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Outhouse Interview: Liam Sharp of Madefire and the Future of Digital Comics

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Postby LOLtron » Thu Oct 04, 2012 6:00 am

Outhouse Interview: Liam Sharp of Madefire and the Future of Digital Comics

Madefire promises to be more than just the next step in digital comics. It's a whole new medium of storytelling.

We can all agree that digital comics are the future of the medium we love. Though there will always be purists who demand their books on paper, their records on vinyl, and their movies on DVD, it is undeniable that every entertainment medium has been moving toward digital as a primary means of distribution and storage. In many ways, the transition is cosmetic. We may find it easier to access music through the iTunes store, or to stream video to our phones from Netflix, but when it comes down to it, we are still listening to music through speakers or headphones and watching video on a screen. The actual experience of listening or watching is largely unchanged. Furthermore, it remains passive.

In this respect, comics present an entirely different opportunity. Madefire is one of the first companies this reporter has seen that approaches digital comics as a brand new medium deserving of a brand new experience (Mark Waid's Thrillbent is another). Their app, available on iOS devices (and hopefully Android at some point in the future), has been making waves in the industry for its innovative and original approach to digital comics, not as paper comics transformed for a screen, but as an interactive experience that uses, as Madefire's Chief Creative Officer Liam Sharp calls it, a "new grammar" to tell stories. Oh yeah, and it's totally free!

Sharp is an accomplished comics creator, known for his work with Douglas Rushkoff on Testament, Spawn: The Dark Ages, Man-Thing with J.M. DeMatteis, Deaths Head 2, and a ton of other work, both for the big two and for smaller publishers as well. Like a lot of his colleagues at Madefire, Sharp got his start working on 2000AD and Judge Dredd, and it's that cool eighties indie mystique brought by Sharp, as well as other legends like Dave Gibbons, Bill Seinkiewicz, Brian Bolland, and a whole host of other faces – old and new – that makes Madefire feel like something more than just the latest technological fad. Madefire calls these guys "visionary storytellers," and what they're doing has the potential to reinvent comics and capture the interest of a new generation of fans, as well as that of millions of lapsed readers.

So while this new grammar is the sizzle behind Madefire, the substance is the stories. You can take a look at ten titles here, and there are more to come. Hopefully lots more, because I'm as excited for Madefire as I've ever been about any comics company.

We spoke with Sharp, who we found to be honest (he didn't shy away from a single question), a vaper (he smokes an electronic cigarette), and, most of all, passionate about comics and the next stage of their evolution as envisioned by Madefire. He's also a fellow denizen of the San Francisco Bay Area, as Madefire is based in Berkeley.

What is Madefire?

It's a new medium. It's not a motion comic. Motion comics are a passive experience. You just kind of sit back, listen to voice actors, and watch slow moving comic book frames. We've been very keen to make sure it remains an interactive reading experience. The way the story unfolds is completely down to the reader. It's up to you to pick the pace and the timing. You can decide if you want sound or if you don't want sound. Essentially, we just looked at the iPad when it came out and said, "this is better than a piece of paper. How would we evolve storytelling on this platform, using the language that I know, comics, which is essentially pictures and words, into the best reading experience that we can?"

So Madefire is that in terms of the reading experience, but it's more than that in the sense that we have some of the great visionaries of the medium involved. We have Dave Gibbons, obviously from Watchmen, and his track record speaks for itself. We have Bill Seinkiewicz as an advisor and doing some stuff for us, and he's great too because he knows the industry and the way that things can be read and translated into narrative art. I don't think what he did back in the eighties has ever been topped. Like I said, we're just trying to create the best storytelling experience we can in this new medium.

You have some impressive talent involved for sure. What attracts legends like Gibbons, Seinkiewicz, and Bolland?

