Liam Sharp: A New Grammar for a New Medium

A comics interview article by: Jason Sacks

Liam Sharp is a longtime comics industry veteran but is also a revolutionary. Liam is one of the co-creators off the mindblowing Madefire app, one of the most interesting things that I encountered at San Diego this year. If you own an iPad or iPhone, you owe it to yourself to try out this app and see how it revolutionizes the experience of reading comics. Liam was a real treat to talk to – his enthusiasm for this project is palpable and real and not at all driven my hype. In a few years we're all going to be talking about Madefire and the way it changes the vocabulary of comics. 


Jason Sacks for Comics Bulletin: It's exiting how Madefire is going so far.

Liam Sharp: It's unbelievable. It was a small dream with big aspirations and we've just been totally taken by surprise. I think we always had faith in it but, you know how hostile the traditional products, their audience have been to digital products for a while. But strangely they've taken to stuff like ComiXology and other apps in the first generation of digital. All those pioneers have added additional acceptability to digital comics, to my great delight.
 
CB: You're coming at it from a different angle though; it's digital comics but at the same time Madefire isn not digital comics.
 
Sharp: You know, I don't think we're in with them, but I think they certainly helped to make it acceptable at least. If they hadn't been there I think our job would have been a lot harder. It's really interesting when I think back to the first thoughts we had about it, three years ago and then I really started talking about it. It wasn't really a million miles away from ComiXology. 
 
It was always going to be original content but it wasn't a million miles away. You just always wanted it to have that extra functionality and I guess as the platforms have progressed over the last five years it's been, "What can these things do? What can we build here that takes advantage of the platform rather the other way round? And in a way that serves the story that isn't just doing it for its own sake." It's just been so exiting, and as a creator it's been amazingly exiting as well, playing in this new medium. It is pretty cool.
Cap Stone is Missing
CB: It opens up a whole new avenue that you can explore with your work. 
 
Sharp: Yeah, I think so. I think that's why we've been so overwhelmed with the creators that we're talking to. That just exploded a couple of days ago when the news went live about Ben Abernathy. You know I think, once again you get the extra level of credibility when you have a senior editor from DC coming to join you because he gets what you're doing and is just very excited by it. 
 
He got inundated immediately by some of the cream of the crop. It is just amazing the people we've got lining up. But again, I think you just highlighted it: what we've got is a whole new medium to play in. No matter how good you are and how professional you are, the longer you do something of course you get jaded and of course you get tired and I think when you have somewhere new to play or a new toy to play on, 
 
It's almost like a mind holiday. It gives you a bit of a refresher and reboots your system a bit. It makes you think freshly again for the first time in maybe years about how you might like to tell stories and you stop falling back on any old tropes and traditions and all the bad habits that you might have got into over a long career. It makes you reassess everything and that's really exiting.
 
CB: You obviously feel, as a creator. I can hear your excitement as you talk about that. 
 
Sharp: Totally, but when I look back at the stuff that really, really exited me in the '80s, stuff like Elektra: Assassin and Watchmen and Stray Toasters and these things that were really pushing the boundaries and even earlier before that. 
I remember stumbling across Bill's "Hit Me" issue of Moon Knight. I was just in a shop and it was on a shelf and I picked it up and I was like, "Wow, what is this? This is amazing." That's one of those few comics that I bought about 3 times because I've lost it in various moves and always had to find another copy because it is a must-have. I think it's only like 17 pages, it's not even a whole issue; it was absolutely revolutionary.
 
All of these things had a wit about them and a pace about them and they were rethinking everything, it was just so exiting. It felt like you had that whole bunch of people total re-inventing the way… from the ground up they were rethinking comics and that's always fascinating. 
 
The other side of it is that I'm a huge fan of the European comics, so people like Moebius and Philippe Druillet and people who are just creating these monstrous, epic… I mean Druillet, in particular, with The Bridge Over The Stars and warring gods and an almost impenetrable style that was so epic and just explosive, you couldn't really escape that sort of stuff.
I guess that's always been in the back of our head, that's always been what I wanted to do and it's been quite hard to do anywhere to do anything like that, for a considerable amount of time, I think. I miss the heyday of the Roger Dean Dragon's Dream kind of books when anything seems possible. It's like people dared to dream big and weren't afraid to admit it. I don't know if you know what I mean. 
Houses of the Holy
CB: I know exactly what you mean because your reference points are the same as my reference points, Liam. I mean I remember specifically the  story "Hit It" in particular; I read that book to the point of where the pages were falling out of it. There was so much exiting, revolutionary work that was being done for a long time in the '80s and it feels that there is a lot of that material that is starting to come out now in print-form too but at the same time, moving into a newer, more immersive technology allows you to do even greater experimentation than was even possible then. 
 
