WC14: Waid's Thrillbent Launches an App, Revives "Empire"

After a start plagued by technical difficulties, comic book legend Mark Waid and television and movie luminary John Rogers, the co-founders of digital comics platform Thrillbent, were joined by writer Geoffrey Thorne ("Leverage," Dark Horse Presents' "Journeymen"), Jeremy Bernstein (TNT's "The Librarians), and illustrators Patrick Yurick and Michael Dorman.

Rogers walked in after Thorne, Bernstein and Dorman had been "riffing" for some time as Waid and Yurick struggled to get a presentation on the big screen. Rogers came on stage saying, "So glad to see you guys here instead of writing scripts for my show," referring to the fact that both Bernstein and Thorne were writers on "The Librarians," on which Rogers serves as showrunner.

While Yurick continued to struggle with transferring something from an iPad to a computer, Rogers began to explain what the company is all about. "Thrillbent started from a series of lunches where I was harassing him [Waid] into doing his own stuff, because I'm a narcissist, so everyone else should be. The speed at which you distribute information matters. Thrillbent began as an experiment first in three phases, just Mark's comic ["Insufferable"] as proof of concept, the second was seeing if we could build the infrastructure to see if we could support multiple creators and multiple styles, and now we're doing the third."

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Waid jumped in, saying, "We made a big deal going in on how we weren't trying to sell you pictures of comics. I don't wanna do that. Neither do you wanna take an existing comics page and carve it up panel by panel. The whole point was to try to do something for the medium in the same way that when you're doing cinemascope movies you're not doing them for the square TV format. A whole new storytelling formed out of this. When you're reading the comics, the only place I can surprise you is on the upper left corner of a left hand page. Everything is a page turner. You have no way of telling what's coming next. To learn how to use that space, how many screens are too many, how many are too few. Every single screen tap brings up a new balloon, that's overkill, it makes it feel like work. We've tried some stuff, some stuff doesn't work, some stuff does work, we're out here leading with our face."

Rogers continued, "Selling paper, shipping paper, is an expensive prospect. $3.99 for ten minutes of entertainment is a pretty brutal price. I get 60-100 hours out of a good open world video game. You don't wanna boil it down per minute."

"Will we go to print at some point? Probably. When I started Thrillbent I was trying to serve both masters. Then you're doing two things half ass, and I wanted to take one thing and go whole hog," said Waid. "Motion comics are the devil's tool. What makes comics comics is that you're in control of the speed at which you absorb the information. With comics, you get to decide when to turn the page. The moment you start adding motion comics things or animation, soundtrack, voices, those are elements that wrest from you the control."

With the technical difficulties finally straightened out, they began to show some of their presentation, which included "The Damnation of Charlie Wormwood" Volume 2, a continuation of a project from last year that will be taken over by Yurick. It was described as "'Breaking Bad' with Shakespeare" as a man teaching literature to felons becomes a conduit for information and finally a crime lord.

They also showed Alex de Campi's "Valentine," Rogers "Arcanium," "The Eighth Seal" and other favorites currently available.

The Thrillbent duo then turned the discussion to Year Three, which starts off with three big announcements. First, as of the convention, the Thrillbent iOS app is now available on the iTunes App Store, offering an enhanced subscription-based model. For $3.99 per month readers get access to everything in their catalog plus new material coming out a month before it hits the website. Thrillbent keeps track of what you have and haven't read (much like Hulu's queue) and saves your place across both the app and the web. As a thank you to current mailing list members, they will all receive their first month free.

"It's a pants free experience," Rogers quipped, noting the ease of getting new material every weekday.

"There will always be free stuff to read on the site," Waid noted. Nothing fans can currently read will disappear behind a pay wall, this is an incentive for the future.

The second big ticket item was the return of "Empire" by Mark Waid and Barry Kitson. "Barry and I got the rights back recently and we wondered if we could continue it," Waid said. "Then I realized, 'Oh yeah, I own a publishing company..."

"It took him a long time to realize that," Rogers added.

Waid said that there was no end in sight for "Empire" Volume 2 and that since Volume 1 had 192 pages, a similar length would be easy to see for the current run. To help people get caught up, app subscribers will get a DRM-free PDF of the first volume of "Empire" for free to download and keep.

"You're not renting comics, you're owning comics," Waid said, a subtle dig at other services that "maintain" your library.

The third big announcement was that bestselling fantasy author Seanan McGuire has signed a deal to write a super powered teen adventure, and Waid personally endorsed her as somebody who's read "every comic that's ever been printed."

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Other announcements included the reason for Bernstein and Dorman's inclusion, which was "Santa Claus, Private Eye." "He knows when you've been naughty or nice," Bernstein said. The entire panel laughed raucously at this idea, which they have been enjoying themselves for some time.

James Tynion IV will be presenting a new horror tale called "The House In The Wall," which garnered genuine gasps of surprise from the crowd with its creepy presentation.

"Insufferable: Home Field Advantage" continues the previous storyline from Waid and artist Peter Krause's "Insufferable," where an entire city has been taken over by super villains and two non-powered heroes who kind of hate each other are forced to work together to save the populace. "I hope they win," Waid said. "If I don't know, you can't guess..."

Discussing more about the app and its subscription model, Waid said, "We created a format and a place where we genuinely like to bring in other creators. Seanan does not have the time to hustle up an artist and do her own thing. With the subscription model, it'll be $3.99 a month split up by traffic. We're selling DRM free PDFs, we're deciding what titles we're going to do. How to, sketch books, behind the scenes stuff. The subscription model makes the most amount of sense to churn enough income to promote to other creators."

Rogers noted Waid's discomfort, and Waid said, "I feel like a timeshare salesman."

"You're sweating like Nixon," Rogers replied.

"The hardest part of doing Thrillbent has never been the technical part, the creative part -- it's the marketing," Waid admitted. "That is a full-time job. I'm not crying in my beer, I'm not asking for sympathy, this model helps us generate revenue enough to get the word out, to do more marketing, to do more promotion. Some of them are straight creator-owned comics we wanted to give a leg up."

"If we've moved the ball for digital comics creators 25 or 30 yards, we've succeeded," Rogers said. "This is us now trying to create an indie digital comics model."

"Part of why I'm sweating like a southern lawyer in a seersucker suit, there's an element of ego. If I do a comic for Marvel, it's up to them to sell it. I'm not knocking on your door," Waid said. "This is a little more of a face to face commerce situation. I'm putting up my good name. We think what we're giving you is worth the cost of one comic book a month."

An artist asked about how the technical production of a digital work is different and they noted a "how to" manual that Yurick compiled from things he'd learned. Rogers said, "We should sell this, but we won't," and noted that it's available free to mailing list subscribers.

An Android app is also in the works, but Waid explained there was a technical hurdle they have yet to conquer. "We're not oblivious to the fact that outside the US, Android is 80% of the market."

"I was unaware of it," Rogers said.

With an eye toward the future, Thrillbent is "going well for something we do in our spare time," Waid said, bringing the panel to a close.

The Thrillbent app is available now on the iOS app store.

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