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January 10, 2013


CR Holiday Interview #22 -- Mark Waid

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Mark Waid is one of comics' leading writers, known mostly for his North American mainstream material including current, lauded runs with Marvel's Daredevil and Hulk characters. He's created a lot more of his own work in recent years, for places such as BOOM! Studios and now his own, on-line Thrillbent. Waid has worked for a range of publishers in writing, editorial and consultancy roles. He is as outspoken as professionals come these days. I also think Waid is an under-appreciated figure in terms of his creative influence on his peers, something we discuss below.

I was sitting about two tables behind Waid when he won three Eisner Awards at this year's ceremony. It's that recognition and his general higher profile right now on a variety of fronts that put him in my mind for one of these holiday interviews. I was happy when he said yes. -- Tom Spurgeon

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imageTOM SPURGEON: About two months ago I came across the photo at the top of this post, which my brother Whit took at the Eisner Awards. It occurred to me that you haven't won a ton of industry awards.

MARK WAID: No. In fact, I've won almost none. Let's look at the shelf, shall we? There's a couple of Wizard Fan Awards from, I don't know, 10 years ago? There's a Comics Buyer's Guide award from about 1997. And that's about it, man. It's funny. Kingdom Come swept the Eisners that year in all of the categories it was up for except for Best Writer. Except for Writer. Or story, or whatever that was. That was one of those moments where the film gets all of the nominations but the director gets dissed. It felt like, "Oh, well. You kind of put me in my place." [Spurgeon laughs] That was the closest I'd ever come.

SPURGEON: It seems like the recognition you're getting right now for those books, that part of your work, is reflective of a period of positive appraisal of your writing. In other words, these weren't surprise wins: people generally like the work you're doing right now. When you have a book or two that people react to in this kind of positive fashion, do you have a sense of why people are reacting to it? Do you know while you're doing it, or does it come as a pleasant surprise?

WAID: It comes as a pleasant surprise. Believe me, if I knew how to make that work, if I had a better sense of what people responded to, I'd be doing that a lot more. It's impossible to tell, because from my perspective I'm not doing anything different. I'm not doing anything I haven't been doing the last 10 or 15 years in terms of how I approach story, how I approach characters, how I approach narrative. At this exact moment there seems to be room in the marketplace for stuff that is a little less formulaic and a little less like what we've seen before. A little less dark. A little less dystopic, without being quote-unquote "fun." Maybe that's what people are responding to. I don't know. That's all I know how to do.

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SPURGEON: Is there one of your series in the past that you thought would get a bigger, more positive reaction, that would get over in a way it didn't ultimately get over?

WAID: There's a couple. I actually thought the run I did on Legion Of Super-Heroes a few years ago, I thought we had a home run on our hands. I really did. The reader response to it was really good. In-house, people loved it. At DC. I felt like we were hitting it out of the park. But we were right at that point where the marketplace was deciding whether or not fresh takes on old things or whether it wanted what it read in the 1980s. "Why can't comics be good the way they were when Mommy was still alive?" [Spurgeon laughs] And we lost that bet. It felt to me that we did exactly the right thing, which was, "Look, I'm going to treat this beloved franchise as if it's been a moribund, dead property for 15 years and we're dusting it off and give you a whole new spin on it." There was an appetite for it at first, it seemed like, but then it just... people love their Legion comics the way they were in 1985. I can't fault them, but I thought that would have been over the fence. I really did.

imageFrom my perspective, Daredevil was kind of a last-gasp effort. I don't want to be so dramatic as to say if it had not worked I'd have just stopped doing comics the way I was doing them. But it would have been tempting. I went into it with a gigantic roll of the dice, Tom. To say to assembled fandom, "I don't want to do it the way it's been done for the last 30 years." Not terribly historically receptive to that.

SPURGEON: Is there that kind of right-side-of-the-brain aspect to what you do? Do you think in terms of how something will be received, how it might find purchase or not? Or do you work solely from the gut: "This is the way I'm going to do it, and it either works or not."

WAID: It's the latter. I don't have the slightest clue or interest in trying to please an audience in lieu of pleasing myself. It seems to me like that's a losing proposition right down the line. All I know how to do when it comes to the established, franchise characters is look at them, look at what I love about them, look at what I loved about them when I was 10 years old, and show you why I love them. Sometimes that works, sometimes that doesn't. On the whole, it has seemed to serve pretty well as a career.

