Exclusive: Mark Waid Talks Thrillbent, Digital Comics, The Hulk/Daredevil Crossover And Much More
Earlier this week I got the chance to speak with Mark Waid. The legendary writer needs no introduction, but I’ll give him a little bit of one anyway. Waid is one of the busiest writers in comics today. When he’s not working on stories for the digital comics site he helped launch called Thrillbent, he’s working on monthly comics like Daredevil, Hulk, the Green Hornet, and the upcoming Spirit/Rocketeer crossover. I seriously think he’s working towards having a book out every week of the month. I spoke with Waid about the relaunch of Thrillbent that started earlier this month and the state of digital comics in general. Of course I had to ask about things like the upcoming Hulk/Daredevil crossover and the new miniseries he’s working on with Paul Smith for IDW. We covered a lot of ground, so strap in and read on!
When you first started Thrillbent and really started talking about digital, people were writing about how you wanted to kill print comics and come into their homes to burn their collections. Since some time has passed and digital has become bigger and even offered as supplement material with print, have you seen those attitudes starting to change some?
Luckily, yes I have actually. At the last retailer meeting they had before New York Comic Con last year. Two years ago at that one, people had their torches and pitchforks out. They were angry and assumed I was trying to burn down stores. Now at that same meeting people seem to have mellowed out. There’s simply not one shred of evidence out there that digital cuts into print sale substantially. In fact digital sales and print sales are both up. There’s just become an acceptance of the idea that print and digital can coexistence in peace.
We’ll get into the more technical aspects in just a minute, but Thrillbent has a great formula. Do you see yourself adapting and moving into even different ways to tell the story itself? Insufferable, for example, offers up an almost cinematic experience.
I sure hope so! Part of the objective of Thrillbent is that we want to look back every year at the previous year’s accomplishments and go “we were cavemen back then.” That would be the perfect place to be where we’re constantly learning and growing. This is one of the reasons that got so many projects from outside creators coming in because they have new ideas of storytelling to share and new techniques. We get to learn from each other, which I just love.
Yeah, the whole idea was to relaunch. April 1st we relaunched with Thrillbent 2.0 with a whole new web interface, a new design, and more importantly a lot more new material. Now we have three ongoing serials. One on Monday called Arcanum with John Rogers and Todd Harris. Insufferable is back every Wednesday with me, Peter Kraus, Nolan Woodard, and Troy Peteri. Then every Friday we have The Damnation of Charlie Wormwood by Christy Blanch and Chris Carr and drawn by Chee. That’s just the opening salvo.
We have several other projects lined up to roll out this month as well. By the end of the month we’ll be able to have something new up every day, a reason to come back to Thrillbent every day. In terms of content, that’s the big, exciting stuff. Then what I like about the web design, which has been very heavily championed by Lori Matsumoto who is our technical manager and content manager in that sense, is that Lori has worked with the web designers to make the website itself adapt in design so it automatically adapts in size to whatever device you’re reading them on whether it’s a laptop, phone, tablet or whatever. I’m very proud of that.
With the relaunch came embeddable comics, which is just another great innovation. Can you talk a little about that and how it came about?
I don’t know exactly when it sprang into my head, but I know I was looking for a way to make our comics more shareable and more viral. Again, they’re free to read on the site so it’s not costing us readers to make sure there’s a whole new set of eyes on it. We’ve always been good about sharing. We’ve been uploading our own torrents over the past few months and we make the comic files downloadable on the site so they can put them on web sharing sites to do that work for them. I got to thinking about the fact when we were kids you’d swap comics back and forth, and trade comics back and forth, and this seemed to be a natural next extension of it- which is how do you set it up so we can literally give out the comics so you don’t even have to track them down at Thrillbent. We can come to you.
We built, with the web designers, this embeddable viewer that works just like a YouTube video essentially. With a few clicks of the mouse you can embed our comics into your website or into your Tumblr or whatever. We’re working on Facebook and Twitter. You can read it right there on the spot.
You use the widescreen panels which gives almost a cinematic experience. Do you see that working to help move Thrillbent into things like gaming systems?
