Digital December: Mark Waid Goes Deep on Digital and the Future of Comics
Last week, renowned comic book writer and editor Mark Waid announced that he was leaving his position as Chief Creative Officer at Boom! Studios to focus not only on his freelance work as a comic book writer, but particularly on digital comics and experiments within the space of digital distribution. Long an outspoken supporter of digital comics — often to controversial effect — Waid talked with ComicsAlliance editor-in-chief Laura Hudson about the reasons behind his departure, his passion and plans for digital comics, the reality of illegal downloading, his infamous Harvey Awards speech, and why the comic book industry cannot allow fear to drive its approach to the future.
ComicsAlliance: How have you been since the big announcement that you were leaving your executive position at Boom! Studios?
Mark Waid: I’ve been OK, actually. As we roll into the end of the year, it’s nice to reach a point where you can kick back for a couple of weeks a take stock of the next few years and figure out where to go.
CA: You’ve said that you want to work more in the digital space…
MW: Oh, almost exclusively in the digital space. I’ll still do print comics; as long as there’s a market I’ll still be there. I just have a hard time believing that’s the future.
CA: What’s the most exciting thing that you see happening in digital comics right now?
MW: Just the fact that it’s the ultimate democratization of the form. The standard pat answer I’ve been giving at conventions for ten years to everybody who says they want to break into comics is no longer valid. The standard pat answer was, get yourself printed up somewhere, do a self-published minicomic, go to Kinko’s, whatever. Now it’s go lock down a website and do a webcomic, and if it’s good, the cream will rise to the top and we will find you. And you don’t have to feel limited by genre; you’re not pitching us as publishers the things we want to publish. You’re instead doing what you’re comfortable with; you’re doing your best work, and if it’s good, we’ll find you.
It’s not like having to take twenty minutes and go to Meltdown Comics and spend $3.99 and hope it’s good. There’s probably still a lot of great stuff out there that nobody’s found yet; there’s no guarantee that the cream will rise to the top of other because there are a million other factors of luck in there. But I can just go on the web and surf, and find links through Deviantart or other cartoonists, see what Scott McCloud is recommending or what the Twitter feeds are talking about… And if you want to stay in the digital realm, that’s fine too. Let’s find a way to monetize that… The first rule of new media is nobody gets rich, but everybody gets paid, in a perfect world. Maybe you don’t get fabulously wealthy doing your webcomic, but as long as you can make a decent living… In all my forays into digital that are coming up, there’s no correlation to big fat paychecks that I can see. I’m looking at taking another hefty paycut next year in terms of expected money because it’s more profitable to write an issue of Spider-Man than it is to do my own digital comic and hope that it eventually pays for itself. But if it just pays for itself, that’s fine.
CA: Well, think about indie print comics. How many indie creators do you know who still need to have a second job?
MW: In print comics, you have to. In print comics at this point, unless you’re Marvel and DC, if your print run is somewhere in that four to five thousand copy range – and if you’re in indie comics, you’re lucky if it’s in the four to five thousand range – your print costs can be as much as $1.10 or $1.20 just to print the book. Now with $3.99, if you’re selling through Diamond at 40%, which is what most people are doing, you’re getting $1.60 off that four dollar comic. That is not a sustainable business model, and it is only going to get more expensive as print media continues to dwindle down and printers continue to close up shop and everything shifts towards digital. We can’t continue to expand the direct sales marketplace under those conditions.
At Boom when I started three years we had the luxury of tossing out a few books that maybe would sell three or four thousand copies, but would help us build our ideal library or bring attention to something that’s not the standard superhero genre. But over the last few years, it’s become incredibly cost prohibitive to do that. I’m really proud of the fact that Irredeemable and Incorruptible are Boom’s bestselling books and they bring in a great deal of revenue, but three years ago that was not the mission statement of Boom Studios, to do superhero comics… But all our best intentions aside, it wasn’t until we did superhero books that making a substantial enough profit to really do well.
CA: Speaking of Boom, we recently did an interview with [Marketing Director] Chip Mosher, where he told us he thought digital comics have been overhyped to the point that it is detrimental, and that it is a false and Pollyanna-ish notion that digital will save comics.
