Midnight Rises uses video game tricks to supercharge comics

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Charlie (left) and Cromax, a hyper-evolved Cro-Magnon and chief engineer on the Joplin. Photo: Mike Choi/Industrial Toys
New comics app Midnight Rises introduces Charlie (left) and Cromax, a hyper-evolved Cro-Magnon and chief engineer on the science spaceship Joplin. Photo: Mike Choi/Industrial Toys

Mike Choi, a talented, experienced comic book artist, was drooling.

We were talking on the phone about Midnight Rises, a new digital comic app that explains the rich sci-fi backdrop of Midnight Star, an upcoming first-person shooter for mobile devices from Industrial Toys.

Choi had just had some teeth pulled, and was still kind of loopy when we got to chat with him and two other Industrial Toys execs, President Tim Harris and CEO Alex Seropian (you may know him as one of the co-founders of Bungie Software) about their first iOS app, a re-visioning of what visual storytelling can do.

Most digital comics are just a reformatting of traditional print comics to fit on a touchscreen. Midnight Rises goes further, using the tricks of video games to tell a comic-book style story.

“We hate motion comics,” said Choi. “This was way more work than just turning the canvas on its side.”

Charlie Campbell has a bone to pick with you. Photo: Industrial Toys
Charlie Campbell has a bone to pick with you. Photo: Industrial Toys

Comics are in the midst of a continuing cultural resurgence even Brainiac couldn’t have predicted a decade again. The iPad gave us the perfect platform for viewing digital comics, and a string of superhero movies have put a very real face on characters like Batman, Iron Man and Groot.

As publishers pour money and resources into digital comics, it’s only natural that the new platform for pulp is evolving into something more powerful than mindlessly porting printed words to a tablet’s screen.

Choi, a veteran of print comics for both DC and Marvel, started his Industrial Toys gig about three years ago. None of the team thought it would be take as long as it has to finish a digital comic, let alone the game to which it’s linked.

In hindsight, though, Choi recognizes just how innovative this digital comic is.

“The more we realized that we could do with the hardware and the software available to us,” said Choi, “the bigger our scope got, the more drawing I had to do, the richer the storytelling got.”

As the team invented and designed stuff that no one has seen in a regular digital comic, this one became an app.

Choi also supervised a full-time artist, Prashant Patil, who created the beautiful, cinematic backgrounds for all the scenes. “There are about a gazillion of them,” said Harris.

Each scene was then carefully composited, as each element presents itself to the reader in a specific order. Choi had to work closely with Seropian, who did the majority of coding on the graphic novel app, to make sure all the elements slide into each scene smoothly, at the right speed, and fit within the area of the iOS device screen.

“It was a hell of a lot of work.”

“It was a hell of a lot of work,” said Choi.

Award-winning science fiction author John Scalzi had never written a comic book script before, though Choi says Scalzi took to it incredibly well.

The art production system was new to Choi as well. He had to change his workflow over the course of the three-year development cycle to accommodate the new creation, moving from paper to a more digital system.

After scanning pages and pages of artwork that he drew with a pencil and paper, Choi realized he had to go digital. “I was running out of paper,” he said.

He uses a Wacom Intuos 3 tablet at the office, which inputs his art into Photoshop CS6. At home, Choi works on a Wacom Cintiq 24HD.

“I prefer the Cintiq for broader strokes like shading, but prefer the Wacom for finer detail stuff like the actual drawing,” he said. “I like that my hand isn’t in the way, and there’s a surprisingly more natural feel of seeing result on the screen from action on the tablet via the Wacom. (It gives) a more direct contact than the stylus through the glass on the Cintiq.”

Midnight Rises tells the story of Charlie Campbell, an affable young officer who’s been demoted to a glorified errand runner aboard the USF Joplin, a massive science vessel that gets caught up in galaxy-spanning intrigue when it is sent to learn more about a mysterious anomaly in the far reaches of space. It’s a mission that could change humanity’s entire understanding of the universe and its place in it. You’ll get to choose what you pay attention to in the app, influencing the storytelling like a modern Choose Your Own Adventure novel.

Midnight Rises isn't just another re-formatted print comic. Photo: Industrial Toys
Midnight Rises isn’t just another reformatted print comic. Photo: Industrial Toys

Midnight Rises is available now for free download, which includes the first chapter of the story. The following two chapters can be purchased in-app for 99 cents each. Better yet, the choices you make in the app will influence how the upcoming game, Midnight Star, plays out for you.

Even though this innovative digital comics app has just gone live on the App Store, Choi is already looking forward to more. “The more the company wants to do these Midnight Rises-style apps,” he joked, “the less the chances that they’ll fire me.”

More seriously, Choi realizes that his time with Industrial Toys has resulted in a redefinition of how creators can produce sequential art.

“Myself and Alex,” he said, “are helping to define this new way of telling stories. We have the keys in our hands.”