It’s been nearly two years since Mark Waid and John Rogers launched Thrillbent, the digital platform that helped further the storytelling potential of the digital comics format. During 2013, Thrillbent grew by leaps and bounds, expanding its catalogue from a handful of titles to eleven ongoing series with many other short stories currently available. Although it started as only offering webcomics, Thrillbent has grown over the past year in terms of the avenues through which it offers content, including comiXology and its own digital storefront with comparable pricing, including a pay-what-you-want pricing model for Waid’s “Insufferable.”
In order to get a better idea of what’s in store for Thrillbent in 2014, CBR News spoke with Waid and Rogers, looking back at the last year of Thrillbent’s development and discussing how the experimentation of the site continues through today; as well as a brief glimpse of the future, teases of major WonderCon announcements, and the possibility of more creator-owned content from Waid. Plus, Rogers discusses the possible future of “Leverage” in the digital comics format.
CBR News: Mark, John — congrats on approaching the end of the second year of Thrillbent. The site had a lot of highlights this year, including bringing on a number of new comics and creators. Looking back over 2013, how far do you feel the site has come since the same time last year?
Mark Waid: John, you have a more objective opinion of this, I think.
John Rogers: Yeah, Mark always looks at it and he’s never happy because he always wants to push it and always wants to keep pushing it. I think we’ve learned a lot in one field and we’re very happy about stuff in others. The stuff we’re happy about is content and viewership. We’ve been very happy with “Eighth Seal” and “The Endling” and “Charlie Wormwood.” We’re very happy with the quality of the stuff we’re putting up and how it’s adapted to the new digital format, particularly. Of course, I leave off Mark and my titles, but I’m very happy with “Arcanum” and “Insufferable’s” fantastic. We’ve got half a million unique users over the course of the year, and that’s pretty great for a site that doesn’t have one of the big — it’s pretty great for any site, but considering we don’t have Marvel or DC behind us, we’re not Image, we don’t have a print end — I’m very happy with that.
The thing we could work on a bit — I don’t think, because Mark and I are both creators, that we anticipated how much more we’d need to put into marketing and distribution.
Waid: No. [Laughs] Let me chime in here. I think that is the thing that is the biggest surprise — and again, it’s not an unforeseeable surprise. It’s one of those things where everybody in the world was waving red flags in front of me as I was fueling down the highway in 2012, going, “Watch out for this part!” and I went, “Oh, no! It’s good! I’ve got Twitter followers, it’ll work!”
Even Brian K. Vaughan and Marcos Martin are echoing the same sort of concern, which is that even though you have good content, as long as you’re shining the spotlight on it, as long as you’re on Twitter or Facebook beating the drum, the traffic is there and people are paying attention and you’re driving your readers your way. But the moment you turn your attention to something else, it’s difficult to keep that momentum going. I think that’s the part where we have to redouble our efforts in 2014: creating something that has such gravity to it that it creates its own inertia.
Rogers: Also, part of that is our launch schedule has been “When we find a nice title we like up to this point.” As we go into 2014, we’re going to be much better about, “This title launches, then two months later, this title launches. Then, two months later, this title comes back.” As we develop a good back-end of both new stories that we’re really excited about and our own returning properties, we’ve got a better sense of how to do that to constantly generate that, keep the returning visitors happy, and constantly bringing new people looking for new stuff.
Mark, you spoke with us around this time last year specifically about your goals for Thrillbent — the primary one being to get new material up every weekday, which you’ve obviously accomplished — but it seemed like a lot of the rest of the formula had to do with figuring out how the model of Thrillbent and digital comics works. Have you made any headway in defining that model?
Waid: The good news is that we have learned a lot. I still think the free-to-read model, at least on introductory stuff, at least on enough to give you a really solid taste of what the material is, is still the way to go. I still don’t believe in fire-walling everything you do and I get resentful checking out other digital comics sites from time to time and finding out that I’ve got to put down cash on the barrelhead before I get a look behind the scenes to see exactly what it is I’m buying. I think that model still works, and I think the happy part of the revenue stream where we played around at great lengths with pay-what-you-will model on the download portion of our store — where, especially with “Insufferable,” we suggest this much but you’re free to pay whatever you want — that has still averaged out a little higher than whatever the suggested price point would be. There are always going to be people that take for free, but the people who are encouraging it and want us to be able to afford to do more, are putting in more than enough to make up for the people who are taking it for free. That’s a nice validation.