SPURGEON: Where do you think your skill-set has improved, then, if you're working out of the same set of ideas? Where in terms of execution do you think you're a better writer? Or maybe you don't think this. [Waid laughs] How are you different in terms of the writer you were in the '90s? I have an idea or two, but I'd rather hear from you.

WAID: Only if in turn you share your idea. You said something very flattering in one of your year-end pieces, something to the effect that you could make a case that I was influential in the '90s, and I was gobsmacked by that. I am not so secure or having such a good day that I am unwilling to listen to you pontificate on that. [Spurgeon laughs]

I think I am a better writer... I don't think I'm any better at the craft of it. I think I honed the actual craft of it pretty well in the first 10 or 15 years I was doing it. I think I'm a better writer because as you get older you get more introspective -- if you're smart. You get to a point where you make a choice whether or not to write these characters you don't own at arm's length -- which is a very smart way of writing them if you want to protect yourself and protect your bank account, and protect yourself from being the guy who is walking outside homeless with a sandwich board while your character is up on the silver screen making a million dollars. And I get that. It's very difficult for me at conventions and when I'm doing writing seminars to advise young writers to bear in mind that when you're working on things you don't own you have to protect yourself. You have to be careful how much you put in. I think that's a realistic things to say, and I think that's a smart thing to say and I think that's probably the right thing to say. Speaking personally, I don't practice what I preach. I don't know any other way to do it.

imageTo spin off of your question, as I got into my 30s and I got into my 40s, I really started to understand a lot more about what I have learned both good and bad from superhero comics as a kid. The upsides -- the obvious upsides: do the right thing, and save cats from trees, and be honest to people, help little old ladies across the street. The darker stuff that you learn... I mean, Jesus, everything emotionally stunted and wrong about me I learned from Mort Weisinger. [Spurgeon laughs] That became the entire impetus behind Irredeemable. I brought even more personal issues to Daredevil in terms of a lifelong struggle with depression. How you deal with that and don't deal with that, that's something I get a chance to work out with these characters, both Bruce Banner and Matt Murdock. There's a risk to it. Again, the risk is always... my career at DC has ended. My career at DC, about two or three years ago, ended when I was blackballed and forcibly ejected from the place. I'm not saying that out of any sort of bitterness or anger. It's just a fact. I knew that could always be the case. So that's the case. I look back on the work I'd done there, and I have to make my peace with the fact that these things I put a lot of my soul and effort into I no longer have any sort of claim to or association with anymore. But that's the breaks. That said, I wouldn't do it any other way because I don't know any other way to do it.

SPURGEON: Let me say first that one thing we do in comics when we talk about the content of comics, and I think it might be Stan Lee's overriding influence on the field, is to favor the theoretical or the idea of something over the execution. So with that in mind, I'd suggest that the bulk of what makes someone successful has to do with getting the job done on the page.

That understood, Mark, I suspect your special appeal comes from how what you do stood in contrast to two historical moments. Your emphasis on character was a real tonic for comic books in the 1990s in terms of providing of different set of storytelling priorities, a way of making comics that breaks sharply with the wall-of-narrative plotting that you get from Don McGregor and Chris Claremont and that era of comic book writer. You provided an emphasis on character moments over plot twists or narrative progression, and I think that's how a lot of people who have affection for those characters process comics and how people more generally process pop art. You keyed on these memorable incidents, and after you did it you see people picking up on it. I'm not sure anyone hit that as hard as you did until maybe Grant Morrison in his late-1990s superhero comics.

Where I think you've become once again intriguing to a lot of people is that your investment in, and resulting focus on, character gives your comics a clarity that in this marketplace where people are desperate for a meaningful experience from the art they choose to pay for is a huge advantage. Your comics have much clearer storytelling beats because of your very specific interest in character, in a way that a reader is able to grasp how what they're seeing builds on that ongoing understanding.

WAID: That's interesting. So if I'm understanding it right, we have as pop culture mavens reached finally this saturation point where there is so much empty noise out there we are hungrier for things that give us a little more to digest, a little more humanity.

