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Marvel Unlimited Updated Review!

It’s been three-and-a-half years since I reviewed Marvel Digital Comics Unlimited. I’ve been meaning to post an update for some time, and as I’ve been on vacation these past few weeks — and using the service a lot in my downtime — now seems the ideal time!

(For the TL:DR-types in the audience — I still enthusiastically endorse this service! For those wanting a bit more detail, I offer brief and updated impressions below!)

Marvel Unlimited

First off, the service has a new name — it is now simply Marvel Unlimited, which is snappier, but no less deceptive, as the service is still limited, though considerably improved over my original review.

Technology & Interface

The single greatest improvement in the service was a rebuild that dispensed with Flash and went cross-platform. That’s right, now I can use Marvel Unlimited on my tablet, which dispenses with about a third of my original criticism. Marvel Unlimited’s “smart panel” system isn’t quite so sharp as Comixology’s, but I find single-page mode on an iPad serves me just fine, given that I can pinch/zoom in on anything I want to see in greater detail. The service has been of great value in capturing images for use here at Longbox Graveyard (and the absence of a similar service accounts for much of the relatively paucity of DC Comics features here at my blog … it takes a lot more effort and expense to read DC product in electronic form).

The updated app came with some under-the-hood improvements, too, resulting in faster search and (generally) better stability. The physical search process also seems improved, though some of this might be down to my familiarity with the system, or just lowered expectations. My sense is that Marvel has been cleaning up their search metadata behind-the-scenes, but I haven’t run any benchmark tests, so you are on your own if a routine search turns up twelve separate entries for Don Heck (horrors!).


Heck, no!

A very welcome addition is the option to search by date, which lets me set the Wayback Machine for (say) 1978 and see all the comics on offer for that year. I LOVE this feature, as it lets me dive directly into eras of interest, and even kinda-sorta read books in the order they came out, should I wish to experience a past year on a month-to-month basis. This is an indispensable feature — the kind that makes me wonder how I ever went without it. Well done!

The “Must Reads” search workaround I mentioned in my previous review is no longer available (at least on tablet, which is the only place I use this service now) — in its place is a “Library” option, which is supposed to let you download up to twelve comics at a time to read offline, a theoretically useful feature for plane or car trips.

I say, “theoretically,” because I can’t get the bloody thing to work.

Sad Trombone

Kind of damning to read instructions about how I can read comics offline on the same screen that chastises me for not having an internet connection, no? This may well be down to user error. Or maybe it just flat out doesn’t work.

Otherwise, the experience has improved in every way. Upon completing an issue, the option is available to jump directly to the next issue in line, a very welcome feature for long series re-reads. The ability to rate books or try to share them with friends is gone, and un-missed.


The front-end has nice new features like spotlight sections, with the most recently-released content displayed front-and-center (and alerts about new content rolling onto the system can also be pushed to you via email updates).

Which brings me to …


Content is still king on this app — everything I lauded in my original review of the service is still here, plus seemingly every new book Marvel has published since, with the significant caveat that the system lags approximately six months behind print. You can think of Marvel Unlimited as the home video release of theatrical movies … and just as with the movies, if you can wean yourself of seeing everything when it comes out day-and-date, you can enjoy a lot of content for a fraction of the price.

For your humble narrator — stuck as I am in the year of 1978 — being “only” six month behind the times is so far into the future that it gives me a nosebleed! In other words, I’m fine with it, even for new books. Like many readers, I am looking forward to Marvel’s Even-Newer-And-This-Time-We-Mean-It relaunch … but I will be enjoying it in the Spring, instead of the Fall!


very much looking forward to this … eventually

Archival gaps have been slower to close. Marvel’s Star Wars books recently appeared on the service, but frustrating omissions from decades past remain (I am still flummoxed that Marvel’s monster books from the 70s are so few and far between). Very occasionally I will get notice that new issues of an old book have been filled in, but mostly I’ve adjusted my expectations and use the service for reading newer issues.