Dave just loves technology. Anything new that comes out, particularly Apple stuff, he's a complete sucker for. When they did the motion comic for Watchmen - while it was clunky, it was still interesting. It was a first step. This thing had to start somewhere. He got involved in motion comics a long time ago with that, and he's been fascinated ever since. He's a keen advocate of technology, storytelling, and trying new things. He's done a lot of work with Manga Studio Pro and he's been working in Photoshop and working digitally for a long time. I've known him for years and years since we're both from the same small pond of creators in England. I've probably known him for over 20 years now, from the 2000AD days, and we've always shared notes on digital stuff. When Ben Wolstenholme and I started putting together Madefire years ago, Dave was one of the first people I spoke to and he just kind of got it. It's actually him who coined the phrase we've thrown around a bit: "needing a new grammar."

Bill Seinkiewicz, I hadn't met before this. He's a huge hero of mine since the Stray Toasters and Elektra: Assassin, and actually even before that. I don't know if you remember the "hit new Moon Knight story," but I got it in a comic shop and I was like, "whoa, this is amazing." It had drawings of Led Zeppelin in there. When I spoke to Dave at San Diego last year about Madefire and what we're trying to do, and Dave came fully on board, we all went out for a meal to celebrate. We were heading over to the Hyatt and we popped into TR!XTER on the way, and it turned out to be Dave Gibbons night in there, so we dragged him into "his" night and Bill was in there.

So Dave introduced us to Bill, and we showed him what we were developing, and it turns out he's known my stuff for a long time. It's great when you hear that. You don't expect your heroes to have the faintest idea who you are. And we just kept talking and it was interesting and extremely obvious that someone who's already an innovator in the paper world would be ideal for pushing those boundaries when in the digital world. So he's been great, filled with so many ideas it's crazy. He's like "Can I do this? Can I do that?" and we have to say, "take a step back Bill. That's still a few years off." Holograms and stuff like that. It's inspiring. He's just a tornado of ideas and creativity, so it's been great having him on board.

Most of the other guys, they're people I've known through the industry for years and years, and I think everyone is up for something new, certainly from a creator's point of view. It's art and it's words, and people just kind of think that sounds like something fresh. It doesn't matter how good the industry is doing and how fantastic we all know comics are. There are times when your batteries run low and it all gets to be too much, and something fresh like this is kind of like a brain holiday. It gives you the space to restart, rethink, and use your talent in a different way. There's not that many outlets for people who do what we do. There's illustrations for books, or film concept work, or comics. Now the internet's made the world a lot smaller, and all the talent is floating to the office for all the world to see, and its increasingly hard to find new gigs and opportunities. It's certainly not been a problem attracting talent.

Is there anyone at Madefire who hasn't worked on Judge Dredd? Well, besides Bill?

Even Bill's worked on some Judge Dredd.

We've got Mark Texeira doing a horror story with Steve Niles for Halloween. He's not done Dredd. This is kind of hard. We've got Dave Taylor, he's done Dredd. We've got a great artist called Adrian Smith who's more known for his gaming artwork. To my knowledge, he's not done Dredd. We've got Dan Brereton doing a story for us as well. He's another one who hasn't done Dredd. So we've got a few.

What effect are you looking to have on the comics market? What weaknesses do you see that Madefire will address?

I don't know that there's weaknesses, but something radical changed the day that we stopped getting comics in the corner shop back in the nineties. I'm sure you're the same as me. You grew up where every corner store had a pile of comics, and that's how you found them. They were just there. You couldn't go anywhere without finding them. I didn't come across my first comic shop until I was about 18, and I was completely blown away. That seemed abnormal. It seemed almost extremely unsustainable to me as a kid. There's a whole shop for just comics? I had to go all the way to Forbidden Planet in London to find this. It was absolutely amazing.

Now, we consider that the norm. That's the place you go to get your comics. And if you don't live anywhere near a comic shop, that's not going to be very easy for you. I've been to a comic shop three or four times this year, which is a crime, really. I think that, by having them just in comic shops, there's this perpetuation of the whole geek culture idea. The thing that people get wrong about that, I think, is that comics are a medium, not a genre. I think every medium has its geeks, its fanboy following, whether it's music, books, literature, or films. They all have their hardcore geek element, and comics are no different than films, music, or books. The best of them are like the best of any other medium. So, for me, having those specialist shops kind of cuts it off, to some extent, from everyone else, from the general public at large, who aren't gonna come across them at all.