SPURGEON: Yeah, basically, to the point that I think people in a very direct way want to know what they should buy. They can be told this in two ways. There are overt methods, like the mini-series and event comics that when built up correctly will insist on being purchased by the fans -- "these are the comics that matter." There is also what the reader concludes from engaging with various comics, that there are some that are able to communicate what's at stake and then present an aspect of that thing that's at stake every time out. In a way, it's a different way of assigning value than what you see when comics are broken down by narrative density, as with the idea of "decompression," in that I'm not sure that how much story we're getting matters as much as that whatever one gets fulfills the promise they feel was made to them.

WAID: That to me is always the quicksilver. That's always to me the mercury in hand, trying to seize that. I had a long discussion with readers younger than I am. "What do you expect in one issue of a comic? What is that x-factor that makes you feel at the end of the issue that it was worth the $2.99 or $3.99 or whatever it is?" And I still don't know exactly. I have my gut feeling about what should be in an issue. When I write, I would love to tell you I do it with charts and graphs and a linear outline. The reality of it is I'm much more from the Robert Kanigher school of coming up with a cool image and then blundering ahead and finding it as I go. I have to work by instinct a lot. I don't have the luxury of sitting back and going, "Okay, here are three notecards for this issue of Daredevil, they have beats on them, and I think that's enough." Instead, it's sort of like I get to page 11 in my script and I go, "That feels like 11 pages." And that's all I know how to do.

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SPURGEON: I've wondered at times how much of your process is feel and how much is overt mechanisms. Because you've been doing this a long time now. You're telling me it's not that different than it used to be in the formal practice of it. You still kind of feel your way through?

WAID: It's a little looser than it has been. Certainly the first ten years I was doing it, I was a little bit more worried about making sure I nailed my ending before I started and having more of an outline. But like anything you do for any great length of time... it's why most older musicians gravitate towards jazz. You get to a point where the fun of it is less about the construction and the fun of it is more about the exploration. That's the drive that keeps you going. It's maddening and frustrating, but at the same time I like the jazz aspect of it. I kind of know where the story is going, I kind of know who the characters are, but you just kind of lurch ahead.

Let's take today. I'm sitting down to write an issue of Daredevil today. I've got two or three visual images in my head, the key-to-me moments in the story that might be interesting. They don't have any connection yet. So what I really kind of have to do is write ahead and keep turning over the jigsaw puzzle pieces until they start to link up. Then they start to become a narrative. I'm a final draft writer. Which is to say that I do all of my work in my head, and then I put it down on the page. I'm not averse to doing a second draft if an editor decides it doesn't work, but basically by the time I actually go through the process of typing it out it's ready to go. I'm not good on vomit drafts, I'm not good with that philosophy of putting it down on paper and editing it later. I'm editing it as I go. That's the fun part for me.

imageSPURGEON: One other thing that you do really well now that I wanted to mention. I was trying to figure out what connected your Daredevil and Hulk gigs. You're not a foundational writer. You were a very knowledgeable comics fan, but it seems like these takes are not tied into canon or original conception. It seems like your takes on those characters draw on elements familiar to modern readers, they don't require you to re-read the original issues. I'm not saying they're divorced from that, but they're not dependent on those takes.

WAID: You're right. You always have to start from there, look at the original pieces and see what you glean from there. But I think for these characters to have any sort of verve and life and to be able to have a unique voice to them that is both theirs and yours, you have to be able to take them in logical progressions. Knowing full well how the game is played, the next guy who does Daredevil will either drop a safe on everything I did, or go back because he remember what Ann Nocenti did with great fondness and he wants to do that. You know that going in. It's okay. All you can do, all you have any control over, is what you're writing that day.

The great frustration of my entire career is that to this day I seem to be typecast as "that Silver Age/retro guy." It makes me bang my head on the wall. I don't think that's who I am.

SPURGEON: Huh. Actually, I don't think that's ever been who you are.

WAID: I know. But throw a stick at a convention and ask ten people. [Spurgeon laughs] Ask them for one sentence, and three people will say, "He's the Silver Age/retro guy." As I've said before, I don't need to write Silver Age comics; I've read them all. I don't need more of them. I like the Rolling Stones, but I'm not sure they have anything culturally relevant to add to the 21st Century. You can be fond of Elvis Presley without thinking that everything now should sound like Elvis Presley.