Here Comes Daredevil!

new-old Daredevil, recently added to Marvel Unlimited

Marvel Unlimited helped me come to terms with my conflicted feelings about Brian Michael Bendis by reading his work in long digital binges (where he shines) — I even bit the bullet and detoured into Battle of the Atom when it interrupted my long 40-issue read of Uncanny X-Men. It would have been nice if those Battle of the Atom issues were threaded one to the next, so I didn’t have to search up each title in order and by hand … but you can’t have everything!

your checklist mocks me

my kingdom for an interactive checklist!

The Future

In a lot of ways, my Marvel Unlimited service has been like a gym membership. There have been times when I’ve used it religiously, and then long gaps when I forgotten I’ve paid for the damn thing. If my credit card had aged out and the service had failed to renew, I might not have missed it … until the time came that I wanted to look as some specific issue of such-and-so, when Marvel Unlimited proves itself very much indispensable. I suppose I could cancel out my sub and pop in-and-out with trail memberships from disposable email addresses, but that is a churlish way to treat this service. There is good content here, and I’m happy to pay for it (and I will keep a candle burring in the window in hopes of DC offering a similar platform someday). I might even double-down and get a retina-display iPad specifically for Marvel Unlimited … or better yet, wait on the super-sized tablets Apple supposedly has in the pipeline, which strike me as possibly the best way yet to read digital comics.

But even with my “old” iPad, I am still a fan of Marvel Unlimited; I think it is worth a subscription, and it is certainly worth a tryout for whatever app is native to your device.

And now, if you will excuse me, I need to return to my Bendis-era Uncanny X-Men re-read. It might be 2013 in that particular series, but it’s all new to me!

Limited Universe

Longbox Graveyard #30

NOTE: Marvel Unlimited has changed substantially with the release of native apps for Android and iOS — read my updated review for details!

(Original review follows below)

Two weeks ago I looked at the book that I consider the future of digital comics. Today, I look into the past with Marvel Digital Comics Unlimited.

It almost seems unfair to refer to any digital comics initiative as a relic of the past, but Marvel’s present online format debuted a hair over four years ago, which is approximately a century in digital time. The MDCU is a subscription based-service, differing from Marvel’s (non-compatible) iOS and Android apps in that it offers unlimited access to a back-catalogue of 10,000 titles, rather than facilitating per-issue purchase of day-and-date new titles. You can safely think of MDCU as a “Netflix for Marvel Comics” with the caveat that you won’t find anything more recent than books which streeted six months ago, with the bulk of the service dedicated to digital versions of Marvel books from decades past.

For me this has proven ideal, as I have pretty much zero interest in contemporary Marvel books, but plenty of desire to fill in the Bronze and (especially) Silver Age gaps in my Marvel Comics reading experience. Given as I’m not obsessed with actually owning those old books (and in fact at times find the whole concept of a collection a burden), merely viewing — rather than physically collecting, or even downloading — these old books is fine with me. And the price has been right, too — a year’s sub for about forty bucks, thanks to a discounted subscription that my family scored for me over the holiday (finally, the geeky gift for the geek who has everything!). For less than the price of a Marvel Omnibus I can roll around in digital comic book heaven for a year, and if at the end of that year it all goes up in digital smoke, well, I’m no worse off than I am today, and hopefully better for having read hundreds of comics over the preceding twelve months.

Overall I’ve been satisfied with MDCU but the experience is far from perfect. I mentioned that the system is four years old, and it shows, not least of which in that it is entirely Flash-driven, which knocks my iPad out as a viewer, because, as we all know, there ain’t no Flash on iOS devices.

I did try to work around the Flash limitation by viewing the site using the Puffin browser on my iPad, but it was even more dreadfully slow than the stock Flash experience, and I could never quite get a full-page view dialed in the way I’d like via Puffin. It isn’t fair to hold MDCU to account for failing to function on a non-supported platform, but it is a bit frustrating that this otherwise-attractive service is unavailable on iPad, a device so well-suited to the “lean backwards” experience of digital reading.

