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Tue August 7, 2012
Books

A Comics Crusader Takes On The Digital Future

Originally published on Mon September 16, 2013 1:40 pm

He wouldn't make the claim himself, but when it comes to comic-book writers, Mark Waid is one of the greats.

"I've pretty much hit all of the pop culture bases," Waid says, surrounded by comic-book memorabilia in his Los Angeles home. Batman, Spider-Man and even The Incredibles have all had adventures dreamed up by Waid.

"Jan. 26, 1979, was the most important day of my life," Waid says. "Because that's the day that I saw Superman: The Movie. I came out of it knowing that no matter what the rest of my life was going to be like, it had to involve Superman somehow."

Waid's writing made the DC Comics' miniseries Kingdom Come into one of the definitive Superman stories — the ultimate "what if" tale.

"What happens when Superman retires and the next generation of heroes come along and make a mess of things, and Superman has to come back and set the world straight?" Waid says.

"You know," he laughs, "that is kinda what I'm doing right now."

Remaking Comics For Hand-Held Screens

That's because Waid has begun remaking comics for iPads and similar gizmos — crafting stories that use simpler pictures and bigger text that read well on screens of any size. And he's found new storytelling tricks, like captions that shift over a static piece of art.

"That doesn't change the image, but it completely changes the context of what the story is," Waid explains.

Take the comic Waid wrote for Marvel's new Infinite Comics line, designed specifically for the digital format. In it, a hero hurtles through space, a red-orange blur behind him.

But when the reader swipes the screen, the page doesn't turn — instead, the image shifts focus. The blur becomes the fiery cosmic Phoenix, the X-Men's most deadly foe.

"I got news for you: I've been doing this for 25 years, and this is the hardest writing I've ever had to do," Waid says.

Others have tried adapting comics from print to digital form, but it hasn't been easy. One attempt, a hybrid cartoon/comic called Motion Comics, failed to really take off.

"Because what makes comics ... is that you are in control of the pace at which you absorb the story," Waid says. "It's a relationship between you and the page."

So far, the biggest hits have been apps from a company called Comixology. These put issues of paper comics directly onto phones and tablets. They're good, but not perfect, Waid says. He likens it to what happened when movies went to VHS and were hacked to fit TV screens.

"That seemed unacceptable to me," he says. "[It] seemed to me that the smart money is to go the reverse and create things specifically for a digital medium."

Taking A Risk On A Digital Future

And Waid is betting the Kent family farm on it. He's selling off his personal collection — 40 years' worth of comics — to fund his new venture, Thrillbent.com. There, he hopes to build an audience by giving away the work for free.

If he can find a way to make Thrillbent pay, Waid will take that cash and then make print collections of the stories for stores.

"And hope that enough store owners haven't hung me in effigy in the meantime, where there's not a market for that stuff," Waid says.

Robert Hennessey is one of those store owners Waid wants to keep the peace with. Hennessey dreads the end of print comics, when stores like his are no longer the center of the comic-book universe.

Sitting with Waid in his shop, Hi De Ho Comics in Santa Monica, Calif., Hennessey describes his worst-case scenario.

"OK, here's my fear," Hennessey says. "That what happens is that we get comics out there digitally, and that they become either free or so nearly free that it starts to cannibalize the audience for print comics."

But some see that change as inevitable.

"The weekly superhero comic is not long for this world," says Glen Weldon, a critic and contributor to NPR's Monkey See blog. "The other thing to keep in mind is that it's really surprising how ... easy it is to get comics nowadays digitally."

But that doesn't mean they're selling. In June, Comixology revealed they had pulled in $19 million in sales in 2011 — less than what print comics make in a single month. The company's projections for the current year put them on track to take in $70 million — a big jump that would equal about two months' take from print.

That leaves Waid with a never-ending battle: to make the digital world safe for creators, fans and the comic-book way.

Noah Nelson is a reporter for Turnstyle, a project of Youth Radio.