Sharp: Yeah, I think so and I think we need to take advantage of that. I'm really excited to see where this goes and when we did put the first few stories there and Ben Wolstenholme did his Mono panorama and I did my dream panorama. It just left like the '70s in a strange way but without the narcotics. We needed to make it a fully immersive experience. We can do now with technology what you needed hard core narcotics in the past to do.
 
CB: Damn, I need to take more drugs. [laughs]
 
Sharp: It's got a very dream like immersive quality which is exiting and I think, again, when you look at the stuff, it's illustrative and it's got scale and a lot of persona to it and definitely keen to push that. we're planning in time to do a lot more stuff that more external illustration type  books in some form or another. I mean there's so much to do with these tools and platform. We're so full of ideas at the moment that it's just exploding. 
 
I guess we're lucky that we're not strapped down with the huge inventory of print material that we've got to honor and respect and keep churning out in different formats. There are advantages to being small and new and not strapped to those kinds of mammoth ideas. This gives us a tremendous amount of freedom. 
 
Yeah, it's just intensely exciting. 
 
CB: Maybe you should talk a little bit about why the format is so revolutionary and what you're able to do as creators in Madefire that people have not seen before. 
 
Sharp: I think there are a couple of things that are revolutionary. They have evolved out of the motion comic thing which is… it's interesting; motion comics within the comics industry have developed kind of a bad reputation. but they were game changers in a way;. They had to be there, they had to be the first steps taken and people that did them were pioneers, so we kind of have to take our hats off to them even if we don't particularly like them or see them as second-rate animation or whatever. The problem inheriting them is that they're too passive; they're sit-back experiences. You're listening to voice actors and watching very-very slightly moving animated frames that were never designed to be moved. 
 
The difference with what we're doing is that we've kind of taken the voice aspect out of it because that instantly creates a pace that is not your own. Everyone reads at different speeds and wants their stuff delivering at different speeds. You want to be able to poor over the pages at your leisure and you don't want somebody else dictating when you turn the page or when you go to the next image. So we're really keen that it's interactive and that you are reading these things; you're not watching them. 
Mono
That was a big consideration as parts of the new grammar that they've given them -- the phrase is that we're creating a new grammar for a new medium. So we've been really keen on making it a reading experience and the sound element became much bigger than we expected; we thought we were only going to sonify just a couple of them and see how it worked out and we've ended up sonifying all of them. Because it just added way more than we expected. It really pulls you in. 
 
Particularly, there's one that came out recently, The Engine. The sound just gives you a Band of Brothers feel when the music comes on. You're in the mine with them and you get a sense about the personalities and characters as much from the music as you do from the imagery and everything else involved. It's quite startling. 
 
So we're realizing that the musicians are also creating unique work for us at the moment. These aren't loops. They're all bespoke tunes all made for Madrire. That's becoming part of the story as well, increasingly so as we go on. Obviously if you don't want it you can just turn the sound off so you can still enjoy them without sound, if you find it to be intrusive. But we found that to be pretty amazing. So that's another innovation.
 
I think that the jaw-dropping innovation that always gets the big wow whenever we show it, is the panoramas. The work that that we've got so far, it was just so exciting. It's funny how it came about; when we first were a tiny, tony  start-up, a couple of months before Christmas, it seems so long ago now, in this little office over in San Francisco, there was just the 4 of us in this box, essentially, and we were just saying, "Right, a few things. We've got this backing now. We've got our team and we're ready to go. What do we want to build? If we could have everything we wanted out of this, what are the key things?" 
 
I just thought of one of those apps on my iPhone where you, I think it's called Photosynth, where you can do a 360 degree snap, your environment has fixed it all together and put it out into a picture and it sort of just popped in my head and I said, "Can you imagine what it would be like if you could do this with a picture with a comic, then you could actually be standing inside the comics. You'd literally be in it.  Then you'll be able to stand there and hold your iPad or iPhone and look in any direction and it will be like looking through a window into the comic world, you'll actually be inside the comic." And it seemed like such a nuts and impossible idea but we kept it on the list moving forward]. 
 
Eugene Walden just came in one day and said, "Ok boys, look, look at this and he switched around his iPad. And there it was, the first one that he just put together and it's like, "What, we can do this?" And he said, "Yep." Unbelievable. 
 