I think the internet is the new corner shop, to some extent. I don't think we can claim anything special ourselves in terms of all that, but I think that comiXology and all the other companies that are making this available are being the new corner shop, and I think that's important. I think we're doing something different from those guys because we're doing digital first. We're not taking print material and repurposing it for a digital market. We're trying to build for the platform and for this medium. I think that's a different approach.

And I don't think what we're doing is necessarily comics. I don't know what it is. Someone is going to come up with a word for it. There's an opportunity for you there [editor's note: get on this, Outhousers]. We've been trying and, so far, haven't come up with the perfect word for what it is we're doing. We're trying to create the best reading experience we can for this new medium and have it as widely available to as many people as possible without compromising the quality of the reading experience, which is why we're on IOS. To put it on the other platforms would retrograde the quality. We'd have to dumb it down a little bit. It wouldn't be quite as clever or innovative.

I wanted to ask that. What do you have against Android?

We've got nothing against it. The thing with Android is there are several different platforms. When you're starting, you have to repurpose and resize everything to fit every platform, and they don't do what the iPad does yet. So we're having to focus on iOS purely because we want to see how far we can push the new grammar in this medium and deliver the best that we can. It would be a shame to take a step backwards simply to deliver on all platforms. We're a new company, only six or seven weeks old. People have to bear with us.

Do you see an Android app in the future?

Well, the future is a broad and vast thing. Everything is constantly fluid and changing. The possibilities of where to go with this are broad. Hopefully we can scale to all sorts of eventualities over time, but at this early stage, we need to remain focused in one area.

Fair enough. It was big news a few weeks ago that former DC editor Ben Abernathy is joining Madefire. How will Madefire use his presence as an advantage?

We're just gonna stand him on a column out front and have him waving a flag. It was so nice, actually. I spoke to him at the end of his first day and he had the best day. Editors don't get appreciated. They're kind of the quiet guys in the background, and, if they're doing their job well, there's no noise. It's only when things go wrong that they get noticed.

Like on Rob Liefeld's Twitter.

Yes. [laughs]

It's been a pleasure to have Ben coming on. So far, I've been heading up the production department and editorial, and it's had me spread thin, with very long days and a lot to take on board. We're having to evolve very quickly and we have a lot of things to get through to grow and meet the coming challenges. So having Ben on board is brilliant for me. He'll be able to head up the content and the schedules and take greater control of the new creative teams that are coming on, and, also, he has his own very large creative black book, so the people he can bring on are a different kind of people that I've been able to bring on.

Judge Dredd creators.

As much as anything else, there's a legitimacy that comes when you have someone of Ben's caliber. He's one of the best thought-of editors that I know of, and, having worked with him a couple of times over the last decade, he's the editor I've felt the closest affinity with. So I'm extremely excited he's joining us. He's a great guy, and he likes a beer, and it's funny, he's a big Metallica fan and he didn't realize he's moving into the area they were based in, El Cerrito. That's where their tenure was in the Bay Area.

Are there any other creators or editors you'd like to steal from other companies?

No, I think we've got the best. That'll be up to Ben now. I'll be very happy to hand that over. He'll be our editorial director, so he's not only coming to a new company, but he's moving up in the world. He's gonna be in charge of those kinds of things now.

Will digital comics destroy print comics? Is that your mission?

I hope not. We're all huge fans of print. We came into this because we love print. We love comics. Things are just changing. I couldn't imagine records ending, and then I had a massive CD collection, and now that CD collection is entirely redundant. I couldn't imagine iTunes and MP3s working, and now, you have this huge choice, and you can get what you need. I know a lot of people say they kind of miss going down to the shop and rifling through the records, but to be able to have this instant access is great, where the second you think of this old song that you haven't heard in years, you can just go on iTunes and download it. I find it kind of amazing.

