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Friday, September 05, 2014

Digital Cogitation

So I recently checked out a bunch of Thrillbent titles after Mark Waid kindly offered me a look at the archives over at and asked me if I'd mind making some noise about it in return. There are some interesting people doing stuff over there: apart from Waid himself, who's responsible for a few series on the site, the Aw Yeah Comics title and Tom Scioli's stuff particularly caught my eye. So I loaded a bunch of these titles as .cbz files on my clunky 1st-generation iPad a few nights ago.

To be completely up-front about it, I've been eyeing these new digital comics with a certain amount of "eh" for a while now. Not that I have a problem with digital comics per se – I started a weekly web strip in 1999 which I did for five years, and I've done a few things on the web since then – but I remain unconvinced that what I can only think of as the "Thrillbent tricks", the panels popping up on a page one by one and balloons appearing gradually and all that kind of thing, add anything of value to the reading experience. I blasted through Insufferable Volume 1 and all the Scioli stuff on that first night and I enjoyed them both – Waid's never less than a solid genre writer, and frequently excellent as these things go, and Scioli's a stylist whose work I like quite a bit – but I never really felt that I was getting anything from what David Lloyd calls the "tricksy" digital stuff that I wouldn't have got just as much out of in print. On some level I still don't really get the point of it.

However. All that having been said, I do get that these are necessary experiments. Just because I don't get something out of the current batch of gimmicks – and I definitely do still think of them as gimmicks – doesn't mean that they're not making somebody excited, and maybe one of those somebodies will come up with something building on these techniques that will blow us all away in a few years, something that could not have existed without these comics we have right now. I don't know. I do think it's worth exploring, but I'm kind of glad I'm not the one doing it.

Things about Thrillbent that do impress me, that I do like and that I think are worth making a bit of noise about:

  • The fact that there are entities like Thrillbent and Monkeybrain and others who are taking seriously the idea of being a digital publisher, finding new markets, creating original content that can completely bypass the current print distributon models, basically standing up and doing something – and putting their money where their mouths are, too. A lot of people, and I'm definitely among them, despair at Diamond's stranglehold on the comics industry, seeing the constant relaunches of long-running titles and the variant covers and all that destructive bullshit killing the industry by degrees, because those approaches are the only ones that Diamond's market responds to in the short-term – and I think Thrillbent and Monkeybrain and the rest are examples of people thinking long-term, thinking in terms of sustainable publishing models and broader markets, and that this kind of thinking is absolutely necessary. Alternative comics have largely moved to bookstores and graphic novels (and the convention circuit) these days, but more populist genre stuff, still dependent on Diamond to a far larger degree, needs a liferaft like this if it's going to survive.
  • Regardless of what I think of the actual tricks themselves, the Thrillbent tricks are pioneering a new way of thinking about comics storytelling that Marvel and DC have both picked up on and will no doubt make a great deal more of in the months and years to come as the industry moves inexorably towards a digital-first, print-later model. I genuinely think – and Mark did not ask me to say any of this! – that Mark Waid will be remembered as the inventor of, or facilitator of, many of the storytelling techniques that are likely to dominate mainstream digital comics for the next generation or so. 
  • Some of these comics are actually really good! I have been genuinely excited by a number of digital-only serial comics in the past couple of years – not just those from Thrillbent, but Monkeybrain's Bandette and Top Shelf's Double Barrel among them as well. There are individuals out there doing digital alternatives to serial print comics too: Andy Hirsch's Varmints is an excellent title of this type, and there's my very own The Fez (cough cough). And there's the inbetween ground like Charles Forsman's Oily Comics, which has a webstore where you can get digital versions of their print minicomics. I was one of the many people who once lamented the demise of the serial alternative comic-book-format comic, but I think digital publishing of this kind is a viable alternative to that. The economics of a serial comic book are once again achievable because now all it costs you is your time. Not everything works best as a web strip; there is a lot to be said for reading things in a satisfying chunk, for having some more control over your page design than the internet typically allows, for putting a variety of material between two covers to make a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. In short, it's nice to have other ways to get your work out there.
Aces Weekly gets a paragraph here because I'm on it. Frustratingly, because of the age of my iPad, I can only read the thing directly on the web rather than in a dedicated app. Consequently, I've looked at it much less than I probably should have. But, again, full marks to David Lloyd for trying to do something different, to reach a new audience. The more people do this, the more likely one of them will hit a model that clearly, unequivocally works. Until then, everyone's a pioneer. Everyone who tries runs the risk of being the one with the arrow in his back. They all deserve some credit for taking a chance at all.

So there you go. I don't know if this is what Mark wanted when he asked me to take a look at the Thrillbent site, but this is where my brain went, I'm afraid. Conclusion being, I guess, that all of this stuff is worth keeping an eye on, particularly if you're a working comic professional (or an aspiring one) and you want to know what you're likely to be called upon to do over the next twenty or thirty years. Because these kinds of comics aren't going away. They're only going to become more prevalent and more... well, more normal. More the default way to produce genre comic books. We're all going to need to get our heads around them eventually.

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London, United Kingdom
Eisner and Harvey Award-winning cartoonist responsible for The Muppet Show Comic Book, Thor the Mighty Avenger, Snarked! and Fred the Clown. Would like to save the world through comics.