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Baltimore Comic-Con 2012: Interview with Mark Waid

If you’re into comics you’ve probably seem Mark Waid’s work somewhere.  He’s been writing for 25 years.  He is currently doing an award-winning run on Daredevil for Marvel.  He’s also well known for the creator-owned titles Irredeemable and Incorruptible which both take place in the same universe.  Recently he started the digital imprint Thrillbent (as of this writing, the site is offline after an attack) and has been writing Insufferable on there.  I got the chance to sit with Mark and speak for nearly 20 minutes about a lot of aspects of his career.  Again, I want to thank him for spending so much time with me at Baltimore Comic-Con.  

Mark Waid

Me:  I’m here with Mark Waid.  Mark, one of the things that I discovered when I was preparing for this interview was this blog post that you wrote about Marketing through Piracy.  I really dig that.  You seem to be one of the few creators that understands the fact that there are only a certain number of people that are going to buy and a certain number of people are always going to steal and you can get more famous just by having stuff out there.  You’ve got the CBRs which I’ve been downloading and you’ve got the PDFs up there.  Do you want to expand on that in any way?

Mark Waid:  Sure I’d be happy to.  Here’s the thing I think it’s a mistake to look at every torrent and every download as a lost sale.  I think that’s crap.  I think that people are looking for your material.  I think you should be thrilled that people around the world are so eager to find your material that they’re hunting it down.  Regardless of the legality or illegality as a creator just think about how cool that is.  It’s not like they’re doing that with poetry.  They’re doing it for your work.  Now, in a perfect world, yes as a creator you should be entitled to control how your work is distributed and how it’s distributed, how much is charged for it - that’s in a perfect world.  Well, we don’t live in a perfect world.  We live in a world where torrenting and file sharing exists, where it’s not going to go away and you can stand there like an old man shouting at clouds and want it to go away.  Or you can embrace it as we have at Thrillbent.  My attitude is: there are always going to be people who would be willing to pay you for the material for a fair rate if they feel like they’re being entertained.  Is it going to be an enormous amount of people?  I don’t know.  Is it enough people to cover your costs?  I think it is.  Every bit of evidence I have shows that’s the case and probably more.  So I’m a big believer in distributing my work through file sharing.  We upload our own torrents, we put our own files on file sharing sites.  We want that to happen.  We want the publicity.  That’s what gives that work a chance to be seen everywhere.  And that also gives us the control.  At the end of every chapter, the only difference between the chapters that we put online for free viewing and the ones we upload for torrents is that at the end of every chapter we put a little placard that says “here’s the creative team: here’s the artist, here’s the copyright information.  If you want more free comics - come to Thrillbent.com”  So you turn that into advertising.  And that’s the only smart way to do it.  If you want to be that protective of your material and think that it won’t be file-shared and think that you’ve found some way to keep it out of the hands of pirates, GOOD LUCK to you.  It ain’t happenin’.  

Me:  And I think, and I spoke with one of the co-creators of ComiXology today, one of the things that’s really brought me to a lot of creators is sharing.  You know, regular, sharing.  My brother lent me the trades of Irredeemable and Incorruptible, which we’ll talk about in a minute, and that’s led me to Insufferable, to Thrillbent, to a lot of other works and that’s just a part of what we have in the comics community.  A lot of mainstream creators, and ComiXology - not to unfairly call them out because it’s probably deals that they have with the publishers - but they don’t let you share so you’re losing a big aspect of how comics enjoyed.

MW:  Yeah, exactly.  It’s always been that way.  It’s been that way since comics were invented.  In the 30s and 40s kids traded comics with each other.  In the 50s and 60s collectors went to conventions and collected and sold their stuff.  And there’s always been a secondary market and a tertiary market for comics and that’s what gets a lot of fans involved.  Many of the people who read comics now didn’t just spontaneously start buying comics; they found comics at somebody else’s house or somebody lent them a graphic novel.  That’s the society in which we live.  The trick of it is, and I think the way you offset your losses to pirates as a creator, is you cut out the middle man of distribution.  You find your audience, you connect directly with them through social media, you make them aware of the fact that what you’re giving them has value, and you ask them to contribute in kind.  As everybody from Louis CK to Nine Inch Nails to The Monty Python crew has found out in the last couple years - those fans - and again you won’t get filthy rich - will support you.  People get it.  There will always be people who take stuff for free.  There will always be people who will take it and not want to return back.  I don’t care if it’s the take-a-penny dish at the supermarket or whatever.  But the number of people out there who get it - they would rather pay you $5 for your album directly because they like what you do instead of paying Amazon.com $15 for the same album knowing most of that money goes to people who have nothing to do with the creation of the material.  That’s a huge number of people.  