SPURGEON: Since you're writing these comics with at least a sense of how they function in the last ten years, in more current times, do you have a sense of the post-bankruptcy Marvel period in terms of what those creators have accomplished as a group? I'm not the biggest superhero guy, but it seems to me they've had a fruitful last several years, and that they've made a lot of quality comic books. Do you have a take on their output as a fellow writer, and one that's now working within the resulting milieu? Do you have a sense of their collective accomplishment or where that company is at this moment? Do you feel like part of a group when you work for a company like that?

WAID: Not on a day-to-day basis. Certainly there is a sense of momentum and camaraderie during those three or four times a year where they'll put us in the same room and watch us dance and sing for our money. I think that putting a creative guy in charge of the damn place -- Quesada -- was smart money, and a smart move. And I like Joe. I've been his friend forever. I don't agree with everything he's done, and he won't agree with everything I've done, but by and large, I think that that gestalt is the same thing that gave DC its energy in the '80s. DC's driving force in the '80s was Dick Giordano. You put the right guy -- it doesn't mean that every artist and writer in comics is qualified for that job, but I do think it helps when you have somebody in charge, and making the calls, that is the right blend of businessman and creator and understands what it's like to sit on both sides of that desk.

There is an alternate universe out there where I'm doing that job. I'm probably on death row by now. [Spurgeon laughs]

SPURGEON: What would be the primary attractive thing for you in doing that job? Other than the fact that it's this huge touchstone moment for those that get those jobs and that they are some of the few great gigs available to people in this field. What about the job itself appealed to you?

WAID: I was actually offered this job about four or five years ago at DC. Dan for a while wanted to move on to a different part of the company. He invited me to take the job, and I went up there and had serious negotiations. We talked about it. Unfortunately, it fell through on some counts that had nothing to do with me. For that week I thought that was the next step of my career? Tom, I felt ten feet tall every day. I really felt like, "Man, this is it. I've been watching the Yankees since I was six and I'm finally on the mound, pitching." Not because I felt, "Everything is broke and I have to fix it." Or "Oh boy, I get to play with all of these fabulous toys." It wasn't quite that simple. It was more of a sense of having gotten to a point where I'm almost as good a teacher as I am a writer. I yearn to be able to work with younger creators and pass along what I know. That doesn't mean I have all the right answers, and doesn't mean I'm necessarily going to teach the right things. I'm going to be wrong in a lot of my philosophy, too. That's just the way it is. I enjoy that part of the job. I would have enjoyed the idea of sitting down with that stable of characters and that stable of writers and having a meaningful dialogue about here's what I think you're trying to do, and here's how I might be able to help you accomplish that. I think I have enough experience under my belt that you can take my suggestions seriously.

Dick Giordano was a hero to me. When I was an editor at DC, I worked directly under Dick. Man, he just defined the whole job for me. You hire the right people, advise and consent from the sidelines but basically try to stay out of their way as much as you can.

SPURGEON: You just described that kind of job as a creative endeavor, but I think most people when they think of those kinds of positions they think of the corporate elements in play. These companies right now, the comics exist under this corporate umbrella. You've been through at least two boom and bust cycles in your time in comics, so maybe you can speak to this from a well-earned vantage point. Is it particularly tough right now for comics to keep their eyes on that prize given the pressure of the corporate demands?

WAID: Yes. It really is. It's harder than it ever has been before. I think part of that is because as a medium of a 32-page comics, or 28-page comics, or whatever they are right this moment, the standard monthly issues, I think those sales have pretty much plateaued. You look at anecdotal evidence that sales are up on monthly issues, but I don't know if that's sustainable and I don't know if that's a huge bump up. It doesn't seem to me to indicate a rising trend. Let me put it this way. I do not know this, I am pulling this speculation totally out of my ass based on some informed conversation, but I would not be surprised if DC's New 52 had been a hail mary pass. I would not be surprised to learn that Diane Nelson looked at the figures and the overhead and said a couple of years ago, "All right, boys. Pack up shop. We're going to go reprint." And Dan [DiDio] and Jim [Lee] and whoever else came in to make their case. "Give us one more shot at selling out comics exclusively to 13-year-old boys." Again, that is speculation on my end. That probably isn't true, but it wouldn't surprise me if that were the case.