Instead the MDCU must be viewed on a computer with internet access, but even here the results are a mixed bag. The ideal system is a big, crisp display — MDCU seems to have been built with 27” and larger monitors in mind. My problem is that I’m not keen on sitting in front of a computer to read comics (computers are a “lean forward” experience), and there’s no way to get that big monitor to the couch or into bed where I prefer to read my books. A laptop is the obvious compromise, but you do give up the quality of the big monitor experience, and my viewing satisfaction is further exacerbated by owning a Macbook Air, which is a tremendous device for writing Longbox Graveyard, but a sub-optimal comics viewer owing to its 13-inch display.

Below a certain screen size, you’re practically required to view the MDCU library using the “smart panels” option, which does a pretty good job of selectively framing a panel or two at a time, but makes it difficult to appreciate the overall architecture of a comics page, and feels a bit like reading your books through a knot-hole. Even on a large computer monitor, the horizontal aspect ratio of computer screens is at odds with the vertical orientation of a comics page, which is more ideally suited for, oh, I don’t know, maybe this iPad 2 here that I can’t use!

Anyway, on a full-sized computer monitor, you can display a full page (or better-yet, two), lean back, put your feet on the desk, and comfortably read a book … but it still doesn’t compare to relaxing in bed or in a hammock or on some silken divan surrounded by a legion of Princess Leia slave girls with your complete digital run of Howard the Duck.

In an ideal world these comics files would be PDFs, Marvel wouldn’t care if I downloaded them instead of just viewing them, and I could get them on my iPad where the aspect ratio is perfect and pinch/zoom touch controls dispense with the whole awkward smart panels thing …

… you know, the way it is if you pirate the books from online sights right now.

Regardless, I genuinely think forty bones is a more than fair price to view so many Marvel books of years past online. I knew full well going in that the reading experience would be sub-optimal so it really isn’t fair to complain about it. Hopefully Marvel will get their strategy sorted out and provide an iPad-friendly version of MDCU sometime soon. In the meantime, imperfect as it is, viewing these books via my Macbook is the only game in town.

Unfortunately, the challenges of MDCU aren’t limited to the viewing experience. Browsing the site is slow, indirect, and earns failing marks. You can browse by Character, Series, Creator, Comic Event, and On-Sale Date, but everything is accessed through links-within-links, and every refresh of the page is painfully slow.

Let’s say I want to browse the Fantastic Four. It may be the World’s Greatest Comic Magazine, but it isn’t in the default display for “Browse By Character.” Clicking “F” I wait a few seconds, then select from the “F” books on offer, then select Fantastic Four (as opposed to Fantastic Four (Ultimate)).

Now two layers deep in the interface, I see books 1-20 of 1086 issues on offer. It will take me another two clicks to arrange the screen the best way for my purposes — displaying 100 titles per page, rather than twenty, and sorting from oldest book to newest, rather than the other way around — and the ancient Flash interface takes more than fifteen seconds to process each click. But even then … the first eight entries are things like Visionaries collections, Marvel Age re-imaginings, and Clobberin‘ Time Digests (WTF?) before I see the canonical Fantastic Four #1 from 1961 available for reading. What is worse, I have to jump through these hoops every time I want to browse a title, because as near as I can tell, there’s no way to save my preferences for browsing. I always want to view books from old to new with the maximum number of titles per page, but the system will always make me start with viewing them new to old with a minimum number of books per page.

With all the books on offer I should feel like I’ve been let loose in the biggest comics shop on the planet, but this interface makes browsing and discovery a real chore. This has been a major disappointment. It makes me want to cry.

I’ll get over it … somehow …!

