Mark Waid Talks Thrillbent, Empire, Daredevil, and More

One of the most prolific writers in comics talks to us about the return of Empire, keeping Daredevil fresh, and more!

I can’t honestly think of a major comic book creator who hasn’t at least dipped a toe in the creator-owned pool over the last few years, but multiple Eisner Award winning Daredevil writer Mark Waid took it a bit further, opening up his own pool with a focus on the craft of digital comic booking with Thrillbent.com three years ago.

Now, with a diverse list of titles from the likes of Waid, Alex De Campi, Tim Gibson, site co-founder John Rodgers, Karl Kesel, Christina Blanch, Peter Krause, James Tynion IV, and other talents, Thrillbent is ready to take a great leap, unleashing a new IOS app and a $3.99 a month subscription service that is married to both the re-release of Waid and Barry Kitson’s Empire volume 1 and the return of Emperor Golgoth in Empire volume 2.

In this exclusive interview with Waid, we discuss the return of Empire, the effect of real world events on Empire’s story, the merits of Thrillbent’s subscription service, avoiding the urge to tweak past works, possible future re-releases, keeping Daredevil fresh and the dangers of dark and gritty comic book movies.

Den of Geek: Despite the fact that you’re giving out volume 1 of Empire to new Thrillbent subscribers, will the book be accessible to new readers who haven’t gone back to read the first story? Are you going to allow a way in or should people really go back and read that first volume?

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Mark Waid: They can if they want but honestly I’ve made it abundantly — Barry and I both have taken huge steps. We’re both veterans of the first issue. I’m a big veteran of being able to, in one comic, explain to you everything that you need to know to get forward in the story without you having to refer back to years of continuity and a universe in these superhero comics. And we’ve carried that skillset over to Empire, trust me. The entire first chapter gives you everything that you need to know going in, but if you want to read Empire volume 1 for further flavor, feel free.

What is it about the Empire story and these characters that keeps bringing you back to it — from Gorilla to DC, to now Thrillbent?

Barry and I always wanted to do more Empire but the problem that we had for a long time was that neither of us were at the same company at the same time. And on top of that, we didn’t get the rights reverted back to us until a couple of years ago. So we would have had to do it at DC and there was always a time where one or the other of us wasn’t at DC. Now that we can do it on our own, this is a chance…we’ve been saying for years, we really want to go back and revisit this because we had ideas and notions and plots and further ideas for a sequel 15 years ago. But now, its time to crack all of that stuff open.

How far removed are we from the events in Greenland and the death of Delfi when volume 2 begins and does Golgoth have a new…I don’t want to say support system, but is there another person that he cares about?

Not immediately, which is part of the issue. He’s got to find something. I mean, the thing about Empire volume 2 is that it begins exactly one year after the death of The Princess (Delfi). It begins on the anniversary of that death. Across the empire, it is a day of holiness. It is the day that Princess Diana died in our world, times a thousand. It is a day of worship and commemoration.

This is also a chance for a few rebel underground forces around the world to say, “Okay, while everybody’s distracted dealing with this, now is our time to strike. We only have one shot, lets take it.” So this is a moment of potential weakness for Golgoth. The other potential weakness for him is that, with the Princess gone, he has no humanity left. He has no connection to humanity. He has to find something to care about, because as we’ve always said about Golgoth, he doesn’t want the job. You know?

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It’s not meant to be funny, he just genuinely… now that he is the Emperor of the world, the horrible Shakespearean tragic lesson of that is, be careful what you wish for. Because once you’ve consolidated all of the world’s power onto one throne, that throne becomes the most dangerous place in the world to sit. Every force in the world, every disgruntled ex-ruler, every minister working under you who has their own agenda — they’re all sharpening their knives waiting to strike at you. Now, without even a human connection, the big question of volume 2 is, what does he want? Where does Golgoth go from here?

Obviously the world has changed a bit since the first two issues came out, at least. We went through 9/11, the patriot act, two wars, the surveillance scandal, drone warfare, the rise of connectivity and the insatiable 24 hour media machine — you get what I’m getting at. Has this changed the tone or the world of Empire at all? Is there a desire to comment on any of these things through the book, or do you want to keep it somewhat distant?