Rogers: The first year of Thrillbent was very much an experiment with just Mark’s title and just putting up some short stuff, trying to figure out, “Does the viewer work? Does this format work?” Mark wanted to play around artistically with how you present comics in this new format, and then the second year of Thrillbent was, “Can we handle multiple creators? Can we handle a multiple release schedule? How do we build the storefront?” The third year is where we start to look at what the business model is that’s going to go forward. What is the change in distribution deals that’s going to go forward to really kick this up into not just self-sustaining for Thrillbent, but making sure the creators get something that’s worth their time and their effort.
We’re a dollar one company. We don’t hold back our expenses and then pay the creators. The creator splits on dollar one that shows up and then we take our expenses out of our share.
Waid: That’s the part of the model that I’m proudest of. Honestly, all credit to John who is actually the guy that has to write the check.
Waid: I’m very proud of the deal system, which is that if we’re putting money into your comic — which is not everything, about half of our material is creator-owned and creator-funded and they’re letting us run it on our site, like “Moth City” — other stuff, we’re putting money into. It’s not a lot of money, but it’s enough where in a regular business deal, it would be an advance against revenue and we would take our share before you see a dime. That’s the way it works in most publishing ventures — I pay you $5,000 up front for a novel as an advance against royalties, and then you’ll get money once I get paid back.
Our deal is different: we split money with the creators right off the bat as revenue comes in. It takes us theoretically twice as long to get our advance paid back, but I think it’s important — especially for people working on a periodical basis, artists especially — to understand that the system works, to see the system working on their behalf way early on, rather than the hope that a year and half from now, maybe a check will come their way.
Rogers: We actually don’t want to be in the publishing business. Thrillbent was an experiment, it still is to a great degree an experiment, to see how people can push this format and try to do digital comics in a new way. Our next set of experiments is in the distribution world.
That actually leads well into my next question. In the last year, Thrillbent underwent a massive redesign and started offering repackaged content via comiXology and digital collections via the main Thrillbent site. How do you hope to expand the avenues of distribution as 2014 progresses? When can readers expect a dedicated Thrillbent app?
Rogers: We are going to make a big announcement at WonderCon, which will specifically deal with digital distribution.
Waid: If our cards come together and everything plays out how we’re engineering it, it’s a much bigger announcement than just one app. In other words, there are bigger announcements to be made than things we’ve already publicly postulated about as a certain number of opportunities have fallen our way.
One could certainly argue that Thrillbent was, and continues to be, a pioneer in the digital space.
Waid: I like that argument! Please, argue it as much as you want! Stop arguing as a matter of fact. Don’t argue that! [Laughs]
As the marketplace continues to evolve with digital-only publishers like Monkeybrain and Panel Syndicate, how will Thrillbent continue to innovate and stay ahead of the curve as more and more competitors come into the digital space?
Rogers: Personally, I think “competitor” is the wrong word. Honestly, this is such verdant ground, I think all of us are — you know how all surfer paddle out together into the ocean looking at each other, wondering who’s going to get the next wave? I think that’s where digital is right now. Mark called Brian [Vaughan] about “Private Eye,” we talk to the comiXology guys all the time — this should not be which guy is going to come out on top of the digital world. [It should be] who comes up with a new cool thing that everyone else then adopts and we build it more and more to make it more artist and creator-friendly.
Waid: That’s just it: it’s a sandbox with 7 billion people in it. I think there’s room for a lot of people. I’m with John, I don’t think of any of these people as competition. I do honestly, every once in a while, kick myself thinking, “Oh man, I wish we’d gotten there first.” I remember distinctly, the DRM-free moment when we were ready to announce that we were going to release all the stuff on our storefront and it was going to be DRM-free and then Image got there–
Rogers: Image literally beat us by a day. By a day that we were going to announce.
Waid: We had “Wired” magazine lined up and we had a bunch of outlets lined up, which is really what we were looking for: outside media to pay attention that we were going to be offering DRM-free comics for sale. And, bless ’em, Image got to the table literally 24 hours before we did and they got the coverage. That is not bitterness at all you hear in my voice, it’s really not. I’m happy that somebody got there. It’s just one of those, “Oh man, I wish we could have gotten there a little sooner.” But, if that’s the worst thing that happens to us in terms of quote-unquote “competition,” that’s a good day.
