Mark Waid: A Banner Year Part Two
Toucan: So let’s shift gears a little bit and talk about collaborators. Your new steady collaborator seems to be Chris Samnee on both Daredevil and Rocketeer, and you continue to work with artist Peter Kraus on Insufferable after a long run on Irredeemable. What makes a great writer-artist collaboration?
Mark: Communication and total trust; realizing that it’s a collaborative medium; nobody bringing any ego to the table, is what makes it work. Everybody has a bit of a healthy ego if they’re working in the arts, but with Peter and I from the very first days of Irredeemable it was always a give and take, it was always a “Hey, have you thought about this?” or “Hey, you know maybe there’s another way of doing this,” and that’s fine. The scripts begin with me, but it’s not my story. It is my story until such time as I turn the pages over to an editor or turn them over to a collaborator; at that point it becomes our story, and you have to accept that. You have to accept the fact that there’s going to be stuff sometimes that gets drawn that isn’t quite what you had in mind, and maybe that’s a disappointment on rare occasion, but most of the time instead it’s “Holy crap! I never thought about that before,” or that’s a new wrinkle, or that’s a new way of telling the story that I hadn’t seen before. Chris in particular is very good about breaking stories down in a slightly different pacing then I’m used to, and he’s very good at that. Pete is phenomenal when it comes to the stuff that I tend to gravitate towards anyway, which is facial expressions, which is emotion, which is the human moments. I really think that if you’re a writer in comics and you’re not starting every script with “dear artist, here’s my phone number and email, please contact me,” you’re making a horrible mistake.
Toucan: A couple months ago there was kind of a little Twitter controversy about working full script or working “Marvel style.” Which do you do?
Mark: I tend to work full script, at least until such time as I get enough momentum going with an artist where I start to feel like we know each other’s rhythms and at which point I have no objection to shifting to that sort of Marvel style, because mine is a more modified Marvel style anyway. I don’t just turn in a two-page outline of a plot and expect the artist to do all the heavy lifting; that’s not fair to him. Instead, I put tons and tons and tons of dialogue into my plots, even if it’s just rough suggested dialogue, for two reasons. One is that you want the artist to really sort of understand what the character is saying and feeling and also because I want cues for myself a month from now when I’m fighting a deadline and the letterer is waiting for the pages and I’ve got to turn in those script pages overnight and it gives me something to work with. There’s pluses and minuses to each, but I think that the thing I like about full script—if pressed, if I could only choose one for the rest of my life, it would be full script, with the caveat of getting it to an artist and asking him to treat it like a plot. Asking him to treat it like something that it is his job then to adapt as he sees fit and then I will go back and make alterations and tweaks and repacing and so forth and so on to fit the art. So again, a collaborative medium. And even with Insufferable, which is full script, when the pages come in before they go off to lettering, I’m constantly moving balloons to different panels or changing the pacing of this line or eliminating dialogue in places because I’m working off of Pete’s storytelling.
Toucan: So is that part of the beauty of digital for you?
Mark: Yeah, because you can make changes like that in a snap, you make edits in a snap. I no longer have to feel that awful about asking an artist to make a tiny change because it’s not like they have to redraw the entire page—just make a quick fix in Photoshop and you’re off to the races.
Toucan: When we first started talking, you mentioned having to sit down at 11:30 PM and get a script ready for Peter Kraus and you said for a “book.” Do you look at digital comics as books? I mean, is your long-term plan to publish this later on, or is it only going to exist in the digital world?
Mark: I think there’s room to have it published down the road. I think that my original concept for digital comics was trying to hedge my bets and make it friendly to both digital and print. In other words, when we originally picked the Thrillbent format, we deliberately picked that 4 x 3 ratio of a horizontal screen, specifically following the DC Zuda imprint and Ron Perazza and those guys who came up with that sort of stuff. If you stack one 4 x 3 page on top of another, you’ve got something that’s roughly proportionate to what an American comic page is. So the idea is, “Oh we can always just stack our screens one on top of the other and we’ve got printed pages” and we’re off to go. Now as I got into it and we started developing new digital storytelling tools that involve things like repetition and screen swiping to get a different image in or balloons popping in and out and so forth, it becomes obvious that to go to print from that is going to take some interesting production tricks, so we will get there eventually. If there’s a demand for it, I’m fine with publishing these fetish objects that people call books, of which I’m a big fan obviously. I think there’s plenty of room for that. I just want to go digital first, do it that way, play with those tools and then retrofit into print.
