For years, comic book movies have been breaking records and raking in cash every summer. Funny thing, though: The source material, comic books, aren’t selling that well. Technology has made it easier than ever to get into comics, but they’re still relatively obscure. Enter Thrillbent Comics, the digital publisher that believes a little bit of experimentation is what the comic book industry needs.
"The economics of comics is bad," says John Rogers, Hollywood screenwriter and cofounder of Thrillbent. "No other entertainment form has increased in price adjusting for inflation harder than comics. It's $3.99 right now for a comic. Which is 10-15 minutes worth of entertainment—which is hard."
Launched in 2012, Thrillbent is a joint venture between Rogers and acclaimed comic book writer Mark Waid, as a platform designed for experimentation on two fronts: the distribution and creation of digital comics. "Right now, most digital comics are just print comics scanned. You're writing for an old medium. The screen is widescreen," Rogers says. "Why are we not writing and doing art for those as the delivery system, rather than as just a secondary way to look at [comics]?"
Every year since its inception, Rogers and Waid have pushed the limits of what Thrillbent could do. At first, it was just a single-serving webcomic service, where Waid would host his free weekly digital series Insufferable, free for everyone and not beholden to print conventions. One year later, the Thrillbent team continued to iterate, with multiple titles from creators willing to play fast and loose and a notable new feature: making their comics embeddable. After all, if YouTube videos could be posted anywhere and go viral, why couldn’t comics?
Last week, Thrillbent announced its latest experiment: a proprietary iPad app and a Hulu Plus-esque monthly subscription. For $3.99 a month, customers will get access to an array of new, forthcoming titles, in addition to what’s already regularly being released for free. Will it work? Rogers is optimistic.
"I was convinced, based on our readership and our enthusiasm, that people were waiting to pay us for the material," said Rogers. "I firmly believe people will pay a reasonable price if they feel they're getting the entertainment value they want. For $3.99, the cost of one comic book or access to, it will be, by end of day, eight to ten titles by quality creators every month by us."
Rogers believes that it’s working. Without disclosing numbers, the publisher describes himself as pleasantly surprised. "We have, I would not say blown through our projections, but we have met them handily and exceeded them comfortably."
Thrillbent’s Netflix-style approach isn’t the only game in town. Last year, major publisher Marvel Comics launched Marvel Unlimited, a monthly subscription service for customers interested in exploring a wealth of titles from Marvel’s 60-plus year history—in the hopes that it would spur interest in newer titles currently on stands.
The digital future of comic books is one that’s currently in flux. Things looked bright for the medium when Comixology, the iTunes of digital comics, was purchased by Amazon—only to get complicated very quickly by business decisions enacted by the new owners. Whether or not digital distribution will continue to succeed in introducing new readers to comics remains to be seen, but it’s the untapped potential of creating comics in a digital space that most excites the Thrillbent team.
"We're creating a new visual vocabulary," Rogers says. "Much like in the early days of film where you had to create a new way to talk about certain shots, or having to create a new way to talk about certain transitions… that to me is cool."