Me:  I know myself with certain artists like, for example MC Frontalot I prefer to buy from him instead of Amazon.

MW: Yeah!

Me:  I think it makes a really big difference.  I think something really interesting - one of the talks I’m going to be putting up is the talk you gave yesterday about Thrillbent and I was amazed that it’s really hard just to break even when you’re doing print comics.  

MW:  Oh, it’s virtually impossible to break even when you’re doing print comics unless you’re Marvel or DC.  There’s outliers - obviously The Walking Dead does gangbuster busisness, Saga at Image does gangbuster business, but by and large your plain vanilla Dynamite comic or Boom Comic - I’m not quoting direct sales figures (it’s not secret information) - it’s common sense.  You look at public sales figures and if you’re not one of the big four publishers at the front of the Diamond catalogue they’ve gotta sell a hell of alot of monthly comics just to break even because print costs continue to rise and it continues to get worse.  

Me:  If I could geek out with you for a little bit here.  Like I said, my brother lent me Irredeemable and I just finished cramming the last bit on Friday night.  I think the way I would describe it to someone - I’d like to see what you think about this - it’s kinda like Superman in the real world meets Watchmen meets Jurassic Park.  

MW:  (laughs)  Jurassic Park.  That’s good.  That’s a really good comparison. Yeah, yeah.

Me:  Because for me the thing that brings in Jurassic Park is it seems like there’s a million places where the Plutonian could have been stopped, but people weren’t honest with each other. Or they had different agendas.  And that’s kinda what keeps it going and it seems so real.  Because the same thing happens in Jurassic Park, especially in the novel - the whole reason it kicks off is because people are being dishonest.  Dennis Nedry shuts off the stuff and all that.  

MW:  Yeah, you’re absolutely right.  I think that’s a big part of it.  It’s not just about one guy and his foibles and all these other stellar, completely beyond reproach super heroes who have to stop him.  It’s that watching his sins sort of exposes their own.  Everybody has things they’ve done in the past that they regret, everybody has things they’ve done that are mistakes.  When you watch them compound each other as they sort of realize from each others’ point of view how they’ve contributed to the overall problem, I think that’s what makes the narrative as strong as it is.  

Me:  So Gil, he kinda looks like Hawkman.  But at a key point, he mentions the Tree of Life and he is thousands of years old.  Is he meant to be one of the Fallen Angels that they mention during Noah’s story that had sex with the humans and stuff like that?  Or is it just coincidence?

MW:  You know, it was just coincidence until about ten seconds ago.  Now I like your idea a lot.  So here’s five bucks and I’m taking your idea.  (editor’s note: no cash actually changed hands)

Me:  Was Incorruptible meant to be the comic relief companion to Irredeemable?  While it was dark, I found myself laughing quite a bit while reading it - especially the sections involving the Jailbaits.

MW:  It certainly was my attempt to take advantage of a lighter tone.  There's not much room for humor in Irredeemable, what with all the genocide and all.

Me:  I just started reading Insufferable, you’re about seventeen weeks into that.  How many weeks would you say would be a normal comic book?

MW:  I would say it’s probably a month’s worth of weekly installments makes up a regular monthly issue.  

Me:  So about a four to one ratio?  

MW:  I would say so, yeah.

Me:  I really like it. I was already guessing that it was Batman and Robin, and you mentioned yesterday during your panel that it’s kinda like what if Robin was a dick.  

MW:  Yeah, exactly.  It’s kinda like what if Robin grew up to be a complete douchebag.  

