It’s not a stretch to say that Thrillbent — the digital comics portal owned and operated by writer Mark Waid — comes from humble beginnings. Launched earlier this year as a one-column process blog, the experimental platform for utilizing the storytelling tools of comics on the web soon began to grow in size and notice as Waid and artist Peter Krause’s superhero dramedy “Insufferable” has unfolded on a weekly basis, free of charge.
But last month at Comic-Con International in San Diego, Thrillbent announced a new, even more widespread set of goals for its digital rallying cry. First, the site will team with Image partner studio Top Cow to present the latest iteration of that publisher’s popular “Pilot Season” initiative in 2013. And back on the creator-owned side of the street, Waid will soon open the Thrillbent gates to a number of his comics friends and collaborators (including John Rogers, Kurt Busiek and more) for a new slate of ongoing digital series which will start debuting in the fall.
To explain how these expansive changes alter or inform the startup, Waid spoke with CBR News about Thrillbent’s second act. Below, the writer delves into the origins of the Top Cow deal and how it has turned him from creator to teacher, the particulars of how his fellow creators will take to the format with their new work and an update on the awaited iOS app that will take Thrillbent to phones and tablets.
CBR News: Mark, there’s an awful lot going on with Thrillbent in the wake of Comic-Con, starting with your plans to partner with Top Cow for a new digital edition of Pilot Season. You’ve worked with the Cow in the past. How did you and John Rogers get to the point where it felt like partnering with them to create these stories on your site?
Mark Waid: They came to us. Filip Sablik, who just recently left there, and I have always had a good relationship, and Marc Silvestri and I have always had a good relationship. They and Matt Hawkins came to me and said, “We want to keep doing Pilot Season” — which as you know is their project where they launch a bunch of first issues each year and reader response/online voting lets them know which one becomes an ongoing series — but they knew they wanted to do it digitally this year. It’s a law of diminishing returns to launch a bunch of print product in this market, especially a one-shot. So they came to us and said, “You know what you’re doing. Help us out with this.” And it’s turned into a great partnership.
This fall, we’ll set aside a special section of the Thrillbent site for Top Cow’s Pilot Season. It’ll work much the same way it’s worked in the past. We’ll roll out a bunch of new first issues under the Top Cow brand — anywhere from eight to ten digital first installments. We’ll do that each week for the following four weeks, and reading voting will determine what goes on to the next level. In other words, we’ll have eight or ten in the first week, and then the top four or five vote getters will move on to week two, and so forth and so on in the “American Idol” model. We’ll whittle it down to the strongest vote-getter to have a regular series birth.
How is the collaboration working between the model for digital storytelling you’ve been developing on the site and the Top Cow stable of artists?
We’re developing the stories with them. What they’re looking for from us is less actual story and more of the creative input that comes with ,”Here’s what I’ve figured out in the last six months in the ways to tell and not tell digital comics stories.” It’s pretty simple stuff when you lay it out, so I’m literally sitting down with all of their writers and artists, without being too dictatorial about content, I’m making sure they have access to what we’ve learned in terms of the right number of screens per installment or the type size or the size of balloons so they can be read on all mobile devices. I’m offering up a few ideas for transitions they might not have thought of to work with. It’s more of a production and technical advice thing than story content.
That’s been built in to Thrillbent since the beginning — proselytizing on behalf of these tools to others in the industry. Aside from the personal relationships you have with Top Cow, was there a draw here for you in teaching people what you’ve learned outside the blog format?
That’s exactly it. What sold me was…well, first I was flattered that this brands us as the go-to guys for digital. I’m very chuffed about that, and it does stroke my ego. [Laughs] But beyond that, Thrillbent has been all about, as you say, us trying to proselytize and to teach and to share. What I’m excited about is that when I’m working with their guys, there’s feedback. They’ll come to me as we’re going and say, “Have you thought about this?” or “What if we tried this thing?” Sometimes that really works, and it’s awesome. That’s another tool we can put in the toolbox. This is a way of working hands on creatively with writers and artists to help develop digital storytelling. I find the more artists and writers I work with in a hands on way, the bigger the box of tools becomes because everybody comes to the table with a new idea here or there, and the stuff which works, we’re glad to share. We’re really developing a new storytelling language.