I also find with iTunes that I've been introduced to stuff that I wouldn't have listened to, that I wouldn't have come across. I might have had my five pounds in my hand and gone into the record store and been very selective about where I look, because it was this kind of niche, this special thing of looking through the selection, whereas these days you might be tempted to take a recommendation or listen to one track and try a few things. Digital comics gives you this option. But it will never replace print.

My collection just arrived here. It's down at the docks and it just went through customs. It's my pride and joy. It fills a wall. It's not pretty. It's dog-eared and knackered and falling apart and no one else will ever want it, but I love it.

Yeah, I left mine back in New Jersey when I moved out here.

You need to get it shipped, in batches if you have too.

You need a whole room to store them. That's the advantage of digital.

Build a room for it.

Someday. There seems to be a fear though, in the industry, that having comics available digitally will destroy local comic shops.

There's always fear, isn't there? It's like they said about MP3s and CDs. I think it's softening a bit. If we had tried this a year and a half earlier, there's no way we could have had the kind of success we've had. It's overwhelmed us, really. It's more than we anticipated. And I think it's got to happen. Otherwise, everything stands still. People have to try these things, and, if it wasn't us, it'd be someone else. I've been a freelancer for twenty-six years now, and I always think, if you don't give it a go yourself, it'll change anyway and you'll just be hired by somebody who's doing it elsewhere.

We want to get to the point where the material we're producing is available in print form. We just want to go digital first. We're talking to publishers about that. So we definitely are committed to print as well, but it just seems a shame not to exploit these new platforms. It seems crazy not to. The opportunities are there. It's exciting. There's so many print books anyway, and they're all struggling to find readers.

This is a new frontier with a new medium. That's why I keep saying that I'm not sure what we're doing is comics. It just has similar tropes. It has word balloons and it has pictures, but it can evolve in new ways. You can create things with story clouds and have stories that branch and give you different options. The possibilities are only as big as your imagination. Collectors are collectors and they will buy books in print form. Those books will always be there as long as people have passion for those characters, and I don't think we threaten that at all.

Can you tell us about some of the weekly comics that Madefire is putting out?

The intention is to get the content as near to weekly as possibly with a long view to get it daily. The process is obviously more elaborate than print comics because you're working in layers and every page is custom-built to service the story and what the artist and writer want it to do, so it is a very different process. We have seven or eight titles now which will be coming out and delivered in chunks every week. The Mono followup is on its way, and Captain Stone is on its way. All the other books have their followup stories too. We've got a couple of new ones like War in Heaven, which is by Ricardo Pinto, who's a novelist, and Adrian Smith. We've got a bunch of Treatment stories - Dan Brereton is doing Treatment: Edinburgh with some other writers. That's really great, really brutal. It's a brilliant satire on Big Brother and all those other reality TV shows. They've really taken the ball and run with it, so that' s a lot of fun.

That's the end goal, to get it weekly. But we still want quality first, so, if it comes to any given week and the book's not quite there yet, and we want to give it a few more days' love, we still have that kind of luxury, being digital, to be able to sort of finesse it and give it that extra time and not be causing any problems for your truckers and your deliverers and your distribution outlets. There's a lot of fun in that, and it's one of the things I really love about it. If you get a page, and I've done plenty in my bloody career, where the issue comes out and you say, "why did I let them run that page? The deadline got me!" we actually can, if we want, go in and tweak those pages and make them better and add elements. It can be a very fluid process. I think that's really exciting. Even with the stories we've got , we can add branches to those stories. You can have an offshoot comic with one of the characters. You can literally go and follow that character out of the story and into their own story arc. Things like that are really exciting. Captain Stone is a three part trilogy. It's a big trilogy, so it's gonna take me years, but it has got a beginning, middle, and end. But that doesn't necessarily mean that'll be the end of it, because I can take stories off to the side of it, which is fun.

How important is it for Madefire, and comics in general, to feature a variety of genres?