Toucan: In a recent interview with Pace Magazine you stated “the future is all about digital for me.” Why do you feel that way, and what made you start your own digital comics portal in Thrillbent?
Mark: I’ll take the second question first. What made me start was looking at the cost of print. This is back when I was doing the BOOM! editor-in-chief stuff and BOOM! creative chief officer a few years ago and looking at print costs across the board for all publishers and how insane they were unless you’re one of the top two or three publishers and you’ve got 50% of the market share and your per unit cost is feasible. But if you’re anybody else and you’re doing a comic and it’s got a print run of 5,000 or 6,000 copies and you’re doing a color comic, you’re paying more in printing then you are in everything else put together including editorial and overhead—that’s ridiculous. I’m selling my $4 comic to Diamond for about $1.60 and I’m having to pay a dollar in print costs; that is not a feasible business model. The idea was okay, well we still want to do comics, we still want to do print, but how about we go digital first, try to monetize that enough to make our production costs back, and once we made our production costs back then we can afford to go and print, because we’ll have created a product for which there is now a demand and then issue it that way. So that’s still sort of the long-term business model. Let’s just make our money back in digital. I mean, it would be great to be filthy rich in digital, but I don’t know if that’s going to happen. All I really want to do is break even with Thrillbent material so that I’ve made my money back in production costs, and then if I go to print, that becomes straight profit.
Toucan: But right now Thrillbent is free.
Mark: Yeah, I know. So you’ve sussed out the flaw in my plan.
Toucan: So what if you take those comics and turn them into a digital book and in turn you sell that on comiXology or any of the other platforms, as an interim step before going to print?
Mark: That’s one of several options we have available to us. Obviously, the reason we were free going out is because we wanted to make noise, we wanted to get hits, we wanted to draw eyes to what we were doing, and it’s been very, very successful, and believe me if I had one-tenth the number of people looking at every issue of Daredevil as I do every installment of the Thrillbent stuff, I would be happy as can be. What’s exciting is by the time we get to late fall, the plan is to have something new every day on Thrillbent. Right now it’s just my strip with Pete, Insufferable, but ideally John Rogers, my partner in this, will be doing his series in the new few weeks. We’ll be launching Gail Simone’s thing or something by James Tynion IV or whatever; we’ve got a bunch of things that are in various stages of development with an idea towards getting to a point where there’s something new up everyday. And once that happens, we can experiment with revenue streams. I’m not looking for a one-size-fits-all solution to how you monetize all things Thrillbent. I think it’s more exciting and more interesting to say, “Okay, Gail . . . why don’t you try something where it’s free, but if someone wants next month’s installments ahead of time every month for 99 cents, we’ll email them next month’s installment.” And John, what if you try the model by which it’s barebones free to read on the site but if someone wants additional material like pencils or layouts or colors or script pages or behind-the-scenes stuff then for 99 cents they can download it, that sort of thing; or for me just a plain vanilla tip jar. If you like what we’re doing with Insufferable and you want to see more of it, please pay me what you think it’s worth and see what that gets us, because we can afford to do that at this point. Doing comics is not insanely expensive. It ain’t cheap. I’m certainly paying more for a month’s worth of Irredeemable material than I do on my mortgage, but I sold all my comics to do this. I can carry this for a few more months.
So like I said what excites me about that is it’s not that expensive. So I think we’re smart to play with different types of revenue streams and see what works for us. In the meantime, continue to network as we have with the Blind Ferret guys, the Penny Arcade guys, the PVP crew, and talk to the webcomics guys out there who are also creating revenue streams themselves so they can keep doing what they’re doing and mix and match ideas. One of the greatest things about working in digital is the sheer disconnect between comic book professionals and webcomic professionals—this gargantuan gulf I had no idea existed. Because the myth among us comic book folk is that webcomics guys, ah, yeah there’s a couple of them making a little bit of money, but by and large they’re all losing their shirts. You know: little kids doing their little thing on the side, that’s the myth. And the reality of it is, no, actually a lot of guys are making a decent living doing this, a lot of guys. And it doesn’t mean everybody can, but it means that there’s a lot more to that, there’s a lot more money in that ecosphere than you dreamed, and some guys are making really good money doing that stuff. And while making really good money is for me not the goal, it’s just to make enough money to keep doing it, the idea that it can be done is great. And what’s also great about the webcomic community is that I have yet to encounter any sense of selfishness, any sense of proprietary ownership, any sense of trade secrets and people being very hush hush with what they’re doing, because that’s stupid. Comic books tend to do that because we’re selling to an audience of 90,000 people, but among the webcomics guys they seem to get the fact that the potential audience is 6 billion people. There’s room for all of us out there. We’re not worried about competition yet among each other. So that’s the long answer to the question about monetization. So we’ll play with stuff. We’re going to roll out some more stuff in the next couple of months, some more material and play with some different sort of revenue streams, some different ways of monetizing, and just see what works. Pay attention to the feedback from the fans, pay attention to the social networking of it, and see where the needles start to hit the red zone and follow through on that.
