Mark Waid Enters The Brave New Digital World With ‘Thrillbent’ [Interview]

If you want to know how the digital evolution will change the face of comics? So does Mark Waid. The prolific writer may not know what will happen in the current, ongoing struggle between print and digital comics in the long run; but he does know he’s going to keep experimenting until he finds out.

The next step in his ongoing step into the digital world? Thrillbent, a digital comics outlet with content specifically formatted for the iPad, iPhone, and other tools of the computer age. The site launches today with Insufferable, a new comic co-created with Waid’s Irredeemable co-creator Peter Krause, but will soon expand to include fellow comics (and TV) creator John Rogers, and many more before the year is out. Will it work? Will Waid be able to succeed in creating digital only comic books where many others have failed? And where will things go from here? To find this all out, and much, much more, we chatted with Waid prior to today’s paradigm shifting launch:

MTV Geek: Okay Mark, just to get this out of the way, what stage is Thrillbent in your long range plan to destroy comic book stores?

Mark Waid: Stage Five. Stage One was “write comics they can sell for 25 years.” Stage Two was “Do a million store signings, for free, during all that time.” Stage Three, unfortunately, shifted into “Help keep the secret that their distributor is a monopoly, which is lousy for business,” and Stage Four was “watch with frustration as what used to be a mass medium becomes even more of a niche market.” Stage Six involves flamethrowers, BTW.

Geek: Seriously though, I am curious – as I took the long hard step at the beginning of this year from buying exclusively print, to doing most of comic book shopping on the iPad – do you think there’s a place for both print and digital? Will they help each other thrive?

MW: I can only hope so. I really do like print, which is why I wish I’d done a better job over the past year or so framing the discussion as “Digital AND Print,” not “Digital VERSUS Print.” But the truth is, print is ailing everywhere in publishing, not just with comics.

Geek: As someone who has been creating print comics for a good long time, what has this process been like? What’s the feeling, for you, of making this step? Was there a point where you realized you were deep in digital, and there was no turning back?

MW: Yep. It came a while back, the first time I checked out the sheer number of international torrenters downloading my various books on so-called “pirate” sites. There’s no way to stop that, no way to effectively curb it–but there is a way to learn from it–learn that the potential audience for your work is gargantuan and ill-served by the current distribution system.

Geek: When you left BOOM, it seemed like – from the outside – it was to take your career back from the managerial end of things, into the creative end of things… But Thrillbent ostensibly throws you right back into the mix. Was that a tough decision, to head back into a curator/business mode? Or is that just always part of what being a comic creator is, anyway?

MW: The truth is, I really enjoy mixing the two–creative and editorial–and I feel that I have a responsibility to share what I’ve learned about the craft to newer generations of creators. Thrillbent lets me do that on my own terms and I’m my own boss.

Geek: Why Thrillbent? What’s the significance of the name? And if you can tell us, were there other ways you went with the name first? (eThrillbent, maybe?)

MW: The joke is “iThrillbent,” Alex. PAY ATTENTION. No, seriously, it was just one of those names that came from several evenings of brainstorming, jotting down potential name after name with pen on paper–oh, the irony! I wanted something that said “21st Century Pulp,” but (a) that was taken, somehow, and (b) I worried it was too insider-y. Eventually, I wrote down “Hellbent,” loved the sentiment but didn’t like the specificity of it–and “Thrillbent” came out of that.

Geek: It’s rare to have a creator experimenting with things so publicly, particularly in the judgment heavy world of comic books. I think if anyone deserves the benefit of the doubt, it’s someone with an incredibly long, proven track record like you. But what was the thought process like going into this experimentation phase?

MW: Honestly? Some of it was a calculated measure to buy me time. I wanted Thrillbent up and running earlier, but I didn’t have enough material yet accumulated to feel relaxed about an April launch. It was my partner, John Rogers, who turned that anxiety around into an opportunity and suggested that, as a stopgap measure, I relaunch markwaid.com as a process blog chronicling the building of the Thrillbent site and its content. John knows that I’m a huge believer in transparency and that I think the withholding of information as we, as a creative community, are building something new is harmful, not helpful. So I resolved to be utterly open with everything I know and to be as eager to learn as I am to teach.

Geek: What was the reaction like for you? Clearly there’s been a bit of controversy, as we’ve already touched on – but on a whole, what have you taken away from this?