To get around this hurdle I’ve made heavy use of the “Must Reads” feature, which lets me checkmark a book for later reading. In theory, at least, this limits my pain in that I can go through my now-optimized FF list one time and just check off the books I want to read … though making check marks next to each book is no joy, and there’s still the wait time required to refresh each of the dozen or so pages as I move forward through the library.

But having a robust “Must Reads” list is no picnic. Clicking “Must Reads” defaults me to an Issue View displaying only 10 books per page. I already have over 200 titles on my Must Read list, so that’s twenty pages of clicks to page through even my painfully-curated list.

To get the list into useful shape, I first have to change the 10 per Page view to 50 per page, then guess which of the four pages will have the book I want to read. On a good night, I might guess right and estimate that the Silver Surfer issue I want to read is on Page 3 of my Must Read issues list … but that was still three clicks (each with a longish pause to load) before I could get to the book I wanted (which will itself require another long load), and I will have to jump through those same hoops again next time, because as with the browsing experience, preferences aren’t saved. Plus when I do finally have my Must Reads list set up just right it is still out of order half the time, because the system sorts issue numbers by first digit instead of value …

A “Browse Must Reads By Series” option would seem to offer some relief, by collapsing all those individual issue listings into series subheads, but maddeningly I am unable to actually launch and read books when using this view. Instead MDCU throws up a kind of checklist showing which books are on my list to read, but there are no links to the books themselves.

Searching yields better results, but it seems feature-rich to little effect. After seeing Amazing Spider-Man #229 lauded over at the excellent (and recommended) Chasing Amazing blog, I figured I’d look up that issue for myself. Entering “Amazing Spider-Man 229” into the search box and narrowing results to “Digital Comics” yields bupkis. Entering the same string into “All of,” however, led me direct to the … ahem … digital comic, which I was then able to load and read. Why provide an option to narrow search results if only the general result will work?

The whole interface is simultaneously over-featured and undercooked. For example, I can rate each issue after I’ve read it, between one and five stars. That’s nice. But what can I do with that rating? There’s no option to sort the books I’ve read by rating, or review and compare (and maybe adjust) my ratings after I’ve entered them into the system. My rating presumably influences the displayed rating for each book as a guide for other readers, but it is useless to me. It would be nice to pull up a list of all my five-star books to offer as a recommendation list for friends, or even to isolate the best books to show my kids when they evince a rare moment of interest in my hobby … but no can do. I can export my reading list as a CSV file but my Mac copy of Numbers couldn’t make much of the data. The “Digital Comics I’ve Read” view is just as cumbersome to use as the “Must Reads” interface, and doesn’t show my ratings at all, so there’s basically no “scorecard” experience for using the MDCU — no sense of accomplishment or feeling of gradually filling out a digital collection to offer even a transitory substitution for the experience of collecting and reading the books themselves.

I don’t know if it is due to copyright concerns or simple indifference, but there are basically no tools for sharing content or comments or anything else about these stories. If I think of my old pal Chris Ulm while reading about Iron Man slugging it out with the Mandarin I’m better off getting a screen grab and pushing it to him via email than I am opening this cryptic window:

So much for sharing, really. This interface will result in pretty much zero virality, and seems a real missed opportunity for Marvel’s fans to spread the brand and co-opt their friends into the system.

I’ve already touched on the reading experience, which is pretty good if you can get accustomed to reading your books one panel at a time. Most of the older books that interest me have pretty pedestrian page layouts, and the gestalt that I miss in not seeing entire pages is compensated for by seeing panels blown up several times their printed size, which has already helped me better appreciate a few artists (most notably Steve Ditko).

love the detail, motion, and emotion of this Ditko panel from Amazing Spider-Man #10, which is easy to overlook in its original resolution

You will also have to decide if you like the colors of these digital copies, which of course provide a substantially different look and feel than reading the original books. The system isn’t perfect and some of the page turns can take their sweet time but I’ve made peace with it. Be aware that I found one book — Thanos #1 — where the word balloons and panels were distorted and out of place, possibly a bug related to adjusting the zoom controls, but that this is first time I’ve found a book unreadable out of the seventy or so that I have sampled.