MW: Boy, that’s not true. Let me preface this by saying I’m reacting to what you said and what I know Chip’s opinions to be, and not because I read it. I respect his opinion and there’s some truth to what he’s saying. There is truth that the signal to noise ratio of digital comics hype versus the reality of the income is a pretty high ratio… But it is nothing but a growth industry; it is a place where numbers can only go up. How many iPads are going to be in people’s hands next Saturday when Santa comes? I think that the hunger for that material is there. I think the biggest impediment we have is not the technology or the delivery system; the biggest impediment is that everybody wants to charge more than 99 cents for a digital comic, and I don’t think that’s a winning system. I understand the rationale, which is that you’ve got three thousand retailers out there hanging on by their fingernails… From a marketing perspective, it would be easy to look at those three thousand retailers and say, “Too bad. You’ve outlived your usefulness and you’re going to get second best out of our efforts from now on because we have to concentrate on digital.”
CA: I’ve honestly been surprised at just how loyal publishers have been; you almost never see a press release about digital without there being a paragraph about supporting retail and how it’s actually going to help print sales.
MW: I think if we were in any other medium — music, movies, any other medium – you wouldn’t see that same sense of loyalty. And I think that’s something that even the most frightened retailers should embrace. Nobody’s how out there saying “We don’t care about comic stores. They can go to hell.” Nobody is saying that. They’ve been our partners for years now, and it would be cruel and heartless to say, “You’re on your own now. Go open a Quiznos or something.”
CA: Do you think that the direct market is going to be harmed by digital, or are they entirely separate channels in your mind?
MW: I think the damage will be in periodical sales. Let me break it down even further. I think the impact will be greatly on stores that see themselves as a periodical business. Those guys are going to get hurt the most. The smart guys who look at their stores as pop culture outlets that are not dependent on selling that week’s comics are going to be able to adapt the fastest. It’s wonderful to sell $4 floppies, but you gotta make room in your store for the sweatshirts and statues and collectibles. It means changing your business model somewhat, and being less dependent on the $4 comics nobody’s buying anymore.
CA: So you think that periodical comics sales are going to decline in general, and not a result of digital comics?
MW: We do know that periodical sales are continuing to dwindle, on the whole, while graphic novel sales get stronger and stronger. For retailers it’s easier to carry a $16.99 trade paperback than a $3.99 comic. Your profit margin is a little larger; the durability of the book is stronger. If you’re asking me to look in my incredibly cloudy crystal ball, I think we’re looking at a day where the successful comics stores are the ones who are doing most of their sales in trade paperback form, and in the back of the room, they’ve got the shelf of periodicals. Marvel and DC will still publish monthly comics, but they’ll be a tiny part of the store in the back.
CA: There were reports recently that Diamond has a digital comics distribution system coming that would actually work through comic shops, which struck me as weird since I really see them as two separate channels. Do you them feeding into each other?
MW: I don’t have all the answers and I’m hungry for people to have different points of view on this and to learn from them. But the only way I see the [channels] feeding into each other is if you’re selling dribs and drab on the iPad or the Android and you’re selling individual issues and steer people into retail stores to buy trade paperbacks…
The whole concept of day and date is also tied to the retail outlets we have now. If you hand a casual comics fan an iPad and give them the DC app, I don’t think they give a rat’s ass about day and date; they just want to read a Batman comic. Yes, Tuesday is the release date for CDs, but if there isn’t a band I’m specifically looking for that day, I’m not going to rush down to the store. I don’t care when I get the song, unless it’s brand new and fresh.
CA: In our interview with Chip, he also talked about the barriers of the comic book format itself for new readers, including how and when comics are distributed, and even how to read them. He thought this could be a major impediment to breaking in new readers. How serious of an issue do you think that is?
MW: I think it’s a huge impediment on a couple of counts. First off, all of us who have read comics since were kids, we all lose sight of the fact that smart adults can’t figure out how to read comics, which is mind-blowing. Just a couple weeks ago, I was in Indiana guest-lecturing at an anthropology class about comics, and I passed out some pages of comics to make some points. And some of the kids who didn’t read comics came down afterwards – these are bright kids who have light behind their eyes – and they were saying, “I’m not exactly sure how to read this. Do I read the balloons first? Do I read right to left or up and down?”