It's hugely important. I think one thing we've been pushing is an illustrative approach. Some of the books are moving more towards an illustrated book instead of strictly a comic, particularly Mono. If you look at some of the upcoming pages or the immersive panorama scenes, it's really an illustrative process more than a comic. I think Captain Stone's gonna have elements like that, and we have some stuff in the pipeline that is gonna be more like an illustrated book than a comic.

We definitely want to break open the genres. We want to bring in kids books and manga. Ben Abernathy is a huge manga fan. So we're gonna be looking at those kind of options and all of the different genres. We'll see which ones hit. One thing we're finding is we're getting a lot of readers who aren't from comics or the comics industry, and what I hope for those readers is that, though they're not seeing us as comics, maybe they'll look at it and say, "well, maybe I should check out comics." That's what I mean about it being sort of a corner shop. It can bring people back to the comic industry, or let them discover it for the first time on our platform.

What do you think Madefire and the comics industry in general can learn from the successes and failures of other industries like music and movies in the digital realm?

I think we can all learn a hell of a lot. Don't be too complacent. I think that big companies can often get a little behind and be slow to move, slow to pivot, and slow to address these kinds of changes. I think it's the same with any institution. They're just monolithic. They're like juggernauts. It's hard for them to turn around in the road. I think where we're lucky is that we're small enough, and we're not overladen with all this old intellectual property. We haven't got any huge back catalog that we have to honor, look after, respect, and try to keep alive, so we can be fluid and flexible and respond to whatever the market dictates is worth looking at.

We're really passionate about the stories and the quality of the stories. Quality isn't always the most popular thing. We're extremely keen to make sure that we honor the creators and have innovative, brilliant work. We're not just doing populist, sell-out kind of material. We've got a wide spectrum of stuff. We're doing very passionate, close to our heart kind of projects. We're not trying to sell out in any way. They're being done because we love the characters and we love the worlds that we've evolved. That's really key to the process.

Do you feel slighted that DC has recently hired every comics superstar of the 80s and 90s, but not you. Is this a mission of revenge?

Well they did hire me recently. I did Gears of War for them ,and I got an exclusive with them. That was one of their biggest selling books of 2009, so I had a good run with DC. I did an Alien book after that with Dark Horse, and I've been busy doing some other things. I'm a big fan of literature, and I had my novel back then that I got out and I've written another one since then. I've done a bunch of film work and have been dabbling in advertising work, which is the work of the devil. But comics always pulls you back.

It's very hard, once you get into the medium, despite the ridiculous hours, the general poor pay, and the fact that I've never known a harder, more insane job. There's just something about the autonomy and being in control. You're like a director, really, when you're an artist on a comic, because you're the camera man, set designer, lighting technician, and choreographer. You've got to design all the environments, all the sets, and all the props, and you've got to act all the parts as well. There's something extremely compelling about that as an environment to work in that you can't get anywhere else, so it always pulls me back, and it has done again. And this is just one of the most wonderful opportunities. I couldn't say no.

It's been a new adventure. Especially moving out to the US with my family and taking that plunge. I couldn't think of sitting at my drawing board in Darby when I'm 65, thinking, just before I keel over of a massive coronary, "why didn't I do that?" when my kids have all deserted me and left home and everything's falling apart around me. It's nice to come out here and be in the warmth for a while, instead of the gray and the rain.

In 1994, you designed new costumes for Cyclops and Jean Grey in X-Men #35, but the outfits were never seen again. Do you feel this was a waste of perfectly good costumes?

There wasn't much to them, was there? It's funny how you learn things over the years. I could never understand how, when Cyclops lost the top of his cowl, his fringes didn't just burn off. Why didn't it just go up in flames? Because it's like that [Liam shows me with his hands how Cyclops' bangs hang in front of his eyes.] So, the first thing I did was put the cowl back on, which just, to me, made sense. And I think people have seen that since and put the cowl back on. The Jean Grey costume, I'm not sure why they did away with. In a way I'm kind of glad because it makes it unique. I had a lot of fun with that issue. I have fond memories. I guess because I wasn't doing the ongoing series, the next artist came along and said, "can I design the costumes?" It's one of the perks, I suspect.

