“If we don’t do it, somebody else will! This isn’t a mutually exclusive medium.” Madefire’s Liam Sharp tells Pipedream Comics “why I love digital comics”

The latest in our series of guest columns about ‘why I love digital comics’ comes from Madefire co-founder and digital pioneer Liam Sharp.

Liam SharpAn oppressive pall hangs, almost visibly, in the late-afternoon California sky. It’s a taste of somewhere else, somewhere I recognize, and feel at home. Pall it may be, but it’s my pall – a pall born of blanket grey skies over too short days for ungodly chunks of any given year. This is a Midland pall, and I both love it and detest it, and it has no right to be here, in Berkeley, darkening the Madefire studio.

I’m here to interview Liam Sharp, a man who once laid claim to be a solid Midland lad, but who now resides in the US of A in a so-called city called Walnut Creek, about something called ‘digital comics.’ As yet I know not what such things are, I’m a little nervous because Liam is my future self of some 25 years, and I have no idea what to expect. (I’m also somewhat tongue-tied in general, unless I’ve down a few good ales, so my plan is to drag him to the Prizefighter – a bar directly opposite the studio. As it turns out I don’t have to ask twice!)

“Hullo” he says, grinning. “This is odd!”

He’s not wrong. I can’t take my eyes off the large, near hairless expanse of skin that now adorns his/my head. It seems our dad’s genes won out! I become extremely conscious of the long hair I have tied back in a ponytail. I’m glad to see future me is still pretty beefy though, and notice his right arm is festooned with some sort of tribal tattoo. I didn’t expect that!

“Hi!” I stutter. “Uhm. I was thinking… pint?”

“Rude not to!”

“Excellent!”

“Big surprise – California has great craft beer! Who’d have thunk?”

The Prizefighter is a squat, red-brick block of a building with a flat roof and a utilitarian but tasteful deck. I spark up a camel light cigarette and offer one to future me but he declines. “Maybe later. I’ve pretty much stopped.” He says.

“So…” I venture, “How the hell did we end up here?”

“Crikey.” He says. “You want the short answer or the long one?”

“I want the best answer!”

“Nice. Well, mum and dad got together in 1967, finally, and…”

“Short answer.”

“Because it was there.”

“What?”

“The internet!”

I stare at future Liam blankly. “The what?”

“You’ll like it. It’s every book, every game, every means of communication you can think of. It’s the future! Look, never mind. The point is – you ARE an adventurer, it turns out, but you took your bloody time mate!”

“Sorry… What?”

“You’ve got more London years coming, then Teddington, Brighton, and back to Derby. It’s proper up-and-down, and you’ll have the gamut of emotions and all the extremes of living an artist’s life, and you’ll just about make peace with yourself, get those legs comfortably under the table, your hat hung up. Truth is, you almost take root. And then… well, it all changes…”

“Is that a good thing?”

“It is.”

I look at him, smiling at me. There’s age there, but not as much as I might have expected. He looks content – positively cheery even. That gives me heart. I decide its time to get a little more specific with my questions.

“Do you still like to draw?”

“Christ, I think I’d already stopped liking it when I was you!” He looks thoughtful, frowns, and then looks at me intently. “You’ll always fight yourself. You should go a bit easier – it would help! But you know, it’s the fact that you don’t much care for what you do that drives you forward. Let me tell you something you’ll love: One day, in a studio in California, you’ll get to collaborate with Bill effin’ Sienkiewicz. Nuff effin’ said. You’ll do that, and when you do – I promise you – you’ll love it. So yes, I still like to draw – sometimes. But I also write, which I love, and I get to see amazing art, and work in a new medium called Motion Books, that Madefire, the company we founded, have pioneered. Now THAT is pretty bloody amazing!”

“And that,” I say rather smugly (it’s a good link!) “brings me to these ‘digital’ comics or should that be ‘Motion Books’. I’ve been asked to find out you why you love them… I’m guessing that’s part of it?”