For you and me, it’s like asking us how we breathe; we just know this stuff. But comics is like any other foreign language; you learn it easiest and best as a kid, and if you have to learn it as an adult it’s much harder to pick up on. Just the reading of comics, the mechanism is an impediment. Second, there’s a reason that newspapers don’t still publish serial fiction like [Charles] Dickens. Nobody wants to read it that way anymore. Serial fiction is a conceit of comic books and soap operas. As one goes, so goes the other in terms of public consciousness. Especially in the digital age, people want everything now now now. Unless I’m overlooking something, I can’t see any other place for real serial fiction like that.To some degree there’s television, but even in television episodes you basically get a beginning, a middle and an end.
CA: A satisfying chunk of content.
MW: And that’s our other problem. This is something I’ve always fought hard to maintain both as an editor and a writer. I really think that for the three bucks or four bucks that you’re paying for a comic, you need a conflict and a resolution. I don’t care if it’s part one of five or part two of five. I understand you’ve got a big overarching story tell, but just give me a conflict and a resolution somewhere within the body of that text and I’ll feel like I’m comfortable selling that to somebody as a discrete piece of entertainment. And we don’t do that do that well.
CA: Well, to a degree it hasn’t been required by the publishers. I remember when DC decided to cut back on their page count in order to drop prices, and someone there made a comment about how it wouldn’t be a problem because there’s room in every story to cut back and compress more content into it. And I was kinda like, “Why weren’t you doing that already?”
MW: [laughs] Exactly. It’s like saying, we were fudging by 10% anyway… It’s a much different animal. I don’t know any writer who doesn’t look at the difference between 22 and 20 pages and just lose their minds. If you’re doing your arc and your story right, it’s like a game of Jenga, where if you pull out one piece, the whole thing collapses. And if you’re telling me that you’re doing 22 pages that could have just as easily been done in 20, then you’re not doing it right to begin with. We don’t do that well as creators; we’re not practiced at making each chapter of something a satisfying enough chunk where people feel like they got something out of it in and of itself as opposed to catching 15 minutes in the middle of your long story.
CA: It reminds me a little of the Spider-Man strip in the newspaper. I used to have a friend who joked that this week, Spider-Man walks forward one step! Next week, Spider-Man walks forward one more step! And to a lesser degree, I feel that way about a lot of periodical superhero comics.
MW: You’re dead right. Most of them are like that. But in my experience, I’ve found that if you try too hard the other way – if you’re working too hard to make it feel like it’s a discrete package of entertainment, it is perceived as old school or old-fashioned storytelling, and that in and of itself becomes an impediment in the market. So I don’t know where the sweet spot is.
CA: But you’re talking about how it’s perceived by current comic book fans and not how it would be perceived by new readers.
MW: That’s an excellent point. And frankly, I don’t give a rat’s ass how it is perceived by your standard comics fan who’s been reading comics for 20 years. That doesn’t mean I don’t care about them as customers, but I would much rather write something that I feel like non-comics readers can glom on to than I am tailoring my work or my format to guys who already have a hundred longboxes of Green Lantern.
CA: I mean, that’s what worries me about the idea of this new readership that could be developed by digital comics. Let’s say you can get them interested in looking at comic books, you can get them to download the app, you can get them to spend one to four dollars – if you can somehow even get them to that point, is the content there going to bring them all the way back for the next issue?
MW: This is one of the arguments that I had with [former Marvel Comics VP] Bill Jemas. When I took over Fantastic Four, and they wanted to do a 9 cent first issue as a stunt, the advice I got and the common wisdom was that you’re starting the series, so we want you to do part one of five. We want you to do the launch of a big, continued epic. And I fought against that tooth and nail. It’s a first issue, and at nine cents it’s practically free, so you’re getting it in the hands of all these people who wouldn’t otherwise see it, so I want to do a complete story in one issue that is a package. This is everything you need to know, and you get a story out of it. It’s more important to me that you come back next month because you want to come back, rather than you feeling like you have to come back to get the rest of the story.