Beyond that specific partnership, you’re also gearing up to invite a lot of other established creators to the site to do their own original work. Without getting too web cliche with it, is this the start of “Thrillbent 2.0”?
This is the next evolution of Thrillbent, clearly. We always knew that the first iteration of the site would be a soft launch for a couple of reasons. One is that, as I’ve said before, in any sort of shakedown cruise, it only seemed right that I should subject myself to the test first and not make my friends have to learn the hard way. [Laughs] In other words, I’d rather that people learn from the benefit of my experience rather than go through the missteps I’ve gone through. And since there’s only so much creative work I can do in a given week or month, it had to be that soft launch.
But now that we have our sea legs and feel confident about the production end of it where we’ve streamlined things and know what we’re doing, it’s time to bring others on board. And I’m really excited about that.
The range of material you’re publishing with this new wave of comics is really wide both in terms of subject and creators. Obviously, core mainstream comic fans will recognize names like Kurt Busiek [“The Gas Kat Prowls”], Gail Simone [“Field Trip”] and Troy Peteri and Derec Donovan [“And I Feel Fine”] who are all in the mix, but there are also some new voices as well. What was your guiding principal in rounding out this wave of stories, and what are some of the books you’re launching to start this wave?
Really, what we were looking for is a diverse selection of properties and creative ideas. These aren’t all the same notes you’ve seen over and over again in comics.
Overall, we’re trying to keep to that weekly model where the site will have something new every day. Mondays could be John Rogers new series. Tuesdays could be Gail Simone’s. Wednesday will probably always be “Insufferable.” We’ll build around that idea.
Several other series are in active development right now: A crime series called “The Damnation of Charlie Wormwood,” by Christy Blanch, Chris Carr and Chee. “Working For Monday,” the story of the personal assistant to an over-the-top supervillain by Lori Matsumoto and Ben Dewey. “The Eighth Seal” by James Tynion IV and an artist TBD, a weird blend of “The West Wing” and “Rosemary’s Baby.” “The Incapables,” by Kevin Levy and Nate Watson. “Arcanum” by John Rogers. More. Nothing’s officially scheduled yet, but it soon will be and we’ll make an announcement probably at Baltimore [Comic-Con this weekend]; right now, we’re stockpiling content.
Did a lot of the folks involved come to you, or have you been recruiting people on the sly?
It’s been a little bit of both. I was very selective about who I reached out to because I had faith that once we got some momentum and people saw what we were doing, there would be a lot of comics professionals that wanted to play. And sure enough, that was the case. We’re still a small outfit. We’re not a multi-national corporation or funded by corporate money, so there’s a limit to how far we can reach and how fast we can expand. I’d rather ere on the side of being too cautious than being over-expansive and then collapse in six months. But it’s a good mix so far.
Of course, “Insufferable” continues on each week on the site right now, and I think the standout for me with that serial has been how much more I find myself empathizing with Galahad, who’s ostensibly been the jerky jerkface of the book up to this point. Aside from recent revelations about his father Nocturnus, you’ve really been working to show the kid’s side of things that make his career choices more understandable if not admirable. Overall, who do you consider the “lead” of the book, and how will expectations about who’s right continue to change over future chapters?
Ha! That’s the trick — making you empathize with both characters. Honestly, I see it as a co-lead between the two. Nocturnus doesn’t seem to get as much play, but that’s only because we’ve made a conscious choice to not look too deeply at his thoughts and to veil him in mystery. And there’s no guarantee that you should be rooting for both of them, as you’ll see as we get further into act two.
Beyond that, we’ve got a secret force gathering some of Nocturnus’ old villains in a pretty brutal fashion. In this world, what’s the status of most supervillains, and what kind of capitalization can this shadowy big bad make in that community because of the father-son fallout?
It makes the Big Bad deliriously happy that he can screw around with both of them by exploiting their greatest weakness — each other. Who needs arch-enemies when the two heroes in town can’t stand one another?
Finally, I know that part of Thrillbent’s overall plan has been to expand out into apps for phones and tablet devices. What’s the latest word on that front?
Still developing. Working through Apple is a long process if you want to get it right from jump, but we do feel that it’s a vital part of moving forward and maintaining momentum. As always, CBR will get the first word when plans coalesce!
Stay tuned for more on Thrillbent’s rollout specifics on CBR!