MW: That I vastly underestimated the hunger for this. I honestly, truly believe that I haven’t the slightest idea the size of the tiger whose tail I’ve just grabbed. Yes, some retailers are frustrated with me, and I’m sorry about that, and I’m doing my best to keep those conversations open so we can all work towards coming up with ways for digital to help be a portal to brick-and-mortar, but at the end of the day, the sorts of comics my collaborators and I want to do digitally are, traditionally, the sorts of comics that the existing comics-shop audience doesn’t support in profitable numbers–which is to say, anything that’s not a Marvel or DC superhero book.

Geek: I think you’ve already talked about this quite a bit in interviews, but what draws you in when you’re reading comics digitally? What works, and what doesn’t?

MW: Good question. What works is anything that hews to the mechanics of comics: letting the reader be in control of the pace of how he or she absorbs the story. In other words, to me, that’s what makes comics an intimate reading experience–turning pages, or the equivalent thereof. Adding music, adding sound, adding motion or animation or what have you–that turns the experience from something you’re reading to something you’re just watching, and that makes my teeth hurt. We want the reading experience of digital comics to be as simple as tapping a tablet or an arrow key or mouse button to move forward or back. Yes, we’re playing with layout, playing with ways to use the horizontal landscape format so as to really let the art breathe, but ultimately, what we do should still “feel” like comics.

Geek: Are there any plans to distribute Thrillbent comics anywhere else? Either through an app like Comixology, or in print later on?

MW: We’re working on apps now and hope to have announcements soon, but we’re still experimenting with different models there, as well. Should each series have its own app? Should there be an “umbrella” gateway app? Do you charge for “back-issue” content? All questions we’re exploring–very publicly.

Geek: What about creators? I know it’s you and Peter Krause, and John Rogers is coming on later, but anyone else you can tell us about?

MW: Can’t answer this one yet–d’oh! But SOON!

Geek: What about different genres than superhero books? Different approaches, in terms of the actual look and reading experience?

MW: Yes, please, a thousand times yes. Admittedly, I’m hedging my bets a little with the launch–Insufferable is, at least on the face of it, an adventure-hero strip, but stay tuned and see how it morphs. Beyond that, though, we’ve got science fiction, westerns and black comedy lined up (three genres that die in comics shops).

Geek: What makes Thrillbent different from other experiments like Zuda, or Act-i-Vate? Other than the creators in question, of course…

MW: Another good question, and I’m not sure I have a great answer, mostly because we’ve learned a lot FROM Zuda and Act-i-Vate (and Alex DeCampi’s Valentine and many other strips), and we make no secret of that–in fact, Dean Haspiel and I are great friends, and Zuda’s Ron Perazza is a trusted advisor. I think if there is a difference, it’s that Thrillbent is as much about proving a point–that there’s a vast, untapped audience for digital, as repeatedly proven by PvP, Blindferret.com and other successful digital enterprises–as it is about the creative.

Geek: There’s almost this underlying feeling of frustration in the comics industry right now, even on the fan level, with both the quality and ideas present (or allowable) in comics. Do you think Thrillbent is a reaction to this? And do you think we’ll see more sites like Thrillbent cropping up?

MW: God, I hope lots more crop up. I want to learn from them. Let’s all experiment, get out there, see what works.

Geek: I haven’t actually gotten to the content yet, hilariously, so what can you tell us about Insufferable?

MW: Co-created by myself and my IRREDEEMABLE partner Peter Krause, INSUFFERABLE is the story of what happens when your sidekick and protege grows up to be a loudmouth douchebag who keeps talking about you like you’re some sort of aged has-been even though you’re still out there fighting the good fight. It’s part comedy, part tragedy, part Kanye West, part Mark Millar and Grant Morrison. And there’ll be a new installment up, free for viewing, every Wednesday!

Geek: Going forward, do you see yourself working your way solely into digital, or do you want to keep a foot in both worlds (print and digital)?

MW: I see no reason to cut myself off from print–I still enjoy it, and there are still plenty of things you can do IN print that you can’t do in digital–bigger pictures, bigger visual impact. But mostly I just want to go where there’s the biggest audience.

Geek: Anything else you can tease about Thrillbent that’s coming up?

MW: As I say, for the first month, we’ll be debuting a new INSUFFERABLE installment every Wednesday. Also throughout that first month, I’ll be posting new, one-shot experimental stories by myself and a variety of artists as we explore what can and can’t be done in this format. Then, starting with month two, John Rogers rolls out with his madness and we’ll start debuting weekly strips from some very familiar names. Free, free, free. Spread the word!

Thrillbent launches today at Thrillbent.com, with Waid’s process blog also detailing the journey to digital at MarkWaid.com.