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‘Luther’: Mark Waid Goes All In on Digital With His (Free!) Experimental Zombie Comic

At last weekend’s WonderCon in Anaheim, Mark Waid announced his plans to launch a line of creator-owned digital comics. As the first step, Waid released an all-new 33-page comic called “Luther,” telling the story of a group of survivors trying to clean up in the aftermath of a zombie apocalypse, as a free download from his website. Considering that Waid’s been advocating for comics to take advantage of the digital format for years, the fact that he’s going all in isn’t a big surprise, but what “Luther” and its successors mean is pretty interesting, especially when you considering that Waid’s selling his extensive comic book collection to do it.By Waid’s usual standards, Luther — not to be confused with the British television series starring Idris Elba of the same name — is a pretty simple, straightforward story, but Waid’s standards tend to be pretty high. He is, after all, the writer of the single best super-hero comic on the stands. He’s been working in comics almost as long as I’ve been alive, at a level that’s produced a string of unbelievably good comics. In his hands, and with some incredibly solid art by Jeremy Rock, a simple story can still be done with an elegance, even if it’s drawing from the thoroughly mined genre of the zombie.

And that’s exactly what happens. In their short narrative, Waid and Rock give us a horror story with a nice, twisty gut-punch at the end. It succeeds in the way that most good zombie stories do, by using the monsters as a background and focusing on people and how they react. Its pretty amusing premise — survivors who scrape up zombies from highways like roadkill — turns into a story that moves effortless from depressing to uplifting and back again.

So if the question is whether it’s worth your time — and the price of $0.00 — to read it, the answer is yes. But there’s a little more to it than just the content.

A few weeks ago, I described Sam Humphries’ Our Love Is Real as being like the comic book equivalent of a demo tape, showing that Humphries was capable of writing everything from fight scenes to sci-fi to romance (such as it was). “Luther” feels pretty similar. Waid has referred to it as “proof of concept” for what he intends to do with digital comics, and there are sections where you can see him playing with the possibilities for structure and format.

For the most part, this manifests in breaking the pages down into individual panels and experimenting with how to deliver them to the reader. It’s a good example of what you can do digitally, when you’re not bound by the arbitrary page count of a print comic.

For example, here’s a “three-page” sequence from the story that’s really just one page broken down into individual panels. Here’s one:

Two:

And three:

What strikes me about this particular sequence is how it lets Waid and Rock control the pacing of the story. The only way to do that with print comics is through the actual turn of the page, and the best scripts make sure that the big surprises always fall on a left-hand page so that you don’t blow it for the readers by letting them see it coming on the right. Here, and in other digital comics, it’s possible to do it with every single panel, not only building to the tension and reveals whenever you want, but in terms of isolating elements to draw attention to them.

The focus on the locket does that too, and it’s a nice effect when the panels pop up to fill the empty space one after another. It builds suspense, which is particularly suited to the subject, giving you the space so that you know something’s coming, then moving to fill it piece by piece, and the change in the art in the last panel — not just the “pulling back” of the panel, but the eyes opening — is a nice change that’s done in a completely different way than it would be in print.

It’s also worth noting that these panels are laid out to draw the eye upward, rather than the forced left-to-right, top-to-bottom motion that most comics default to, but without seeming weird or counterintuitive. These are elements that I’ve seen before, but it’s still pretty interesting to watch Waid and Rock figure them out in their story.

And that brings us to the why of it. With Luther, and his unspecified upcoming weekly project with Peter Krause, Waid is joining creators like Greg Rucka and Rick Burchett, Jim Zub and Shun Hong Chan, and Kurt Christenson and Reilly Brown in the growing number of established creators in the world of print comics who have turned to the web in order to do stories that they can’t do anywhere else, both for reasons of format and for content.

You don’t have to guess about that, either. I asked Waid why he decided to go this route and why he wanted to include Luther, and he pretty much laid it all out:

“Luther” was done late last year as a proof-of-concept to show people what I thought digital can do. I took my cues from Yves “Balak” Bigerel, Alex (Valentine) di Campi, and many others, then collaborated with the insanely talented Jeremy Rock to block it out and pace it. It’s a script that, years ago, was originally drawn for one of Boom!’s anthologies — I sent it to Jeremy who, without looking at the print version, “storyboarded” it for the 4:3 digital screen. We went back and forth on it a few times, but Jeremy had a handle on it from the first and I learned some things from him, as well.

“Luther” wasn’t really meant to go live or, again, do much more than demonstrate proof-of-concept — but when I decided to announce the relaunch of markwaid.com as a digital-comics process blog, I asked Jeremy for his (granted) permission to post it for free download. I chose PDF as the download format just because it was the most universal format — we’ll talk about other choices on the process blog.

From here? As I said — markwaid.com becomes a process blog on April 2, counting down to the launch of the digital-comics site in early May where Peter Krause, colorist Nolan Woodard and I will be doing a Brand New Weekly series. In addition, that site will host other short-stories by myself and, once we’re up and running and taken our shakedown cruise, new digital content by others, as well–names you know.

Allow me to repeat myself: I’m not positing that print should just die or go away. I am saying, as I have been for over a year, that unless you’re, say, Brian Vaughan or Bendis or someone else who’s already proven to comics shops that you can move non-superhero fare, print-first creator-owned floppies and graphic novels are a huge risk. Printing prices are a gargantuan bite of your budget at typical direct-market print-runs, even for big name creators. Even to print through Image, as a creator, you have to be willing to work for back-end money or to fund STAGGERING initial costs. There’s no WAY for me — or anyone with less of a track record than I have — to launch two or three new creator-owned books into the marketplace as it is right now, especially non-cape material, and not go bankrupt by issue three. If stores are angry that I’m “giving” the digital space something that I’m not giving them first, I’m sorry, but if I were limited to print, you’d never see these properties in any form. The plan is to collect this material for print eventually–but that’ll have to wait until we monetize the digital and see revenue from that. And, yes, I realize that’s a tough bear to wrestle to the ground, monetization — I’m working hard on that, too.

On the subject of monetizing, there’s one other wrinkle to the story: Waid is funding his digital venture by selling the extensive collection of comics that he’s built up over the past few decades:

It was a huge step. But sacrifices needed to be made. It’s not like I’m taking home a big check from this — the books are on consignment at blastoffcomics.com, so selling them becomes a long-term process — but they’re with them, not with me, and that now-once-more-a-guest-bedroom is a MIGHTY empty looking room. And, yes, I still wake up in the middle of the night missing my complete run of Leading Comics or Robin Star-Spangleds or whatever, but… but… no, wait, I promised myself I wouldn’t cry…

If you’re familiar with Waid’s work, you’re probably already aware that he loves those stories and of the history of comics that his collection represents; and if you’re not, Blastoff has a pretty great series of videos of Waid talking about individual issues from his collection that are well worth watching. It’s a monumental step for him.

But it’s also a sign that he believes in what he’s doing, and that by embracing digital comics, he’s helping these stories move forward. And with a track record like his, I’ll be there to see whatever comes next.

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