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Interview: Mark Waid Strengthens His Digital EMPIRE on Thrillbent

Back in 2000, Mark Waid and Barry Kitson created a little comic named Empire, which followed the armor-clad Golgoth, a Victor von Doom-esque supervillain who isn’t just bent on world domination, he’s living the dream of ruling planet Earth with an iron fist. Through the now-defunct Gorilla Comics, two issues came out, then the series lay dormant until DC Comics picked up the rights in 2004 and put out a six issue limited series, a mesmerizing, brutal look at what happens after you’ve conquered the world and there are no enemies left to slay. Now, nearly a decade later, the rights have reverted back to Waid and Kitson’s very capable hands and they’re bringing Golgoth back with a vengeance.

Yesterday saw the release of Empire, Volume 2 exclusively on Thrillbent, Waid’s digital comics publishing initative, and I’ve got to say it feels good to be back in that horrifying, totalitarian world of Golgoth’s. For a $3.99 subscription fee, readers will not only get access to Empire, Volume 2 and Thrillbent’s ever-expanding library of comics, but also a free, DRM-free downloadable copy of the long-out-of-print Empire, Volume 1. Not too shabby for the price of one comic. To take you deeper into the world of Empire, I spoke with Waid over the phone yesterday to pick his brain about why now was the right time to return to Empire, the challenges facing digital comics, and much more.

Nerdist: So I have to confess. I unfortunately missed Empire the first time around, so last night I was having my mind blown in bed when I was reading all the original volume. It’s been a decade since we’ve seen Golgoth and his menagerie of murdering ministers. What can we expect from Empire Volume 2?

Mark Waid: What we can expect is that it’s a year later than at the end of Volume 1, and the world is more stable outside of Golgoth’s citadel. But within his citadel, within his own throne of power, things are even more chaotic. He still holds an iron hand over the world. He still grips it in his fist. But with some of the losses he had to endure with Volume 1, the question that becomes pretty clear to the readers very quickly is, what now? What does he want? What do you do to maintain – what you need to maintain total control over the planet Earth? It’s not like he has a fleet of spaceships ready to go take on other planets. This is it. So where do you go from here, and what are your goals now that the one person who kept you human and kept you grounded is no longer available to you?

N: What about this sort of ruthless villain who’s lost his last tether of humanity fascinates you from a narrative perspective?

MW: What fascinates me narratively is, again, that idea of where do you go once you have achieved all of your goals? Where do you go once you have managed to get everything that anybody could ever possibly want in this world? I make no secret that Barry [Kitson] and I drew Empire largely, originally from Citizen Kane, which is my favorite movie. I think that Charles Foster Kane is this amazingly fascinating character of a man who is constantly reaching upward and assuming that the next thing he gets will somehow fill this void within him and bring him peace, and that never happens.

Golgoth takes that so much further than Charles Foster Kane ever could, because Golgoth literally does achieve everything. All of everything he has – there is nothing left to put in that black hole within him. There is nothing left to fill that void, and yet apparently it still exists. So what now?

N: So in this metaphor, Delfi was the sled?

MW: [laughs] Yeah, Delfi was the sled. Exactly.  And Alan Ladd threw her into the fire, and now what?

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N: [laughs] When you have everything, what else is there to do? Another thing that I find interesting about this is that you guys are returning to it nearly a decade later. How long has Empire Volume 2 been good to go? Has it been waiting in the wings, or is this something you guys came back to and just wanted to tackle again?

MW: Oh, it’s something we’ve been percolating on for years and years, and we had lots of leftover notions and threads and e-mails back and forth from back when we were still doing Volume 1. But we were just never in the right place at the right time. For a long time, DC held publishing rights, and there was a period where either Barry was out of DC or I was out of DC, or one or the other wasn’t there. So once we were able to get the rights reverted back to us a few years ago, that’s when we began in earnest to rebuild this world, and follow up on all of the things we wanted to do with these characters.

N: And what makes now the right time to return to the world of Empire?

MW: A couple of things. One is that we as creators – Barry and I both are both just sharper, and I think able to bring a little more nuance to the table. We’re both better at what we do. But I think on a practical level, now is the time because it plays in beautifully with the relaunch of Thrillbent and our subscription service. It gives a real strong anchor for relaunching Thrillbent in the way we have. We wanted to come out strong out of the gate by saying we’re a subscription service for $3.99 a month, which is the cost of one print comic. We’re going to get you way more than one print comic’s worth of material every month. You’re going to be satisfied. We wanted some big heavy-hitting product to properly come right out of the gate.

N: Right, right.

MWEmpire made the most sense, because that’s the one that Barry and I have been doing conventions and store signings all these years, and not a single time have we appeared in public that somebody hasn’t said to us, “When are we going to see more Empire?” So it’s the perfect time for it. We’re using that as a hook. We [launched] it [yesterday], and it will appear every two weeks on Thrillbent, and beyond that, if you’re a subscriber, we’re also giving you a DRM-free PDF download of the original graphic novel as a bonus, just for subscribing. For that – trust me, you can jump into Volume 2 without having read Volume 1. We bring you up to speed pretty quickly. But if you want to delve into that world, to deep dive into the world of Empire, then this is your chance.

N: Yeah, but that’s also a pretty sweet subscription incentive, I have to say. Getting more than just that one comic’s price is something that I think appeals to a lot of fans. 

Now at WonderCon, I saw a sort of rash of digital comics start-ups marketing themselves as the Netflix of comics. As we start to see more and more of these types of enterprises, how can Thrillbent distinguish itself in an increasingly crowded market?

