Thrilled For Thrillbent
A funny thing happened to me on the way to San Diego Comic-Con …
It’s been a couple weeks — a strange, dream-like, couple of weeks — since I won an open mic pitch competition at San Diego Comic-Con to publish an original digital comics series on Thrillbent.
You can read about it at the New York Daily News (and also see one of the rare decent photos of me in all of creation). Thrillbent Publisher Mark Waid blogs about it, here … and the announcement of the pitch contest that led to this unlikely turn of events is also available for your review.
I’ll give you the short version: I’m now writing an original short comics story for Thrillbent, publication date TBD.
The longer version …
Once upon a time, I wrote comics. I covered that era in the early days of this blog, writing about Rune and a bunch of black & white books that I did in the late 80s/early 90s, and I’ve talked about my work on a podcast or two, but aside from that, Longbox Graveyard has been all about other peoples’ work — the Silver and Bronze Age superhero stories we all know and love.
I haven’t hidden my own brief history as a comics creator, but I haven’t written much about it because, really, there’s not much to write, and it was a long time ago and of limited interest. Having created comics myself gives me a little additional insight when reviewing and appreciating them, but for the most part, this blog has been a fannish activity, without ulterior motive aside from trying to come to grips with having an out-of-control comics Accumulation (since tamed), seeking to rediscover my love for comics (now in full bloom), and only tangentially making peace with my brief and not-terribly-successful time as a comics pro.
This blog will still mostly focus on comics of the past, but permit me a brief victory lap as I return to the comics business for the first time in two decades (excepting only a video-game based story I did for Heavy Metal a couple years ago).
I am genuinely thrilled to be working with Thrillbent — not just because of the creative platform it will provide, but because I think Mark Waid is a smart guy and I’ve been a fan of Thrillbent from the start, having kept up with Insufferable week-by-week, and binge-reading everything else on Mark’s site since my magical moment at Comic-Con last month. Mark is a digital comics pioneer who is genuinely interested in advancing the form, and he’s talked the talk (and walked the walk) since his very public announcement at WonderCon 2012 that the future of comics is digital. If you haven’t yet visited Thrillbent, you should do so — it’s a home for digital-first comics that embrace this new medium. They aren’t motion comics, or guided view versions of paper books — Thrillbent stories are their own genre, still very much a comics-reading experience, but employing camera techniques recognizable from cinema (and a few innovations unique to Thrillbent) to tell comics stories in new ways. Plus, Thrillbent features creator-owned content. It checks all the boxes. It’s great. Go look.
Thrillbent is available on your computer or tablet of choice
So. The pitch.
I like to pitch. I’ve done it a lot and it is a thing I do well. When I saw that Thrillbent was taking cold pitches at Comic-Con, I knew I had to do it — not because I had any great expectation of winning the competition, but because it was the perfect thing for me to try. Comics. Thrillbent. A pitch. My favorite things. I was going to be at Comic-Con anyways, so I decided to give it a shot.
I blew the dust off of a comic book idea I’ve had kicking around in the back of my head for twenty years, an idea that I had tried (without success) to sell to Malibu Comics during their Ultraverse days. I scrubbed through my old files, re-familiarized myself with what I liked about the idea, threw out a bunch of stuff, and over the course of a week or two honed my fifteen second (!) pitch for the panel:
The Powers of Molly Powers is a romantic comedy about a midwestern girl named Molly, who is married to a loveable slacker who’s whole plan in life is to somehow luck into superpowers. When Molly gets powers instead, they spend as much time fighting with each other as they do with the bad guys.
Not bad. I’d still like to do that series someday. But what I realized the night before the panel is that while this was a perfectly good comic book pitch, it wasn’t an especially distinguished Thrillbent pitch … because while it described engaging characters and vivid conflict, and suggested fun plot lines, it was better suited for a continuing series than a one-off short story, and (most importantly) it didn’t take special advantage of Thrillbent’s storytelling technology. This would make a fine paper comic, or a weekly free three-panel webcomic (and if a great artist wants to go in on this with me, let me know) … but it wasn’t the kind of story that might best be told — or might only be told — as a Thrillbent story.
I decided not to pitch.
