Illustration by John Hersey

It's really happening: Barnes & Noble keeps closing stores, Newsweek published its last print issue, and the thriftiest tablet on the market costs less than three new hardcover novels. Storytelling certainly isn't dead, but everyone from creators to publishers find themselves negotiating growing pains as print sales continue to decline. Depending on who you talk to, the growing dominance of web-based media is either an opportunity for growth, poison in the well, or business as usual. This translates into an open playing field where many are experimenting with telling stories using new technology.

Two Bay Area creative firms are seizing the moment with two unique apps for the iPhone and iPad: Madefire, a Berkeley-based company that's redefining digital comics, and Ying Horowitz & Quinn, the San Francisco-based firm responsible for the multimedia novel The Silent History. Both apps emerge from teams who have evolved the traditional publishing ranks to include creative-minded engineers — specifically those fluent in designing for the mobile web — in addition to marketers, creatives, and editors.

Liam Sharp, Ben Wolstenholme, and Eugene Walden try to shake the terrible legacy of the “motion comic” with stories told on new tech.
Michael Short
Liam Sharp, Ben Wolstenholme, and Eugene Walden try to shake the terrible legacy of the “motion comic” with stories told on new tech.
Mono, one of Madefire’s flagship comics, blends illustration, sound, and animation in its “motion books” with that other essential ingredient, compelling interactivity.
Michael Short
Mono, one of Madefire’s flagship comics, blends illustration, sound, and animation in its “motion books” with that other essential ingredient, compelling interactivity.
Eli Horowitz demonstrates the geo-location feature built into his sprawling novel/scavenger hunt, The Silent History.
Michael Short
Eli Horowitz demonstrates the geo-location feature built into his sprawling novel/scavenger hunt, The Silent History.

With tech in their DNA, they were able to develop interactive elements using the innovations of mobile devices along with the stories themselves, ensuring a more seamless integration of cutting-edge tech and storytelling. And both Madefire and The Silent History use a traditional publishing idea — serialization — to keep readers satisfied with new content; new chapters are seamlessly pushed to your mobile device.

Madefire is taking a classic serialized medium — comic books — and evolving them into interactive motion books, designed exclusively for digital. Madefire's motion books feature animations, panoramic views with 360-degree navigation, and punchy music and sound effects in an immersive story environment that feels like walking through a comic's innards. Creators are able to manipulate individual characters and backgrounds via the company's proprietary motion graphics tool suite, yielding a rich experience that unfolds at the pace of the reader's swipes on a mobile device. Swipe: A new character emerges in a dense cityscape. Swipe again: He's suddenly run through by an assassin's blade. Swipe again: scene change to a sweeping panoramic view of downtown Tokyo, which can be zoomed in on and investigated for details in the art. This interactive storytelling experience is more like a user-directed digital animation and distinctly unlike its predecessor, the "motion comic," which merely repurposes print comic artwork into a stilted cartoon.

These attempts to bring print comics to digital market saw a fever pitch of activity in the mid-'00s, but were greeted with a slap in the face by the comics' community, derided for their lack of creativity. Madefire feels that slap, but is doing something decidedly different: designing stories exclusively for the digital environment. They are, as Watchmen co-creator Dave Gibbons proudly proclaims on Madefire's website, "creating a new grammar" for comics, and indeed for storytelling. It's a revolution in the making ... if they can find an audience.

Madefire's Berkeley studio is the kind of ultra-modern loft space that looks better suited to a SOMA designer than a comic book company. Its wood and steel frame, dominated by an enormous window array at its center, suggests an austere start-up environment within — its contents uniformly clean, minimal, and in varying shades of Apple's signature silver and white.

That's only partly true. What fills the spaces between in this cozy loft space is art — comics, to be exact, most of which are print-ready pages from the notebook of Madefire co-founder Liam Sharp. Sharp has worked as a professional illustrator for clients such as Marvel and U.K. magazine 2000AD for 25 years. He and his cohorts are wolfing down a quick lunch — most of them preferring to stand — amid the happy chaos of humming monitors, flow charts, and various other tasks.

