Fresh off his selection as one of Bleeding Cool‘s 100 most powerful people in comics comes Liam Sharp, the writer and artist who co-founded Madefire, the media and technology company that might, just might, revolutionize the comics industry through its modern-day motion comics.
You’ve had a pretty diverse career. Tell us how you got into this work and what you’re up to now.
Blimey! That would fill a novel! I guess I always loved films, books, illustrations and comics that had a fantastical bent to them — something more than the day to day. I was always a dreamer. And I have never been a specifically comics-oriented person. I’ve always believed that great stories can be told in any medium, and people who are prejudiced against a medium are missing out through narrow-mindedness. I was drawing from the off, and always got singled out for that from a very early age. The fact that it was comics that I ended up in, as an industry, was less by design than happenstance. I had thought it might be illustration, but then I met the great Don Lawrence — a childhood hero of mine, and one of the truly great British comic artists — and I got the chance to be his apprentice.
After that I worked at 2000 AD, then Marvel UK, Marvel US, DC, Verotik, Wildstorm, Image, Harris, Vertigo, and eventually set up my own imprint Mam Tor with my wife Christina, and my great friend John Bamber.
Ultimately it began to be clear that print was in trouble, and I started casting around for the best digital options out there. That’s when I reconnected with an old friend of mine Ben Wolstenholme, around 2008, and we started talking…
Madefire just made a pretty big splash with Batman: Arkham Origins. Tell us in greater depth about Madefire and how the company came about.
Ben comes from an amazing background. Right out of St. Martin’s, in London, he co-founded Moving Brands. They are an extremely progressive, forward-thinking branding agency, and they saw that the world was changing and brands would no longer be static. They started to brand every aspect of a company, with moving icons and sound mnemonics … eventually working with the biggest brands in the world.
Ben is, however, also an exceptional artist — he and I both won a very prestigious art scholarship to Eastbourne College in our childhood. He was keen to get back to drawing, and more specifically — storytelling. Our thought process was converging.
I have to step back and get into the philosophy a bit here: As I said, you can write great stories in any medium. What Ben and I were seeing was computers imitating paper. Why would you do that? It’s cutting your nose off to spite your face! Here you have this medium — comics — where the most visionary artists and writers of our time are telling stories that span galaxies, cross time, encompass harrowing mass death, alien migrations, all the bolder dreams of our species carked and crafted from our collective mythologies, tempered with our most current scientific knowledge, and finally dipped in our accumulated wisdom to add a bit of humanity — and we insist it has to be delivered in a 22-page paper pamphlet, or something very similar? Madness!
Here’s the thing – we’re about reading. That’s core to what we do at Madefire. It’s not passive watching. That’s was our thought — what’s the next stage for reading, in a digital realm? What does that look like? What can it be if we try and unlearn everything, and put any of our innate prejudice behind us? Digital spaces are a lot smarter than paper, so let’s respect that and see what happens — what we come up with.
We self-funded a bunch of prototype work, got under way with some amazing stories and fabulous art, and we hit the streets.
After failing to get funded in the UK after two years of trying — routinely hearing “This is the best presentation I’ve seen all year!” “Will you fund us?” “No. Have a nice cuppa tea.” — Ben had to open a Moving Brands studio in San Francisco.
We had thought that was it, but circumstances brought Ben in contact with Toni Schneider from True Ventures, and the man behind WordPress. Ben pitched Madefire to Toni, Toni liked it, but said we needed a tech founder, and he introduced us to Eugene Walden — who had formerly created the first stable web browser for mobiles. The three of us met in San Francisco, and the rest is a crazy, terrifying and exhilarating blur!!!
What can you tell us about how the Arkham project came about specifically?
Before we launched Madefire we set up a meeting with Hank Kanalz at DC Entertainment. We showed him the prototype for Treatment: Tokyo by Kinman Chan, and he instantly got what we were about, and said we had the best digital treatment he had seen for comic-type material.
We were called back in to show it to the great Jim Lee, and Jim asked if we could also “bifurcate” the story lines — making narrative branches. We said we could, and that was the moment DC Entertainment REALLY got interested.
Jim drew an amazing map of a possible branching story, and we all set to work…
I see you have deals with companies like IDW and have done work with great artists like Dave Gibbons and Des Taylor. C’mon, give us a tease: What can we look forward to in 2014? Be as specific as you can.
Dave, by the way, is — with Bill Sienkiewicz — an official adviser and advocate. He’s been a Trojan when it comes to talking up Madefire at shows, and wherever else he goes. He’s a force of nature — not unlike Des! He’s written a big Treatment treatment for some time next year, and we do have some other BIG name writers joining us. I really can’t say more than that!
Taking a step back, who were your big influences as a creator?
My influences are many, and diverse. You’ll see all of them in my work at various points along the way — Michelangelo, Rodin, Buscema, Kaluta, Frazetta, Moebius, Corben, Lawrence, Sienkiewicz, Bolland, Druillet, Manara, Wrightson, Coll, BWS, Fabry … it goes on and on! And that’s just the artists!
What was your first comic book? Do you still have it?
I remember a Daredevil Stilt-Man story by Gene Colan. I found out it was published in 1967, a year before I was born, so I have no idea why we had a copy of that. … I still have my first issue of the UK black and white Star Wars reprint comic … collected that for years!
What’s with the beard? Should I grow one? I used to every winter, but my wife doesn’t like it. Should I plow ahead or continue to knuckle under?
My wife used to not want me to have one, now she can’t bear me without it — and neither can the kids! And being bald it’s now just too much flesh without it. Plus it hides my jowls!
I’m also a Beardist — a midlands art movement I, and a few other guys, rekindled. You could call me a bearded post-Beardist … http://beardism.weebly.com
And yes — you should definitely grow one! It’s life-changing. It’ll give you Samsonite fortitude!
Do you still read paper or given your business, are you strictly a tablet guy now?
I read both The Guardian and The New York Times on my iPhone pretty much daily. I also read Skeptic magazine, Total Film and National Geographic on there too. I still read the odd paper book, but it’s skewed 60/40 in favor of digital these days …
What’s the comic character you always wanted to work on but never have?
Tell us something that will surprise us.
I’m happiest writing prose. I have a second novel coming out next year from PS Publishing. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever done before, and it has been heroically championed by one of my all-time favorite writers, China Miéville, who also wrote an incredible introduction for me. He told me he just fell in love with it. It’s all about the Beardists actually, Andrew Wilmingot specifically. It’s called “Paradise Rex Press, Inc.” A very scary, personal project that owes nothing to anything anybody has ever seen from me.
Thoughts? Leave a comment!