It wasn’t that I was afraid to lose — I just didn’t want to step up to the mic with my dick in my hands. So to speak. The pitch was all for fun but it was serious fun, and I wasn’t going to do it unless I thought I could nail it. In my mind, it had taken me twenty years to come up with that Molly Powers pitch and there was no way I was going to come up with something better in twenty hours.
Unless … I could.
One of the reasons I haven’t worked in comics these past two decades is that I’ve been in the video game business, designing games and creating original characters, stories, and worlds for gamers. It’s been fun but it’s even further afield from this blog than my comics career, so I haven’t mentioned it much. But something I learned from games that I think applies here is that good design springs from constraints. Having firm limitations in terms of deadlines, budgets, and hardware capabilities focuses creators on what is possible. As an engineer friend once told me, “We can do all of this stuff, but we can’t do ALL of this stuff!” Creating means choosing, and the wise creator chooses a subject that works (and hopefully thrives) within the limitations he is handed.
I decided to give it an hour, to work backwards from Thrillbent’s specs, and see what I could come up with.
I made up a little list. First, I knew I wanted this to be a comics story, first and foremost. It wouldn’t be a movie trying to tell itself in comic book form, or an internal novelistic story with pictures, or a talking head teleplay with minimal visual appeal. It would be the kind of story that comics do better than any other form — a story that married the relentless visuality of cinema with the internal story of a hero we can cheer for. This gave me a litmus test for any wild-ass ideas that came to mind. Regardless of subject, the story had to meet my idea of what comics do best, or I’d reject it on the spot. Fine.
Next, I thought about what Thrillbent does well. Thrillbent does a lot of things well … but one of its most distinguishing characteristics is how Thrillbent stories extend the information value of a comics panel by manipulating text and changing (sometimes subtly) the content of an otherwise-static image. Sometimes this is a change in a character’s expression, other times it is some surprise bit of action with a character bursting into frame, sometimes it is an inset panel that spins the man composition in a different direction. When Thrillbent is at its best, it creates a kind of storytelling velocity or persistence of vision through the power of the reader’s imagination.
I wanted some of that.
I flashed on the idea of precognition. A Thrillbent story about a character who could see the future as a series of cascading possibilities that collapsed into one fatal certainty would be visual and a lot of fun.
The problem with knowing the future is that it’s dull.
Gilbert Gottried told a joke years ago about being frustrated over lunch with his friend Nostradamus, because every time he tried to tell a story, Nostradamus cut him off by saying, “I know, I know.” Paul Muad’Dib aside, people who see the future are either dull, or madmen. If they can see into the future with perfect clarity, they buy a lottery ticket, and their story is over; if they see into the future in riddles or flashes … well, that can be fun, too, but it lacked the snap I needed for a short tale.
But what if you could only see a few seconds into the future? Hmm.
We all “see” a few seconds into the future. It’s called planning. It keeps us alive, and it distracts us from the zen ideal of living in the moment. But what if you could see, with a certainty, what would happen just a few seconds from now? It’s potentially the most useless superpower in the world, but for a clever character it opened up all sorts of vivid and visual possibilities. It wouldn’t make you omniscient, but it would give you a little edge. What would you do with that edge?
I worked up my pitch, saved it to my phone, and went to bed.
The next day, while riding into Comic-Con with my old pal and creative partner Chris Ulm, I laid both pitches on him — Molly Powers, and this new one that I’d come up with in an hour. Chris liked the Molly Powers pitch, but rejected it in favor of my new idea — and not just because he vaguely remembered Molly from when I’d pitched it to him while Chris was Malibu’s Editor-In-Chief all those years ago! He liked my second idea better — more precisely, he liked the first part of my second idea better, but he rejected the second half because it took things in a direction he didn’t like. He liked the premise of limited precognition, but not what I’d done with it. He said the second half of the pitch should tell me the emotional stakes of the story and define a relationship that was important to the hero.
I took his advice to heart and re-worked the pitch. Six hours to go. No problem!
… but what few people know is that Matt is a veteran of dozens (hundreds?) of Hollywood story pitches, having worked the town for years as a screenwriter. Like Chris, Matt is a guy I respect and trust so I laid my pitch on him — he thought about it, and agreed with Chris that the premise was strong, but my resolution was weak. He said that I had a hero who could do something “just in time,” so her conflict should be that she didn’t have enough time to do something, like pull off a job that would save her life.
