The comics industry mastered Hollywood a long time ago, but the tried-and-true comic book has had a harder time making the transition to digital. The biggest player in the game right now is Comixology, which long ago established itself as the gold standard of comics distribution online. However, ever since its recent acquisition by Amazon, the app has endured criticism for a new design that — as a consequence of Amazon's understandable unwillingness to deal with Apple's in-app purchases policy — effectively breaks what was originally an awesome storefront. But when it comes to alternatives, the last decade is littered with ambitious experiments in the medium that either did too much or just never got off the ground. How do you make a viable digital comics business while pushing the medium forward? It's a tough question to answer, and no one has really made a perfect solution.
Award-winning writer Mark Waid gets all that, and could be the one to get the business right — as one of comics' big-name authors, he's worked as a collaborator on a few major projects in digital and even helped with Comixology's earlier well-received design efforts. He's also been an ardent critic of what he sees as excess in the space. And people ought to listen: fans might recognize his work in classics like Marvel’s Age of Apocalypse (a screen adaptation of which will hit theaters in 2016) DC’s Kingdom Come, and Empire, an Eisner-nominated limited series about a supervillain dealing with what happens when you finally take over the world.
Waid recently struck out on his own, launching Thrillbent in 2012 as a means of showing he gets how digital comics should be made and distributed with both readers and creatives in mind. And it's doing pretty well for an indie shop. His subscriber base is somewhere in the four figures and continues to grow, partly because a monthly subscription to his library costs the same as a single comic. Last month, he expanded the site’s library by returning to Empire, and plans on releasing issues from Volume 2 on a weekly basis to continue the saga. We sat down with him in the weeks before Comic-Con to talk about the new series and where digital comics are going.
You’re one of many celebrated writers in comics today. What is your view of the medium right now?
This is one of the greatest times in comics I’ve ever seen. And that includes the hit 1980s, which was the last big resurgence with things like Maus and The Dark Knight and Watchmen. But now, thanks largely to the rise of Image Comics and the boom in digital comics, there is outreach to more people who like stuff other than superheroes. Which is key to building a new audience.
You’ve been a part of this for more than a decade now...
Yeah exactly. My first work in comics was back in 1985, so I’ve been in the business longer than a lot of my fans have been alive.
So where does something like Thrillbent stand alongside digital comics outlets like Comixology?
Well, the great thing about digital publishing — and I mean this with all my heart — is that there’s not a real sense of competition. It’s not like Marvel and DC are Coke and Pepsi, where we’re vying after the same exact audience and you’re measuring your gain by somebody else’s losses. And Comixology does what they do extraordinarily well and I love what they do, but they don’t produce new content themselves. They’re a distributor, an outlet for other people’s materials. What Thrillbent does specifically is we work with younger creators who want to explore all the possibilities of the digital medium and tell stories that can only be told using digital tools. As opposed to some of the other digital comic companies which are basically selling you pictures of comics. They’re not really taking advantage of all the things digital can do.
Back in 2000 when Empire launched, you and some of your colleagues wanted to launch a comics website with a business model in mind. That became eHero.com, but that eventually folded. Is Thrillbent better positioned, or have the times just changed in general?
Yes. And, by the way, I’d totally forgotten about eHero for about 10 years before you mentioned it, so thanks for reminding me. I’ve been at this digital stuff longer than I thought! No, it’s perfectly positioned, because the beauty of doing something like Thrillbent in digital comics form is that the startup costs are minimal compared to doing something like say a TV pilot or even a YouTube series. It’s pencil and paper and colors and web servers and sweat. So, the fact that comics as a medium right now has really become a driver of pop culture, not just with the superhero movies but with The Walking Dead and all the material that’s coming to movie screens in the near future, we’re in a good position to take advantage of that and go in hard with a lot of brand-new, experimental series. And the nice thing about being a small company is that it’s not like steering a battleship. If we wanna put something up, we put something up. We don’t have to answer to shareholders, we don’t have to construct a massive five-year publishing plan. We can be very light on our feet.
What’s Empire about?
Empire is the story of what happens when a supervillain finally wins. There’s no questions of victory. So there are no superheroes waiting to take him down. There are no big, bombastic battles. It’s more of a political intrigue thing of, what do you do once you rule the world? What is next? Golgoth is the emperor of all he surveys, and now what? Now he lives in a sort of science fiction Game of Thrones. He lives in a world that’s the court of The Borgias where everybody who helped him get to where he’s getting is now sharpening their knife, because once you’ve consolidated the world’s power on to one throne, then it makes you a huge target.
Empire Volume 2 is more, how does one man maintain the throne and what are the sacrifices people need to make to keep it in place so that you don’t end up with utter chaos? I mean, is it better to have one despot getting the trains running on time, or is better to have complete chaos in the streets? We don’t know, and that’s sort of the driving question.
Why return to Empire now?
Barry Kitson and I co-created Empire almost 15 years ago. We had it published through DC back in the early 2000s. We got an Eisner nomination. We felt really good about it. But since then, Barry and I just haven’t been at the same company at the same time for nearly a decade, so doing a sequel has been one of those things that we’ve been trying to do for a long time. Thrillbent finally gave us the perfect opportunity to do it. Why would I go to any other publisher, when oh yeah I own a publisher?
"When people started to experiment with digital comics, there was this inferiority complex that came with it."
Comics have struggled in the last few years to grapple with new media and new technologies, with plenty of successes and failures along the way. Was there any particular moment where you feel companies really nailed something or truly lost their way?