That’s actually one of the things we’ve been talking closely about with other gaming companies that are working with the new relaunches of some of the newer game platforms you’ll be seeing in the next year or so. It’s tailor made for that. We adapted the widescreen page, the landscape format page, from the start only because we live in a landscape world. We live in a world where most screens we encounter on our day-to-day basis, whether they be laptop screens or television screens, are not portrait format they’re landscape formats. Why are we not telling a story for that? It certainly does make it easier to transition into other related media. Comics is still first and foremost what we’re doing, but I wouldn’t be adverse to Sega or Sony knocking on the door and saying ‘hey, let’s work together.’
We’re approaching the year mark for Thrillbent. How do you feel with the first year almost under your belt? What’s the state of the union address if you will?
It’s certainly exceeded our expectations. It didn’t crash and burn as some sort of folly experiment, which I like. We got a lot of good stories out there, we got a lot of good dialogue moving, and a lot of good response from readers. We’ve also had good response from other creators who look at this and see it as a viable way of telling stories. We had our bumps along the way, not the least of which was that we got hacked at least once and one time for several weeks that cost us a lot of momentum unfortunately. We seem to have gotten there now. Now that we got the relaunch going, we’ve had our second best day ever. We seem to have the momentum back.
We’ve learned a few things. We learned about backups [laughs]. We learned about server space and bandwidth. We’re still learning about the storytelling tools. Most importantly, we’re sharing with our fans and vice versa. It’s been a very transparent process. We’ve been very open about what it is we’re doing, what we’re trying, and what is working and not working. I think the next step is to really concentrate on how to monetize more efficiently with what we do. As I like to say, it’s not about making money. We’re not in this to make money we’re in this to do comics. Making money is what allows us to keep doing it. No one is looking to get rich. Frankly, I don’t even care if we turn a profit, I just don’t want us to lose our shirts. The good news is there’s enough ways out there for us to monetize that I’m confident the worst case scenario is we break even. I can live with that.
We’re already doing a lot more with Comixology where we’re bundling some of the chapters with new material of Insufferable and putting that up on the Comixology site and the Comics Plus site with iVerse. We also have been doing the same thing with a few other of our series that we’ll roll out the next few weeks. Things like PAX ARENA and some new material as well that will probably premiere first on Comixology and iVerse and then a month later you can read for free on the site. We’ll play around with a bunch of different models, but that is an interesting one to me- the idea that you can always read it free on the site, but if you want to read a month ahead then feel free to kick in a $1.99 or whatever it’s going to be to read the next chapter.
As you experiment with those, are you looking at the more successful crowdfunding elements to see what will work best for you?
Oh yeah. I have no doubt in my mind we’re going to walk into the Kickstarter arena in the next few months. It’s just a matter of figuring out and communicating exactly what it is we’re trying to sell, exactly what it is we’re trying to get, and exactly what it is we want out of the Kickstater experience. It’s not just a matter of going out there and shaking a tin cup saying ‘help us build the website’ because we’ve already built the website. ‘Help us fund the website’ is a gray message too. It’s not very specific. We have to figure out exactly what it is, but we’ve got a lot of good ideas.
To talk about digital comics in general, Marvel recently announced Project Gamma and a few other digital projects recently. They’re going to start offering things like soundtracks to comics. Do you see that as the next evolutionary step for digital comics?
It’s AN evolutionary step. I think the soundtrack idea is really interesting the way Marvel has played it because it’s not specific to the timing of certain things, it’s more sort of ambient background music. The technical triumph on their end is that it changes seamlessly from scene to scene no matter how fast or how slow you’re reading the comic. I like the application of it that I’ve seen. I’m not quite sure how I would use it as a storyteller, but I’m not adverse to other people trying it. The trick is that they’ve got Disney money. I can tell you flat out, not knowing anything more than you do, Project Gamma is not an inexpensive experiment on their end. It’s not something that most web guys like us could hope to pioneer, but let’s see if it works and if it proves to be a viable storytelling tool down the road then maybe we can find some way to do something along those lines.
I don’t want to rehash a lot of things you’ve already said about writing Hulk and Daredevil, so let’s combine that- can you talk about the crossover we’ll be getting this month called Blind Rage (which is just a fantastic title)?