CA: You can’t count on that obsessiveness with everyone, especially new readers.
MW: You really can’t, especially once you get outside the hardcore fans. The dropoff will be staggering. “I didn’t like what I saw this month; maybe I’ll come back next month.” Who’s going to say that? So honestly, this per digital is just an extension of a fight that I’ve been fighting sometimes single-handedly for ten years. But boy, try selling that to a marketplace that makes its bones off of twenty-part miniseries and crossover events.
CA: Speaking of fighting the fight, you stepped out big time recently for digital at the Harvey Awards with your keynote speech. The backlash against that was really interesting – it seemed like this flashpoint for all the fears of creators and publishers about digital, and suddenly there were these bizarre headlines about how much you loved piracy or something.
MW: In this case, I have to take some of the rap, because if you didn’t get my message, I’m not egotistical enough to think that the problem is all with you. If you didn’t get my message, I have to own up to the fact that maybe I didn’t deliver it as well as I wanted to. Really what happened was they asked me to do the keynote speech and I didn’t really have much time to get something together. And all my friends said, you’re crazed right now with a million things going on, just get up there and talk about something that’s easy for you, like Jack Kirby’s birthday or something. And I said, you know what? I could do that, but it’s facile and it seems like a waste of the opportunity. Also, copyright, trademark, and digital is stuff that I talk about passionately with my friends anyway, so it is something I can talk about easily. So I did spend the time and energy and worked like a demon on that speech… Then I got up there, and what an exquisite fumble. What a beautiful, beautiful train wreck.
You know when you start to tell a joke, and realize early on that you forget to mention something, but you keep on talking thinking that you’ll going to course correct somehow? You just keep getting further away, and that’s what that whole speech was. I’d also like to add, you try giving a keynote speech and suddenly realize that you’re looking at Denny O’Neil and Walt Simonson and Jerry Robinson looking back at you like, “Hey kid, what are you gonna say?” There’s a huge difference between evangelizing about something on a panel at a convention and a dinner where you’ve got Weezy Simonson looking at you.
I bit off more than I could chew, and I didn’t do a good job of honing the point I wanted to hone, which was, don’t be afraid of digital. And instead I got off on the history of copyright and so forth, which I think was very valuable, but probably not part of the same speech… And you know, as angry as Sergio [Aragones] was, Weezy [Simonson] came up to me the next day and said, “I don’t necessarily agree with everything you said, but I really appreciate that you said it, because nobody’s saying it.” And I thought that was an incredibly kind compliment to give. It’s time we started talking about it. It’s way past time we started talking about it. And the more transparent we can be about it, the better. We don’t have time for cloak and dagger sh*t at this point.
CA: It seems like maybe it was a similar problem to what we were talking about before with content for new readers – knowing your audience. If you’d given that speech to me and a bunch of other people who are very positive about digital, I don’t think any of us would have walked away thinking, “Mark Waid LOVES digital piracy.” But that wasn’t the room you were talking to.
MW: No. The room I was talking to had a substantial number of people who continue to use the phrase “generation of entitlement” when they talk about those kids today who are on their lawn playing rock and roll. And that, with all due respect to many of those people, makes me batsh*t. Do you know who invented the phrase generation of entitlement? The next generation after the Mayflower. The next generation is always the generation of entitlement, because they didn’t have to build their own log cabins or ride their penny-farthing bicycles to work. As long as there have been children, this has been going on.
And my argument is, I’m not you to like it, or to shout callooh callay, people can pirate things right and left! I’m not asking you to embrace it lovingly. I’m asking you to accept the fact that we have no control over it, and we are better served spending our energy on the things we have control over. We can be angry about it all we want, but angry is a luxury we don’t have at this point.
CA: It seems like there’s a lot of emotional conflation between those sort of eternal generational resentments and digital. There are certainly correlations between the two, but talking about what’s wrong with kids today and talking about what sort of digital business model we need to adapt to are two different questions.
