Mark Waid's Friday evening Chicago Comic & Entertainment Expo panel was a demonstration of the perils and the promise of digital media, as the popular writer struggled with a faulty internet connection while sharing his upcoming online work, but kept the audience engaged with a stream of jokes and commentary.
The main event was the unveiling of a new website, Thrillbent.com, which will go live on May 1 with a new series every week. Initially the series will all be written by Waid, although he promises that other marquee names will join in as well as time goes on, and the digital model will grow to include apps for mobile devices and different forms of monetization for the creators.
Thrillbent.com will launch with a new series, "Insufferable," which Waid described as a "dramedy" about an estranged superhero team that is forced to get back together again. The reunites Waid with his original creative team from "Irredeemable" -- artist Peter Krause, colorist Nolan Woodard and letterer Troy Peteri. Waid stressed that the series is designed specifically for the digital medium, as opposed to comics that are designed for print and put online, a distinction he sees as critically important.
Waid began the panel by outlining the grim reality of print comics, a formula he had recently laid out on his blog. A typical indy comic has a cover price of $3.99. In order to get the comic into retail stores, he must sell it to Diamond Distributors at a discount of 60%, so he sees only $1.60 of that cover price. "I'm not saying it's an unfair price for Diamond to take; I'm saying that’s way the system works," Waid emphasized. "That's the reality of it." The cost of printing eats up another 80 to 90 cents, leaving the remainder to pay the writer, artist, colorist, letterer and any other expenses.
The result is that creators can spend so much on print costs before the money even starts coming in from Diamond that they go out of business. "Some of my best friends are guys whose names you know, names of A-list creators who are doing independent comics for Image or other places right now and are doing the same model where they have to fund it themselves," Waid said. "These are guys whose names you know, and they are losing money hand over fist in hopes that somewhere down the road there may be a TV deal or a movie deal or maybe they can last long enough to get those comics into trade paperback form, in which case maybe they'll break even there. That's a crazy model, man."
Waid's alternative is digital comics: "The beauty of digital comics is that you have lopped off the cost of printing, which is the single biggest expense you can have."
Thrillbent.com, will be devoted solely to new comics created specifically for digital distribution. The site will feature a new installment every week, as well as additional material such as scripts, pencil sketches or experimental stories like his digital comic "Luther." Waid figures that a weekly installment of eight to ten pages "feels about right." "You give them just enough where there's movement in the story but enough of a cliffhanger where you're like, 'Oh God, I wonder what happens next?'" he said. The idea is to bring the reader back week after week for more -- a habit he likened to visiting the comics store every Wednesday. "I can see ['Insufferable'] ending at some point, but I also see how we can do sequels," Waid said of the site's launch series, pointing out that digital comics make it possible to experiment with nontraditional formats such as a two-issue series.
Though a faulty internet connection hampered the presentation, Waid showed the first few screens of "Insufferable" with the audience. "It's about what happens when you have a kid sidekick who grows up to be a douchebag," he said, describing the basis of the series. "It's about what happens when you have a sidekick who grows up to be a completely ungrateful, self-aggrandizing, Kanye West of a man who will not shut up about how much of a genius he is and how the world is a better place now that you guys are broken up because now he can do it all the way he wanted to do it. Then the story is, what is the one case that comes up where they have to put their heads together even though they have been broken apart for years and they hate each other? What is the one case that could bring them back together again?"
While the theme of the series may share quite a few similarities with Waid's "Irredeemable" and "Incorruptible," the format will be very different. The comics will be laid out in landscape format, with about a 4 x 3 ratio, so they fit comfortably on the screen of a computer or mobile device. "I hate, with a white hot passion, digital comics where I only get to see a little bit of the screen as I go and I have to scroll around to get the sense of what the whole page [is]," Waid said.
Another consideration is how the comics will look on different sized devices. The strategy is to minimize the number of panels, with three to four on a page, and the number of word balloons while enlarging the text a bit so it will be readable even on a small screen.
Monetization is a trickier issue, and Waid said that he will experiment with different options, including ads, corporate sponsorships and putting some of the material behind a pay wall. "None of these are million-dollar ideas," he acknowledged. "There is no magic ticket to your website suddenly overnight becoming a giant huge financial sensation. All I need to do is break even."
A print edition is also part of Waid's digital strategy, but it comes later in the process, after he has made back the cost of producing the book via digital media. He cited Warren Ellis's "Freakangels" as an example of a book that started out as a webcomic and successfully made the transition to print.
Although some retailers have been wary of digital comics, Waid doesn't see his work as competing with comics shops, because the concepts he's developing digitally wouldn't be viable in print. "Most of the good retailers really get it, and I am stunned at how supportive they have been," he said. "I am not trying to do something here in exclusion to what they do. If I were doing 'Insufferable' as a print comic on my own, I wouldn't be able to afford to do it. This gives me a chance to be able to create something that I can't afford to do, and if I make my money back, then I can sell it to retailers and we can all make money off of it."
Waid stressed that he feels strongly that creators should be paid, so strongly that he is in the process of selling off his collection of print comics to provide upfront money for his new venture. He's also taken on a financial partner, comics writer and television producer John Rogers. "I am not paying giant rates," he said. "Pete [Krause] is not drawing his comics on a yacht." Waid compensates somewhat for the lower rates with co-ownership, which may result in more substantial compensation down the road, particularly if the comics are adapted into other media. In order to avoid disputes over licensing, he said, the creators have agreed to take turns being the tie-breaking vote on different deals.
Waid's model embodies some paradoxes: He argues that print comics are not economically feasible, yet his proposal offers no concrete path to profitability, just a series of possibilities. He is adamant about creating comics for digital media first, yet he includes eventual print editions as part of the business plan. (Although he spoke very little about television and media adaptations, Rogers' presence as a partner suggests that could be part of the model as well.)
"I hope you appreciate that I am willing to fail in the most spectacular public fashion there is, which is right in front of your very eyes," Waid told the audience at one point during the evening. "I think this will work. I really do. It's going to be a long uphill battle. No one is going to get rich off of digital immediately, but we are going to make our level best to just get paid. We don't need to get rich; I just want to get paid for the work I do, I want my collaborators to get paid for the work they do, I want to cover my production costs and I don’t want to lose my shirt."