Sharp is a gregarious, stocky Brit with a strongman's build and bald head not unlike Batman nemesis Bane, with a hearty smile in place of a face mask. "The pacifist Bane," he amends. Various robots, beasts, and other arcane beings line the wall behind a half-dozen of Madefire's engineers, animators, and editors.

The juxtaposition of austere exteriors and expressive interiors is an apt metaphor for the motion books experience on the iPhone. That contrast seems to extend to two of Madefire's principals: Sharp as the company's creative firebrand finds a crucial foil in the front-facing, business-savvy Ben Wolstenholme. Wolstenholme is the former CEO of Moving Brands, a U.K.-based branding agency with offices in S.F. that originally brought him to the Bay Area. He and Sharp grew up together in the U.K., where they both attended art school. Sharp, an urban warrior with his shorn head, piercings, and combat boots, appears the exact opposite of clean-cut Wolstenholme, who in designer jeans, oxford shirt, and Adidas sneakers looks every bit the preppy ad man on casual Fridays.

Yet Wolstenholme lights up like a comics geek when he presents Mono, one of Madefire's ongoing titles, on an iPad mini. Mono is one of their earliest titles, with three issues to its name. It is the story of an ape-human hybrid with a weaponized tail and his adventures as a spy serving the British Crown in the mid-20th century. It's a brooding adventure-fantasy period piece whose settings and characters wouldn't be out of place in a Terry Gilliam film. On the iPhone, Mono impresses with its painterly style of illustration and its grim palette; on an iPad, it's several degrees more absorbing. The dark renderings take on a new dimension as Wolstenholme zooms in to pick up details in the background. The immersive experience is like walking into a painting that yields to every inquiry.

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).

What Wolstenholme is most excited about is "Eugene's tool." "Thousands of people are dying to get their hands on Eugene's tool," he quips to an amused crowd. Eugene is Eugene Walden, Madefire's third co-founder and chief technology officer, and his tool is the motion graphics tool, his major contribution to the company's endeavor. The software is based on technology he originally developed at 4delite, an online advertising company.

"When I first met Ben [Wolstenholme], I realized that [the software] was surprisingly applicable to the creation of motion books." The motion graphics tool is a white field of empty gray patches into which the user can drag images and other content. All added content shows up in a primary view screen that depicts edits in real-time, a multi-layered animation that can be adjusted by the creator to add action, panoramic views, and soundtracks. It's web-based software (it can be opened in any browser) whose complexity ranks somewhere between Photoshop and Facebook's photo uploading tool — an intuitive yet robust editing suite. All work is saved in the cloud and it's as quick and responsive as your Internet connection allows. This was important to Walden, as it rendered collaboration across multiple devices a breeze; anyone could hop on to an existing project from anywhere in the world with a stable wi-fi connection and make edits.

About all those people waiting to get their hands on this tool: There's a request portal accessible through the company website where aspiring motion bookmakers can sign up for access to the motion graphics tool once it's made available beyond Madefire's inner circle (such requests are temporarily closed). "We want this to become a standard tool for the industry," says Sharp.

As such, they're making the tool available free to those interested in creating a motion book. Sharp adds, "It's increasingly hard to break into the illustrated narrative industry, so why not let people build their own stories and sell them?" Walden insists the motion graphics tool is "as easy to use as Keynote or PowerPoint."

Madefire's philosophy toward the tool seems rooted in a general enthusiasm that emanates from its staff; like any start-up, they have no reason to believe they'll be a success — though the app is highly rated, it's not in the iTunes top 100 — yet their belief in motion books is palpable and sincere. Despite having spent decades each in tech, marketing, and comics illustration, the three principals don't come across as jaded or defensive about their goals for Madefire. Indeed, it seems that they're promoting the idea as much as the product itself.

While comics are struggling to define the face of their digital strategy, the playing field for e-books is tensionless by comparison; few are itching to reinvent black lines on a white background. Eli Horowitz was at McSweeney's — the S.F. publishing house and quarterly journal founded by author Dave Eggers — when that publisher was getting snowed under by digital. McSweeney's superlative print product translates poorly to digital. The time was ripe to invert that equation.

