Back in March, I caught the Communication Leadership program’s Comics and Digital Culture Series of panel talks at Emerald City Comicon, featuring innovators from the world of comics and digital storytelling. Renowned comics artist Liam Sharp gave a passionate talk about the possibilities for the future of interactive comics with his motion book storytelling company and platform Madefire, for which Sharp serves as Chief Creative Officer. Motion books add depth, sound effects, music, guided viewing, and other elements to traditional comics to create an interactive “sequential art” experience that falls somewhere between print comics, and full animation.
It’s been an interesting two years for Madefire since the debut of their app for iOS devices. Comic stalwarts like Batman and Hellboy, along with a host of other properties from DC, IDW, and other publishers have made their way to the Madefire library. They’ve also worked to bring more independent creators into the mix by providing online access to their motion book creation tool, and independent distribution through a partnership with DeviantArt. On the flip side, some unofficial reports claim soft recent sales, and the recent announcement of the addition of traditional print comics to the Madefire library indicates the need to generate more revenue to keep up with the likes of current digital comic titan (and recent Amazon purchase) ComiXology.
Madefire just released their app for Android devices, so I thought I’d see what the motion book experience is like for myself. I downloaded four motion books to get a taste: Star Trek: Harlan Ellison’s City on the Edge of Forever issues 1 & 2; My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic issue 1 (yeah, that’s right, just call me a Bronie); and a video game tie-in and all-around buzz generator, Batman: Arkham Origins.
Once you’ve opened a motion book, full pages rarely just appear on the screen, rather, you use a simple touch control on the right side of the screen to guide you from speech bubble to speech bubble, or panel to panel. Individual characters in a panel, like the overwhelming number of ponies in My Little Pony, appear sequentially, and multiple panels may appear at once, not necessarily based on the confines of a page. The sequential editing is effective in literally “building” the story’s momentum one character or landscape at a time; and the panel-to-panel flow of the story is a nice way to really focus on the art in one or two panels at any given time. Image quality looked crisp and bright on the display of my Android-powered Nexus 7 tablet, though, once you have a full page’s worth of Ponyville on your screen, it’s easy to wish you had more than a 7-inch display to take it all in.
Sound is another major component of the motion book experience, but I’m mixed overall on its use. Hearing authentic transporter beam sound effects at appropriate points during the Star Trek story is plenty cool, but background music and sounds feel too static, like listening to white noise on repeat to fall asleep. The eerie ambient noise playing during scenes on a desolate alien world sounded nifty at first, but quickly grew tiresome, especially for panels where I wanted to spend more appreciable lengths of time examining the artwork or dialogue. It also doesn’t help that the soundtracks hiccup as you navigate from page-to-page.
Batman: Arkham Origins is where I really started to sense Madefire’s potential, even if it still feels a little undercooked. Little app glitches with sound and the occasional stalled page turn remained, but each immersive element felt like it was used more effectively than the other books. I felt a palpable increase in my heart-rate in an early scene where ominous music and close-ups of a bloody blade ratchet up the tension during a brutal interrogation.
Batman also offers the ability to control the story at key points in the narrative, pretty much like the old “choose your own adventure” books of yore. The choices in Batman aren’t particularly dramatic (choose whether to talk or fight your way out of a jam, for example) but the idea of being able to control a narrative in this fashion is exciting. Suddenly, my strictly linear story opened up in multiple new directions, and it became easy to see how a book where the choices were truly well-woven into the narrative could offer ample reasons to revisit and explore all the different sights, sounds, and outcomes on offer.
It’s worth noting that My Little Pony and Star Trek are both offered as motion books, but, as best I can tell, weren’t written specifically as motion books. The experience of reading them winds up reminiscent of watching a movie that’s shot in 2-D, but post-converted to 3-D – the effects are cool, but don’t really add much of substance. Nonetheless, all the books, especially Batman are indicative of the potential of the platform for more immersive storytelling in comics. With Madefire now drastically expanding their reach to Android devices and entering into more direct competition with ComiXology, it will be exciting to see how they continue to experiment with and evolve the medium. In the meantime, you can check out Madefire for yourself here, and see how it works with the Batman preview below.