"Good evening, 'Dr. Who' haters," Mark Waid said to start off the Thrillbent panel at WonderCon Anaheim, referring to the packed screening elsewhere in the convention center. There may have been a bit of overflow from people who couldn't get into a nearby "Dr. Who" sneak preview, but most of the audience was engaged in hearing about Waid's webcomics portal, which launched in May 2012 and is set to debut its new redesign on Monday, April 1.
Waid was joined on the panel by his Thrillbent co-founder and business manager John Rogers, with a number of the site's creators sitting in the audience. "I've been writing printed comics since the 1800s," Waid joked, explaining the motivation behind starting the site. "It's hard to get traction in stores with stuff that's not DC or Marvel," he said, as Thrillbent is a chance for creators to branch out into different genres and styles. "We're in a very experimental phase," Waid said of the site's current mission.
With its model of horizontal "slides" that function like traditional comic book panels but also offer different visual layers, Thrillbent combines familiar comics aesthetics with elements unique to the web. "Thrillbent isn't just, 'This is a way to get your stuff out.' It is made for your screen," Rogers said. "We're not selling you pictures of comics," Waid added.
Rogers emphasized the artistic possibilities of the hybrid medium. "When the artist suddenly realizes what you can do, you get 25 slides," he said. "It's really cool for someone who's been constrained by the physical medium to realize there are no constraints."
After explaining what Thrillbent is about, Waid moved to a slide show highlighting the site's various titles. The April 1 relaunch of the site initially features three titles each week, with Waid and artist Peter Krause's "Insufferable," the series that launched the site, debuting new installments on Wednesdays. Waid described the concept of "Insufferable" as "What if Robin grew up to be a jerk?" It follows an aging hero and his arrogant former sidekick as they reluctantly reunite.
The next title featured in the relaunch is "The Damnation of Charlie Wormwood," written by Christy Blanch and Chris Carr and drawn by Chee, debuting new installments on Fridays. Waid said the series is "our hardcore prison comic," which drew laughter from the crowd, as well as from Rogers. "Damnation" is a drama about a professor who teaches prisoners and finds himself getting involved in some shady dealings when he agrees to act as an agent on the outside for some of his students. The big question of the series is, "Is he controlling them or are they controlling him?" said Rogers, who compared the series to "Breaking Bad" meets "Oz" meets "The History Boys."
Next up was Rogers' own series, "Arcanum," the third title of the relaunch, with new installments coming on Mondays. Drawn by Todd Harris, who was in the audience at the panel, "Arcanum" was inspired by alien-invasion TV shows, but Rogers felt aliens were too played out, so instead the series focuses on an invasion from a magical dimension. "What happens when magic comes back and it's absolutely as horrible and sinister as you can imagine?" Rogers asked. That's the premise of the series, for which he has already mapped out a five-year plan.
Waid moved on to various titles in development, saying he eventually hopes to have enough original series to debut new content every day. He said the next title to debut on Thrillbent would depend on which one had amassed the most material in advance. The first title Waid presented was "Last Vegas" (not to be confused with Image Comics' "Lost Vegas"), from writer Eric Heisserer and artist Clay Kronke. The series involves an underground world of gambling in Las Vegas where people wager more than money; they bet on opportunities in life. "Do you want the lost love of your life to come back?" Rogers asked, referring to the kind of scenarios the series would tackle.
Following "Last Vegas" came "The Endling," a title Waid said he "just bought sight unseen." Written by J.T. Larsen with art by Cecilia Latella and colors by comics veteran Paul Mounts -- in the series a teenage prodigy builds an artificial intelligence designed to simulate the last human on Earth, which then pleads with her to be released. "'The Endling' is a really dark Pinocchio story," Waid said.
Next was the horror series "The Eighth Seal," written by James Tynion IV and drawn by Jeremy Rock, who collaborated with Waid on the past Thrillbent title "Luthor." Waid brought up Tynion from the audience to talk about his series. "There's great potential in the layering techniques to do horror in ways that you're not able to do as nicely in a printed comic," Tynion said. "There's only one opportunity every two pages for a real scare [in printed comics]. Here, any little moment, it can just creep up on you," he said. "Of all the genres that translate to digital comics, I think horror translates the best," Waid added.
He joked he wished he had come up with the title for the next series, "The Incapeables," since it begins with "in" like so many of his own creations. But it's not Waid's series; "Incapeables" is written by Kevin Levy with art by Nate Watson, and deals with superheroes who are past their prime. "It's the equivalent of an athlete blowing out a knee," Waid said. The characters are brought together by a therapist who may have an ulterior motive, and when one of them goes missing, they have to step up to being heroes again, despite being "powerless in one sense or another."
The final upcoming title highlighted was "Working for Monday," from writer Lori Matsumoto and artist Benjamin Dewey. "Monday" follows the life of the personal assistant to a supervillain known as Professor Monday, focusing on the mundane tasks that are needed to support supervillainy. Waid mentioned he hoped to include other one-shots and experimental projects among the site's future development. "The idea is just let's put stuff up and see what works," he said.
Rogers then talked about the site's embeddable viewer, which functions just like a YouTube embed code, allowing users to share Thrillbent content directly on their website, Facebook or Twitter, without having to link to the Thrillbent site. "That's the way to turn these comics into true viral phenomena," Waid said. Rogers noted "we don't have any way to make money with this yet," but that "the point is to share the comics and figure out the other stuff later." He pointed out Thrillbent had seeded its own torrents on file-sharing services from the start, only asking that people who shared them retained a page mentioning the site, which stayed intact on every file shared. "If you trust your audience, if you don't treat them like thieves -- treat them like partners, they’ll act like partners," Rogers said.
"We get to play around with monetization streams," Waid said, noting that "no one's going to get rich, but if we make our money back doing this, I consider that a win." Thrillbent does have content for sale via comiXology, and plans to offer PDF versions for sale on their own website. Waid also mentioned they were looking into partnerships with existing web comics, if terms could be worked out.
The panel then opened up to questions and a fan asked about Thrillbent's use of horizontal pages instead of vertical ones. "We really prefer widescreen," Rogers said. Waid noted it was the best format for viewing on multiple different kinds of devices. "There's nothing I hate more than trying to read a digital comic on my home laptop and having to scroll up and down, up and down," he said.
Fans asked about the strategies for writers and artists when creating content for Thrillbent, to which Waid replied, "Try to think of it as half a standard comics page." For him as a writer, "the big compromise you make is you don’t get the equivalent of a two-page spread. There's so much you can do in digital that's great, but Jack Kirby would die in digital," he said.
"You have to collaborate, you have to really dig in and make sure that this is utilizing the format in the best possible way," Tynion said. Rogers and Waid both emphasized the importance of increased collaboration, allowing the artists to expand scripted panels into several slides for the site. "We're not paying for paper," Rogers noted.
A fan pointed out that while Thrillbent doesn't pay for paper, expanding the story can take up more of an artist's time. "Arcanum" artist Todd Harris, who was in the audience, spoke up and said, "If it's a good story, you'll want to do the extra work."
Asked about other revenue streams, Waid again mentioned comiXology, with four weeks of a series available for $1.99. He also said print collections are a possibility down the road, but starting in print is "only a viable business model if you have deep Disney or Warner Bros. pockets." Rogers mentioned the possibility of taking a popular series and launching a Kickstarter campaign to publish a print edition.