Madefire, First Look, Review

Madefire, "comics in motion" for the iOS. Is this the future of comics?

If I told you there was a new comic book company boasting an arsenal of A-List talent like Dave Gibbons, Brian Bolland, Steve Niles and Mark Texeira, you’d probably be pretty impressed, right? Perhaps you’d wonder why you haven’t heard of them. If I told you that they were currently offering all of their books up for free, would that get your attention? You may not have heard of Madefire yet, but you will . . .

Technically, Madefire doesn’t make comic books. They make “motion books” for tablets and smartphones (although currently only available on iOS devices). Launched in June of 2012, the Madefire app is a new way to experience graphic storytelling. Sure, digital comics aren’t precisely new, but the medium is still finding its place, not just in the marketplace, but in the way creators approach it and in the hearts of fans. Madefire may just be the company that changes that last part. 

Everybody, at one point or another, has probably read some kind of comic book on a screen. Some titles make the transition better than others and there is a difference between reading a comic that was merely scanned in and those that have been re-configured specifically for the experience. Comixology boasts a handy panel-reveal system for many titles that gently guides the reading experience. But the majority of the content that’s out there, especially by the big companies, was conceived for the printed page, not a handheld device or tablet.

Madefire, according to a quote from Dave Gibbons on their homepage, “are creating a new grammar for an ever-evolving medium.” That’s a bold statement, but there is something to it. In order for digital comics to really succeed, they need to convince the old soldiers, the folks who love the feel of a book in their hands and who treasure the experience of reading a comic, to get on board. As someone who likes the physical, tactile experience of collecting (when I’m not buying comics, I collect records), I found the Madefire approach to comics unique, intuitive, and entertainingly slick.

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To familiarize myself with the Madefire App, I carefully made my way through the first installments of three titles; Treatment: Tokyo, Mono and Captain Stone is Missing. These titles made full use of my iPad’s screen and looked great both horizontally and vertically. The Madefire App will adjust the size and layout of the art based on how you prefer to hold your device. The art and colors are truly stunning and each title I sampled was an absolute joy to look at. If a book would look better “widescreen” (as Treatment: Tokyo did) a small icon in your lower left-hand corner will let you know if you’re holding it the “wrong” way, but they all can be enjoyed from any angle. It took me about ten minutes to read Treatment: Tokyo and Mono and about twenty to make my way through Captain Stone is Missing, so these are all fairly substantial installments.

It’s easy to be skeptical about any new technology that claims to “enhance” reading. When animation or sound, however subtle, become part of the equation, you can be left wondering where the line is drawn between “reading” and “watching.” Madefire’s storytelling enhancements aren’t really enhancements at all; they’re essential parts of the overall experience. You guide the pace of the reading using a small icon on the right side of the screen. By touching the icon (or making a page “swipe” motion if you prefer), panels will reveal themselves and each touch will add dialogue balloons to the page, zoom in or out of the panel as necessary (you can also zoom in at any point of the screen by pinching it) or reveal the next sequence of artwork. If you’re in a hurry, a quick double tap will reveal the entire panel, dialogue and all. It’s linear and intuitive and a new reader should be able to get the hang of it within the first few pages. 

Occasionally a panel will contain some light animation as a character or object will move through the panel, but for the most part, the bulk of the images are static. Sound effects will appear at the appropriate time and dialogue balloons also appear in sequence as you touch the page. What this does, which is really quite effective, is it frees the dialogue balloons from traditional left-to-right reading. Even the most experienced comic book reader has, from time to time, found themselves reading dialogue in the wrong order, especially when word balloons are cramped into a panel. The Madefire app eliminates that. Dialogue appears as it is meant to be read, which means that, even with multiple characters on the screen, regardless of where each character is placed in the panel, each will “speak” in the order that they’re meant to be read. For example, Treatment: Tokyo opens with a crowded bar scene, but there’s never any question about which character speaks when.

Madefire books contain some ambient music, some background sounds and the occasional sound effect, but nothing obtrusive. The sound design, especially while wearing headphones, is atmospheric and pleasant and, at least in the three titles I sampled for this piece, was devoid of any “shock” sound effects designed to make you jump, even during action sequences. In other words, reading, not watching or listening, remains the key point when experiencing a Madefire title and you’ll get just as much out of the book without sound, if you choose.

Occasionally, as in the first episodes of Captain Stone is Missing and Mono, an icon will appear in the center of the page to indicate that you can move around the art a little bit. Sometimes, it’s just a slight “pop-up book” effect that allows you to look around obstacles or shift through a stack of magazines or papers. However (and this is really cool), there are other times where you’re treated to a 360 degree view of the scene, which allows you to explore a room, a battlefield, or the inside of a character’s nightmare. This sounds gimmicky, but trust me, when it’s on your screen, it’s spectacular! As with the other “enhancements,” it’s entirely up to the reader to explore this feature and if you choose not to, it won’t have any effect on how you experience the rest of the book.

Perhaps most importantly, the folks at Madefire make it easy for you to get started. The app is free and so is all of the content! You download the app, pick which books look interesting and off you go! The Madefire App looks like a legitimate evolution for digital comics. With the kind of talent Madefire currently is boasting, the variety of titles, the ease of access to the content and the intuitive, immersive reading experience, the future is bright!

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