Three hours to go, but I was feeling fine. Assisted by creative godfathers like Chris and Matt, I felt like I was loaded for bear.
that’s me, Farzad Varahramyan, Matt Wilson, and Chris Ulm … creative godfathers all (Farzad did the header for this blog, which is like asking Michelangelo to work with Play-Doh — love these guys!)
I showed up for the panel early, sitting through the Thunderbirds presentation with only half an eye on what was happening (and what I saw looked very cool!) — but mostly I was tweaking my pitch on my phone, and trying to commit it to memory. The Thunderbirds panel ended, and the Thrillbent guys streamed in, and a very nice person asked me if I intended to pitch, and asked me to sign a release. I did, and I did.
The panel began. Mark gave some quick Thrillbent updates, and put the dozen or so Thrillbent creators he had with him on his panel on the spot by asking them to pitch their current series in fifteen seconds or less. Then it was time for the audience to pitch, with Mark saying this was his attempt to democratize the creation of comics, and apologizing that we’d only have fifteen seconds to do our stuff — but there were a lot of pitches to hear, and concision was the soul of a good idea.
I was the second of the hundred-odd pitches in the session. That made me a little nervous, but what the hell … it meant that my idea would definitely be heard, and it also gave me a slight advantage in that if I could set a high mark, every pitch that followed would automatically be compared to mine, constantly reinforcing my title and my pitch in the minds of the panel.
I stepped up to the mic, and said,
4 Seconds is a noir thriller about a petty thief who discovers she can see four seconds into the future. That’s just enough precognition to get into trouble, but not nearly enough time to pull off the heist that will save her sister’s life.
That’s about 14.8 seconds — I know, because I timed it — but time seemed to stretch toward infinity in the silence that followed. And that was fine — it was my job to make the pitch, not to judge it. Once the pitch is made, it’s like you’ve shot an arrow. It will find the target, or it won’t, but it is out of your hands.
If you’ve shot the arrow to the best of your ability, all you will feel is bliss.
I had plenty of bliss. And I was very pleased when Mark said, “That’s a great pitch!” I also knew I’d hit the target, because Mark immediately called out how my idea was strong because it would work so well with what Thrillbent does best. I’d taken a little risk because nothing in the pitch said how 4 Seconds would use Thrillbent to best advantage, but Mark had instantly seen how a story about precognition would work on his platform. Score.
Mark asked me to come up and stand in front of the crowd while he heard more pitches. Most of them were pretty good, and a few were excellent. On another day, several of them might have won, instead of me. Only a couple people got buzzed out for going over time. Nearly everyone had put a lot of thought and heart into their pitches (and Mark has gone on record about how pumped up it made him feel to realize there is such honesty and creativity out there, trying to make it into comics). Several other creators hit the target and made it to the “elimination round.” It was an honor to stand up there with those guys — most of them younger than me, with less experience doing this kind of thing. I tried to high-five or congratulate them all.
I knew I had a good chance to win, but I wasn’t hung up on it. It was all about the pitch. I made a great pitch! If it wasn’t right for Mark, I could take it somewhere else, or just put it away in a box, mission accomplished. Several of the ideas that I heard were just as worthy as mine and they might easily have been chosen instead of 4 Seconds, but I was fortunate to emerge on top in the second round (which mostly consisted of our re-stating our names and titles while the panel conferred). A fist pump, some handshakes, some nice people congratulating me, and then I got the hell out of there! I’d won, and sticking around could only screw things up!
There was a nice woman standing right behind me when I won — she was also in the final group, and had given a strong pitch. In a good-natured way, she whispered that it was a shame about my car accident … and suddenly I felt like Miss America, because I knew if I failed to follow-through on this idea, there were a host of runners up ready to take my crown.
okay, this is getting weird
But I will tell you what I told her — that everyone was a winner, just by having the courage to pitch. They’d all passed through this thing and they would come out the other side stronger for it. I also told her and anyone else that would listen that this didn’t have to be the end for their idea … that they should email Mark and thank him for the chance to present their idea, and network the hell out of their fifteen seconds and that sooner or later, something would happen for them.
For my part, I feel less like Miss America than I do this guy …
I pulled the damn sword from the stone! Now, what do I do with it?
I have finished fifteen seconds worth of 4 Seconds. I’m working on the rest. I’ll let you know how it goes.
Thanks for reading!