So my new comic, Arcanum is up at the new, relaunched Thrillbent 2.0 site. Let's tackle things in order, General to specific.
For about three years, Mark Waid and I would go to lunch and have the same conversation. Or rather, the same two conversations simultaneously:
1.) John: You need to BRAND YOURSELF. You are value-added, you need to be doing more creator-owned stuff!
2.) Mark: Digital comics are THE FUTURE-BALLS!
He may have phrased that slightly more elegantly. But Waid's had close to 30 years in the comics business, and he'll tell you himself the growing cost of shipping paper around was affecting not just bottom lines but creative decisions at the big publishers (This was before the fine folks at Comixology even existed). Waid wanted to experiment with digital delivery at some of his other gigs, but the will -- and financing -- wasn't there.
At the same time, he'd become fascinated with the new story-telling techniques being shown off by guys like Yves Bigerel. Waid was really churning a lot of interesting ideas about the economics and the storytelling form.
At the same-same time, I was on my 4GM hobbyhorse -- although by that point we may have crossed into open-source warfare theory. Comics, even the slightly fancier ones Waid was plying with, were dumb files. We all had computers and tablets in our homes. The Coasean Floor was in theory next to nothing. What the hell? Where were all the creator-owned comics being delivered straight to a willing and eager audience?
The answer, of course, is that they were just called "Webcomics" and were already wildly successful. Well, some were. Others weren't. Same's true in any business. But they were out there, and they weren't paying the distribution cost for 7000 pamphlets to be sent out to 2000 physical stores in order to tell their stories and reach fans. They were paying very reasonable hosting fees and reaching THE PLANET EARTH.
So we started scrawling on napkins. Little words to live by, like: "Everyone already has a wide-screen" and "Motion comics are the devil" and "The Reader controls the flow of information" and "Information must be dumb." We talked to the webcomics people, trying to figure out what we could use from the single-page comic model in long-form storytelling. Mark made some speeches that pissed everyone off. We put a little money aside, we called some friends. That led us to ...
Mark created a new comic in the wide-screen format we'd come to believe would serve as a shorthand industry standard, and structured it in a pulp update fashion. One page at a time seemed like too little narrative, particularly for a weekly update structure. I'd like to give full credit to Warren Ellis's webcomic FreakAngels here -- we glommed his 6-page format as our base, and tweaked it to be 8-10 "slides" in our format. As usual, Warren's about five years of everybody else. Luckily his drinking inhibits his world-conquering instincts. Various versions of the comic reader we use have existed, this one is just tuned to my obsessive notes about skeumorphics and the physical artifact of the page turn ("No mouse, arrows=page turn" reads on of my blurry little scrawls).
That's a big thing to understand. We're not saying we're "creating" anything here. The webcomics people built the model, Warren created an early model of the narrative structure -- no, we're synthesizers and advocates. We're the guys who are tugging on the sleeves of our friends in long-form storytelling and saying "You could do it this way."
The question, of course, is how you make any goddam money doing it.
We don't know.
That is the sound of my business manager's head exploding.
That's not to say there's no way to make money at it. The trick is, now we have to go figure it out. Comics are learning that, just like music learned and TV is beginning to learn, there's no future in taking the check and just doing your job within the existing structure.
That's not to say there's no work out there in the established marketplace. I just had lunch with an agent who said "Look, there's a good living in being the Executive Producer who babysits cash-rich network shows." Not everyone's cut out to be a marketing human. But there's something new here, something cool and challenging, that may cost you in time or money but the trade is freedom. It's going to come form the edges, of course -- established people like Waid in comics, or Rob Thomas and Veronica Mars Kickstarter in TV -- but those humans will be good test cases and have the social capital to burn.
Comics in particular is a weird case. The mainstream comic companies have so few people writing so many titles, it may in fact be easier to become a writer on a television show than to become a writer of comic books, by which I mean to say still very goddam hard. But for a medium with far fewer capital requirements, that flies in the face of sense.
So, how to make a living doing this type of digital comics? We're going to try ... everything. Our collections will be on sale on Comixology, of course and we'll have a storefront up soon. All our for-pay installments will have a little extra, some DVD bonuses, as it were. We've got a Thrillbent app in development that will do some very cool stuff, allowing you to read the comic, look at the inks or read the script over layout, all when you buy one issue of the comic collections.
Most of our titles, when they hit enough readers and chapters to make sense, will Kickstart to physical collections. I've participated in a few successful Kickstarter campaigns now, and I'm impressed at how a particularly well run on can both invest the current fans of a property and create new ones.
We may also experiment with time-shifting: the weekly installments are always free, but a collection of the next month's or so will be for sale, giving you both the spiffy collected portable version and a jump ahead on your favorite stories.
This may evolve as the site ages and we scribble numbers on index cards with Sharpies and frown -- you know, business things. We may go to a subscrpition model for some content, we may find ways to do ads within the comics reader ... we don't know. We'll be looking at a lot of different solutions, and anyone who has a bright idea, or even some success with their own model, should definitely drop us a line. I'd say "swing by the forums", but we're still arguing about whether we should have forums.
At the same time we're still putting up the pdfs and cbz of each installment for free. Grab the first week of Arcanum on pdf (link down there on the bottom right fo the page), toss it in your favorite reader on "full screen" and "slideshow" setting in the View menu and rock out. We like the "Get it free, but the more convenient form is for a little money, plus it helps us out" model.
We're even making a pretty radical jump with this version of Thrillbent: embeddable comics. Embedding/sharing is what made videos and music go viral, and as I said our comics are dumb files. Share 'em. Put them on your site. Make our content part of your content. As I said at WonderCon, nothing's more important than treating your audience like partners instead of suspects.
Mark's carried the bulk of the content weight, time for me to share.
Arcanum is a partnership with Genre19 artist Todd Harris. Those who watched Leverage know I'm fascinated with systems. How they break, how they react, how they both define and are defined by the people within them. I wanted to combine one storytelling world system -- counter-terrorism/intelligence -- with one that it was not equipped to handle.
Also, my mind was fried by the UFO-conspiracy show U.F.O. when I was a kid. I LOVED the idea that instead of a giant alien armada invasion, there was a pitched, secret battle going on between one government agency and the mobile, untrackable forces of an enemy who struck in small, subtle ways in order to disrupt our lives, all while refusing to play by the "rules" of modern combat. Anyone who's gone through a TSA line lately will tell you this story has some modern-day relevance.
But what if the enemy literally didn't play by the rules? What if they were so totally alien as to be beyond alien? As a lifelong fantasy fan, I was always struck by just how comfortable we've become with the Tolkien tropes of fantasy. There's even a thriving sub-genre of urban magic where elves and dwarves and other fey live right along in the human world, some secret some not, but integrated.
Call me crazy, but if confronted with a big-brained biped who solved interstellar travel but otherwise obeys all the laws of reason and phsyics or immortal creatures who can bend the laws of time and space at will, I find the damn magic users more terrifying.
To borrow from Charles Stross's excellent blend of Cold War tropes and Cthulhu (read the essay in The Atrocity Archives), I think the alien invasion story spot-welded to the most traditional fantasy tropes I could find will create some fresh horror. Because Arcanum is a sci-fi horror story. It's going to get very dark. Consider yourself warned. This is a covert war against a hyper-intelligent enemy which shares neither our biology nor our morals. With all that entails.
Here's the first installment of Arcanum. Click on the image to advance it. You can also check it out, along with other cool stuff, over at Thrillbent.