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FOG! Chats With MARK WAID About THRILLBENT 2.0 and The Return of EMPIRE!

Interview conducted by Stefan Blitz

Mark Waid is a busy guy.  For the past two decades he’s been one of the most in-demand comic book writers, contributing stories for virtually every company in the industry.  Among his most beloved works are Kingdom Come and Superman: Birthright, as well as significant runs on The Flash, Daredevil, Fantastic Four, Impulse, Captain America, JLA, The Legion of Super-Heroes, and his creator owned titles including Empire, Incorruptible, Irredeemable, Insufferable and Potter’s Field.

In 2012 with partner John Rogers, Waid launched Thrillbent, a digital comics publisher.  Now, two years later, Thrillbent is launching a new app/subscription model for it’s readers and, the launch of Empire: Volume 2, Waid and artist Barry Kitson’s creator owned series that ended it’s first volume a decade ago.

Mark took some time out of his busy schedule (if he wasn’t busy enough, he recently became an owner of a comic book store, Muncie, Indiana’s Alter Ego, and actually works behind the register on occasion) to discuss Thrillbent, Empire and the upcoming The Flash television series which clearly has been influenced by his work.

You became established as a fan favorite writer in the 90’s, and you earned this reputation of taking a modern approach to classic storytelling and I think you were one of the people responsible for turning comics into a writer’s medium from an artist driven one. Yet, with all the success you’ve had in comics, with all the roles you played, three years ago you made the announcement you were selling your personal collection to fund Thrillbent, a digital comic site that you were doing with John Rogers. What was the impetus to dive into digital at that point?

It was the fact that print was becoming more and more expensive to do.  I was looking at numbers, specifically, the number of comics that you would have to sell in a direct market at that point just to break even on a new property.  Even for someone with a reputation, somebody who had a preexisting audience, that was still a huge leap.

The good news is that, in the two and a half, three years since then, Image has become once more a power player in terms of creator owned material. There is more of an audience out there, more there ever has been for non-superhero material, which is great because that’s what Thrillbent has always catered to.  Digital was still a place that I want to go.  I wanted to find a way to modify this work without having to lose my house paying for printing costs in advance. But what it quickly turned into was, “Holy cow, look at all the things you can do with digital storytelling that aren’t available to you on the printed page, this is a whole new medium, let’s explore this.”

At the time, there was a lot of controversy and a lot of retailers crying out that you were abandoning print comics, and when you spoke publicly about digital comics, people cried foul that you were encouraging piracy; just by acknowledging the fact that digital wasn’t going away. Now a few years later, how do you feel the response has been to Thrillbent and where do you see its place in both the comic industry and the digital market place?

Waid’s Thrillbent launch title, Insufferable             
with collaborator, artist Peter Krause

I think that, we have been helpful, we haven’t been solely responsible, but I think we have been very helpful proving to retailers that digital does not carve in to print sales.

In fact, it just creates more of a market which creates more of an outreach for you.

A  few weeks ago, I was asked to be the keynote speaker at the Comics Pro meeting, which is the big retail meeting every year between all the biggest most powerful comic book retailers. As a comic store owner myself now, I got some skin in the game.  I was asked to give the keynote speech and I was thrilled to find out, it wasn’t a trap.

They weren’t sitting there with pitchforks and torches, in fact, they were acknowledging what I was trying to say, this isn’t a war; this isn’t a war between one medium and another; this is not an attempt to take out brick and mortar stores.  Rather, this is a chance to create an outreach for potential new audience members who don’t know that comic stores even exist, so let’s create that, and again the numbers bailed me out, you know.

With Thrillbent now, you’re going from a website now to an actual App, that is going to be for iPads, presumably on Android at some point. With a subscription cost of $3.99 a month, which for that you get new material and access to, what you have been building up as a library for the past couple years and for people who aren’t savvy with comics, $3.99 is essentially the cost of a single issue. It seems like you are obviously embracing what digital can provide, yet some companies, especially companies that have a much stronger financial backing are still charging the same price as a physical copy, which requires the printing, shipping, distribution. Do you think the price point of Thrillbent is an attractive temptation for readers to at least give it a chance?

I think it is, my partner John Rogers who insisted up on it being the price of one monthly comic and no more.  It make perfect sense as a price point for us, because that way we are guaranteed to get you value for your money.  And that was our big concern that we are not putting something physically, into your hands.  We are delivering the content to you; we’re providing comics material to you, but it’s not the same transaction that you are used to at the store, so to let’s make sure we are giving you your money’s worth, and I feel really good about that.  We have done the math, we have done the homework;  we know the numbers we need to reach to make this work, and I have every confidence that we can reach those numbers and more.