So … aside from a rotten browsing experience, a pretty crap interface, long page loads, inadequate reading list tools, bad sharing tools, and material that suffers for being viewed on a laptop computer monitor, how did you enjoy the play, Mrs. Lincoln?

Surprisingly, I enjoyed it. A lot. And it is all due to the content provided by MDCU.

Once you start to get your arms around the scope of the books on offer here you can’t help but have your eyes grow wide. For a person like me, who took twenty years away from comics, there are entire lost decades to explore, to say nothing of the buried Bronze and Silver Age treasures I bought this subscription to read. Sure, I’m no particular fan of 1990s comic books … but seeing dozens of Jim Starlin books from that era pop up in a search on that creator’s name encourages me to give them a try, and if I don’t like what he did with my Bronze Age favorites like Captain Marvel, Silver Surfer, and Warlock, then, well, I’m not out anything but my time, am I?

It’s like grabbing the tallest stack of comics you can imagine from the ultimate free funny book library. The biggest problem is deciding where to start, and then finishing what you begin. The full Lee/Ditko run on Spider-Man, or the full Lee/Ditko run on Dr. Strange? Two-hundred and fourteen books by Gene Colan? (Though that enthusiasm was later tempered by discovering many of those hits were for cover-drawing credits, rather than interiors — did I mention the browsing experience of MDCU was crap?)

A hundred eighty-nine hits for John Buscema doesn’t seem like a lot … until you realize there aren’t any Conan books here, and this is all prime superhero stuff — Thor, Fantastic Four, and that classic Avengers run. There’s just so much here … the Peter David Hulks that I never read, more than six hundred hits for Jack Kirby, reaching back to Marvel Mystery Comics #12 from 1939 …

Where will I find the time to read all these books? Just building a reading list is a full-time job!

Am I missing some favorites? Sure. There are the victims of cloudy or lapsed licenses, like Conan and Master of Kung Fu, and some sad omissions like the original runs of Iron Fist and Ghost Rider. But there are also some nice exclusives, like the retro Captain America: 1940s Newspaper Strip, a 3-part series published in 2010 that tells a “lost” Captain America tale in an updated Golden Age style.

In the final analysis, despite these three thousand words (!) bitching about the interface, I count myself a fan of MDCU, because there is just so much here to read and enjoy. There are gaps in the library, to be sure, and fans looking for recent books may be especially disappointed, but for an old timer like me, this really is digital comic book heaven. I like reading these old books on line far more than I thought I would, and maybe it’s a good thing I can’t do it on a tablet, and that the interface is trying to kill me, because I might otherwise disappear into the digital depths of Marvel’s universe and never come back.

Gene Colan panel from Iron Man & Sub-Mariner #1 (1968), which I never would have enjoyed without my digital subscription

And with this I realize I have made a near-complete departure from the original mission of Longbox Graveyard. Instead of organizing, cataloging, re-reading, and evaluating my Bronze Age books out in the garage, I am instead leaping back even further in time to read lost Silver Age books, or scrubbing forward to read select series from the missing decades when I thought I was quits with comics for good. I feel that I am in love with comics like never before, and that I want to steal away to a cabin in the woods (with WiFi!) for a week to just read, and read, and read some more. I want to gorge myself on these treasures until four-colored digital ink shoots out my nose. It has driven home for me that I am a reader far more than I am a collector, and I can clearly see a day when I’d happily dispense with paper comics altogether in favor of this digital form that will some day prove superior.

Some day, but not today. But even today it is pretty good. Aside from the browsing, and the sorting, and the list handling, and the sharing tools, and the …

NEXT WEDNESDAY: #31 Longbox Shortbox

Operation Ajax

Longbox Graveyard #28

Just a couple weeks ago I admonished myself for crossing the streams, mixing my comics interest with my boardgame hobby. And here I go again. But this time, it is my secret identity as an app developer that collides with my comics obsession.