At Marvel, a little less so, I think. Those people seem to answer to higher-ups that seem to get what they're doing a little more. They seem to grant a little more creative latitude. But I can certainly see it. There's always the need to generate profits, move the next quarter. There's always a need, even more as these companies are absorbed by the Warner Brothers and the Disneys of the world, there's always more of a need to make the balance sheets shinier every year. It's a tough job. A lot of times it means doing corporate stuff.

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SPURGEON: Do you get a sense as a creator that it's more coarse than it used to be, that there's a hostility or at least a shrugged-shoulder "well, that's what we have to do" attitude about things? There's a suggestion that this is there to a greater degree now, although it's possible that we just forget how those pressures manifested themselves in the past.

WAID: I think people are looking back with rose-colored glasses. I think those conditions have existed for a long time. I think it's a little bit more coarse at DC than it is at Marvel at this point, but that could change tomorrow. I see one company still thriving in at least a reasonably positively healthy way. I see another company acting like it's positive, but trying to struggle to make itself look positive when it seems they're flailing with desperation.

At some point, and I'm counting on you on this, steer me away from sounding like a cheerleader for the Big Two, because for the last 30 minutes that's what I've sounded like.

SPURGEON: Let's start kidney punching them, Mark.

WAID: I'm a big believer in fair is fair, and I believe in giving props where they're due. At the same time, I'm generally the last guy in the world to be a corporate shill. That stuff rankles me.

SPURGEON: We'll get that in there directly, just like that. Although I have to say I don't think you sounded so much like that. At least not to me.

WAID: I don't want to sound like a Marvel or DC apologist, a mainstream comics apologist.

SPURGEON: Gotcha. Hey, you mentioned Joe Quesada. You said you don't agree with him all of the time, and he probably doesn't agree with you all of the time. That's an act of rhetorical generosity that I'm not sure gets a lot of use in comics.

WAID: [laughs] No!

SPURGEON: The community tried to talk about some things in 2012, including some very important issues. I include myself in this criticism, but it seems to me that we maybe didn't do all that great a job in terms of the shape and direction of the dialogues we were having. Are you encouraged that certain issues still seem to matter, or discouraged that we still have this dysfunctional way of hashing things out?

WAID: Tom, I get a little discouraged. I do think that at the end of the day most everybody I know in the industry on any level is basically trying to do what they think best in the moment. That doesn't mean they're not morons. [laughs] That doesn't mean that there's not some guys out there just actively so self-serving that they're hurting the creative endeavor that I love. But by and large, that old saw about not attributing to malice what can explained by incompetence is something that we don't trot out very much. Everything is a giant, "Oh my God. They're fucking us again." Well, Scott Shaw! You followed that yesterday, right?

imageSPURGEON: He came out against the Adventure Time set-up, right?

WAID: He came out against the page rate that is being paid, the money being paid for these properties, and the creative people, and he's coming out against the fact that quote-unquote "they surprise you with work made for hire contracts after you do the job."

I was sort of gobsmacked -- to use that word again -- with the velocity with which this suddenly became an us vs. them conversation over one set of anecdotal evidence. Immediately, people were either on the side of "Publishers are rapists" or "I'm happy to be working in comics and I'll work for nylons and chocolate bars." I mean, Jesus. Step back. Take a breath. What are we mad about? What are we mad about? Are the page rates that non-Marvel and DC comics people are paying, are the page rates they're offering sometimes embarrassingly low? Yeah. They are. I've worked at BOOM! I was very apologetic about the rates we paid. At the same time, I knew what our profit margins were. I knew what the realities were. I knew that this is what we can afford to pay people.

SPURGEON: I think the worry is, though, that when people don't use that kind of fiery rhetoric... say Scott had come out with a measured appraisal. "Is this perhaps not as much as they could pay? Should we expect more?" Would we really be talking about him right now? We all respond to people coming out in that firebrand-type way rather than engaging with people's measured rhetoric. I know I get more traction when I'm a smart-ass than I do when I'm a nice guy.