Toucan: Let’s go back to the first part of that question, which was the quote from another interview you did that said the future is all about digital for me.
Mark: Yeah it is.
Toucan: Do you see a point in time when you’re not going to do print comics, not be working for the big publishers?
Mark: I can’t imagine not being involved in print comics as long as they exist, if for no other reason that it’s the only job I’ve ever had in my life that’s meant anything. If I had a choice, if it was put down to me that I could only do the Thrillbent stuff or only do print comics, I’d have to go with Thrillbent, because I think that really is the future. I think that there’s your audience. With the spiraling, escalating costs of print and selling 32-page comics or 28-page comics (I guess self-covered 32 pages now) for $4 and you get five minutes of entertainment out of that, I don’t know if that’s a working model, whereas digital is because we can reach everybody who’s got Internet access.
Toucan: You were a special guest at both Comic-Con and WonderCon this past year. What do you enjoy about doing conventions?
Mark: It’s changed. It’s funny—if you’d asked me 15 years ago, my secret answer would have been I just love getting in the dealers room and diving through the comic books like a porpoise, like Uncle Scrooge and his money bin. I find now that I don’t buy as much at conventions, if anything. So I’ve had to adapt, and what I really enjoy is—it’s a typical answer but it’s true—I like meeting the fans. I like talking to people. I like hearing what they’ve got to say. I like hearing what they’re interested in. And I also like connecting with other professionals. I like being able to talk shop late at night over at the bar. I like being able to grab breakfast with a guy and talk about story and talk about craft. Those are things I really enjoy and it’s great. Again, I can’t thank you guys enough for bringing me out to both shows this year, and I also love the sound of my own voice, so I’m happy to do any panels, any moderation anytime, and actually that’s a big part of it, too. I enjoy doing it. It’s not just because I enjoy the performing aspect of it, it’s that I really enjoy not only talking craft with the creators but doing it in front of an audience. I have many shortcomings as a human being, trust me. I could spend the rest of the morning listing them, but I am a decent interviewer, and this is where my knowledge of comics history, I think, comes in handy in ways that it oddly doesn’t seem to when I go out in the real world. I enjoy having those conversations and being able to ask the Stan Lees and the John Romitas of the world questions that they have not necessarily been asked before.
Toucan: Since you are a comics trivia expert, one of the panels you’ve done for us in the past is “Stump Mark Waid.” So has anyone ever asked a question that stumped you?
Mark: A couple of times. It happens. Generally, it happens when they ask me about my own work, which is the last thing I remember. But you know what, if you stump me, the best thing you can do is not tell me the answer, because then I will be like a junkyard dog. Some guy asked me the other day what was the first time Superman used heat vision in comics? Now, diehard Superman aficionados and of course everybody reading this interview already knows the answer to this, so I apologize for being repetitious. But for the longest time Superman just had X-ray vision, up until the 1960s. His heat vision power was just X-ray vision, because we didn’t know anything about radiation in 1945; we just thought, oh, if he uses his X-rays more, he’ll set things on fire. So at some point science comes into play in the ’60s and they realize well, maybe we should split that off into its own separate power. So the question from a fan was, what was the first time he used heat vision, and I popped off an answer: Lois Lane #10, everybody knows this, come on. Thank you, by the way, for not interrupting my story . . .
Toucan: I didn’t want to give it away.
Mark: Exactly. So I say this and he comes back, he sends me an email a couple of days later going actually I don’t think that’s right, and I went and looked and I was completely wrong. And most ordinary men would be able to say, “Oh well, that’s a shame, I think I’ll go play ball with my kids or I think I’ll go out and buy the groceries, or I think I’ll go out and work at a soup kitchen, I think I’ll go out and do something to make the world a better place.” But me, no, no, no, no, I spent the next afternoon going through every Superman comic of that era in chronological order until I found the first time Superman uses heat vision. So that’s the best thing . . . if you stump me, just watch me dig and dig and dig until I find the answer. It’ll be entertaining for you.