We live in an era of digital disruption, where electronic distribution of entertainment has savaged the music business, turned the book business upside-down, hit video games below the waterline, and cut the pins out from under the DVD business. In every case the drumbeat has been the same — more frictionless distribution of content, more choices for consumers, and a sharp decline in power and profits for stakeholders dependent on the previous means of sales and distribution.

read more: The Digital Disruption — Connectivity & The Diffusion of Power

Aside from concerns over digital piracy, comic books have thus far largely escaped this disruption. We’ve been hearing about digital comics for so long that it’s hard not to figure digital is the future of comics … and always will be. Despite recent high-profile shifts to “day and date” distribution of digital comics alongside print, digital comics have been slow to make inroads versus the print market. Digital comics are available through on-line subscription and various apps, but we haven’t seen headlines about great sales success using these channels.

As an app publisher, I can tell you that when a company characterizes their sales success in terms of all-time records or a percentage of increase that … they aren’t terribly proud of their sales figures. If you sell a million units, you shout it from the rooftops. If you shift a lot of free copies with mediocre paid conversion, you trumpet that downloads are up 500%. It’s how the game is played.

There are a lot of theories about why digital comics have been slow to take off. They’re too expensive. They’re inconvenient compared to print. They’re too easy to get for free.

read more: “Comic Book Comics” The Rise of Digital Comics & Piracy

It might also be that comics aren’t relevant enough to make the transition to this new era. Like radio dramas, model railroading, and CB radio, comics may be on the path to extinction, with most folks content to get their superheroes at the movies, while I circle the wagons and review thirty-year-old comics here at Longbox Graveyard.

Might comics somehow reinvent themselves to reverse their decline? Even setting aside the digital question, the overall trend of comics sales has been flat or down and to the right for years if not decades. Are comics as we know them on the verge of extinction? What changes must comics make to compete for hearts and eyeballs in this new digital world?

With pretty much zero ballyhoo a comic appeared last month that I think marks a watershed moment for digital comics. Don’t feel bad if you missed it. Even with my intense interest in comics and apps I would have missed it entirely if I hadn’t been reading my usual business news.

The book is called Operation Ajax, and I think it pretty much cracks the code for digital comics.

Check out the video:

Let me admit right away that I am in love with this work — as a history wonk, a comics fan, and an apps freak this project could have been created specifically with me in mind! Let me also admit that as a hard-nosed developer working full time in the app space I know full well that the upside prospects of an iPad-only graphic novel based on the real world story of CIA operations in Cold War-era Iran are … challenging, to say the least.

But let me dispel the first thing that probably crossed the minds of veteran comics fans when they saw that video.

Operation Ajax is not a motion comic.

Operation Ajax is a comic told with motion. And that makes all the difference. Where motion comics are caught in a ghetto somewhere between comics and animation, Operation Ajax instead uses the movement and sound toolbox of motion comics to advance the art and create what I feel is the first comic book genuinely native to the digital form. There’s no spoken dialogue in Operation Ajax — this is still a reading experience. But it is a reading experience that embraces technology rather than merely accommodating it. Operation Ajax isn’t a bunch of pages ported to an iPad and then viewed through the knothole of a moving window settling on one panel at a time. Instead the art and words have been built from the ground-up for this new form, layering atop one another to tell a story in a way comics fans will find familiar, but that is at the same time new thanks to how the Ajax storytellers control pace and presentation in ways that paper comics cannot match. But Ajax still has much in common with standard comics. Most critically, rather than abandon comics page form in favor of single-panel viewing, Ajax retains a conventional page architecture to tell story with juxtaposed images while at the same time presenting its panels in an original and technologically appropriate way.

