infectious; he's excited about, well, everything — excited by the reactions from the public, excited by the number of five-star reviews in the App Store, and excited by the creators who will soon join the Madefire stable, including the writer of an iconic horror film franchise (whose identity they were not at liberty to share).