MW: They are two different questions. And add to that, we’re living through the greatest economic depression since the 1930s. I honestly believe the tenor in that room when I gave the speech, and the general tenor of the industry would not have been as nervous and fearful and skittish ten years ago, because we are now living in a time when even the most well-heeled people worry about putting their kids through school more than ever before. Or will they be able to get medical insurance. And it gets worse and worse every year. I said this a million times during that speech: I understand why people are afraid. We’re all a little nervous about where the future’s going to go, but we’re smart. And we have the luxury of watching how back the RIAA f*cked it up for ten years. I know RIAA lawyers; I don’t like them, but I know them. They are somewhere north of tobacco lawyers on the moral chain, but even they admit that knowing what they know now, if they could get in a time machine and go back ten years and just say “OK, just charge 99 cents a song,” they’d do it. And that industry would have saved millions of dollars of stupid money that they spent litigating stuff they couldn’t litigate against.
CA: How much of the current digital strategy in comic books right now is driven by fear?
MW: That’s an excellent question. I think that if you’re over 30, the vast majority of it is driven by fear, and if you’re under 30 it’s driven by hope. I think it’s a generational break. The number of people who came up to me after the Harveys speech and were concerned or angry or fearful – those were the more established creators. The younger guys, the guys at the Artist Alley tables, the guys who are doing webcomics – those guys were excited about the possibility, and their excitement trumped any sort of fear. And that’s great. That’s terrific. But you know, if has to be driven by fear, I’ll take it. At least it’s being driven by something.
CA: I’ve also heard a certain line of thinking from some creators – this idea of feeling robbed by digital or that “if it weren’t for illegal filesharing, I’d be a millionaire right now!”
MW: [laughs] “F*ck. You.” Here’s the other thing that people tend to forget, and it’s because they’re people who live in California, Texas, New York, or Chicago. Those four centers are the vast majority of comic stores, and the rest of the comic stores around the nation have to service the other 46 states. How many stores are there in Mississippi, for God’s sake? Two? One? I get emails and message board posts and tweets from fans who are like, I didn’t even know Boom comics existed because my mom and pop comic store that’s a hundred miles away from me only buys the top 100 comic books. But I found Irredeemable or Incorruptible online, and now I want to buy the trade paperback. That is a valuable market. That’s not a lost sale to me.
Moreover, this is something that drives me insane when we talk about how illegal downloading is the enemy of all things good and noble and pure. The thing I didn’t say during that speech because I knew I had lost the audience, but that I really wanted say was, look. I understand if I say, “people want to download our work,” your kneejerk response is going to be “then pay me for it.” Everybody wants to be paid for their work, if for no other reason than so they can keep doing it. But for the love of God, give me 1/16 of a second between saying that and your kneejerk reponse to take in and revel in the fact that people all over the world are hungrily downloading our stuff because they have a hunger for it and they want it. I wanted to say, I guarantee you that down the street, at the poetry convention, no one is giving this speech. No one is talking about illegal downloading because no one downloads poetry. They all want what we do, and they want it internationally, and they want it now.
And oh my God, as an artist – let me put my bank account aside for ten seconds – that’s what you want. There’s value to that reaction. And yes, it’s complicated and wrapped up in the legality and the ethics of it, but strip everything else away for a second. If you’re in the industry only because you want to make money and you don’t care whether people are hungry for it or how they react to it, then f*ck you. Go work at Borders. Get out. You’re ruining my industry.
MW: Yes! See again, show me how that’s lost sales. You can’t.
CA: Did you see the chart?
MW: I want to have a t-shirt made out of that chart. Look, every instance is going to be different. Everyone on both sides of the argument has anecdotal evidence that proves that they’re right and the other side is wrong. But at this point, I know in my gut that this makes sense for me. Call me the most innocent, wide-eyed Pollyanna in the world, but I don’t think most people out there are downloading this for free just to screw us. People are willing to pay. People want to support you… And I don’t expect the same level of support as a struggling artist, because I’m not going to have to work as hard. But as a rule, people who are interested in comics, who are interested in art, they understand the patronage system to this day. They understand that they’re getting something out of it, and I think they want to give back.
CA: If you don’t make it too hard. There are only so many hoops people are going to jump through.