It is difficult to describe, and any screen shots I provide are an inadequate representation of the full work. The video gives some sense of Ajax but the app must be experienced for the promise of this form to be fully appreciated. The reader still controls the overall pace of the story by tapping the screen to advance the story from panel to panel, but because the reader cannot glimpse ahead to preview panels before he gets to them — and because of the way panels appear, move, evolve, and relate to each other — the experience of reading Ajax is unique. It isn’t static like a comic, but the motion of Ajax isn’t remote like a movie. The reader interacts with the motion and pace of Ajax as he would by reading a conventional comic, but the methodology of the form more closely approximates storyboards for film, while simultaneously feeling fresh and not some lesser aping of cinematic form.

The Ajax format is particularly effective in building tension. Operation Ajax tells a complex and multi-layered story of Iranian politics and espionage, and it opens with a frightened CIA operative caught up in Iranian mob — a mob he is trying to spark into chaos by tossing a bomb into their midst. The agent rushes down an alley, trailing his local Iranian asset; he opens his brief case and is instructed on how to prepare his bomb; the fuse is sparked (and we hear it burn down); the agent is framed against blackness with the bomb burning in his hand, his companion urging him to throw …

… we push in while the agent is frozen with panic, the bomb threatening to blow his arm off; there’s no time, he’s going to be killed!; the bomb arcs through darkness, explodes (you see this explosion right at the beginning of the video above); then the shocked and disoriented face of the agent blurs and bleeds into a watery reflection as we move forward in time a half century, and a now ancient ex-CIA spook peers into the water from the back of his boat, his memories stirred up afresh by overhearing a radio report of violence in the Middle East.

The technique works in quiet moments, too, as in this multi-screenshot sequence that shows how a haggard Shah of Iran feels as he gets toward the end of his rope:

Everyone I’ve shared Ajax with has had an “oh shit” moment seconds after starting the story, understanding as they watch the panels unfold that the storytelling world has changed in a fundamental way. Market indifference or the choice of topic or the vagaries of App Store marketing may determine Operation Ajax’s fate irrespective of the quality of this presentation, but there is no doubt in my mind that this work charts a new paradigm for how graphic novel stories can be told using touch tablet technology.

And it arrived like a bolt out of the blue! The project is massive — 210 pages of art in an eleven-chapter graphic novel, supported by character dossiers, reproductions of historical documents, and period newsreels. Operation Ajax is smarty written, expertly drawn, entertaining, thought-provoking, and at the cutting edge of graphic novel storytelling in its use of technology. Where did this thing come from?

I had to know!

And so I tracked down two of the principles behind Cognito Comics’ Operation Ajax — Ash Aiwase and Daniel Burwen — and asked them all about it!

Longbox Graveyard (LBG): Can you provide a brief history of Cognito?

Daniel Burwen: Cognito Comics was started by myself in early 2008. I had been working in the video game industry for a few years at EA and Activision, and was looking for something more meaningful to work on than the next Tony Hawk sequel. I took a teaching gig and ran the company out of my small apartment in Oakland for several years while my writer, Mike de Seve, finished the script. When we started to go into art production in early 2010, I moved the company into a dedicated office in the Mission district of San Francisco next to Tall Chair, the company who provides us with The Active Reader (technology employed by Operation Ajax).

LBG: How did you come to tell this story? Did the idea for this graphic novel predate Cognito and the interactive form that you have used, or was this always conceived as an iPad project?

Daniel: After the Iraq war broke out in 2002, I was left asking a lot of questions. When I discovered Stephen Kinzer’s work Overthrow, I felt like I had found the missing pieces. I knew I wanted to use my talents in art and tech to bring these stories to a wider audience, but was not sure how to do that easily with video games at the time. I thought a traditional print graphic novel would serve my mission better, and after pitching Kinzer at a book signing (he said yes), we were off and running. It wasn’t until the iPad was announced in early 2010 that I considered changing the format for this new platform.

LBG: Tell me about the creative team on Ajax. Where have they worked before, and which characters or projects have they handled?