Well, somewhat distant but they do inform where we’re coming from. I mean, as you say — that’s a very good question too, well put — the world has changed so substantially in the time since we did the first volume. There was no 9/11 at that point. We didn’t know who Bin Laden was, you know? The intelligence community knew, but it’s not like he was a constant source of conversation in 1999 or 2000 around the dinner table.

Even the word terrorist, at that point, wasn’t such a constant in our lives.

Right, exactly. And so all of these things inform, for us, how the world functions on a day-to-day basis under the rule of The Empire. So, what are the nuances of a world in which all of this takes place? Barry and I, it informs our vision of evil, if you will. It certainly informs our vision of what a totalitarian society really does look like in a way that we had no idea [of] when we were young men in our 30s coming up with this originally.

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If you were starting this right now and it was volume 1 coming out. Are there any significant ways that you think the first volume of the book would be different than what it was then? Just things you wish you could go add, I mean.

The answer is always yes, except in this case because I hadn’t re-read it myself for a long time. A long, long time. And when I went, about a year ago, to delve back into it… I never say this about my own work because all I hear are the flaws. All I hear are the things that should have worked better and the opportunities that were missed.

But the pleasant thing about re-reading Empire — and this speaks more to the collaboration of myself and Barry than it does to anything that I might have done on my own — is that it was a delight to read. Like, I was constantly surprised by what was on the page. I had forgotten some of the nuances of the story and some of the nuances of character.

My very first quote upon having finished re-reading it for the first time in years was to call up Barry in a panic and go, “Oh my God, I can’t write this well! I don’t know how to write this. How do I do this?” So, you know, I calmed down and we took a deep breath and we came at it with renewed energy and I feel good about it. But man, you know… there are things that I’ve done in my life — nobody bats a thousand — and there are projects that I’ve done that I really am fond of and there are some that I’ve done that people like that I really don’t understand why.

But this is one of those rare times that I got to re-read this through fresh eyes and go, “man, I kind of understand why people like this now.” So that brought me a whole new energy going into the second volume because you get to add that to the 15 years of experience that I’ve added since.

How do you resist the urge to tweak, though? When you go back. How do you not go, “Eh, this could have worked a little bit better. Let me just kind of adjust this here” before you re-release the volume?

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It’s really easy. Because what you do is you ask yourself, “Wait a minute, who shot first?”

And once you answer that question, then you know that no good comes from meddling with past work. Let it be. You never know. You might want to go and muck around, but you never know if the one thing that you think is an inconsequential perfectly logical change or fix might be, could, for everyone else who has read it, break it. You don’t know.

I was about to say, “How do you not be George Lucas?”, so you really picked it up perfectly.

Yeah, you just learn from George Lucas’ sins.

Yeah (laughs)… Um, is Empire just the start? Will there be a flood of any other past properties that you’ve done that are going to come to life on Thrillbent as well, and are you looking at other creators’ older work — things that are out of print — to bring them aboard to continue on?

A little bit of both. Some of my older stuff… In this format, I want to start anew with something, like if we did Potter’s Field or something else that is mine, to be able to do it on Thrillbent. And the same with some of the other creators whose work I’m looking at.

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It’s not so much that I want to adapt it to the Thrillbent format, because I think that’s kind of putting a square peg in a round hole. It’s not about cutting and pasting panels to make them horizontal rather than vertical. It’s more about taking advantage of the storytelling techniques that the digital gives you and so you want to create for digital and worry about print later.

But that said, there is still some stuff up my sleeve, and again, we will also be re-launching Insufferable volume 3 in the next couple of months, somewhere in the middle of summer and James Tynion will be doing a new series for us in June. We’ve got a pretty good heavy-hitter lineup of creator owned stuff to rollout throughout the summer at Thrillbent. For $3.99 a month, you get to deep dive in. Not only an issue of Empire every two weeks, but all the other stuff that we’re doing and all the other creator owned material that we’ve got going out there, that’s a pretty good deal.