Right now, I know with the launch of the App, subscribers will receive a digital copy of the first volume of your first creator-owned book, Empire that you and Barry Kitson did together, as volume 2 launches on Thrillbent. Empire is about Golgoth, a super villain who has conquered the world, but now has to do with the ramifications of actually winning. It’s been a decade since the first volume was completed.  First, why bring it back now, and then, how has your approach or your perspective changed since you last wrote these characters of the series?

The answer to the first question is, it’s the right time because Barry and I were only, in the last couple of years, able to  regain our rights to it.

It was creator owned, but DC had the reprint rights for a long time, and for rights to revert it has to be out of print for a certain amount of time, and Empire has been out of print for years.   So now that we got it back, we immediately started strategizing about how to continue a story that we began ten years ago.

It’s something that has been on our radar for all these years, it’s just a question of when and how do we get together to make time to do it.

As we started to strategize and plan and figure out what volume 2 was, and simultaneously I was building Thrillbent with the other half of my brain, it made sense to bring these two together.

As we started to launch this new subscription app, and just to interject, you can read stuff online as well, it’ isn’t purely an app, it’s just a very clear way of doing it.

It works on an iPad if you have access to that, but you can read the stuff online as well it’s also  very web and multi platform  friendly just like the Thrillbent.com website.

So to do it right and to get the most number of eyes on it, we thought well this is a good lead-off; first we’ve got a lot of good material from a lot of really good people coming out over the next few months, but this seems to be our heaviest hitter, it’s the thing people have been asking Barry and I for ten years at every store signing, “When is Empire going to come back?

The second part of that was, how do you think your your approach as a writer, changed if at all?

It’s more nuanced and I think it’s more informed by the fact that Barry and I are both older and wiser (hopefully), and I think more skilled at our jobs.  The characters just seem a little more rich to me now and to Barry as well.

And I think that beyond that, the way the world has changed in the last fifteen years or so since we first created Empire.  We didn’t know what the Patriot Act was.  In that time we didn’t know who Osama Bin Laden was.  The whole nature of terrorism is not something that was common, everyday household conversation in the late 1990’s, the early 2000’s when Barry and I were first envisioning this, So it doesn’t directly inform the storyline, but it certainly informs the world around Golgoth.  It certainly help informs what Barry’s and my own personal vision of  totalitarian regimes and geopolitical intrigue might actually be.

Thrillbent is both a distributor and I presume an imprint.  Some of the other digital imprints like Monkey Brain have signed on publishers to bring their comics to print and I know that you recently just published a small run of The Damnation of Charlie Wormwood, as a single issue. Are you planning printed editions of your titles in the future or is that still kind of up in the air?

We don’t have concrete plans now.  It’s something we definitely would be into, but at the end of the day I want to serve Thrillent and the digital medium first. We will absolutely be turning a lot of the material into print products, it’s absolutely in the plans, and absolutely in the cards, but there are only 24 hours in a day and I spend 16 of them on Thrillbent.  I am trying to get there, but more on this as it develops. 

Are there any upcoming creators or titles coming to Thrillbent that you can tell us about?

There are many continuing, ongoing at Thrillbent like The Damnation of Charlie Wormwood, Valentine and The Endling.

James Tynion IV is coming to us with The House in the Wall, which is a horror series that launching in June.

We are talking to fantasy novelist, Seanan McGuire, about a comic that she desperately wants to at Thrillbent.  We’re talking to her this week about it, we got the deal in place, so now we are just trying to firm that up and figure out when a good launch date for when that would be.

We got a bunch of stuff.  We are going to be making announcements all through the summer.  I will be doing at least one more creator owned series as well.  We’ve got quite a few things in the pipeline.

You have a lot of experience in terms of editorial, but also are known for guiding new writers in the medium. How involved are you with taking a writer who is successful in a different medium (like a novelist) and teaching them the language of comics.  Do you do that at all, or do you let them do their own thing?

I guess, if they ask for help, I will absolutely, sit down with them and have conversations and talk about it.   I enjoy having those conversations, but that said, creator owned is creator owned and if you want to do it your way, feel free.

We are not a publishing brand, so much as we are a tent under which a lot of really talented comic people can come in and set up shop and do their thing.  So I would advise them when requested and I enjoy having those conversations, but ultimately, you sink or swim on your own and so far it’s working beautifully.

Your breakthrough work was as a writer was on DC’s The Flash, which you smartly branded the book under your run with the title character opening every issue with the introduction, “My name is Wally West.  I’m the Flash.  The Fastest Man Alive.”  The extended preview of the fall TV series uses a variation on that.  What was that like seeing that moment on screen for the first time?

I got goose bumps, I really did.

I think between not just that, but a couple of moments in The Flash pilot and a lot of language in Man of Steel, it’s been a very good year for being quoted.

I feel really good about that;  things that you said and lines you had written coming out of the mouths of actors and seeing it work, that’s a great feeling.  Hearing that come out of my television set, I got chills from that.  That was pretty cool.

Thrillbent Comics, including Empire can be found at thrillbent.com
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