Horowitz, his McSweeney's cohort Chris Ying, and iOS developer Russell Quinn co-founded Ying Horowitz & Quinn, LLC. Theirs is perhaps the first joint business venture whose central product ended up being a novel.

The Silent History is the story of a generation of "unusual children" who are silent from birth, unable to comprehend or utilize language as we understand it. It's a multimedia story told through text, video, and geo-specific "field reports." The app is a gorgeous, non-linear map of portals, some of which lead to chapters of the serialized story, and others to one of the aforementioned field reports tied to specific geographic locations that are "unlocked" only once the user is near that location, with a "ping" from the app's geo-location feature.

Since this involves traveling, these supplementary reports are not designed to be essential to understanding the core story; they are contributions from readers built inside the mythos established by The Silent History. Updated content comes in the form of serialized chapters added by the creators and the field reports submitted by users (and approved by Ying Horowitz & Quinn). The latter presents another dimension of interactivity: collaboration. This carefully crafted potential for a multitude of experiences in reading The Silent History is what makes it such an intriguing variation on the e-book — and a cold medium.

The Silent History developer Russell Quinn, formerly of McSweeney's and European digital agency Spoiled Milk, says he saw the place for their work in the lackluster e-books market.

"Broadly speaking, they seemed to either be technology-led with a weak story, or content-led with poor design and usability," says Quinn. The Silent History presents the reader with a story matrix in the form of an intuitively navigated treasure hunt that utilizes the capabilities of iOS as cleverly as any touch video game. This non-linear experience feels cognitively similar to web browsing, hunting through links in a multiplicative manner that emphasizes perpetual investigation over closure. Indeed, it's uncertain where The Silent History begins or ends, or whether it's meant to at all.

Presently, the novel is exclusively available as an app for the iPhone and iPad ($1.99 for the first volume, $7.99 for the next five; the novel continues to be released in serialized chunks); it "may" be developed for Android down the road. It's perhaps the ultimate irony that such a lush media experience as The Silent History costs consumers a fraction of the price of a hardbound first-edition print book. And it's cheaper for the creators themselves. "It didn't cost us a cent to make this. Everything we make is profit," says Horowitz.

And while that profit isn't breaking the bank, it's certainly respectable. The Silent History has been downloaded over 30,000 times at the $1.99 price since its launch in October of 2012. Even with purchases of the complete $7.99 bundle, this doesn't amount to a robust payday split between three principals, though according to Horowitz, it's "enough to keep us going and start planning the next [novel]."

Both Ying Horowitz & Quinn's and Madefire's advertising budgets: $0. "We're taking a grassroots approach to building a community of people interested and we hope passionate about what we're doing," says Madefire's Wolstenholme. They are taking the start-up route of word-of-mouth, spreading the message via blogs and satisfied readers. Both have benefited from featured placements in the iTunes storefront, and both were named in Apple's "Best of 2012" list. That doesn't mean either have been able to sit back and coast. There's a significant degree of outreach involved in both companies, if only to educate new readers as to why anyone would bother re-inventing the wheel of storytelling.

In 2011, Madefire set up its first booth at San Diego Comic-Con to present motion books to the biggest congregation of comics fans in the world. In-person demonstrations have become a powerful mode of outreach for the company, which has set up shop at Apple stores in addition to making appearances at both the 2011 and 2012 Comic-Con.

According to Dave Gibbons, co-creator of the legendary comic Watchmen and creator of the new Madefire series Treatment, they saw a huge spike in interest between those first and second years. "People were a little confused [in 2011]," he says. "There were just three of us and a few posters on the wall. It was a little bit of an uphill struggle then." They brought out the big guns the following year, presenting a wall of iPads and several titles, many of which were on their second or third issues. "You see people light up and mouth the word, 'wow,'" Gibbons says of their second visit. "That human interaction has been the most inspiring thing so far."

