Madefire, a new app launching today for Apple’s iPad, wants to give comic book fans, and people in general, a better visual storytelling experience suited to their unique devices. The True Ventures-backed startup, which is also announcing $2 million in funding raised to date this morning, is hoping to hoping to provide a better experience than existing motion comics providers by approaching the problem from a digital-first perspective, and by providing tools and an outlet for creators and artists not well-served by the Marvel and DC-dominated comics market.
Whereas previous tools like the motion comics sold on iTunes and the pan-and-scan reading options in iPad comics app ComiXology have primarily begun with a print product and tried to convert that to be more dynamic in a digital format, Madefire’s creations are designed from the ground up to be iPad specific. Using tools like parallax layers to create depth, active lighting and 360-degree scrollable panorama shots, Madefire doesn’t just translate the printed page, it does away with it entirely, in favor of a new storytelling language.
“We’re trying to build the best reading experience on the iPad, and we feel like we’re just at the start of that,” Madefire founder Ben Wolstenholme said in an interview. “To quote Dave Gibbons, ‘There’s an opportunity to evolve a new grammar here.'”
Dave Gibbons, artist of the celebrated Watchmen series which later inspired the Hollywood film, previously hinted at his involvement with Madefire in a Huffington Post Q&A last year. The comics industry legend is a launch partner for Madefire, having had a hand in two launch titles available through the app. Wolstenholme also says that Gibbons was instrumental in suggesting transitions and effects for inclusion in the product’s publishing platform.
“Dave Gibbons has driven chunks of the toolset, thinks like how we letter, things like depth-of-field,” he said. “We’re iterating all the time on the tool, and everything’s in service of storytelling.” That’s something Wolstenhome says is distinct from existing motion comics attempts, which he says originate from print products and end up just being “bad animation.”
The evolving toolset for creators is a key aspect of Madefire, since Wolstenhome and his team want to attract not just readers, but artists and writers as well. The app is designed to be a way for creators to show off original content, and individuals can sign up to gain access to Madefire’s web-based motion book creation tool, which uses a visual interface, along with stock libraries of sound effects, music and transitions to provide artists with everything they need to create an interactive, made-for-iPad experience.
Madefire is taking a “creator-first” approach, hoping to appeal to artists who aren’t necessarily happy with the big publishing house model, and who might not be able to crack that market anyway, since the barrier for entry is high for newcomers. Wolstenholme says that the startup will offer a range of financial arrangement based on how much support a creator needs, but ultimately, they’ll retain ownership over their creations.
For readers, all launch content, which is delivered in episodic 10-15 minute chunks on a regularly updated basis, will be free while it airs live. Wolstenholme explains that once content is archived, creators will then opt to either charge for access or provide it free. The model is a little like broadcast television, wherein access to content is free while it airs, but often costs money when people go to purchase a season digitally or on DVD.
While others like Graphicly have attempted to make an alternative, creator-focused digital comics storefront and publishing platform a reality, and have encountered challenges (Graphicly closed its store recently), Wolstenhome is confident in his company’s approach. The decision to try wholeheartedly to create a new storytelling language that leaves print behind sets Madefire enough apart from iPad market leader ComiXology that it won’t run into the same problems as Graphicly, he argues.
In the end, Madefire is unique, and that’s both its greatest strength, and the reason it’s a considerable risk. Many in the comics industry have felt that digital calls for a different toolset, and Madefire provides that, taking advantage of all of the iPad’s capabilities, including gyroscope and accelerometer sensors, to deliver something unlike any previous reading experience. But static comics work on the iPad, and not just in theory; it’s been proven, and it’s won over studios like Marvel and DC, who are now delivering same-day digital releases of their franchises.
Madefire, however, has the backing and support of publishing industry and creative powerhouses, including Gibbons, as well as advisors Mike McCue (CEO and founder of Flipboard), Sina Tamaddon (former SVP of Applications for Apple), and Toni Schneider (CEO of Automattic). If it’s possible to have stacked the deck for success in these uncharted waters, then that’s what Madefire has accomplished.