Like I said, one of the things that’s helping the entire medium right now and helping everybody figure out what it can be is the fact that we are pop culture drivers and not just things that reflect pop culture. What I mean by that is that when people were starting to experiment with digital comics as long as 10 or 12 years ago, there was this inferiority complex that came with it. Oh, it’s just pictures on a screen, we need to jazz it up! We gotta have motion! We gotta have sound effects! That sort of coming at it from a feeling that what comics was wasn’t good enough and we needed to add to it. Because what you get out of that, with motion comics and voiceovers or whatever, is it just becomes limited animation. It becomes neither fish nor fowl, right? It becomes something that’s not good enough to be animation but not quite comic either. And I think that’s a massive misstep. I think the guiding star philosophy that we’ve always had with Thrillbent is that what makes comics comics is that you, the reader, control the pace at which you read the story. We have all kinds of interesting digital techniques, but it’s still dependent upon you turning the page. That’s where I think a lot of other digital publishers lose their way. I think they’re too overeager to make it all about sound and motion and time and stuff, and that makes it cheap animation.
That of course isn’t to say there hasn’t been a ton of experimentation over the past decade. Are we getting closer to perfecting this new paradigm?
I don’t think we’re that far off. I think we’re getting very close! We’re not trying to make comics something it isn’t. We’re not coming at it from that sense of, "Oh we have to convince you that our comics are worth reading on the screen." No, everybody knows that comics look amazing on an iPad or on an Android tablet or on a laptop screen. As long as you’re producing for that medium and not just trying to scan JPEGs onto a file.
It seems to often be about business models and experimentation, right? I mean, right now, Alan Moore is trying to create an open source avenue for creatives to publish comics. Might that be the wave of the future?
No. And I say this with all respect to Alan Moore, who is the reason many of us are in this business: I’m leery of taking advice on digital comics from a man who doesn’t own a computer. And I mean that jokingly and not disrespectfully. Online comics and digital comics have always been open source. You know what it is? You draw something, you scan it in, and you put it on a web page. That’s what you do. Boom. There’s nothing terribly proprietary about the way anybody does what they do, and if you go to WordPress there are plugins for your blog that will host comics if you’re so inclined. We’re not trying to fool you with proprietary technology. What we have to sell is content. But what we’re really pushing is the way we deliver this. The content itself, and the way the comic is read and the techniques you can use, not the actual technology.
What about Amazon buying out Comixology? How does that help or harm the medium?
I have nothing but respect for the Comixology guys, but just because you’re friends with somebody doesn’t mean you have to like their parents. So far it’s been an exercise in making buying digital comics harder for them, not easier. That in time will change, and if Amazon’s purchase of Comixology can help facilitate the outreach so that more people can read comics, I’m fine with that. I think that, in the meantime, the business model that we look at makes the most sense for smaller publishers, which, for the price of one comic, which is $3.99, we will give you access to several different comics worth of material a month and the back library. (And special bonuses to download and so forth.) That just makes a little bit more sense to me than a per-copy sale basis. I’m very curious what Amazon’s ultimate business model is gonna be. I mean, I don’t think anyone would argue that $3.99, $4.99, or $5.99 is way too much for one digital comic. But it is.
"I don’t think anyone would argue that $3.99, $4.99, or $5.99 is way too much for one digital comic. But it is."
What kind of storytelling do you want writers and artists to do with all the tools at their disposal, if not make them overwrought multimedia affairs?
It’s easy to say whatever moves them, which is the God’s honest truth. My footnote to that is "less superheroes." And I’m not knocking superheroes. Superheroes have been very good to me, and I will continue to write superheroes probably 'till the day I die. But it’s a niche market. Comics is a mass medium. Just as when I go to Amazon, I don’t see nothing but Clive Cussler novels. I see all kinds of books. I want people who are doing digital comics for Thrillbent to do whatever strikes them, and let’s just experiment. All I ask is that your story have a beginning, a middle, and an end. All I ask is that it reads like a story. I don’t care what it’s about or what kind of story it is.
Does that make you leery of how the Hollywood machine figures into this system?
Nah! That’s what Hollywood is. Have at it. You know what? I’m not worried about Hollywood impinging and here’s why: as a creative person, both as a writer and an artist, there is nothing purer than comics to get your vision across. When you’re making a movie, making a TV show, when you’re answering your studio executives and there’s money on the table, that changes everything. It’s suddenly everybody’s got a decision, everybody’s got a choice, everybody’s got an argument, everybody’s got a change or a tweak. Comics is one of those very few mediums where you can just write something and have it drawn and it goes out to the audience and it’s your vision. Nobody came along to say, "Hey, can you put a robot dog in it? Because we need the demographics to show people love robot dogs."
Does that mean Empire will never be a movie?
[Laughs] I mean, if someone comes to us with a fat checkbook and a really strong vision, I’m totally amenable to it. I’m not anti-Hollywood, but I think that the strength of what we do — and I’ll point to The Walking Dead being a great example — is if you have a property that you feel strongly about, you’ve got a little more leverage now than you may have had in the past to, say, make it faithful to the source material, or else go find some other place to buy something. Look, I’m totally fine because it doesn’t change the medium. Even if somebody did do Empire and decide to settle in the Old West and I had no control over it, Empire still exists as my baby and Barry Kitson’s baby. It doesn’t change that. If Hollywood wants to come knocking, I’ll answer the door, but we need to be talking my language, not theirs.