Mark Waid has been an A-list comics writer for 20 years. For the last 10 years, he’s been splitting off a portion of his writing time for independent, creator-owned projects. Waid is also known as possibly the single most happy comics creator about reading comics on his iPad. If you’ve seen Waid at a convention, you’ve probably seen him toting his iPad along. This has led to Waid catching a little heat from both the creative community and retail community for his love of digital and acceptance of change in how comics are distributed.
Waid recently launched his own digital comics imprint, Thrillbent, which started with Insufferable, by Waid and artist Peter Krause, a strip about a superhero sidekick who gets out of control. Waid recently took some time to discuss his digital plans with Publisher’s Weekly Comics Week.
PW Comics World: Was your iPad the real driver for moving to a digital platform?
Mark Waid: It certainly accelerated my plans, but the seeds for Thrillbent were planted a little earlier, when I realized how soon escalating print prices were going to begin impacting Diamond's non-Premier publishers and make it increasingly difficult for smaller indy publishers to survive when print costs were eating up so much of their profits.
PWCW: Is digital where you're going to be doing your creator-owned work or will you be mixing that with independent print publishers?
MW: For the time being, the plan is to do all my creator-owned material digital-first. That's not intended to be a slight against brick-and-mortar comics shops; it's just that my future plans include stories in genres that traditionally don't fare well in the direct market, such as comedy, mystery, science fiction, and...oh, hell, why don't I just say it?...such as anything that's not a superhero book.
PWCW: Will we eventually see collected print editions, as we do with other webcomics?
MW: Ideally, yes, if there's a market for that and if I've not yet finished alienating enough comics shops to the point where no one'll carry 'em.
PWCW: You joked about retailer resistance. What kind of response have you gotten from retailers? Is there really a lynch mob out there?
MW: A small one. I've not done the best job of framing the conversation as digital and print instead of digital VERSUS print, so there are a lot of smaller retailers out there who assume I'm competing with them, which is not the intent. THRILLBENT is designed on the whole to deliver the kind of non-superhero genre material that doesn't do well in comics shops. I understand the fears of retailers; if I were running my business in this economy on such thin margins under the whims of a monopolistic distributor, I'd be edgy, too. Good retailers do a GREAT job; hopefully, Thrillbent will scratch the itch for comics among potential readers who don't have access to a local store.
PWCW: I'm not seeing revenue streams on the site right now. What is the intended revenue model?
MW: I'm a much bigger believer in advertiser-sponsored models than in pay-to-read, especially given how prevalent torrenting is. That doesn't mean that we won't eventually "vault" some of the Thrillbent material as pay-to-read once we've got a big enough backlog of content, but for now, we're looking into advertising sponsorship. We're also releasing each individual title as its own app, where for a small fee you'll be able to download the material and also have access to special bonus content. No word yet on structure or pricing, but we should have some apps to experiment with before San Diego Comic-Con.
PWCW: Is Thrillbent effectively a publisher and how do you intend to expand the offerings?
MW: I don't think of it as a publisher so much as an umbrella—a place for digital comics creators to come showcase their wares. Thrillbent doesn't ask for any ownership of individual material nor any cut of revenue outside of a small percentage to help pay web-maintenance costs. For the first month, we elected to go the route of a "soft launch" with one weekly series (INSUFFERABLE) so as to work out the kinks, but in June we'll be premiering our second weekly series, with an eye towards something new every weekday by summer's end.
PWCW: Any plans to convert old material to this platform?
MW: Nope, not unless someone comes to me with something great and is willing to put the time and effort into reformatting it for digital, which is a lot of work to do right. I chafe at the notion of just reprinting print comics on the iPad—they weren't created for digital to begin with, so the best you can hope for is an adequate translation of the material, the same way that using pan-and-scan editing on widescreen movies to fit older TV screens was "adequate." I'm not interested in "adequate."
PWCW: What kind of creative issues have you found with digital? You had a blog post about some of the ideas you've had that didn't pan out—are there things that you have discovered about writing for digital?
MW: Yeah, it's a bitch. Short-form installment writing—four or five traditional comics-pages' worth of material in one slice that still advances the story, demonstrates some conflict and resolution,and ends with an intriguing enough cliffhanger to draw the reader back—man, how the Sunday comics giants used to do that is beyond me, but I'm learning. I'm reminded each time I sit at the keyboard of my own maxim that comics is about the economy of storytelling. BUT—the upside is that there are cool things we can do digitally that can't be emulated in print, not the least of which is take advantage of the fact that the reader can't see all the upcoming surprises with his or her peripheral vision. Each page-turn or page-swipe is a chance to surprise the reader.
PWCW: You're doing a Marvel AR comics with the French artist Balak, generally considered one of the pioneers of digital storytelling. How did you approach that?
MW: I gave Balak a two-page prose breakdown of the story with some dialogue notes and a sense of how each scene should strike the reader—what purpose it served—(remember, English is Balak's second language)—and then just let him storyboard the hell out of it. I then went in with him to suggest tweaks, shortening some scenes, lengthening others, and then finally wrote finished dialogue to fit the storyboarding. As we're all learning the new language of digital comics, I feel it's even more important than it is in print comics to let the artist take the lead.[An example of the Waid-Balak collaboration can be seen here, with process notes.]