As the co-founder of Madefire, a digital comics company with a fearless attitude about embracing technology, Ben Wolstenholme sounds like he’d be a pretty intimidating guy. As it turns out, the talented artist, St. Martin’s graduate, tech entrepreneur, newly-minted comic book professional and brand storyteller extraordinaire is soft-spoken and humble. Madefire’s man-with-a-plan was kind enough to give Den of Geek a little of his valuable time in order to answer some questions about Madefire’s history, their future and his own contribution to Madefire’s impressive motion book line, Mono.
Den of Geek/Mike Cecchini (DoG/MC): You have a history of working across different media and in brand development. How is your approach different at Madefire than at Moving Brands?
Ben Wolstenholme (BW): It’s all very natural. A brand is a story, just like anything else. I’ve been fortunate to work with some really interesting companies, from Apple to Coca-Cola to Flipboard, who are all amazing and have very interesting stories to tell. I do get very excited about all of that. But the chance to develop my own stories and fiction has always been a goal of mine. My passion is to be a better storyteller and to be as free as possible, which isn’t always possible in corporate storytelling. So Madefire is a very important creative endeavor for me.
DoG/MC: How did you and the other founders find each other?
BW: Liam (Sharp, Artist, Writer and Madefire’s CCO) and I grew up in the same town and went to the same school. We were both art scholars and we were lucky enough to get a very good education because we could draw. I followed in his footsteps (he’s five years older than me) and we went to a really amazing school. Liam went on to do comics work for Marvel and DC, while I went off and did illustration and got very interested in storyboarding for films and the idea of creating narratives across different media. I specialized in film and graphic design. I went on to a very exciting art college in London called Saint Martin’s which is very lateral and all about ideas. Shortly after that I started Moving Brands and I got more into branding, advertising and digital interface work which focused on user experience.
Liam and I got back in touch about three years ago and met up in a pub and I asked him about how the industry was going, because I could see he was having such an exciting time in comics. Of course, we got to talking about how the print industry was suffering a little. So I started talking about a move to digital devices. Seeing what a density of talent there is in the comics world, I wondered how that would translate to digital. We spent about eighteen months raising money and working on prototypes, and during that time I came to the States. That was when I realized that there really was a market here for an idea like this and we were fortunate enough to find some backing.
I met Eugene Walden (Madefire’s CTO) last year while we were trying to build some of the technical aspects. Eugene had such a great history with mobile tech and just seemed like the right fit. Once he came on board as the third founder, that’s when things really started getting serious and we were able to really start building the platform.
DoG/MC: Obviously the motion book tool is such an important part of the Madefire experience. Did you tailor the storytelling to the tool or was the tool built to accommodate the kinds of stories you wanted to tell?
BW: We had some prototypes of a “reading experience” that were already working on an iPad at the time, but the tool wasn’t quite there yet. We were working on various parts of the experience in the prototype phase, like translatable words, hotlinks. To us, it was obvious that a device is smarter than a piece of paper, so we wanted to really see what we could use on devices which would be in service of the story, but also bring a more immersive, punctuated language to it.
We quickly realized that we wanted everything to be reading, not watching. That almost was the biggest breakthrough. Once you start getting into voices and loads of animation it becomes passive and it becomes very hard to make as well! But mostly, you lose the engagement with the reader. I think reading is pretty magical because there’s still room for people to co-create some of what’s happening in their heads. How does that character sound? How does he move? How does he really feel? When you start playing all that out the “reader” just becomes a “watcher.” So, once we set those limits, some of the elements almost started to design themselves.
We have touch, we have movement, we have sound, we have the opportunity to link story elements between pages and that’s where we started to see what the core features would be in the tool. It was very important for us not to get too into 3D or complex creation tools, because we wanted the book to be flat layers; words, pictures, with movement and scaling and transitions and sound added in. We really were looking for what “grammar” would be appropriate for reading on devices. That’s when we got to experiment with what would be possible.
I think the whole of Madefire has been constantly oscillating between technology and story. Some people find that difficult to process. Are we a technology business or are we storytellers? But that’s the whole point. We’re trying to put it all together and make something completely new. The tool and the stories sharpen each other. It’s like the covers that can move a little. We want to retain integrity and not do anything cheap or gratuitous. We want people to realize that the books can do something that print can’t. I said to Dave Gibbons, “Well, that’s a gimmick, isn’t it?” And his response was “Comics ARE gimmicks!” It still has to be entertainment and we want to have some fun with it.