It was a great issue. It was very differently designed from the mainstream comics out at that time.

I put a lot of thought into it. When they went into the other world, I decided not to have any panel borders in the same way, so with everything in the dream, in that kind of mutant world that Sunset Grace had created, I just totally exploded the storytelling. I had them in multiple places, moving around. It got very tricky. I stuck so many little symbols in it, like the moon and the star, which you realize… or maybe nobody ever realized. I had a lot of fun with that story. Another thing nobody probably ever realized, and this is completely anal retentive, is that, if you take the pins out of the book, you will see that the massive Jean Grey profile and the Cyclops profile are actually on the same piece of paper. I don't know how the hell I planned that. I was trying to be clever. Sometimes it's a waste of time. But fond memories.

Our readers will have to take the staples out of their cherished comics now.

Yeah, they'll destroy their classic copies. There were only three million of them.

Not counting Captain Stone, what's your favorite comic that you've worked on?

Man-Thing with J.M. DeMatteis. I just loved that. DeMatteis is a gentleman, and he's just a brilliant collaborator. We kept finding that we were second guessing each other. He's very fluid with the way he works. It started off right in the first issue when he sent me the script and he had the bullets going toward the Man-Thing and Doctor Strange shows up. In the script, he had Dr. Strange create a very Marvel style bubble around himself and it just didn't seem right in the context of the story, especially with the style I was doing, which had a sort of E.C., Bernie Wrightson, classic monster comic vibe. So I had this idea that the bullets could turn into butterflies right before they impacted, and I did it over a series of very small shots, and DeMatteis was just like, "that's awesome!" We just kept doing that, so we'd have these ideas, I'd suggest something and he'd go "that's awesome," or I'd do something and that would inform the story later on. It became a wonderfully fluid process. I'm just really proud of it.

It's a funny thing though. They predicted 20,00 sales at the launch, and it launched at 40,000. Then over the course of eight issues it dropped to 20,000 so they canceled it. That's comics!

You worked with Douglas Rushkoff on Testament. Douglas Rushkoff was a graduate school professor for The Outhouse's senior media correspondent, Royal Nonesuch. Do you think this interview was destiny?

Absolutely. It seems like one of those things. Rushkoff would probably say it moreso than me. I'm an open-minded pragmatist with romantic sensibilities.

But yeah, Rushkoff is great, isn't he? He's a completely off-the-wall genius. Testament would probably be my second favorite series, if you pushed me on it, mainly for the ideas - it was a struggle to draw - like the RFID tags and all the stuff that he was exploring. I'm a bit of an armchair anthropologist in my spare time. I love all that sort of philosophy, ancient history, and study of different religions. That kind of thing is great material for stories. All that stuff that he added in was just brilliant, and trying to keep up with him was a waste of time. His head's on another planet somewhere. The thoughts that go through that man's head in the space of a minute…

He had this wonderful word: liminal. He talks about liminal spaces. I've never heard anyone use that word except as part of the compound word subliminal.

So I've been monopolizing your time for forty-five minutes. Is there anything you want to tell us about Madefire that we didn't cover?

We're just out there. We're growing, and we're pushing forward. I'm delighted it's stuck and that we're being taken seriously. We had an amazing San Diego [Comic Con]. People seem to like it when they visit the app and the site. They seem to get something out of it. One thing that's really interesting is that, on average, the people who visit the app are spending half an hour in there, which is way longer than most apps. That suggests to me that it's properly immersive and it's a place that people enjoy being in. All the best comics do that, the best books do that, and the best music does that. It puts you in a different place for a while, a little place where you can go to escape the world, or think and be inspired, or a combination of those things. If we can do that, then we're heading down the right path, I think.

And what do you say to people who don't have an iPad or iPhone?

Buy one!

Written or Contributed by Jude Terror

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Outhouse Editor

Postby GLX » Sat Oct 06, 2012 5:39 pm

Cool interview.

After trying it out, I can see how it's a different beast than traditional digital comics. The only thing that puzzles me is how they're going to profit from the model that they have in place.

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