SDCC: Mark Waid's Thrillbent Tutorial

Mark Waid and a panel of fellow Thrillbent.com contributors pulled back the curtain on how they create their digital comics content during Comic-Con International in San Diego.

Rather than spend the panel promoting current and upcoming Thrillbent work, Waid used the time to give the audience an in-depth look at how the online publisher is exploring the new storytelling potential digital comics provide.

Along with Waid, the panel featured Thrillbent co-creator John Rogers, general manager and "file wrangler" Lori Matsumoto and a pool of writers and artists including Geoffrey Thorne, Asa Tait, Nicholas Rucka, Christina Blach, James Tynion IV, Troy Peteri and Todd Harris.

Waid began by explaining what led him to focus on innovating how the digital comic book woks.

"My problem was, as a life-long comics reader and aficionado, what I was seeing was when they were making comics for digital devices, they were still making them like they were standard comics pages," Waid said. "They weren't using any of the advantages that working with a digital format gives you."

Unlike traditional digital comics that are adapted from the pages of physical books, the creators at Thrillbent design their comics specifically to be read on digital devices.

"We're not trying to sell you pictures of comic books," Waid said. "We're trying to sell you on, and get you interested in, a whole new way of experiencing comics."

Thrillbent may be leading the way in this new publishing frontier, but they are not trying to go at it alone. The company is dedicated to sharing their techniques with the comic reading community to encourage more people to explore how stories can be told on a digital landscape.

"We're really transparent about the information," Waid said. "We're not trying to create a process that's propriarity. We're trying to create a process that we can all share and learn from and surprise each other with."

"Landscape" is the operative word in that unlike your typical issue of a physical book, Thrillbent comics prefer a smaller, landscape layout over the traditional portrait format. This solves the many issues that come with trying to read a portrait format comic on a widescreen monitor or laptop.

"When you design a page, as an artist, you want the reader to see the whole page at once," Waid said. "You don't want to have to do it like they're reading a comic through a cardboard tube and moving their eye around. You want to see the whole image."

It was this philosophy that made Waid serious about setting up Thrillbent to make comics specifically made for today's devices. The Thrillbent reader has been designed to adjust itself automatically to whatever device you're using to read comics.

"You want to work with the medium, you don't want to try and cram comics onto a digital screen and hope it works out."

Waid used a few pages of current Thrillbent titles, "The Damnation of Charlie Wormwood" and "Insufferable," as an example of how digital creators manage the economy of a page. The typical Thrillbent screen uses about half the area of a traditional comic page, generally allowing for one to four panels per "swipe," which is the term used for a reader moving to the next page.

The "swipe" provides a unique benefit that is hard to do with a physical book by allowing the creator to more tightly control what the reader sees and when they see it.

"When you're reading a comic, the only chance I have to surprise you is on the upper left-hand corner of the page," said Waid. "But with digital comics it's every turn of the page."

And while Thrillbent is toying with new ways to present comics, Waid made it clear that what they are doing is not motion comics.

"I feel like motion in comics, sound effects in comics, voice over in comics and all of those things are interesting techniques -- they're little bells and whistles -- but what they do is take away my ability as a reader to absorb the story at the pace I'm absorbing it," Waid said. "I don't want to make any more enemies, but motion comics are the Devil's tool."

Waid then turned the panel over to the other creators, allowing them to share how they approach the digital format.

"The biggest thing I want is to break the rules with every single script," said James Tynion IV, writer of Thrillbent's "The Eighth Seal" and "Talon" and "Red Hood and the Outlaws" at DC Comics. "I want to do something I've never done before and I'm not sure, frankly, whether or not it's going to work."

Whether you are a seasoned professional or a fan that wants to get their own work out there, Thrillbent has designed a process anybody can use to create a digital comic.

"I know John hates it when I say this because I'm supposed to keep the mystic 'Wizard of Oz' aspect alive so you can't see what's behind the curtain but honestly, it's just JPEGs," Waid said.

"It's a highly propriety technology that could be sold to a corporation for millions of dollars," interrupted John Rogers. "It is not at all a series of layered JPGS on a dumb PDF file, no matter what Mark Waid says. Please contact Thrillbent with your giant bags of money."

Joking aside, one of the founding tenants of Thrillbent is that their media must be "dumb" from a technical standpoint to allow for maximum access.

"These cannot be giant complicated files of proprietary crap that might not work on whatever you have," said Rogers. "One of the reasons Thrillbent exists is we're trying to prove you can do this as well as we can. We didn't want to use technology you could not use yourself and build anything you could not basically get for free on the web because our fondest hope is a bunch of other people start doing this."

Rogers himself uses the flexibility of Thrillbent to produce his own comic, "Arcanium," at his own pace. With each comic being treated like an episode of television, Rogers plans to make a series of five 13-episode "seasons" to tell his story.

"Each one of the seasons is a self-contained story arc that moves through five seasons," Rogers said. "This is my chance to do a show nobody would let me do. My magic show with elves and heroes of color is probably going to find a lot of homes on American television."

The flexible nature of Thrillbent allows Rogers freedom from having to write for a 22-page physical book. With effectively unlimited space, a digital comic can be as long or short as it needs to be.

"It might not be the right length for anything, it's just the length of the story," Rogers said. "Each one of these episodes is however long it takes for that particular episode."

Asa Tait's upcoming comic, "Blood," features a similar philosophy, treating each issue like a section of a television show before a commercial break.

Waid also had high praise for Troy Peteri and Dave Lanphear's "77 Hero Plaza," a weekly comic about the people who work behind the scenes of a superhero team.

"It's 'The Office' meets 'The Avengers,' Waid said. "There has to be a bunch of guys whose job it is to fuel the quinjet and make sure the anti-matter transmitters are working."

What's unique about the comic is the way it makes use of Thrillbent's viewer. Waid says the ability to make panels of the comic scroll vertically fits with the style of story.

"The way the viewer is built, we can tell it to do whatever you want when you swipe the page," Waid said. "We can go vertically if we want to. We can do an infinite scroll if we want to do that."

"The potential is really four-dimensional here," Nicholas Rucka said, co-writer of "Kitchen Death Match." Upon making the statement, Waid pulled a bill out of his wallet and gave it to Rucka, claiming Thrillbent had just purchased that tagline.

Of course, while producing Thrillbent comics may be relatively easy, monetizing them has been trickier. Waid said advertisement revenue has unexpectedly high potential and that they've been able to sell bundles of their comics on comiXology.

"Nobody's making a killing off that, but it's a way to give people a chance to support what we're doing," Waid said.

Thrillbent's own storefront opens July 29 where they will sell four or five weeks of a comic with bonus material in a PDF format.

"I think the 20th century economy is built, in large part, on circumventing distributors and going straight to your fan base."

While the CBZ files and weekly downloads will always be free in other formats, Waid says the PDF format appears to be the most popular to market. For an as-of-yet undetermined price, Thrillbent will sell these PDF collections with no DRM.

"We are not believers in that," Waid said.

"Your readers are not your enemy," Rogers added.

With a few minutes left for Q&A, Waid explained he's not looking to replace the physical comic book, but that he wants to see digital comics become an equally regarded medium.

"There will always be people out there that like paper material. Even I do, but I also appreciate the fact that I can carry this on a plane and have an infinite number of comics at my disposal."

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