MW: But you know, if people really didn’t want to give back, then subway buskers would be a thing of the past. Subway buskers are not people who are begging, as a general rule. A lot of them have day jobs but they are down there because this is a way of doing what they love and being compensated. And if you hear a beautiful sonata on a subway platform, you want to give a buck. This is why I started with copyright when I was talking in my speech, which was maybe a misstep, but that’s the bigger picture to me. All of the screaming about digital, all of the screaming on both sides is really about ownership and how much do I own and how much can I profit off what I’ve made, and what are my rights as an owner or producer. Those are legitimate questions, but the thing that’s easily forgotten in that fervor, especially in these economic times, is that none of it’s yours. Some of it’s yours, but it all comes from culture. It all comes from this giant well that we all draw from.
CA: Your quote from the speech was, “culture is more important than copyright.” And the web is so aligned with that, because it’s so easy to copy and paste and share and shuffle and remix culture.
MW: Not only is it easy, it’s rewarded. Your Twitter feeds get bigger; your webpage gets more hits. The more photos you have Flickr, the more you’re sharing with others, the more you see others are sharing with you. That’s the biggest sociological shift in the last ten years, is the rise of the culture of sharing.
CA: And it is so reinforcing. If I tweet something and then 30 people immediately retweet it, you get this instant, powerful feedback about what works and what people enjoy and that they appreciate it.
MW: And thank you for not immediately saying, “You just retweeted that, now you owe me a quarter.”
CA: [laughs] But that sounds insane, right?
MW: It sounds insane, and yet it’s the same exact principle as everything else we’ve talked about when you break it down to its simplest components. Why is it ok to retweet something I say in 140 characters but it’s not ok to republish my short story?
CA: You were talking about a “culture of entitlement” – it’s just a different perception of entitlement.
MW: All you’re doing is using a different yardstick. You’re taking the same measurement. It’s socially acceptable to do one, and not socially acceptable to do the other. And I understand; I don’t want people republishing my short stories without my permission either. I’m not saying that everything is free and we’ll all live in rainbows and daffodils. But come on, understand that if you’re going to take a hard line position about trademark and copyright and reusing your stuff, there are exceptions to every rule. And also acknowledge that you didn’t make it up out of whole cloth either.
CA: I kind of love it when I see the controversies where creators complain about how some new story is ripping them off, and then someone comes along and explains exactly how derivative their original story was. Nobody has a blank slate.
MW: Nobody does. The only guy who has a blank slate is the first guy who put brush to cave wall. And even he’s probably riffing off something his grandfather told him. I take pride in my work and I want to be compensated for it not so I can be a billionaire, but so I can keep doing it. And most artistic people feel that way. But it also fills me with joy to know that people are digging it, and that the word is out there. Frankly, Potter’s Field, which is my trademark and copyright, I don’t give a rat’s ass if people are out there filesharing it. I don’t care. That’s the one thing I own that is completely mine, and I don’t think it impedes anything, it just creates more noise out there. I could be wrong, but I’m willing to roll the dice and make more of my work out there Creative Commons. Digital is not a method by which I should be locking down ideas.
CA: You were talking before about the RIAA and the example of the music industry. Do you see comic going down a similar path? How do you see the music industry moving forward in 2011, as all of these experiments with digital continue to shake out?
MW: My opinion on this is as valid as the next guy’s, but I think that they’re going to have to experiment more. One of the hurdles that was overlooked when it came time for Marvel and DC to start with digital is that there was no model in place by which to compensate the creators for that stuff. Trust me, as someone who’s worked behind those scenes, it’s much harder to do that than just spending an afternoon banging out a contract. You’ve got to figure out a way to fairly compensate these people. That, I think, was a hurdle that kept Marvel and DC from expanding as quickly as they might have into digital. It’s something they don’t talk about, because they don’t need to talk about it, but as reticent as I am to be uber-charitable to mega-corporations, I understand the complexities of the situation. There are reasons why they aren’t moving as fast as they could. That said, they’re going to have to. The biggest ace in the hole that DC has is Jim Lee. Jim gets digital as well as anybody in this industry, and his eyes light up like a Christmas tree whenever he talks about it. If anybody’s going to lead the way for the Big Two, it’s going to be him. I really have confidence in him.
