Nobody knows digital comics like Mark Waid. The writer’s Thrillbent website, which offers free, original digital comics on a weekly basis, has been a pioneer in creating a new way to read comics in the digital age. In August, Thrillbent was hacked, causing the website to suffer a major outage that lasted for nearly two weeks — but the website bounced back in early October with new installments of Waid and Peter Krause’s “Insufferable” and new comic “PAX ARENA” by Mast, Geoffo and Balak.
To celebrate Halloween, Thrillbent launched its newest title, “City of the Dead” by comics veterans Karl Kesel and Ron Randall. The newest title is a crossover between Kesel’s “Johnny Zombie and Randall’s Trekker — and there are more titles to come.
Waid spoke with CBR News about the challenges of getting Thrillbent back on its feet following the hack, bringing new content to the website, plans for future development in terms of the distribution of Thrillbent’s series and the challenges facing the website in the coming year. Plus, we have a brief discussion of Quintronic Man’s appearance in Waid’s latest Marvel Comics title, “Indestructible Hulk!”
CBR News: Mark, before we get down to business creatively-speaking, could you speak a bit to the challenges of distributing comics during the time Thrillbent.com was down?
Mark Waid: For all of the good things we can say about digital, and for all the advantages that digital gives us in terms of distribution and in terms of being able to get comics any time you want — as opposed to when a store is open or when you feel like putting on pants — there’s the one downside: If you get hacked, you are offline for a while. It’s hard to control that sort of stuff. We’ve made huge steps to ensure our security from here on in, so it shouldn’t be a problem, but there were a bunch of comics sites hacked around the same time. Some people have been public about it, some have not been as public, but for a little bit, it was sort of like “Watchmen” — “Oh, somebody’s going around stalking the comics websites!”
We had our challenges, but we didn’t miss any deadlines. We were just trying to find a way to get the comics to the people — so, thank you Twitter, thank you Facebook and thank you torrent sites. Thank you some of the peer-to-peer sharing sites. We’ve always been good about uploading our own torrents and uploading our own files to the filesharing sites because it only makes sense. They’re going to be loaded whether you want them to be loaded or not. If they’re going to be up there, I’d rather they be under my control.
We had hacking challenges and we were looking at the numbers on the website — the number of hits, the page views, that sort of stuff — and we’re still down from where we were at our peak. Even after four weeks or so of being back up, I still get tweets every week when I announce another installment of “Insufferable” that says, “Hey, I didn’t know you guys were back up. That’s great news.” Help us get the word out: We are back up and we are stronger than ever.
Yesterday, Thrillbent released “City of the Dead” by Karl Kesel and Ron Randall in honor of Halloween. At this point, you’ve got experience working in this new digital medium. For newcomers like Karl and Ron, did you have to show them the ropes a bit in how to best utilize it?
Only in the smallest ways. What I love about both Ron and Karl is that they get it. They’re both experienced hands. Both of them have been professionals in comics longer than I have. They understand storytelling. Not only have I been a fan of both guys forever, I get to go on record as the editor that first gave Karl the chance to pencil his own work way back in the day.
Karl in particular had been very astute about this, and we corresponded heavily during the first year of Thrillbent about what works, what doesn’t. Karl’s been one of our most vocal respondents. I don’t want to say critic, but respondent. Every week after an installment of “Insufferable” goes up, Karl will be the first to write us, going, “This worked, this didn’t work as well for me, this is pretty cool, have you thought about this?” Knowing that Karl has been trying to get a lot more deserved attention to his webcomic “Johnny Zombie” and Ron Randall with “Trekker” — Karl approached us a few months ago about doing this as a Halloween stunt, doing a team-up of his and Ron’s characters in a story.
The original idea was to run the first installment on Karl’s website, the second installment on Ron’s website, but then run both installments on our site so we can then point our larger readership to them and at the same time, have their readership funnel back into ours.
So it’s a mutually beneficial relationship.
It really is. I wouldn’t have been so keen to do that if I wasn’t so impressed by how Karl and Ron did it. There are a couple of things in their first installment, a couple of visual storytelling motifs, that I’ve already poached for the next installment of “Insufferable.” This is what it’s about to me — it’s about getting eyes on each other’s material and getting views on each other’s material and cross-promoting. But more than that, it’s about learning from each other as we all get into this giant webcomics think tank and learn about new ways to use storytelling.
Every week, it seems like new installments of Thrillbent comics bring a new trick to the table in terms of what purely digital comics can do. As you’ve experimented with the format, what’s been the biggest surprise?
I think the biggest surprise has been that I originally went into this with the idea that I would try to service both print and digital — with the idea that I’d do digital comics, but always with an eye towards how we could repurpose them for print later down the road. What I found after a few months in was that some of the things don’t translate as well. Some of the moments we do in digital don’t translate as well to print. Rather than hobble myself by limiting what I can experiment with in digital, I just decided to go all in. Rather than try to serve two masters at once, the new guiding philosophy — and that was the biggest prize — came to be, “Look, just do digital comics and print will sort itself out later. We’ll worry about print down the road. Right now, if you’re going to go, go big.”
Is repurposing that digital comic for print still a part of your plan for Thrillbent?
Yeah, it is. I don’t know that it’s going to be an enormous revenue stream for us, but I do like print as much as the next guy. I really do. I think that rather than issue these as floppy, 32-page comics, the smarter money is to amass enough material to create trade paperbacks, to create, say, limited edition hardcovers in limited runs for fans of the material and go that way. Again, I don’t anticipate anybody getting filthy rich off of print, but I like having a book in my hands as much as the next guy. I’m sure there’s 5 million victims of Hurricane Sandy right now who are saying, “Man, I wish I had a book instead of this iPad” because they don’t have any electricity.
