Friday, July 30, 2010


Sample Art from page 15 of OPERATION AJAX.

By Chris Wilson

When video game artist turned college instructor Daniel Burwen read Steven Kinzer's historical accounts of CIA and other now declassified covert governmental operations, Burwen was inspired to bring true history to life. Using the technology made popular by the iPad, Burwen (Cognito Comics) teamed up with Daniel Brazelton (Tall Chair Inc.) to bring iPad users, comic lovers, history buffs, and teachers a technology-based comic titled OPERATION AJAX via an iPad app.

OPERATION AJAX is an historical account of the United States' first governmental sanctioned coup. Inspired by Kinser's book detailing the CIA's involvement in the coup of Iran in 1953, ALL THE SHAH'S MEN, Burwen created a "historical narrative" or the telling of an historical event sprinkled with small amounts of fictionalization in order to create a cohesive story.
Sample art from page 2 of OPERATION AJAX

"This is all based research. They are real events. It is a legitimate telling of history. We have the evidence," said Burwen. The research is based mostly on declassified governmental documents but also including news reports, photos, and other texts. Because it is inspired by Kinzer's work (and Burwen emphasized it was inspired and not adapted) that Kinser is editing the comic to ensure historical accuracy.

Burwen and Brazelton were both intrigued by the story because of the relevance to today. "This story is about oil politics and BP. It is a big piece of the puzzle of what has happened in the Middle East," said Burwen.

The merger of comics and technology has exploded with the invention of the iPad. Of course motion comics and electronic comics have been around for a while, but the iPad changed the availability and access to a wider audience and opened the door for more interactivity, which will be a key aspect of the comic.

We saw a sneak peak of OPERATION AJAX last week. The art is typical of mainstream American comic realism with bright colors and solid shadow work. The narrative structure starts out in the thick of the coup with a CIA operative (who goes unnamed in the comic because his name was redacted in the declassified documents) taking the reader through the events as he saw them, but also offering scenes of the narrator as an older gentlemen looking back on his place in history, giving the storytelling some complexity. OPERATION AJAX is not simply a timeline of events, which is a common mistake in the genre history comics, in my opinion.

Sample art from page 13 of OPERATION AJAX.

The team was very hush-hush about the specifics of the interactivity components until the app and comic go live this winter; however, they did say that readers will be able to control their experience making it as rich and deep as the readers chooses. Copies of actual documents, photos, news articles as well as other items will be available to the reader (if he or she chooses) without even leaving the comic.

Brazelton commented when he reads and comes across references to names or events with which he is unfamiliar he feels compelled to stop reading to look the reference up. "I'm the type of person who has to research every asterisk," said Burzelton. The idea is that the interactivity –– the reading of the comic combined with the checking of the research –– is a seamless and natural activity whereby the reader is never taken out of the story.

During my demo, I noticed the comic is similar to a motion comic. The big difference, as Burwen pointed out, is that motion comics are closer to movies on the spectrum while The Active Reader's approach is closer to a comic experience because the comic is not voiced (something students have not liked in our experience) and the reader can easily control the pace.

The Active Reader iPad app will debut this winter in the Apple App Store. The comic will likely be split into chapters, the first being free and the other nine likely costing between $1.99 a $2.99 each, although they could not confirm an actual cost yet. It was indicated that readers will have the opportunity to buy the entire comic for one reduced price.

While there are no plans to create a teacher version for an interactive whiteboard, the iPad does have video out capabilities, which means it could be cabled to a projector and then displayed on a Smart Board.

I am very excited to see the end product and we will preview it when we receive the full-blown comic. I think Burwen and Brazelton are on to something big, fun and educational.

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