Thanks. I think the title was given to us from a friend of ours called Evan Dossey. I think he suggested it or Christy Blanch did, one of those two. That gave me the nugget of the idea. Originally it was simply just a fun team-up story between Daredevil and Hulk. I liked the idea that Daredevil is the man without fear, but even he is cautious around Bruce Banner. Beyond that, what bonds them as a team…I find interesting, what common bonds do Matt Murdoch and Bruce Banner have. One of them we’ve hinted at very heavily in both of the books but nobody has picked up on it yet. The other thing is how do Daredevil and Hulk work together? One of the things we’ve started to establish is that depending on Bruce’s state of mind and other conditions during the moment of transformation, sometimes you get a Hulk that is a lot smarter or a lot dumber or more visceral. How does Daredevil hope to control a Hulk that is fairly simple minded and remembers he’s a friend, but still, it’s like I’m fond of saying of the Hulk- he’s a targeted hurricane. You never can tell which way he’s going to go next.
In terms of plot, Daredevil and Hulk break up a gun running operation. It’s a super, hyper weapon gun running operation in New York. One of the weapons gets away and somebody has it and it’s loose in Hell’s Kitchen. What I like about this story is that it brings Hulk into Hell’s Kitchen as sort of Daredevil’s partner. It puts Hulk in an unusual and different environment, a very urban environment. Daredevil has to track down this weapon before the city gets destroyed. At the same time he has to control the Hulk and use the Hulk as a blunt instrument.
Exactly! I had weekends free. Hornet is fun too because first off it’s a period piece which is a little more fun to write. Secondly, it’s a bit of a stretch because as I keep saying it’s not a superhero book it’s a crime book. The whole gag behind the Green Hornet is that as Britt Reid newspaper publisher he’s a force for good, but when he puts on the mask and gets in the Black Beauty limousine and Kato’s with him, he’s pretending to be the world’s greatest super villain or the world’s first super villain. He’s pretending to be on the mob’s side so he can glean information and get inside and get dirt and info Britt Reid can us to clean up the city.
You won’t see the Green Hornet save kittens from trees or stop bank robberies. It’s very much a crime story. In the overarching story of the first arc is this idea that Britt Reid, big newspaper publisher and force for good in the city, is starting to have an ego problem. He’s starting to be a little less humble and starting to believe his press a little bit more. What happens to a newspaper man and media magnate who is hard to convince he’s wrong? He doesn’t want to hear other people’s opinion. He’s doing this out of the goodness of his heart. He wants to be a mover and shaker in the city. He knows he’s doing good things, but nobody is right all the time. No one bats a thousand. What happens when he starts making mistakes? What happens when he starts impugning the wrong people, accusing the wrong people? What happens when the Daily Sentinel newspaper begins to prosecute, and persecute, some people who may or may not be guilty just because Britt Reid thinks they are?
Finally, I have to ask about IDW’s big announcement at WonderCon this weekend that you’ll be writing the Spirit/Rocketeer crossover called “Pulp Friction” with Paul Smith. Can you talk about that? What you are allowed to say at least?
There’s not a whole lot we can say at this point except that when IDW came to me with the idea I was on the fence. I wanted to do more Rocketeer, but as you pointed out I don’t have a whole lot of time. When they threw out Paul Smith, I couldn’t let that opportunity go. Paul is a genius, he’s brilliant. Paul is one of those guys that’s on every comic book writer’s list of people they want to work with. They sent me some sketches that he did before we got a story working of any kind. They were beautiful. So we sat down and went back and forth with Paul a few times on the story. He has a lot of input on the storytelling and the details because he’s an aficionado on that stuff and a stickler for details as I am. It’s been a lot of fun.
I think the one thing I can say without giving too much away, that I think makes this an interesting story, is that given that The Spirit premiered after the Rocketeer in terms of their own continuity….Rocketeer is 1936-37 on into the 40s but Spirit didn’t appear until 1940/41 along in there, that means the Rocketeer is the more experienced of the two crime fighters at this point. It’s interesting because you don’t normally think of Cliff as being a senior partner in a relationship. That puts them both in an interesting position where Cliff is sort of the senior partner in the dynamic if you will. It’s a lot of fun.
Our thanks to Mr. Waid for letting us take a little of his time to talk about all the projects he’s juggling right now. You definitely need to check out Thrillbent if you haven’t already. With all the great new stories kicking off this month and everything they have on the horizon, it is the perfect time to get on board the Thrillbent train. You can click right here to go to the site. With all the talk of the embeddable comics feature, it’s a great excuse to show you how it works again. Here’s the latest issue of Waid‘s Insufferable. You can read the full thing right here with no strings and no hassle. We discussed a lot of topics and covered a lot of ground. What do you think about what Waid had to say? What are you looking forward to the most?