I’m glad you brought up the iPad. I’m sure you’ll be one of the first people to admit that one of the major ways people read digital comics are on a tablet.
Oh yeah, by a long shot. I look at our numbers, look at our analytics and by a long, long shot, I think more people view Thrillbent on tablets than they do on all other devices combined.
Thrillbent currently offers web presentationas well as PDFs and CBZ files of each comic. Considering those numbers, is making a dedicated Thrillbent app to make these comics pop something that you’re hoping to explore in the future?
It’s like you’re reading my mind. In fact, we have been developing one for a while and we are trying to finalize it in the next few weeks. We came across a couple of kids in Baltimore who came up to me at that convention about their idea of what a comics app could be and what it could look like. Without getting into details, they solved problems I didn’t even know we had. We were actually pretty far ahead in app development, but we stepped back a little bit and made a handshake deal with these guys to work together with them to incorporate some of the stuff that they came up with in terms of how to use a viewer, how to make the reading experience simple and yet make sure there’s plenty of additional bonus content that’s easily accessible. We’re shooting for December, but we’ll see. Roll the dice and hope for the best, but we’ll be launching a Thrillbent app before the end of the year with additional bonus content.
We’re also working with comiXology because they have been great to us so far and they understand that we’re not interested in any exclusive deals with anybody. One of the things we like about our comics is we want people to read them far and wide on any platform they desire, in any form they desire. If comiXology can help us penetrate the market and reach a part of the audience we’re not already reaching, then so much the better.
Let’s talk about “Insufferable.” It’s the comic that launched the Thrillbent platform and it actually seems to be reaching its endgame. Are you indeed starting to wrap up or is there more story to be told?
Both, actually. I’m starting to wrap up the first major storyline. We are starting to head into act three of the very first storyline. It is an ongoing, but depending on where Pete and I are, we may or may not want to take a couple weeks break before we launch into the next “Insufferable” storyline. We’ll see as we get to the holidays. I’ll keep writing it as long as Pete wants to draw it. I’m quite comfortable with these characters and I know where the next few stories should take us. At the same time, I think the luxury of doing it weekly doesn’t mean that you should keep it going indefinitely. Find an endpoint for your story. Give the first volume some sense of accomplishment and conclusion and more on to the next story.
I predict we’ll probably run anywhere between week 32 and 35 or so. All things considered, we’ve still got some blocking out to do. It’ll won’t be a clean end where you dust your hands and say, “Oh well, I guess we don’t have to do any more of these.” It’ll be like any series. There’ll be subplots and threads and stuff that will lead you on to the next story, but we will reach an endpoint to the current menace at some point.
Thrillbent provides content free of charge to visitors, but in a very real way, it’s a full-blown comics company rolled into a distribution service — a huge undertaking. You’ve had experience managing BOOM! Studios as Editor in Chief, but this seems like it’d be a very different beast. After running Thrillbent for over half a year, what do you think the site’s biggest obstacles are moving forward?
Honestly, our biggest obstacle is just time. Our biggest obstacle is the fact that we all have day jobs. I write every third comic that comes out. Laurie Matsumoto is our majordomo, she’s got our day job and she’s doing this at night and on the weekends where she’s basically handling the technical end of things. John Rogers is busy running a bunch of TV shows. But this is our passion. This is the thing that gets me up in the morning and gets me most excited about the day. So, it’s trying to find a way to stay ahead of the curve. My biggest fear with Thrillbent is that we will get complacent and stop innovating in terms of distribution and storytelling and before we know it, some other site will come along and lap us.
On the one hand, I think that’s great. On the one hand, I kind of want that to happen because I don’t see it as a competition. I see it as a field where we can all learn from each other. On the other hand, I kind of selfishly enjoy the fact that for the time being, we are unique out there in terms of what we’re providing and how we’re providing it.
One of your day jobs is writing for Marvel — including the upcoming “Indestructible Hulk.” There are so many questions people have about “Indestructible Hulk,” but the thing that I want to talk with you about most is — Quintronic Man? He’s like the Voltron of the Marvel Universe!
[Laughs] I know! Honestly, it was not in the original plan, but it was a nice confluence of happenstance that I’d originally asked for Ultimo, the Iron Man villain, and had actually gotten as far as the plot before I got a call from the editor warning me that Ultimo was going to be a big part of the finale of Matt Fraction’s run on “Invincible Iron Man.” It wouldn’t have been a problem, but at the same time, what appealed to me about Ultimo is that he hadn’t been seen for a while. About that same time, apropos of nothing — it wasn’t like he was suggesting anything — Mark Panniccia sent me a shot of the old Quintronic Man and we were laughing about what a goofy-ass look that thing was, but it planted a seed in my head. I thought, “There’s a fix here. There’s a way to make that actually pretty cool.” It’s a giant, Voltron-ish robot of incalculable power controlled by five guys at once that have to be pretty well allied and pretty much on the same page. I like the idea that it takes five guys to beat Hulk. I like that.
Is there anything you can tell us about those five guys?
Actually, I really can’t because that’s a big part of the mystery of the story — “How did you get these five guys back together again that know this stuff so well and what are you holding over their head to make them play?”
Circling back to Thrillbent, let’s close out with when readers can expect more original comics.
We want to have something new up every day by the end of the year, if not sooner. The next thing in the queue — and again, this seems to shift from moment to moment because we want to make sure we get enough material in the can before we launch. We want to hit those weekly deadlines, we don’t want to let anybody down. But John Rogers’ “Arcanum” series is next in the queue as is “The Damnation of Charlie Wormwood,” which is by Christy Blanch, Chris Carr and a brilliant Philippine artist named Chee. They’re the next on deck, so we’re probably going to launch those next month some time.
Mark Waid and Peter Krause’s “Insufferable” and other original digital comics can be found weekly at Thrillbent.com