CA: You were talking about the importance of the issue of ownership, and that’s something we’ve been talking about with a lot of publishers throughout our Digital December interview series, and largely a question that everyone has dodged. Right now digital comics are primarily stored on the cloud and read rather than being downloaded or owned, so what does that mean? If comiXology goes under, what happens to all your comics?
MW: It’s a prime concern, and something that’s easily overlooked. Insidious is kind of a sinister word and has a darker connotation than I mean, but the insidious nature of digital media over the past ten years is that to a large extent, the next generation has been slowly inculcated into this idea of mistaking owning and renting. Back when copy protection was the most important thing in digital sales, all you were doing was renting stuff. You think you own it, but not really. If your music server goes out of business, then guess what? All your stuff you paid for is useless. We’re at that point right now with digital comics as well. Yeah, what does happen, God forbid, if comiXology of Graphic.ly goes out of business? You don’t own those comics. My contention is that you really ought to be able to download them as PDFs, hard files. That’s the model I’m going for. And basically, I won’t accept anything else. I don’t think you should have to rent comics from me with the hope that I’ll still be around to make sure you get them.
CA: There was also this response from some publishers that they didn’t really think readers cared about the ownership issue, but from everything I’ve heard from our readers, believe me, they care.
MW: And you know why they care? Because we have become a collector-based industry to a large extent. Your mom doesn’t care about ownership as songs; she probably doesn’t care about them as much. But she probably also doesn’t take her CDs to conventions and get them signed. She doesn’t have the all categorized and alphabetized in Mylar bags.
CA: While there are certainly places where that mentality goes to extremes, it’s also a manifestation of passion. And for anyone who’s ever had a hard drive of mp3s completely crash… It’s devastating.
MW: And hey, maybe putting everything on the cloud is not so smart in a country where the government has decided it can shut down Wikileaks sites willy-nilly.
CA: I remember when the Wikileaks news started to break, a friend posted that link and said, “This is where the information wars begin.” And I think we’re going to see more of that in both a political and personal sense, in terms of what you own, and what you get to access, and what that means to you.
MW: You’re with me on this in terms of this creep that happened where we’ve forgotten that we used to own albums and videotapes. It’s so convenient that everything is on the cloud, and you look around your living room and it looks so much more organized and clean. But you lose sight of the fact that you don’t own it.
CA: It’s the illusion of convenience. It almost feels like you own it if it’s always there, and you kind of do, at least until you don’t. The model of renting comes back to that same idea of fear, which is also the same reason I can’t get digital review copies from most publishers. Also because their storytelling is spoiler-based, and if the value of the story lies in whatever happens on page 22, then in a larger sense it’s over the moment people glean that information from a illegall y downloaded version. There are people who are going to buy the trade anyway, but if you’re creating the type of content that people want to go back to even after they find out who dies in issue 3, you don’t have as much to fear from digital sharing.
MW: Yeah, nobody doesn’t download a song because they heard it yesterday. I went to a comic store half an hour ago, and by tomorrow morning, I know every single one of those books will be up [on the web]. I understand why the big companies are reticient to give out digital stuff, but I’m sorry, we’re heading they’re anyway. Join us faster or join us slower.
CA: You mentioned in your CBR interview recently that part of why you left your executive position was because you wanted to do more personally in the digital space in a way that wasn’t as risky for Boom. Is this going to mean more independent projects for you outside of Boom?
MW: Boom is not set up as a company to do Creative Commons works. It doesn’t fit their business model. I can’t do something for Boom and then announce to the world that they’re free to download it all they want. As a corporate entity, they understandably cannot sanction that. But I really want to do the next round of things that I do digitally, and I have plans to experiment with a bunch of different things. I want to experiment with free. I want to experiment with Creative Commons. I want to experiment with limited copyright. I want to experiment with no copyright. It costs me virtually nothing as long as I’m writing it, except what I have to pay an artist or writer, which is the grand scheme of things is negligible, since I don’t have to pay for physical printing. It’s not that expensive to dabble in that stuff. Ultimately, what you do is follow Warren [Ellis's] Freakangels model, where you produce enough content you’ve given away for free that you have a trade paperback worth of stuff, and then you contact retailers and tell them you have something to sell. Because there will always be people who want a hard copy.