MW: That’s a good question. I think that marketing and promotion is tough. I’ll give you that. That’s the hardest. The content is not hard. We’ve got a real strong line-up of creator-owned launches that we will be announcing throughout the summer. We will start with Empire first, but beyond that, I think that by setting it up this way, by continuing to launch strong properties that can only be found on Thrillbent and nowhere else, by main creators – whether they are comics readers or outside of comics – I’m hoping, I think that is the game plan that distinguishes us.

We’re not the Netflix of comics.  We’re a carefully curated site of comics by very experienced people; people who know how to use the digital format to really get the most out of it and to deliver material that a wide range of readers would want to see. It’s not super hero stuff. It’s political intrigue. It is war. It is comedy. It is science fiction. I really like the idea of being able to branch away from the standard super hero tropes.

If you want to read a bunch of super hero comics, I salute you. I write a bunch of superhero comics. But you can find those in a lot of places. What I want to do is to create, more and more, as Image Comics has, material that is for those who want to delve beyond the super hero world.

N: So sort of to paraphrase the old HBO slogan, it’s not comics, it’s Thrillbent. You guys are trying to offer a curated, premium experience.

MW: Yes. Yeah.

N: I have to say, that $3.99 number – that to me seems like a real sweet spot, and I have to tip my hat to you guys, because that – you think about it, that is the price of one issue. I’ve got to give props to whoever pulled the trigger on that one.

MW: I think that was John Rogers. I think that was my partner, John Rogers, I think, who mostly had the idea of let’s make it the price of one comic. And he was absolutely right. I think that’s eminently fair. Even if you just come to read Empire, and nothing else, you’re still getting a month’s worth of material. Probably more material than you would actually getting it in a print version, because of what digital can do. But the fact that $3.99 also buys you free access into all of our 300 plus comics that we’ve been accumulating and producing over the past two years, and all of the material coming out – I hate to sound like a salesman, but, man – that is a pretty good deal!

N: Yeah! If you read one comic a month, you’re getting your money’s worth. It’s hard to argue with that. Shifting gears slightly, I wanted to talk about, as I’m sure you know, Amazon recently acquired comiXology. Being that you’re the owner of both a comics shop and a publishing company, what do you make of this? Do you see this as being good or bad for the digital comics industry?

MW: No, no. Everybody knows that Amazon is a wonderful company that has nothing but the best interest of the human race in its sights.

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N: [laughs]

MW: Eh. Eh. It makes me itchy. It makes me itchy, because we’ve already seen some paradigm shifts that are uncomfortable. I do think that Amazon has a potentially much greater audience outreach in the long term. I think that as comic book creators, that’s what we want. We want as many people to have as much access to our material, wherever they are, as they can get.

But in the short term, having to lop comiXology off at the knees and strip it off the iPad and the iPhone accessibility, and the mobile experience – that’s debilitating. In the short term, very debilitating, I can see in the numbers. I can see in the sales reports that we get from comiXology. It’s a short-term loss, that hopefully will build to a long-term growth.

I like the guys at comiXology. I think they’re good guys. I really – I’ve always thought that. I don’t think anybody cashed out and ran and cackled, and are sitting there counting their money, you know, and using it to create chaos in an evil way. I think this is the most natural progression. I just wish that – I don’t know. Eh. It makes me nervous. A digital comic monopoly makes me nervous, and Amazon makes me nervous about digital monopolies.

N: No, I think you kind of hit the nail on the head there and voiced a lot of people’s concerns. I don’t fault comiXology for doing what they did. Good for them. They had a great product, and a big company was interested in it. But, at the same time, as these giant companies consolidate all media into one place, it makes you itchy. That’s a great way to describe it.

MW: Yeah, it really does. I am. ComiXology was great because they called the shots, and like you, I don’t fault them for what they did. I still think they’re great guys. But I just – they’re no longer the boss anymore.

N: Well, let’s shift gears to some other news that broke earlier this weekend. I wanted to get your thoughts on the Marvel/Netflix Daredevil series’ showrunner shake-ups. As you may know, Drew Goddard is leaving the project and Spartacus‘ Steven S. DeKnight is taking over. I just wanted to know if you had any thoughts on the matter.

MW: Honestly, not really. I haven’t been that closely associated with it. Everything I know, I learn from Axel and from Joe over at Marvel, and they’re excited about it, over all. I think both of those guys are really talented though – Steven and Drew. I don’t know. I’m not trying to be elusive. I don’t think anybody who’s ever read an interview with me in their life would accuse me of shilly-shallying or evasive, but in this case, I genuinely don’t have any thoughts on it, because I’m not that hyper-familiar with what it is they’re going to do.

N: Totally fair. I have one last question for you. What comics are you reading and enjoying right now?

MW: Oh, good question! It’s funny that you should mention that, because everybody says Saga, but that’s true. It really is good. I still think Superior Foes of Spider-Man is the best comic that Marvel has put out in a while.

N: Oh, yes!

MW: Yeah. And I like The Wake from Vertigo, from Scott Snyder and Sean Murphy. There’s – man, you know what, I know I’m being elusive, but as a guy who owns a comic store and every Tuesday gets all the comics put in front of him, it makes it very hard to choose, because there is so much! I can’t think of a better time. The fact that I can’t answer obviously and easily, I think speaks very well to the amount of good material that there is out there.

N: Yeah, it’s like when you’re at a restaurant, and there are too many things you want to order. It’s a good problem to have.

MW: Yeah! A good problem to have – exactly.

N: Awesome. Well Mark, thank you so much for taking the time to speak to me today. I can’t wait to see what you have in store for Empire Volume 2. 

MW: Thanks so much!

What do you think about Empire’s return? Are you a fan of Thrillbent’s subscription model? Where would you like to see digital comics go? Let us know in the comments below.

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