Eli Horowitz recently took The Silent History to the streets as well. He led a walking tour of New York's Lower East Side while all participants followed along with the app opened. Planned as an alternative to a traditional book reading, the event was designed to take users to some of the field report sites, including a stop at the bathrooms in the Allen Mall and a tasting event at the New York branch of Mission Chinese Food. The field reports are to be unlocked only on location, as they often use onsite details to enhance the report — seemingly random vodka and yogurt containers found outside the Allen Street Mall bathrooms figure into that site's field report.

Although the tour charmed its 20 or so attendees, walking users through parts of the story led to a demystifying aspect that Horowitz did not appreciate — for a novel with a mystery at its core, that's understandably problematic. "The experience seems to be more powerful when you get to discover the 'evidence' for yourself, rather than having it pointed out to you."

But the risks of reticence are great; everyone with a stake in digital storytelling seems to agree that outreach and education of the public are crucial factors in its future.

"It's not a Field of Dreams, 'if you build it they will come' kind of thing," says Sam Humphries, former manager of content and development at MySpace Comics and current writer at Marvel. Los Angeles-based Humphries is passionate about the fact that PR and outreach for digital content needs to be not just expanded but completely innovated. "It requires fundamental changes in the way this content is marketed."

Then there's the ongoing issue of money: Monetizing digital content is an enormous challenge and there's no consistent model for how it's to be done. Economically, Madefire follows the start-up model: It provides free content while building its infrastructure through venture capital. In the future, it plans to unroll a price on specific books as well as licensing some familiar properties, but the primaries were vague about specifics.

It's those specifics that keep most business owners up at night. Their technology still speaks louder than their current roster of stories. Though these are good works, they're not the masterpieces of the form that this new medium may need to take root. Madefire is planning on offering a channel through the app for publishing original work not originating from its stable of creators. It's possible that Madefire is simply setting the stage for the real revolution.

Digital publisher Charles Melcher of New York-based Melcher Media sees a transitional marketplace, one that is inefficient to meet the growth of digital, as the primary challenge. "You have a print book that costs $25 with no features, no rich content, no added media," he says, "and a download with all that included [is] $5."

Melcher, along with a team of top-shelf developers, founded Push Pop Press, which produced Al Gore's interactive e-book Our Choice, an investigation into the causes of climate change and its possible solutions. The e-book is indeed the superior experience, offering multiple layers of video and added content tucked into the linear story as well as fully interactive visuals and graphs. But as he points out, it's more expensive to develop the richer content, and unfortunately $5 is still pretty pricey in the app sphere: "People expect that content to be free because there's so much high-quality stuff out there that was developed to make the hardware that delivers it stick in the marketplace."

That marketplace is growing more and more aggressive, as well. After Push Pop Press unveiled Our Choice, Facebook poached PPP's engineers and bought up the rights to its e-book software for good measure. It was a disheartening development for Melcher, who was excited about the possibilities of evolving storytelling with his talented team.

But it was not enough to squelch his optimism. Melcher, who stewards the New York-based Future of Storytelling summits, maintains that this transitional phase will bear fruit, even if its challenges overwhelm the current players. "Our children already don't know a world without these devices. They will intuitively understand how to push these things to their limits."

If a real revolution in digital storytelling is still a generation away, that may be a factor that a company like Madefire cannot address. With a team of comics, tech, and marketing professionals, the company is poised to make an impact on the digital storytelling market — if that market responds with sufficient enthusiasm. In the meantime, their approach is to maintain quality control.

"Our main focus is to ensure we remain one of the best-rated apps in the app store," says Wolstenholme. "The end reading experience is paramount." Wolstenholme hopes that commitment will pay off when Madefire introduces a price for specific books. Yet as Charles Melcher found, that payoff may prove a tougher win than expected.

Madefire and Ying Horowitz & Quinn share an optimism for their stories that trumps market concerns, or at least isn't dictated by them. It's inspiring to see creators motivated by evolution of craft, especially when they're entering dangerous territory where the possibility of compensation is not only uncertain, but potentially at odds with reality.

The afternoon sun shines on Liam Sharp's face as he recalls presenting Madefire's books at a convention for the first time. "It's really stunning when you see people's faces light up and they get it." He's energized by the recollection. Regardless of what successes or failures lie ahead, this unimpeachable moment of connection, as any artist will tell you, is all that matters.

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