Comics on the IPad: Operation Ajax Takes the Stage
Daniel Burwen is the founder and CEO of Cognito Comics, which began in 2008. This year, Cognito will unveil an interactive graphic novel for the iPad called Operation Ajax. Based on actual events, the story takes full advantage of all the graphic qualities the iPad has to offer and seeks to interact with readers in a new and inventive way. Here’s a look at what’s in store.
Tell us a little bit about what Operation Ajax is about and the real story it’s based on.
Sure, thanks for having me! Our project is one of the first graphic novels that was created specifically for tablet computers like the iPad. It’s about the events that led up to a U.S.- and British-backed coup that resulted in the removal of Iranian Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh from office in 1953.
Mossadegh wanted to nationalize the oil resources that were discovered and refined by the British government, and he really paid the price for it. The British didn’t want to lose their investment, especially after WWII, and the U.S. was afraid of communist takeover in the region, so they partnered in what they thought was a mutually beneficial arrangement. Basically the current situation in Iran is a direct result of what happened in 1953. Ajax was the first coup ever arranged by the CIA.
Stephen Kinzer, our story editor, is a veteran foreign correspondent for the New York Times and a professor of foreign affairs and journalism. He was involved in every step of story development and art production to make sure our book is as historically accurate as possible.
We created a character to lead readers through the story because the turn of events is pretty complicated. Our protagonist is a nameless CIA agent—based on a group of real agents whose names were redacted from the coup plan that was leaked to the press in 2000.
So the book looks and reads like a graphic novel, but at various points throughout the story, there are visual cues indicating that a reader can drill down for more information. We’ve included real photos of the people and places in the story that are meant to reinforce the fact that this stuff really did happen. We also designed an accelerometer-activated folio full of character dossiers, so readers can feel like they’re reading a CIA file and learn more about the people who made this all happen. You can actually open the files and move the photos and pages of the files around. It’s pretty cool.
What made you want to tell this story as a graphic novel?
Well, the real-life events in this story are so important to what is happening today, we believed the story needed to be presented in a format that’s different from a standard work of nonfiction. Part of the reason, I think, that some people don’t read books about political history is that they tend to be kind of dry. Sometime they’re REALLY dry. But Stephen is such an engaging writer, it’s actually his books that inspired me to do this in the first place. I’m really hoping that Ajax, and the other books we hope to do with him, get people more interested in history and politics. The stuff that happened was pretty dangerous and exciting, and it’s awesome to read about. I mean, sometimes truth is stranger than fiction, right?
This graphic novel seems to be a real collaborative work between a lot of people. How did you all work together?
Oh, man, it’s been a ride. We’ve learned a lot of hard lessons together, and we’re really proud of all the progress we’ve made as professionals and as creative individuals. Basically there were different contributors at different phases of the project, so nobody had the spotlight on them for the whole project. Also, we really just want to let people do what they do best and give them the space to create good work. I’ve learned to let go a lot. And my producer rules with an iron fist.
What inspired you to create a book for the iPad?
Basically, it was a timing thing. I founded the company to make a comic, then the iPad was announced. I’m a games artist by trade, so I’m really into the marriage between entertainment and technology. Plus I grew up in Silicon Valley, so I’m kind of a gadget-head by birth.
Once we knew we wanted to make this a product for mobile touch-interface devices, I started to have so many ideas about what we could do with the story that I knew I had to make it as awesome as humanly possible.
Tell me a little bit about the audience you’re hoping to reach with this book. Did you have an age group in mind?
That’s a really interesting question for me to answer because I think there are two main groups of people I want to speak to. First is the younger audience who probably wouldn’t read a book that’s listed on the nonfiction bestseller list. I remember the first time that I realized how cool it is to read about stuff that really happened, and I want everyone to experience that. Second is the audience that is totally down to read books that are on the nonfiction bestseller list, but not so much with graphic novels or comics. How cool would it be if these two ends of the spectrum could come together and enjoy the same graphic novel? I mean, kids and parents sitting down and reading our book together, talking about it, debating their different perspectives. That would pretty much be a dream come true for me.
Is this audience very different from the traditional comics-reading marketplace? Does it have different reading habits or want different things from a story?
Is the reader base different? I’d say yes and no. Anyone can walk into a comic-book shop and pick out a book. Our readers have to have an iPad; at least for now they do. We’re going to start looking for publishers for a printed version pretty soon. So in that way, there’s a difference. But our project really reads like a graphic novel, so the experience is totally based in that feeling of moving between panels, losing yourself in the art and the words, holding it up really close to your face sometimes. You know, all that stuff you do with comics. The enhancements we’ve added don’t take away from that experience at all, I think. The only difference is that you start to look forward to those moments when there’s more media to see, when there’s something you can flip or rotate. It’s kind of like finding evidence. Plus, the motion is so grounded in the concept of the panel that it translates really well, I think. I’m looking forward to hearing what people think about what we’ve done.
By putting this story directly on the iPad, you’ve made it very feature-rich. What are some of the extras readers can access on it from the iPad?
People really want to touch the screen, read the story, progress through the pages and look at the art.
Tall Chair's proprietary multi-touch interface makes it possible to unlock real historical papers, old photos, and actual leaked CIA documents bit by bit. As we navigate the story, the technology makes it possible for readers to glean more facts: discover the compromised motives of CIA heads; the secret business alliances with Nazis and oil giants; even actual "black-ops" documents that were used to execute the mission. It's all set in a richly artistic design that combines the distinct flavors of both ancient Persia and Cold War spy culture.
Aside from the extra iPad materials, can the story be read simply as a straightforward graphic novel?
Totally. A reader can ignore the visual cues and just proceed through the story, and everything will make sense from a narrative standpoint. It’s not like there are secrets that have to be unlocked in order to read the book. We want it to work both ways for sure.
What other stories would you like to bring to the iPad?
We are very excited to continue our partnership with Stephen and plan to bring our character to other similar covert operations around the world. Right now, we are looking at events that take place in Guatemala, Nicaragua, and Chile.