I think to me, more than anything else, being able to follow that through was just incredible and I don't think we've scratched on what we will be able to do in term of telling stories. I think that there's going to be so much that you will be able to do with that, that it will be down to the creativity of the artist and artists that come aboard. Because you can create these little panorama… those parallaxes within frames, so you can have a whole page there with a parallax on it and we haven't tried that yet. 
 
There's a whole load of things we can do that we haven't been able to explore yet or haven't started to explore yet, purely because, again, as I said earlier on, we don't want anything to be done as a gimmick. So we won't do it unless it's got a point, it fits the story. 
 
And the parallaxes, they might be as near as we get to gimmicks, having all our covers as parallaxes but I think that the point of that is that it signals that we're different. As soon as you open your app and you've got all these little covers and that every one of them is a little parallax; they're just kind of cute. My kids love them. They just want to tap them and move them. I just found out recently that those tiny little parallax covers, you can actually zoom in and they're still parallax.
The Engine
CB: That is really cool, yeah. 
 
Sharp: Really fun. So there's that aspect and I guess the last thing that immediately springs to mind to answer that question about what is innovative about it. We've realized that what used to be the panels or frame sequences, isn't even the edge of the iPad or iPhone screen, it's actually time. 
 
So time becomes the boxing device and as you  tap to move forward; that would have taken you to the next panel, what would have once been a box in a comic. But that means you can go anywhere with the image; you can go backwards and forwards and up and down because the tap reveals where the text is and you're not hamstrung by a left to right, top to bottom story process any more, which is quite exciting because it adds an unexpected element that ] you can't do that in a comic. Once you start to realise that time is the only boxing element, then you realize that's really key to two genres in particular that will benefit from it and that's obviously comedy and horror because you can affect, 
 
We haven't again, fully explored this yet.  We've got Mike Carey with his upcoming House of the Holy story, which is really wonderful stuff. But yeah, comedy and horror, they both benefit from timing and then unexpected. So we think that there's going to be a lot of work on those genres in the future on the app. And the characters are going to bring some new stuff. 
We've got Mark Texeira drawing a horror story that Steve Niles is writing for us and that should be fun; it's just going to be a short one for Halloween. But we're just having a ton of fun, paying I guess, that's the fun. It's a new medium so we're all playing. 
 
CB: Yeah, that was the feeling I got more than anything from hanging out with you guys a little bit at San Diego, it's just how much fun you are really having playing in this space. Everyone just seemed full of joy about getting to try something totally new and different and stretching the artistic side in ways you didn't expect. 
 
Sharp: Yeah, it's grand, it's just brilliant. It's been ongoing, we haven't stopped being exited. You saw the stand at San Diego. It was grand; the whole time we were overwhelmed really. And what was lovely about it was there was always like the media going on in the back and then we had events talking to people and then there were people out in the aisle demonstrating the apps. It seemed to be like that permanently for the whole time. There were a couple of little lulls where we all almost collapsed. 
 
CB: I was having trouble even explaining the app to friends. I guess the thing that I walked away with the most is that you're kind of doing away with the idea of pages, in a way. It's more about working through the medium. Because the entire history of the art-form is about the 2-dimensional space of the page, I think that's maybe the biggest reason why this feels so revolutionary.
 
Sharp: I completely understand. One of the problems we're having is saying, it's not a problem really but it's like a conundrum, we're kind of going, "What is it?" It's not a comic, is it? We thought that it was going to be a comic. 
 
The interesting this is Treatment: Mexico, which just came out, the initial artwork for that was done way back in January and it was extremely linear and almost traditional with a few small pop-up elements that were going to punctuate the story. At the time the art came in, it was really early on in the evolution of the tool. We hadn't fully realized what the tool was going to be able to do. So we had to totally rethink that bit and go back to it and literally tear it apart and pull out the frames and create layers and put it together and loads of work on it, to bust it out of what was essentially a panel to panel narrative, to kind of get it up to speed with the stuff that was done subsequently but with the app and the tool in mind. 
 
It really does make you rethink it and lots of the guys who did stuff earlier on weren't able to see the app in the process, or see the work as it was being developed. They've seen it in the app now and they've seen the first few books and they've seen all the things it can do and they're just thinking, "Oh, wow, ok, this makes me totally rethink what I want to do next. And can you do this and can you do that?" 
 
Again, that's the fun bit because it's just inspiring people to be creative. And we are, the scripts no longer say pages or panels; we're talking in terms of sequences and it's really changing. So instead of a splash page, it will say, "This is a panorama page." Instead of a page it's a sequence. 
 