How do you balance the need to give app users and new subscribers a sense of value and bang for their buck with that $3.99 price while still catering to those people who have become accustomed to the free content on the website?

I still think that there is plenty of room for free content. Ideally, you want to eventually build a model by which there is so much in our library that we get the luxury of releasing some of the older material as it ages into free material but you still want to entice people. The price of one comic is a jumping on point for you to access all of this new material, which is way more than one print comic’s worth of material a month.

You mentioned at Wonder-Con that print might someday be in the future (of Thrillbent) and then you did a limited print run of The Damnation of Charlie Wormwood for the Motor City convention. Would you ever turn to Kickstarter to help with the costs associated with print and how do you feel about the overall trend of established creators using Kickstarter and Indiegogo?

I think I’m fine with it. I think it’s smart in a lot of cases. I’m not sure how that translates to what we’re doing. The trick of it is, anybody who has ever run a Kickstarter or Indiegogo campaign or anything like that, that’s a full time job. Just running that gig — promoting it and doing it right, that’s a full time job in and of itself.

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We just don’t have the bandwidth yet. If we thought that that was a really strong, smart source of revenue to put stuff in print, we would. And it’s still something that we might do down the road, but right now, I don’t want to overextend and I don’t want to bite off more than I can chew. We’re concentrating on making people’s subscription money worth the value.

The assumption is, I guess, that you have seen the whole Flash pilot and on Twitter you were clearly very happy that he “enjoys his work.” That seems to be so rare in superhero adaptations — where the hero enjoys his work. Can you talk to me about what you think the danger is, (the danger) that comes with always re-positioning comic book properties as dark and gritty when adapting them? Also, what’s the burden for you as a comic creator with those parallel portraits — what kind of burden does it put on you that everything is so dark and gritty?

Oh, it doesn’t really put a burden on me, it just makes me crazy. It just makes me pound my head against the wall, because again… I continue to rail against the idea. Look, certainly your characters — whether they are superheroes are not — should have foibles, they should have problems, they should have things that their powers can’t solve. That’s what makes them nuanced, interesting characters. They can have intense motivations. They should have intense motivations to do what they do.

But this relentless cynicism of, “Oh, I’m a superhero, what a tortured tragic figure I am.” Bite me, you can fly. Shut up. You know? This is the, “Oh, my diamond shoes are too tight” problem. (Laughs)

You’re a superhero. Shut up and enjoy having superpowers. This makes me crazy. This is why the Marvel movies kick DC movies’ asses right and left. Because, I’m not paying $15 for a movie to go watch people being morose about lives that are much more interesting and exciting than mine and they hate them. I’m paying my money to see people sort of revel in doing things that I can’t do.

Why do you think that they try to tell stories that way? What do you think the inspiration is for that? Is it just that they’re trying to reach out to an adult audience and that’s the only way to do it? That they’ve just got to make them dark and gritty and their parents died and etc?

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I would simplify it to say that, Batman made a ton of money for Warner Bros, and if you are a major motion picture studio, you know what works and you’re not terribly interested in trying another formula when this one makes a billion dollars. So, I understand it. I don’t agree with it, but I understand the rationale of, everybody’s going to have Batman’s origin, because look how much money Batman made us.

Conversely, look at how badly the Green Lantern did as a movie. Because they tried to make it a little less dark and onerous and tragic and tortured. They didn’t succeed, but that wasn’t the tone of the movie. That and a million other factors. I don’t think the tone was the problem. But if I’m a Warner Bros. executive, I can understand why I would think that the tone would be the problem. In other words, major motion picture studios like Disney or Warner Bros, they know what works for them, so they’re gonna keep doing more of that.

Where you are with Daredevil right now, over time that’s obviously matured. Where is that book now versus where you thought it would be at this point and how do you keep it exciting for you as a creator?

I get on the phone with Chris Samnee, the artist, and we just talk about the cool things that Daredevil can do. Seriously, that’s how we keep it exciting. Because he’s such a great collaborator and he’s such a great storyteller in his own right, that we’ve yet to run out of things to talk about when it comes to Daredevil, and that’s what makes it continue to be an exciting and energetic run.

Mark Waid, thank you very much!

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