Me:  And not in the same way that Jason Todd becomes a homicidal maniac.  This guy’s just a jerk.  He’s mean to his publicist and all that type of stuff.  

MW:  Exactly.  And there’s actually reasons for that as you will see in the weeks to come.  Again, it’s not that Nocturnus (the Batman character) is beyond reproach either.  He was not a good dad.  He was a much better super hero than he was a father.  It doesn’t mean he was a jerk, he just didn’t connect well with his son.  And his son is a sidekick and as his son gets older and starts to get his own sense of identity he thinks “why does my dad keep making me do this?  Why does he keep on treating me like a kid?”  Really that’s the heart of it.  What makes even a good super hero story resonate with people who don’t normally read super hero stories is that they have to be about things we all can experience, that we all can feel confident that we know about.  And everyone knows what it’s like to be treated like a kid by your parents; even when you’re a grownup. Even when you feel like they’re treating you like you’re much younger than you  should be.  Everybody knows that feeling.  That’s the core of the story - that rebellion of “stop treating me like a child”.

Me:  Yeah, and I think like you just mentioned you really make it real.  I felt like that was a big part of Irredeemable and a big part of this one where, for example - of course Superman couldn’t really be raised by the Kents.  Who could raise a super baby?  He’s going to tear the place apart that’s why Tony in Irredeemable goes through a succession of foster homes.  And Batman kinda is a dick, at least recently, to his Robins.

MW:  Yeah

Me:  But they all go back to him.  You are writing it a little more realistically.

MW:  A little more.  And one of the things I like that we’re doing when the split happened - when Galahad (the Robin character) broke from Nocturnus - one of the things he did was take all the money.  He took all the money and Galahad has the hyper “bat cave” equipment and stuff. And Nocturnus is working on a TRS-80 and doing old school lab work and has to do everything through spit and bailing wire.  So that’s more fun to me.  And seems more realistic.  

Me:  Yeah, I noticed the mention of the trash 80.  I actually learned how to program on one of those so that was a great little bonus.  One more thing about Insufferable, I notice you’ve done a really good job incorporating what technology would do now.  There’s a really key scene a couple weeks back on how Twitter is really affecting Galahad.  

MW:  Yeah, the idea that he’s got a Twitter account and he’s always publicizing his own events means that he’s in the Twittersphere.  Therefore there are these good sequences where he’s in a high-speed chase and yet as you swipe the pages you go from panel to panel and these tweets are popping up observing what he’s doing and people are telling each other what he’s doing.  And we don’t even know if the bad guys are also getting the twitter feed and going “Oh well, Galahad is right behind us, we better turn left”.  So this is the idea that we live in a civilization where it’s impossible to keep anything secret.  And it’s impossible not to be observed and if you are a super hero it’s really kinda hard to skulk around and be a vigilante.  

Me:  Yeah, yeah that totally makes sense.  And I really like how you use the digital medium to do that.  I brought up during yesterday’s panel how you’ve really done something neat that you can’t do on paper.  You mentioned that you eventually want to put these out on print - it’ll be the same story, but it’s going to be a different feeling.

MW:  Exactly.  That’s just it.  My first and foremost concern is to do these stories using the digital tools and I’ll worry about how to put them into print later.  We will be able to put them into print; we’re not going to change the story, like you said.  It’ll be the same story, but there’ll be different story-telling tools and it won’t be as flashy and we’ll lose some of the more fun and interesting visual effects.  It’ll still be the same story, but like I said, when I started this enterprise it was with an idea of how do I make sure I can service both masters: print and digital.  And as I got into it and started having fun with the digital end I thought, “screw that” just do it digitally first and go all the way.  And we’ll worry about print later.

Me:  Is there a particular reason you seem to like adjectives starting with "I" for your creator-owned work?

MW: I just fell into it, but now I embrace it!

Me:  The last geeky thing I wanted to ask you before we circle back around to Thrillbent:  I noticed, at least between these two titles, I haven’t read your Daredevil or some of your older material, but you seem to have a big focus on themes of trust and themes of infidelity.  For example, Bette and the Plutonian and in Insufferable - we haven’t seen the consequences yet - but Nocturnus he stole someone’s wife  who became Galahad’s mom.  