Daniel: We worked with a few guys that those in the comics world might recognize. Steve Scott (Batman Confidential, X-Men Forever, JLA) did the bulk of our covers. Jim Muniz (X-Men, Hulk) did some early character designs for us and helped set the overall visual style. Steve Ellis (Iron Man, Box 13, High Moon) did a chapter for us.

Ash Aiwase: We also worked with Xeric award-winning writer Jason McNamara (The Martian Confederacy, Full Moon) to adapt Mike’s script to comic book format; I actually met Daniel at one of Jason’s signings, and that’s how I wound up getting involved with Cognito Comics.

LBG: How did your understanding of the graphic novel format change in telling the story using this technology?

Daniel: I think the hardest part was learning how to make comics. Ajax is entirely built off traditional comics, and it’s because the traditional compositions work in print that the animation and interactivity works in the iPad version. Figuring out how to create a compelling animation style that honored the print page legacy was key. It was very easy to over-animate the content, and I discovered it’s a fine line between creating a poor film experience versus a rich reading experience.

an Operation Ajax master page, prior to formatting & editing for the Active Reader

LBG: To what degree do you feel this new form requires content be created with it specifically in mind? Would you expect that an existing graphic novel could be edited and be presented in this new form?

Daniel: I think there is strength in both approaches. We are now starting production on our second comics project, and the pages are formatted in landscape. It really changes the animation style and it seems like there isn’t a single solution that solves every problem. There will always be creative approaches for translating print content across different platforms. However, being able to start with the tablet in mind allows for some really cool techniques that just aren’t there with print.

Ash: We’ve toyed around with the concept of putting legacy comics material on our platform, and the results were very surprising — we had a lot of fun giving print pages the Ajax treatment! That being said, you’re right in that you can do a lot more with material that’s been created with The Active Reader in mind.

LBG: Why this story? Is it a passion project for anyone on the team? Iran is at the center of some very scary world headlines right now — do you worry the audience may reject your work, thinking it has a political agenda?

Daniel: It’s a passion project for me personally. I do not want to see the US start another war in the Middle East. I think if more Americans were knowledgeable about the Foreign Policy record of the US, we may not have ended up invading Iraq. My hope is that by bringing this story to a Western audience, that audience will learn something new, question their assumptions, and perhaps the relationship between Iran and the US will change for the better. We definitely tried to focus on presenting information as opposed to editorializing, and I hope people will see Ajax as a source of information from which to further refine their own views and opinions.

LBG: What is next for Cognito? Will you continue to do similar real-world historical projects, and/or will you tackle more conventional comic book material? Do you wish to license your platform to other publishers?

Daniel: While I have a soft spot for socio-political work, it was a long and exhausting haul to get Ajax out the door at a level we felt proud of. Our next piece is not political and much more modest in scope, with the intent of pushing the boundaries of this new medium. I sincerely hope to do another work like Ajax in the future, there are many more stories like this that I would love to help tell.

Ash: We’re full steam ahead on a couple of internal projects and have also been talking to a number of people who are interested in collaborating in this space. I think we have some exciting times ahead!

Thanks to Daniel and Ash for making time for Longbox Graveyard!

Look, I’m a comics fan and an app developer but I don’t have a dog in this fight. I don’t plan to be part of the crusade to transform comics for the new digital century. But as a fan of the form I would love nothing better than to see this technology and these storytelling methods take root, reach a wide audience, and change the way we experience graphic novels. Regardless of your interest in the subject, or where you stand on the issues confronting comics in their digital transition, you owe it to yourself to buy this app right now for your iPad — or beg, borrow, or steal a friend’s iPad to experience Operation Ajax. Time will tell if this is a pivotal product or an historical oddity, but today, at this hour, I think Operation Ajax is the apex of graphic storytelling on the iPad.

Don’t miss it!

(Update: Operation Ajax is now available for iPhone, and there is an “app tour” video for the comic HERE).

NEXT WEDNESDAY: #29 “D” Is For Deathlok!

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