Hey! It’s Learnin’ Time Again!

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Last year, I blogged here about our own Christy (DAMNATION OF CHARLIE WORMWOOD) Blanch’s “Comics Through Gender” MOOC (Massive Open Online Course). At no cost, anyone with an internet connection could listen to Christy, an anthropology professor by trade, interview some of the best and most outspoken creators in comics about how they approach gender roles in their work. Terry (STRANGERS IN PARADISE) Moore spoke at great length about feminism. Matt (HAWKEYE) Fraction and Kelly Sue (PRETTY DEADLY) DeConnick talked about how having a daughter changed their perspective on how they viewed sexism in comics. Jonathan Hickman, Dan Slott, and others talked about who they considered to be the most masculine and feminine characters in mainstream comics today. Really, truly, it was fascinating. And free. All students had to do was sign up for the course online, then view the lectures and participate in the resultant discussions, do a little reading. It was a huge success.

Christy’s back at it again, with an online course that’s even wider-ranging and more fascinating: Exploring Social Issues Through Comic Books. As before, she’s got a crazy-impressive lineup of guest speakers and interviewees, including Denny O’Neil, Jason Aaron, Jonathan Hickman, Shaenon Garrity, Gene Luen Yang, and many others. They’ll be talking about how comics have, over the years, dealt with issues that are big parts of our lives today. The debate over immigration. Government v. privacy. Social inequality. Addiction.  Whether you’re a fan of comics or a non-comics reader interested in sociology, it’s going to be a fascinating course. You can read more about it here and here, or you can just cut to the chase and sign up here. Again, it’s a free course open to anyone who has internet access. Time is of the essence, however–the course begins next week! Go!

 

Mar 05, 2014 In: Comics 3 comments

Varney the Vampire

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Last week, observant Thrillbent visitors noticed that we stealth-launched a digital comic called Varney the Vampire by Scott Massino and Scott Kolins. Today, here, we give you (free for the reading, as always) the second and concluding installment of the first issue, all as part of an experiment in promotion for us: Scott M., who developed the idea and has been devoting enormous time and energy over the past couple of years towards bringing Varney to life, is running a Kickstarter campaign to produce further adventures of the world’s first vampire.

Knowing Massino and having worked with Kolins many times over the years (to my delight), I offered to help them get the word out using Thrillbent as a platform. Massino offered to cut Thrillbent in on a percentage of the revenue, but I’ve declined; I want you to trust that my enthusiasm and endorsement is 100% genuine. I’m very eager to see how much traffic we can send their way–not just because that’s information that’s valuable to us, but because I really, really like the project. I think you will, too.

If you’ve not already, click here to read Varney on Thrillbent, and if you want to show your support–and obtain some really amazing rewards by Darick Robertson, Mike Ploog, Frank Brunner, Glenn Fabry, Fred Hembeck and many, many other superstar artists contributing original prints, I encourage you to go here. Tell ‘em Thrillbent sent you.

Feb 24, 2014 In: Comics, Site News, Thrillbent News 2 comments

THRILLBENT 101: The Eighth Seal (Part 2 of 2)

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When I read the script for chapter one of The Eighth Seal, I was pretty damn impressed. James Tynion got a lot right when it came to opening a horror story properly, and he had some really interesting ideas that could make it a great digital comic, but I still saw many ways that we could push his script even further to take advantage of the digital format. I focused on storyboarding the chapter in a way that I thought would take advantage of digital storytelling but not take away from the story itself. James’ script was twelve screens long (we say “screens” instead of “pages”), and my storyboards ended up making the comic almost 40 screens long. I altered a lot of pacing, panel placement and word balloon placement while experimenting with the digital storytelling. Quite a bit gets adjusted, but my focus is always on embellishing what James has written and not on taking away from his story. Plus, James and I talk all the time, so I have a pretty clear idea about what he likes when it comes to storytelling and horror in general. To get a better idea, take a look at the script for chapter one and the storyboards for chapter one.

Things worked out so well on the first chapter that we ended up using the same approach on all of the following chapters. My process seems to almost always end up doubling the number of screens in the script, so now James writes with that in mind. James’ scripts have definitely grown to take better advantage of the digital format, and he’s come up with some of the best ideas for swipe effects in the series. When I storyboard The Eighth Seal, I tend to ignore the panel numbering in the script and look at a scene as a whole. My goal is to figure out the rhythm of the scene and see how far I can experiment with this digital format. Many times I draw the panels/screens how they are written in the script, but a lot of the time I end up with ideas that will work only if I move a panel to a different screen, move a word balloon to a different panel, or add an extra shot to a screen. It’s tricky to play with a script in this way and requires a writer who trusts your approach to storytelling.

