Noah J Nelson on Tuesday, Aug. 7th
A version of this story appears on NPR’s All Things Considered.
He wouldn’t make the claim, 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 told me as we spoke at his Los Angeles home, surrounded by comic book memorabilia. Batman, Spider-man, even The Incredibles have had their adventures dreamt up by Waid.
“January 26th 1979 was the most important day of my life. Because that’s the day that I saw Superman: The Movie,” said Waid. “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.
His 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?”
I ask him: isn’t that what he’s doing right now?
Waid has begun remaking comics for iPads and similar gizmos. These stories 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.
“That doesn’t change the image but it completely changes the context of what the story is.”
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.
“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 said.
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.
“Because what makes comics, comics is that you are in control of the pace at which you absorb the story. 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 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.
“That seemed unacceptable to me that seemed to me that the smart money is to go the reverse and create things specifically for a digital medium.”
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; 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.
“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 said.
Robert Hennesy, is one of those store owners Waid is looking to keep the peace with. Sitting in his shop, Hi De Ho Comics in Santa Monica, with Waid, he described his worst case scenario.
“Okay here’s my fear,” said Hennesy, “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?”
Some see that change as inevitable.
“The weekly superhero comic is not long for this world,” said Glen Weldon, a critic and contributor to NPR’s Monkey See blog whose book on the history of Superman is due next year. “The other thing to keep in mind is that it’s really surprising how much, 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 dollars in sales in 2011. For perspective: that’s less than what print comics make in a month. The company’s projections for the current year put them on track to take in 70 million, a big jump that will equal about two months take from print.
Which leaves Waid with a never ending battle: to make the digital world safe for creators, fans, and the comic book way.