They're just changing the grammar a lot and again we're just evolving it. Every single page and the story that comes in is different to the one previous. And I think that's really exiting too, every single story is entirely different, not only story to story but page to page there's this kind of exploratory sense of you don't know what you're going to get on the next tap. 
The Irons
CB: So aside from the obvious excitement about getting to play in this space, what sort of feedback have you gotten from some of the creators because you're working with a lot of people who have had long careers in the industry. What's their take on this? Is there a little bit if fear as well as a little bit of excitement? 
 
Sharp: The answer is absolutely, without exception, excitement. From a creator's point of view, everybody's completely fired up by it, everybody sees the potential of it and everybody wants to have a play. It's incredible. And the people we're hearing from. If we get even a fraction we're hearing from on the tool, we're just going to have to know superstar creators. 
It's really astonishing, I know I mentioned Mark Texeira the other day, he's going to be doing more work for Marvel but he's got a little window and it's just, "I've got to do something for you." He was basically pitching for an illustration book that we… we've got a little monster artist hunt on at the moment which is getting a lot of interest. We're doing a story for Halloween. It's more of a text story with illustrations in it and I wanted to find an artist that had something creational, original, that wasn't necessarily known in the industry and wasn't following any comic style. It feels like we want to just keep exploring this in as many different ways as possible and it's just had this incredible response. It was just hilarious and wonderful that you get someone like Mark Texeira saying, "I want to do that job." And I said, "Mark,  stop, it's prose, it's not comics." and he's, "Yeah, but I want to do it." 
 
CB: So what other creators can you mention who are doing work for you?
 
Sharp: We have got  a few all lined up. A lot of it is returning stuff. Some of the stuff I don't want to reveal at the moment. We've got Dan Brereton, who's doing Treatment: Edinburgh and Dave Taylor's doing Treatment: Rio De Janeiro, but there's a bunch of other guys who, even I have profiled that I absolutely loath to talk about at this stage in case… because I can't quite believe it yet. 
 
There's a lot of excitement about especially with Ben Abernathy coming on board next week. We're just going to have to organise these books and these characters and just see what we can and can't do. So yeah, at the moment I don't want to make too many promises. We're still a tiny outfit. We've got a lot of work to do and we feel a little bit like we're David and the industry's Goliath. We've got a long way to go.
Treatment Mexico City
CB: So how did you get into software? You were in comics for years, right? 
 
Sharp: Yeah, well, Ben and I go back a long way, I can't remember how much I told you about all this in San Diego but starting from scratch, he and I were both art scholars down in Eastbourne. He's younger than me but he used to come around, I had already left the college and was working for] with Don Lawrence, this legendary comic strip artist who did Storm and The Trigan Empire and just really amazing European books. It was really an amazing start for me and he became a great mentor and friend and I miss him to this day and actually I was lucky enough to go and work with him on his last ten pages of Storm a couple of years before he died, so I kind of  completed a circle. It was a real honor.
 
I was working on that and Ben was about 14 at the time, 13 or 14, he used to come around and send me his scribbles and I'd give him some hits and tips and a bit of artwork and sort of rough his hair and kick him out the door. But he stayed in touch and he went off and set up Moving Brands, which as you know became a really big deal, and I went into comics. 
He always wanted to do comics, he even tried out for 2000 AD but instead he became a CEO of a huge company but let's not feel too sorry for him. But we often talked about stories and stayed in touch and he was always fascinated by the comic industry and the ups and downs of it. He sort of followed me through the times of  the early '90', in the crazy, crazy days, the early 90's. And then deep into the swamp of the '00s. He saw my battles with again trying to figure out ways to do creator end stuff and to be visionary, as much as I could be. 
 
That of lead to the formation of Mam Tor, which is my little publishing company which got a few awards and got a nice little bit of recognition but never really any money or got any big numbers in terms of sales. It's still one of the best things I ever did and one of my proudest things. Because of my experience as a publisher and editor, as well as an artist and writer, and the fact that he had remained as interested in comics and storytelling. He did his thesis on storyboarding, movie storyboarding, so his knowledge of telling stories is the same as mine, which is also telling stories. It's huge. 
 
We just kept talking and he asked about Mam Tor, I just said, "It's just really, really tough because as an independent you have to pay top dollar for any advertising, you're slammed on all fronts essentially. You're buried in the back of Previews. It's really, really hard to get any traction in all the noise that's out there. The distributers take 63% and then the retailers take money off the top of it and it's just impossible to make money as an independent. 
 
So the process and the system essentially box up the distribution. I don't know how you get around that because of course your printers are going to reward big print runs, your advertisers are going to reward people who keep coming back with multiple advertising. So they kind of force consent concessions on various people but it just doesn't support independents at all. And that's a big problem; I think that right across the board, I think for music, in any media that is a huge, huge problem. 
 