CA: I’ve talked with Jonathan Hickman about that too, and how he wants to do experiments with his creator owned work, price things different ways, and just see what happens. Because he can.
MW: We’re in such a catbird seat, that we can experiment at virtually no cost to us, especially if you’re someone like Hickman that has a backlog of creator-owned material. There’s nothing to keep anybody like that from pricing one series at $1.99, or another at 99 cents or another for free, and just see. You see what works, and either way you’re repurposing material. R&D is generally the most expensive part of any corporation, and in this particular situation it’s the least expensive part. And that’s awesome.
CA: I’m excited to see what you’re going to do.
MW: The next couple of months, you’re going to be hearing stuff. I just don’t want to say anything prematurely, only because when I hit, I want to hit hard. I’ve got concrete plans lined up. What I said at the Harvey Awards, I meant it. I’m not going to get up there and tell you that this is way you should do it, and by the way I’m going to be over here writing Amazing Spider-Man, let me know how it works out. I’m willing to walk the walk. And if it means I lose my shirt, then it means I lose my shirt, but I learned something. And not only did I learn something, but I’ll share it with you. I’ll share with you what I learned and what I didn’t learn, and I expect you to do the same with me. Then we end up building a digital industry. As comic creators for 70 years, we’ve let other people dictate and define how we do business. And for the first time ever, we get a chance on every level to not let other people dictate to us how we are going to do what we do.
CA: And hey, if not you, then who?
MW: Well, thank you. I have some minor amount of clout, and for the moment I seem to holding the talking stick, so I’m not going to waste the opportunity. I’m just so insanely passionate about this. I think it’s so important to give back to the culture and to find a way to not only expand what comics are and expand the readership and expand the marketplace, but at the same time prove to people that lock stock and barrel ownership like Uncle Scrooge and his money bin is not the end all be all.
Part of stepping away from Boom, as difficult as it was – when you’re dealing with a company of 25 people, you’re not the owner and the business model has already been established, you can only do so much within the company. It’s like steering a battleship. This is not a knock, but as a free agent I can move quicker and I can also withstand the slings and arrows of angry retailers than a company where some of its books are on its end margin.
CA: You’re not taking anybody else down with you.
MW: And I’m not taking food off anybody else’s plate. And most importantly, if I were to do digital only issues of Irredeemable, the backlash from retailers would be huge. Because they feel, we’ve been supporting you for two years on this book, and now you’re giving people something we can’t sell and we’re pissed off about it. I’m not sure I 100% agree with that argument, but I understand that argument. But if I come to the table and I’m honest with retailers, and say look, I want to give you things you can sell as trade paperbacks in your stores. I’d love to give you comics you can afford to sell in your stores, but I can’t give you a western or science fiction story with my name on it that won’t fold after five issues. But I can produce the material on the web, and then let’s be partners in selling it as a trade paperback.
CA: It’s similar to the webcomic model, where you give it away for free, and then when you bring it as a collection to the retailers, so they’re getting pre-tested content and not taking as much of a risk.
MW: No one can afford to get out there with a comic that sells 5,000 copies an issue and hope to survive in this marketplace. You just can’t. If you want to create original new material, I don’t know how you can afford to do it other than this way. I think the wiser retailers get it. It’s just a new paradigm by which I create new content, and then I can give it to you to sell. If you’re going to be angry at me for selling digital comics, then I have nothing to give you to sell. There are a handful of those guys out there who shut down at the thought of digital, and guess what? You’re going to be a Hallmark store in two years. I’m sorry if that’s harsh or if that’s cruel.
When I said the incredibly poorly chosen phrase at the iCv2 conference, “We cannot be held hostage by 2,000 retailers,” I didn’t mean that I see it as an antagonistic relationship per se. I was saying that we can’t be beholden to them and not any other market, because then no one benefits. I mean this from the bottom of my heart; I continue to talk to retailers and I do believe we can work together to benefit from this. But at the end of the day, I’m going to follow the needs of the material more than I’m going to follow the needs of the existing marketplace.