DoG/MC: Obviously, you have a pretty serious roster of talent and a nice line of titles, already. What is your vision for Madefire’s future output?
BW: We’ve got about 18 motion books up there right now and we’re on target for about one new book per week. Every now and then we hit a stumbling block and that will hold things up for a few more days. We always test everything to make sure they work across the whole of iOS and we try to put quality ahead of the schedule. One of the benefits of digital is that you can essentially hold the content back until you feel it’s right.
But all of the scale in coming years will come from other parties using the tools. We’re going to open the tools to other publishers and other creators so that they can get in there and make their stories. That’s always been the bigger goal for us; to let this grow beyond our material. You’ll see that start happening in the first half of next year. Since the tool is browser-based, you’ll be able to just log in and build your books in the cloud, essentially. That’s when things should get really interesting!
DoG/MC: Tell me about your creation, Mono.
BW: I had this idea for a character called Mono for a while, who was kind of a Bond-like adventurer. But I wanted him to be more visceral and primordial. I started thinking about ape/human characters and my wife pointed out that “Mono” is Spanish for “monkey.” I liked the idea that this guy would have the strength of a silverback ape, because those things are incredible. They can have the strength of about ten or twelve men when they get going!
I was working with Liam on some Madefire stuff and I pitched him the idea of this secret weapon who had been in service during the war as a one-man force. Liam loved it, so I started sketching things up and then Liam helped me with the world around him and the supporting cast. So we have a joint story credit and Liam is writing the scripts and then I draw it. We’ve also got an author named Tony Brock who’s done some great work developing Mono’s world and you’ll hear more about him in the near future. For me, it’s a bit of a shock launching my character in the company of work by talents like Dave Gibbons, Liam Sharp and Bill Sienkiewicz! But I guess that’s the whole idea, isn’t it? We want this tool to be for a new wave of storytellers. It’s been a nice reception. I’m rather overwhelmed.
DoG/MC: Were comics always part of your plan?
BW: I’ve always followed comics, graphic novels, any kind of visual storytelling, really. I’ve always felt that the amount of talent in the industry is overlooked and undervalued. Comics seem like they’re getting stranded a little bit between things like film, TV and video games. I see the digital approach as a way to catalyze a whole new wave of stories and intellectual property and readership. I love print, but it’s only one part of the equation, now.
DoG/MC: Mono seems like he’d be a good fit for other media…
BW: It’s a little early for that! My goal is to just tell a good story right now and try to find readers who care about the character. I’d be really excited if he could grow into something more widely available. I’ve got a hell of a lot to do with him as motion books and there’s still a lot of story to tell. Comics and graphic novels are obviously such incredible melting pots of ideas that can transfer smoothly to other media. I think Mono is one that would. I think Captain Stone is one. I think Treatment is one. We’re interested in this, of course. You only have to look at the cinema and see that there’s a lot of potential there. The problem is, there isn’t a lot of intellectual property making that jump. Where are the new myths of the 21st century going to come from? That’s one of our big goals. We’d like Madefire to help the new myths of the 21st century happen. You can only watch Avengers so many times, you know. I don’t want to get ahead of ourselves, but you do have to have an elaborate plan. If we can keep doing it well, we hope that people get excited about it!
DoG/MC: Are there other titles that you’re thinking about writing or drawing right now?
BW:I’ve got my work cut out for me right now trying to move the Madefire business forward with the rest of the team, which involves meeting with publishers and getting them interested in the tools and things like that. And then I have to keep up with some of these legends of the comic book world, which isn’t easy! I should say that I’m just going to stay focused on what I’m doing with Mono for now. I feel really privileged that the material is going out in the company that it is, so I’d like to keep my end up. Liam’s been a wonderful coach, Ben Abernathy has been a great sounding board and Dave Gibbons has been really supportive about everything as well. It’s been a nice ride so far!
You can download the Madefire app here. It’s free!
Mono: The Old Curiosity Shop can be read here. It’s free!