WAID: I think that's true. I think there's nothing more seductive than moral outrage. Did you see the Piers Morgan interview last night?

SPURGEON: With the lunatic?

WAID: Yeah, the lunatic. That's all show. I don't genuinely believe if you sat down at the dinner table with that guy, if you were dating his daughter, that you'd be subject to the same sort of fiery rhetoric. It's a game to get attention. It's a screaming match so you can be heard. As he admitted, they don't really want Piers Morgan deported from this country, what they want is to use that as a platform to get on the show so they can start screaming their vitriol.

SPURGEON: You're reasonably well-connected. Is there meaningful dialogue going on on those issues, perhaps somewhere we can't see, or are we constantly shooting ourselves in the foot?

WAID: I think we're kind of shooting ourselves in the foot. I don't think there's enough meaningful dialogue. Comics is like anything else, Tom. The poor get poorer and the rich get richer. The conversations being held that have any sort of real meaning are being held behind closed doors by people we don't even know by name. It's great to have advocates in there that understand -- at least from my definition, my perspective, you're going to be an editor at one of those companies one of your jobs is to be an ombudsman for the creators. To be sort of a -- not an ombudsman, but an advocate for the creator and for the company and find that fine line where you're serving both. Some people do it well. I think the guys at Marvel do it better because it comes from the head down. I think it comes from and from Axel [Alonso] and from guys that have been around long enough to know that you get your best results when you're not just screaming at people.

SPURGEON: So we wanted to get you talking about things that aren't Marvel and DC. You mentioned your time at BOOM! You've worked at a number of places, actually, and have been around to see your peers do any kind of work that exists out there that you yourself might not be interested in doing. What do you think of these small companies that seem to have found a toehold, that seem to be in it for the long haul? BOOM! seems like one of those companies, it doesn't seem like they're going away. The role the smaller companies play, are you encouraged at all by the potential for companies like that to provide a professional space for people? Or is it just limited ultimately, what they can do?

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WAID: I think it's limited in what they can do. I think the system is, in terms of the way we've been doing business, the way we've been doing print business, stacked against them. Unless you're one of Diamond's premier publishers, you're not getting the discounts you really need to make a go of it. I love the fact that guys like Nicky at Dynamite and the IDW folks have managed, by my outside perspective hanging on by their fingernails, to continue to be a viable force. Or at least a voice out there that can make a living for people. Not a great living, but they can get paid for doing what they're doing. I find it kind of astonishing, I think "Oh, my God. How did some of those companies stay in business?" I haven't the foggiest notion how it is that Oni Press is still in business. [Spurgeon laughs] That's not a critical assessment of their company. That has nothing to do with their work. It's that I know how expensive this stuff is. I just don't know, and I'd be fascinated to find out.

This is one of the measured conversations we should be having more of in the industry. I was thinking about this last night. I'm thinking, yeah, if you do this math and you're going to pay this much to print the comic and this much is the overhead and what's left over is the pool of money from which you pay the creators, so you pay the creators this much. That's the way we always do it. I wonder if there's not a little more wiggle room than you would normally think, if instead we started approaching it a little bit more from the stance of "Let's figure out what we need to pay the creators to do work that is good and solid and we don't have to feel like we're chicken-hawking them." And make that more of a priority. Worry about the other stuff -- the printing costs -- a little bit later. Make that a more important part of the overall equation. Does that make sense?

SPURGEON: It does. A criticism I make of the alt-/indy- world of comics publishing is that we don't require publishers to enter into that arena properly capitalized, let alone how they subsequently assign which virtues to what costs. There was a time for that, back when publishing comics like that was such a terrible idea that anybody who wanted to give it a whirl shouldn't have been dissuaded, but I think we're past the point where people should be treated as publishers simply because they want a whole lot to be publishers. Our common ground might be in that the assumed models need to be stripped down and perhaps substitute taking care of creators over making a place for yourself.

WAID: I think that's a conversation absolutely worth having. I think that's going to dovetail into the other big part of the seismic shift we're going to see over the next ten years, which is that content distributors in general are going to become less and less and less important. The new economy is going to be more and more a one-to-one relationship with you and your fan base.

imageSPURGEON: That's a fine way to transition into your digital comics efforts. One thing I thought fascinating about your most recent major interview about your on-line initiative Thrillbent is that you pick up on the fact there is an on-line cartooning middle class. Maybe it's a lower middle class, but it's there.