MW:  Yeah, I gotta say, when you put it that way I never really thought about it, but I guess those are honest themes in all of my work because I really believe that the most destructive things that people can do (we get interrupted by an announcement made over the PA).  Alright, here’s the thing, if you think of super hero comics and the entire medium of super hero comics as an inverted pyramid then at the very apex is the concept that Superman can put on glasses and live among us and not tell us who he really is.  And there’s pluses and minuses to that.  And I think that my fascination with this idea secrets - the way you keep secrets in the super hero universe - secret identities and secret alter-egos and secret powers - has always been a fascination to me.  So it makes sense that the most dramatic stories I can tell are the ones where people aren’t honest with each other or don’t tell each other everything they need to know.  And even the simplest omissions of fact can lead to huge, horrible consequences.  So that, to me, that’s the huge part of a lot of the drama that I write.  

Me:  And in addition to being real it also makes it not seem like a cheap trick when we don’t know stuff because neither do the other heroes.

MW:  Neither do the other heroes!  And also, frankly, think about your own life.  Even if you consider yourself to be an honest person, it doesn’t mean you tell everybody everything because a lot of the time you don’t know why you’re doing stuff.  You don’t know why you’re taking certain actions because that’s the way we are as human beings.  So I love writing stories where people seem to be acting out of character until late in the story you find out something aobut circumstances that you didn’t know before and suddenly everything they’ve done up to this point in the story that seems out of character suddenly makes perfect sense. 

Me:  Ok, well I’ve already taken up about 15 minutes of your time and you’re super busy so I want to thank you for talking with me.  I just want to circle around and talk about Thrillbent.  So you did give a panel, like I said, which I will be posting and last night I was tweeting Gail Simone and asking her about your thing and she seemed really excited about it.  

MW:  Good!

Me:  And she mentioned, if I didn’t misunderstand her, that she’s also going to be offering hers free on the web.  Just like yours.  Is there anything you think you missed during the panel or you just want to reiterate while we’re here one-on-one about Thrillbent; how it’s going to work, the stuff that’s coming in the next couple months once you guys are back up from the hack?  

MW:  I just want to reiterate the fact that we’re not going to be genre specific.  In fact, I want to try to get away from super heroes as fast as I can.  I want to broaden into a lot of different genres.  By the time we get to the end of the year it’s going to be a new comic every day by some creator.  And it’s a place for people to come and experiment.  A place for storytellers to come and try out their stuff.  Come here and take a look and come play with others and come learn how we do what we do.  And come and share what you’ve learned about digital comics.  What I like about it is that it’s not a competition, per se.  It’s not like like we’re fighting for other people’s marketshare in the digital world.  The digital marketplace is so giganticly huge that we’re not having to compete with anybody.  We just like being able to share information back and forth and I think the transparency is very important.  I love learning from people about digital comics tricks.  I saw a guy on the floor today that has an app he’s going to launch next week and he did something in it, in terms of digital storytelling that blew my mind.  That was at once brilliantly devious, that I never would have thought of that, and yet the moment I saw it, it made perfect sense.  And that’s the kind of stuff that lights up my day.  So come to Thrillbent.  This is the future - come play!  

Me:  Alright, well I’m just going to finish it off with something I told you yesterday during one of your panels and I even tweeted it, but I really love it so I’m going to end the interview with that - You are the Wolverine of Panelists!

MW: I know!

Me:  You’ve been in every panel just like Wolverine’s in every book.  And so I really, really thank you for taking time to talk with me.  I’ve enjoyed geeking out with you.  If there’s any one last thing you want to say that I didn’t ask you - go ahead.  If not, thanks a lot.

MW:  No, I think we’ve covered it.  Thank you very much I’ve really appreciated it.  

Afterwards while taking Mark’s photo for this article we spoke a bit about the ending of Irredeemable. Here’s a great bit of trivia - the genesis of the idea comes from a conversation he had with Grant Morrison while he was writing All-Star Superman. 


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