“Oh! Absolutely! It amazes me how many people in comics still have a barrier around this. To paraphrase Douglas Adams, we mustn’t mistake the food for the plate! Every new medium begs for people to use it to tell stories. We did it with cave walls and ocre, in soft, fresh-cut marble, on clay tablets, paper, film… in words and in pictures we have told our stories. And you know what? The new digital mediums are smarter than all of these previous mediums – so why should we treat them like a piece of paper? That’s cutting off our nose to spite our faces.”

“If we don’t do it, somebody else will! This isn’t a mutually exclusive medium.”

Liam looks suddenly thoughtful and slightly annoyed as he goes on. “I think its madness! I mean, if we don’t do it, somebody else will! This isn’t a mutually exclusive medium. There are many ways to digest the same material, and we can do the books – maybe even the films – of our Motion Books later! But right now… right now there’s a chance to play in a whole new sandbox, to create a new language – as Dave Gibbons says, a new grammar. That’s so exciting! Why would anybody have an issue with that?”

“I’m an old fart who’s been knocking about comics for 27 years, but I can see it. I get it. I’m prepared to take a chance and just try it – why not give it a go after all? You’d think that this industry – where we have created the most diverse, visionary and epic of stories – would be more accepting! It’s as though we’ve been the underdog, bastard offspring of the illustrated book for so long we’ve developed an inverted snobbery!”

Liam takes a long swig of his beer – a 9% Abbey Ale – and wipes his mouth on the back of his arm. “Sorry. It’s a bit of a pet peeve.” He says. “Don’t get me wrong – I bloody LOVE print! But, y’ know, life’s for the living after all. And here’s this new medium that is all about the things I love most – words and pictures – but it can also be so much more. Sound, motion… live links! You can start to build story clouds that can grow, and interlock in amazing ways. It’s very exciting stuff!”

“Is this something this Madefire is developing?” I ask, intrigued. “I mean – how much of a hand do you have in developing all these new narrative forms… are you writing a rule book around it?”

“Best practices rather than rules.” He replies. “When all our in-house builders – myself included – first started using our Madefire tool we built mini movies, but that’s no good, not as a reading experience anyway. What you get are animations. You don’t read an animation, you watch it. It’s passive. We want the reader to engage, and control the pace, and stop, and look at the art – maybe zoom in. Savour it. I think that creators on deviantART and elsewhere that get access to the tool will start to develop ways of telling stories using our software that we haven’t even imagined yet! It happened with Kinman Chan, who drew Treatment: Tokyo – he wasn’t from a comics background so his thinking was completely free of that learning. There was no top left to bottom right. He instinctively knew a story could sort of blossom, not be bound by boxes. Word balloons could appear anywhere on the screen with time dictating which you read first, not a linear narrative construct. It was a total revelation to us, really mind-blowing – yet now it seems so obvious!

“Also, we didn’t guess how much sound would matter – it was scarily last minute! But honestly, it adds the same amount of atmosphere as a movie soundtrack does. The books seem empty without sound now. And you know what? If you don’t like it -turn it off!

“Man, I know I’ve been going on a bit, but you want to know why I love digital comics, or our own special brand of Motion books? Because there are no rules; Because this is a new country; Because it’s exciting, and terrifying, and we don’t have all the solutions or answers. We don’t know what the optimal experience is. We’re inventing it as we go. How can that NOT be inspiring?”

We talk for several more hours as the sun burns a small hole in the invading Midlands pall, then quickly sets in an orange blaze. I learn more about things to come in my life, things I would never have imagined or expected, but I’m glad I can’t see beyond THIS point. This is an adventure I want to have when the time comes. One I want to experience with the same blindness and anticipation we all share when looking into the chasm of our collective futures.

It’s scary, but damn – it’s exciting!

 Liam is CCO and co-founder of Madefire (download their app for iPad and iPhone here) and the creator of the 2012 Digital Comic of the Year – Captain Stone is Missing