WAID: Yeah.

SPURGEON: You wanted to counter the perception that on-line revenue for comics is four dudes that got lucky and hit it big and the rest a bunch of sweaty, broke kids.

WAID: That to me is either arrogance or ignorance or both when it's said like that. I find it doesn't serve the medium well to assume that. What that does is it creates an artificial rift. Again, I'll tell you. At any of the conventions I go to, you can hang out with the mainstream comics professionals all day and they won't have the slightest clue what's happening in the world of webcomics. And vice-versa. One of the things I loved about launching Thrillbent was a bunch of webcomics guys coming forth and going, "This sounds interesting. Who is Mark Waid?" Rather than taking umbrage at the fact they didn't know who I was, I kind of delighted in that in the sense of that there really are two worlds out there that need to be connected.

SPURGEON: How are they seeing you now? Who is Mark Waid to them?

WAID: [laughs] Good question. I'm probably to some of them still a stupid-ass dilettante that's slumming. [Spurgeon laughs] I don't know. All I know to say to that is that the most exciting times of the last two or three years or so as a comics professional have been that 30 minutes after every convention panel where I've been talking about digital. That 30 minutes is always out in the hall, immediately outside the convention room, where I've got 20 or 30 or 35 20-year-old kids wanting to pick my brain and ask me a million questions about what I think and how this works. I'm not in any way pretending I have all the answers. I don't have all the right answers. I love the fact that that enthusiasm is there. They want to make comics. Jesus, that's great.

SPURGEON: Where are you most confident? Like if after the convention panel I said, "Mark, I'd love to have the 30-minute conversation with you, but I have to go to dinner." [Waid laughs] What's your best 45 seconds? What are you most confident in in your summary appraisal in digital comics and its implications for your career?

WAID: I'm most confident in the idea that you create the material for the device rather than vice-versa. I'm absolutely adamant on the idea that form follows function, that you're designing for tablets, you're designing for laptops, you're designing for phones. You're designing for electronic media. Devices. Therefore your storytelling, you know it will be a different toolbox. Some of your tools will transfer over, but some of them will not.

The other thing I'm very confident about is that cream rises to the top. Yes, there's a lot of noise out there. And yes, the fact that anybody can go out there and make their own digital comics if they're willing to put the sweat equity into it means that there's a billion bad webcomics out there. The signal to noise ratio is very low. That to me is no excuse to not continue to encourage people to put noise down. [laughs] You know? I always, always get sort of cranky at the notion that there needs to be some sort of walled garden of elites to protect us from bad print comics or bad electronic comics or whatever the next iteration is going to be. That just seem elitist to me. You know what I'm saying. That philosophy that "Well, if anybody can do it, that means there's going to be a bunch of bad stuff out there. We have to be careful about that." Well, fuck you. Who are you to decide?

SPURGEON: What is the next thing that happens that you need to know if it goes one way or the other before you calibrate your orientation towards it? Like I know a lot of my webcomics friends, a lot of them were super-interested in whether or not tablets would gain a toehold with consumers because that would change a lot of things for how they were to proceed. So what is the next one? What's the next one for you? What is that thing -- I know it won't stop you from working in the meantime, but what feels up in the air to you?

WAID: That's a very good question. I don't think this is my lead answer; I'm backing into what my lead answer might be, because I'm thinking about your question. One of my answers is that I'm eager to see whether or not we finally in the next couple of years arrive at what seems to be a fairly standard size for tablet displays. The success of the iPad mini threw me off, because that's not anything I thought about designing for. It's an odd size.

The thing that is most on my radar is okay, how do we pay for this? How do we create revenue streams for this? What's exciting to me about this -- and I've said this in other interviews -- is because we have so much material that's going to be up in 2013, everybody who's doing it has a different idea about how to create a revenue stream out of it. My feeling is "have at." I don't want there to be one standard Thrillbent revenue stream or one standard way of doing things. I think the exciting thing is, "Jesus, you do it your way and I'll do it my way. Let's get together and compare notes and figure out what's working and what's not working?" I think that on the one hand it's easy for me to say it's fairly inexpensive to do webcomics, all things considered. On the other hand, after 45 weeks of it and looking at the invoices stacking up. [laughs] It's not that cheap. There needs to be a revenue stream at some point.