Copyright 2013 Turnstyle. To see more, visit http://turnstylenews.com/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish. This summer, comic book movies have earned one and a half billion dollars here in the U.S. That's more than triple the sales of actual comic books for all of last year. The comic book industry is trying to figure out how to expand its audience and part of the answer is probably digital, but nobody has landed on the perfect comic equivalent of the eBook, MP3 or streaming internet video.

Noah Nelson of Turnstyle News brings us the story of one man who is trying to solve the problem. Mark Waid, superhero scribe by day, digital comics revolutionary by night.

NOAH NELSON, BYLINE: He wouldn't make the claim, but when it comes to comic book writers, Mark Waid is one of the greats.

MARK WAID: I pretty much hit all of the pop culture bases.

NELSON: Batman, Spiderman, even the Incredibles have had their adventures dreamt up by Waid.

WAID: January 26, 1979 was the most important day of my life because that's the day that I saw "Superman: The Movie."

NELSON: Waid was 15 years old.

WAID: And I came out of it knowing that no matter what the rest of my life was going to be like, it had to involve Superman somehow.

NELSON: He made the D.C. Comics miniseries "Kingdom Come" into one of the definitive Superman stories, the ultimate what-if tale.

WAID: What happens when Superman retires and the next generation of heroes come along and make a mess of things and Superman has to come back and set the world straight?

NELSON: Mark, isn't that what you're doing right now?

WAID: You know, that is kind of what I'm doing right now.

NELSON: Waid has begun remaking comics for iPads and similar gizmos, stories that use simpler pictures and bigger text that read well on any size screen. He's found new storytelling tricks like captions that shift over a static piece of art.

WAID: That doesn't change the image, but it completely changes the context of what the story is.

NELSON: Take the comic Waid wrote for Marvel's new Infinite Comics line. A hero hurtles through space, a red-orange blur behind him. When the reader swipes the screen, the page doesn't turn. Instead, the image shifts focus. The blur becomes the fiery cosmic Phoenix, the X-Men's most deadly foe.

WAID: I got news for you. I've been doing this for 25 years and this is the hardest writing I've ever had to do.

NELSON: Others have tried to adapt comics from print to digital, but it hasn't been easy. One attempt was a hybrid cartoon comic called Motion Comics. Those failed to really take off. So far the biggest hits have been apps from a company called Comixology. These put issues of paper comics right onto phones and tablets. They're good, but not perfect.

Waid says it's like what happened when movies went to VHS and were hacked to fit TV screens.

WAID: That seemed unacceptable to me. It seemed to me like the smart money is to go the reverse and create things specifically for a digital medium.

NELSON: Waid is betting the Kent family farm on it, selling off his personal collection, 40 years worth of comics, to fund his new venture, Thrillbent.com, building an audience by giving away the work for free. If he can find a way to make Thrillbent pay, Waid will take that cash and then make print collections of the stories for stores.

WAID: And hope that, you know, enough store owners haven't hung me in effigy in the meantime where there's not a market for that stuff.

ROBERT HENNESSEY: Hanging in effigy wasn't really part of my plan.

NELSON: That's Robert Hennessey.

HENNESSEY: But...

WAID: Although...

HENNESSEY: Yeah, but now that you mention it...

NELSON: He's co-owner of the Santa Monica comic book store Hi De Ho Comics. Hennessey dreads the end of print comics when stores like his are no longer the center of the comic book universe.

HENNESSEY: OK. Here's my fear, is that what happens is that we get comics out there digitally and that they become either free or so nearly free that it starts to cannibalize the audience for print comics.

NELSON: But some see that change as inevitable. Glen Weldon is a critic whose book on the history of Superman is due next year and he's a contributor to NPR's Monkey See blog.

GLEN WELDON: The weekly superhero comic is not long for this world. The other thing to keep in mind is that it's really surprising how much - how easy it is to get comics nowadays digitally.

NELSON: But that doesn't mean they're selling. In June, Comixology revealed they'd pulled in $19 million in sales in 2011. For perspective, that's less than what print comics make in a month, which leaves Waid with a never-ending battle, to make the digital world safe for creators, fans and the comic book way.

For NPR News, I'm Noah Nelson.

CORNISH: Noah Nelson is a reporter for TurnstyleNews.com, a project of Youth Radio. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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