Toucan: So what’s the answer? You can’t leave people hanging here.
Mark: Action Comics #275 would be the first time heat vision was its own separate discrete superpower. See—you read the Toucan Interview and you learn.
Toucan: So here’s a trivia question for you.
Mark: Hit me.
Toucan: What was Stan Lee’s nickname in high school?
Mark: I don’t know. You have stumped the man, but since you can’t leave people hanging . . .
Toucan: It was Gabby. And I know this because Sean Howe’s book, Marvel Comics: The Untold Story, is out and he has a great Tumblr thing that he does, which he updates every day, and there was a photo of Stan from his high school yearbook.
Mark: Oh, I’ve got that on my RSS feed, exactly. I missed that one though. That’s great. I love Stan. One of the great experiences I’ve had in the last five years and one of the biggest, the most lasting things to come out of my relationship with BOOM! was not Irredeemable or Incorruptible, it was the fact that because we did a bunch of superhero comics with Stan I was able to genuinely become friends with Stan. And I mean not convention friends, and not oh look, he vaguely remembers my name. No it’s kind of cool. I mean he seeks me out at conventions. We’ll sit down and we’ll have a drink, we’ll talk about stuff that’s not I’m a big “True Believer” conversation. We’ll have real conversations about craft and about editorial and about the world at large and it’s just, man it’s great, but oh, my God can he talk.
Toucan: How do you top this year? You won three Eisner Awards, you got the Comic-Con Inkpot, you just came back from the Harveys in Baltimore and you won three or four awards there.
Mark: Yes, four counting the Inking Award for Joe Rivera, yeah.
Toucan: At the Eisners you won Best Writer, Best Continuing Series for Daredevil, and Best Single Issue, also for Daredevil (#7), and you started Thrillbent this year, you’re doing a ton of projects, how do you top this year?
Mark: Apparently, I have to go after the Oscar now. I don’t know. I have resigned myself to the notion that I can’t top this year in terms of the accolades, in terms of all that stuff, because if you start thinking that way then you will just . . . I’ve got enough on my plate without having to worry about how I’m going to top it, because then I really will burn out. I’m just going to put my nose down to the grindstone and just put my head down and just do the work and hope for the best. I don’t know how to top it. I’m sure there’s some glib flip funny answer to that question, but I don’t have it.
Toucan: After 25 years as a comics pro and a lifelong love of comics, what still excites you about the medium?
Mark: Finding new ways to tell stories. That’s the thing, the simplest little thing. When you come up with a way of doing stuff that nobody has done before, the simplest little stuff. I hate doing this, but I don’t know any other way to do it except by example. I believe I can take credit for being the guy who changed whisper balloons from being dotted lines around standard balloons to sort of gray tone faded back—you know, fainter stuff. I suggested that like 15 years ago with something, and just that moment of discovering that idea of here’s a way of doing something in comics that we’ve not done before, I lived off that for six months, that excitement for six months. And now with digital we do it all the time. You know, how do you do a rack focus in comics, a static medium that you can now do with digital? That sort of thing just keeps me pumped up and keeps me excited. It’s not so much what I buy at the comic store that gets me excited, it’s watching how I and others are learning new storytelling things.
There was a kid at Baltimore. Kid, he’s probably 35. He comes up to me with this app. He’s done his own comic and he’s going to sell it as an app, a digital comic and it looks pretty good, but he’s done this thing with it that is phenomenal, which is if you’re scrolling left to right that’s how you change pages. But if you scroll up and down that’s when you start to see different levels of the work. In other words, if you scroll down, you peel the lettering away and then you peel the coloring away to see the pencils and then you peel the pencils away to see the layout, for a process junkie or for anybody who wants additional information about how it’s done. It’s a simple little thing, but I didn’t think of that, and that is brilliant and honestly that’s got me chopped all week long. I’m talking to this guy about oh my God get a patent on that and I will license it because that’s great. It’s just that sort of stuff, whether I come across it or whether you come across it, or some random guy at some convention comes up and says look what I did, that’s great, and that’s where digital gives me the chance to find all new stuff to do.
Toucan: But in a sense it’s almost like it’s 1935 again, when people started doing comics for the first time that weren’t reprints from comic strips and they didn’t know how to do it and they just made it up as they went along, it’s the same thing with digital.
Mark: That’s a good point, and I think you’re absolutely right and that’s what makes it exciting and that’s how you break ground, man. You just get in there and you don’t know how it works, so you’re just going to figure out on the fly.