Waid: [Laughs] They’ve sort of fallen by the wayside, not through lack of effort on anybody’s part, and certainly not to slight Top Cow or us. It was one of those things where they had a change of regime there with Filip Sablik moving over to BOOM! and Filip was very much the spearhead of that initiative trying to team the two of us up. I think once that happened — I have a great relationship with Matt Hawkins, I have a great relationship with Marc Silvestri and I like those guys a lot, they’ve been great to us — it didn’t quite gel after Filip left.
Rogers: Yeah, it was much more about lining up timelines than anything else.
John, it’s been a while since we saw an installment of “Arcanum” — what are your plans in terms of the creative side of Thrillbent for 2014?
Rogers: [Laughs] You’re murdering me!
Again, as I joke, I failed to quit my day job. “Arcanum” had to rest because I had to write three television pilots over the Christmas break, and that was too much even for me. That’s a good way to tie up a lot of the stuff we’re going to be announcing at WonderCon. “Arcanum” is starting back as soon as possible. I’m just finishing scripting the new episodes now — but large, grown-up Hollywood people were demanding the pages I promised them and I needed to go handle that.
“Insufferable,” of course, will be coming back; “Wormwood” will be coming back; “Eighth Seal” will be coming back; we have a new title by James Tynion IV and I will also be doing another fantasy thing, but Mark has a really big announcement which will be coming along with the WonderCon announcement.
Waid: Basically, it’s a couple more creator-owned things on Thrillbent for me other than the ones that I’ve already got. One of them is an existing property that’s been fallow for about 10 years that I’m excited to get back to now that I’ve got the rights to it. I suspect I’ll be doing a lot more creative work in the Thrillbent arena in 2014.
In terms of experimentation of how comics are presented, you experimented a bit with Flash last year for “If You’re So Smart.” Any plans to look into other alternative avenues of storytelling for digital comics?
Waid: Absolutely. Although, we’ve actually — without going into too much detail because I don’t want to be premature — we’re already thinking about partnering with some sort of sister site where that becomes more the reason for existence, the modus operandi, to be more experimental and playful over there.
John, as a huge fan of “Leverage,” I have to ask — is there any chance of seeing those characters again as a Thrillbent project or future project at all?
Rogers: Thrillbent’s a good question. I’ll tell you that we’ve done very well on Netflix and very well on Hulu since we’ve been released. You know, Dean [Devlin’s] not a guy to let stuff go, so I would say I don’t think it’s impossible that at some point you see the “Leverage” team hook back up again.
Waid: How is it possible that it never once occurred to me until this very second to ask you why we’re not doing a “Leverage” comic on Thrillbent?
Rogers: Because some of us have to write it! [Laughs] That said, we did the “Leverage” novels and they went through Penguin, and there was something in the contracts that was a little fuzzy about what media was covered by the contract. But that should be done now. Besides Thrillbent, which was something that was actually on my list for the New Year, I think the more pertinent answer to what you were asking was: it’s not at all impossible that you’d see those people again on screen someday. We own the rights. Unlike [“Veronica Mars” creator] Rob Thomas, who had to go get permission from Warner Bros., Dean and I own those characters. Whenever the hell we can get everyone together, we can figure out something to do.
Wrapping up, discuss the goals you have for Thrillbent in its third year. If we were to come back a year from now to discuss the site’s accomplishments, what would you hope to have achieved?
Waid: I would be happy with it being more self-sustaining at that point. That alone, where it wasn’t a constant runaround to make sure this was working while the other part needed attention and so forth — I just want to put more gears in the machine.
Rogers: Up until recently, the front page had to be updated manually. Up until recently, all the art had to be tagged manually. We’re just finally getting the website up to fit the amount of traffic that we’re driving. We had to build that viewer from the ground up and our very excellent web designers had to do that work. One of the reasons that the company that works with us, Ray Gun, enjoys working with us so much is we challenge them in ways other sites don’t challenge them. A lot of it is transforming it into an experiment to a reliable place where creators can come, put their stuff up, be amongst other cool creators — so you get the network effect — make a little bit of coin and tell their stories to a nice big audience.
Waid: Yeah. I would like to redirect our energies away from experimenting with everything, and instead refocus to where our experimentation goes into the actual storytelling. If we can get there, I will be a very happy man.
Stay tuned to CBR News for more on Thrillbent and Waid & Rogers’s upcoming plans for the platform.