I'm not sure that's the answer you're looking for.

image

SPURGEON: I just wanted to know where your head is at. One thing that interests me about the material I've read at Thrillbent is that you don't think, judging from the main serial up on the site...

WAID: Insufferable.

SPURGEON: ... there are some in-frame adjustment going on in the comics there. You see one panel, you click on it or the appropriate arrow, you might get a new panel, or a change in that panel, or an additional panel next to the original panel. It doesn't always move to a new "page." It seems like you think, or that you're at least open to the possibility, that the model going forward may be something other than standard, non-moving comics.

WAID: I like playing at the fringes of that. The north star philosophy I hold to is that you the reader need to be in control of the experience. So this is where I get hinky about things like movement and sound because anything that creates a temporal, that imposes a temporal experience on the material suddenly sort of wrests the pace with which you absorb the material out of your hands, if that makes any sense. It becomes a much more passive experience than the actual reading. So you have to be very careful about that. That said, I think you find out out where those limits are is you strap on your wax wings and you fly towards the sun and see how far you can get.

SPURGEON: I guess there is a chance that none of this stuff ever coheres, right? That's a print way to look at this stuff, that there's going to be a dominant model that settles into place. It might be that it's not just an advantage that there will be different ways to approach these kinds of projects but that the whole model might resist a dominant way of doing things.

WAID: I think that's entirely possible. That's the reason I'm not working towards a specific model of doing it. I'm with you. I don't think there will necessarily be a pat model, the way that comics have evolved themselves into 7 x 10 stapled pamphlets.

SPURGEON: That's not only a set model but kind of a baroque one. A lot of flourishes there. [pause] We're doomed.

WAID: [laughs] You know what? That doesn't necessarily mean anything either. Here's the thing. Remember: this is what media does. Radio up until the 1960s was two or three formats. Now it's a million formats. Television? Same thing. Three channels becomes a hundred channels. Any medium eventually fragments out towards a wider base of people where each individual fragment does what it has to do to survive on its own. It doesn't have to appeal to the wider base. In retrospect, it's kind of amazing and surprising that something that's been around for 75 years like print comics hasn't sort of gone through that same dissolution. Instead it's put all of its eggs into the one basket.

SPURGEON: You said earlier that you're not resentful of but maybe don't agree with the kind of public label you have in a lot of circles. Now that you're more in the business of -- through your own design and the way the industry moves -- the more direct creator-to-reader relationships, what is the North Star for you? What do we go to Mark Waid for? If you're not the Silver Age/retro guy, who are you?

WAID: I think I'm the guy explaining how we try to do this in the 21st Century. Or at least try and define it. I think that's what you go to me for. That seems to be the unique place I'm carving out for myself. I have 25 years of storytelling experience I can bring to the table. When it comes to sitting down across the tablet from you, the creator, we're on the same level. We'll figure this out together. I'll use my experience. I'm open to new things. How do you do this job? How do you do any job? How do you do any job for 25 years without getting out of bed in the morning and wanting to learn a new way of doing it? Otherwise you may as well be selling refrigerators. You bet on yourself. The thing that frustrates me the most about the digital experience, and working with people on digital creation is that we're still at the point where so few creators, so few people of merit and talent, are willing to bet on themselves.

*****

* Mark Waid
* Daredevil
* Indestructible Hulk
* Thrillbent

*****

* Mark Waid, Eisner Award winner (photo by Whit Spurgeon)
* from Kingdom Come
* from Waid's run on DC's Legion Of Super-Heroes title
* distinctive panel from early in Waid's recent, well-received Daredevil run
* page from Indestructible Hulk
* three images from the Daredevil run, including the little Daredevil/snow angel image that is probably the one visual most identified with Waid's slightly lighter take on the character
* the Adventure Time series
* image used to promote Waid's forthcoming series with smaller publisher Dynamite
* two from Insufferable, the main serial on Thrillbent
* one more stylish-looking piece of Daredevil art [below]

*****

image

*****
*****
 
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