A lot of great, great talent is buried. A lot of great creators are lost in the mix because they're not picked up by the big industries and they're seen as slightly too lefty or whatever. I think you end up with a kind of homogenized mess if you're not careful. It's rare but the institutions… it takes a particular visionary within an institution to say, "Alright, let's do that," and break through and be unique.? It doesn't happen very often. There's really great stuff that happens, but most of it is pedestrian and homogenized. 
Treatment Tokyo
CB: It all fits in that grey, homogenous, area where it's never that great and it's never that bad. Your right, it's the same in music, movies, comics. Comics are not different from any other art form that way and a lot of it is just people's, especially in the older days, distribution and people's even knowledge of the material. 
 
Sharp: Yeah, exactly. 
 
It became very apparent to both me and Ben and add that to the internet and then the iPhone and then the iPad. The iPad was just a revelation. As soon as I saw that thing you just went, "Well obviously, this is words and sound. This is an obvious place to go." You instantly haven't got the distribution issues and you can reach people through different means.
 
It's a comic shop, it's available anywhere; you don't have to travel 60, 70, 100 miles to the specialty shop. Once upon a time comics where in every corner shop. Now you if you don't have a comic shop in your town you're not going to become aware of them and even if you do have one in your town, you might not be inclined to go into the comic shop because you're just a little bit too, I don't know, self-conscious, or you're not accustomed to finding your inner geek or taking a chance with a medium that you don't know anything about. 
 
And again, this is something I'm quite passionate about. People mistake comics for a genre. They're not, there a medium; every medium has its geeks and every medium has its works of genius and its endless seas of trash, that what I mean.
So really out of that, Ben and I just carried on evolving that thinking and then Ben started to actually invest some of his own money into developing some initial software to demonstrate what we could potentially do. 
 
He was able to take those initial experiments to True Ventures, who got behind us. They introduced us to Eugene Walden , who's our CTO, and Eugene saw those initial things and got immediately and said, "Actually give me a couple of weeks, I'll see what I can do" and just came back with something which is essentially the tool that we have now. And it was just astonishing; he turned up with his lap top and started moving things around and published it to the iPad in front of me and I was like, "Hang on here, this isn't theatre any more, you just published that to the iPad," he's like, "Yeah," "I mean, back up, you just published that to the iPad, just in front of my eyes," "Oh my God." 
 
It was incredible it took me a moment for it to sink in because everything else had been such a process and such a huge leap of faith. When Eugene just made it real like that, it just felt like we were off and running and the three of us hit it off immediately. 
 
We realized that we had something pretty unique in the three skills that we bring to the table. And that was it. I don't think the passion has diminished that at all, since pretty much that first meeting. If anything it's grown. There's not a day gone buy when I'm not excited by what we're doing and the potential of what we could be doing. 
Treatment Mexico City
CB: Yeah, there's nothing like working a job where you get to do what you love, when you get to see new technologies and new things every day. It's got to be really special for you to be able see the next generation of this business that you've been in for what, 25 years or so. 
 
Sharp: 26 years and that's scary. And the thing is I'd be lying if I said that I wasn't jaded by my own industry. I was completely finding it frustratingly closed. We're all reaching to do our passion. I don't think you get into this unless you want to do something great. I've got so much I've wanted to do, I've been fought so many times along the way and sort of stuck into brackets that I didn't particularly want to be in and you get very pigeonholed. 
 
I think they just assumed that I was their testosterone monster that just wanted to draw people killing each other and slicing arms off and stabbing faces and this very intense stuff. I'm really nothing like that. That's not to say I don't appreciate a bit of blood and thunder but it's not my philosophy and it's not what I want to do really. 
 
So that's been frustrating, to be always associated with that kind of material.  And also I'm actually a writer; I've already got one novel out and I've got another one that's due out in February, I've been publishing it,  PS Publishing are doing it in the UK with an introduction by China Mieville which looks amazing.
 
CB: Yeah, I know Pete Crowther a little bit. He's a great editor. PS puts out some wonderful books.
 
Sharp: Yeah, fantastic. Pete Crowther's just great. He really jumped in the book. He fell in love with it for some reason. It's a very strange little novel but probably the most personal thing I've done outside of Mam Tor. I think all the stuff I'm doing now is the same level personal or nor; that's such a relief. To finally be able to do what I want to do and tell the stories I want to tell, on the platform that is revolutionary, just seems incredible and I'm going to enjoy every minute for as long as it lasts.

 

Community Discussion