All of my original storyboard sketches are actually pretty small and drawn on 3 x 5 inch paper because it helps me think within the 5:3 aspect ratio. Another goal with the storyboarding is to create a rough mini version of what the final comic should read like. When I’m finished sketching all of the storyboards, I scan them into my computer and edit them in Photoshop. I use Photoshop to layer images and create the rough swipe effects. After I’m done with editing, I throw everything into a folder and use an image/photo gallery program on my computer to click through the rough comic. This entire process helps me to know if my ideas are even going to work. I try to experiment as much as possible during the storyboarding phase because it’s the easiest time to test out ideas. I recommend including word balloons in your layouts/storyboards because they can play a large role with this format. Once I’m satisfied with the storyboards, and James approves them, I begin work on the final line art and create the core screens.

Core Screens: A core screen is a screen of artwork that has not yet been manipulated with editing or layering. On the image below, example 1 shows some of my core screen line art for The Eighth Seal. I usually figure out what the core screens will need to be during the storyboarding phase. While sketching, I get a pretty clear idea about which images will need editing or layering to create swipe effects. That’s the benefit to having storyboards that offer a very clear example on how the final comic will read. I try to fit as much line art as I can on each core screen. Once I feel that I have all of the line art on the core screens needed to create the final screens, I send them off to get colored. When the colors are finished, I then begin work on editing and layering the colored core screens to create the final screens. On the example image below, three core screens were edited to create a sequence that consists of five final screens. (By the way, I charge per core screen, kind of like how artists charge per page for a traditional comic. I charge only for the original art I’ve drawn on a screen, but not for any of the duplicated art on the screen. For example, if only half of a screen has original art on it, I charge only half of my core screen rate. I adjust my core screen rate based on that principle and try to always be fair about it.)

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Layering: I layer core screen art to make something appear, disappear or create the illusion of movement. Layering is really just a simple copy/paste process. When I want to show something move on a swipe, I draw that moving character, or object, on a separate screen from the rest of the non-moving art. When drawing the original line art, I use a lightbox to make sure that the character, or object, lines up in the right spot on the shot it will be layered over top of. Once I’m satisfied with the original line art, I scan it into my computer and send it off to the colorist. When I receive the colored core screens from the colorist I then begin layering the art together in Photoshop to create the final screens. On the example image below, example number 2 shows multiple characters pasted onto one screen. All of those characters will get layered on the same background; the background gets duplicated a few times to create the illusion of movement on the final screens. I ended up needing only two core screens of art to create four final screens on the example image. My goal with that final sequence was to slow the scene down and have it end in a way that put extra emphasis on the last panel.

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Lettering: Most of the lettering placement is figured out during the storyboarding phase. During that phase, I move a lot of word balloons around and place them in different panels, but this makes it hard for the actual letterer to know where to put his or her lettering because the original script doesn’t match the final screens I’ve created. So when the final screens are done, James creates a lettering script to help the letterer understand where all of the dialog will need to go. James usually adjusts the dialog one last time in his lettering script and uses my storyboards as a reference to see where the dialog will now need to be placed. Once he is finished, I upload the lettering script, final screens, and storyboards (for reference) to the Thrillbent server so that the letterer can download them. Take a look at James’ lettering script to get a better idea about how it works.

Once the letterer is finished, all of the final screens and lettering files are put in a folder on the Thrillbent server to be pieced together and finalized. When finalizing is done, a pdf of the final comic is sent to James and I to proofread. If everything looks good, we let Mark and Lori know that the chapter is ready for release on Thrillbent.com and Comixology. Then we begin work on the next chapter. That’s pretty much it. I hope some of this stuff has been helpful to anyone out there who is interested in creating this style of comic. Thanks for reading.

The Eighth Seal Credits:
Sketches & Line Art: Jeremy Rock
Scripts: James Tynion IV
Colors: Nolan Woodard, Mike Spicer & Robt Snyder
Lettering: Troy Peteri

Dec 03, 2013 In: Comics, Thrillbent 101 2 comments

THRILLBENT 101: The Eighth Seal (Part 1 of 2)

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Hey, everyone, I’m Jeremy Rock, the illustrator/co-creator of The Eighth Seal, and I’m going take some time to explain my approach to digital storytelling. My hope is that this information will help those who are interested in creating comics in the style that Thrillbent uses. While I’m explaining this stuff, please remember that this is basically me saying “consider this” and not “do this.” Nothing is written in stone here. Also, if you haven’t read The Eighth Seal, please go read it now. It will make everything I’m about to explain easier to understand.

Let’s start with the basics. Digital comics are primarily read on computers, smart phones or tablet devices. I mainly have touchscreen tablet devices in mind when I’m creating a digital comic. I also prefer the landscape format for digital comics instead of the traditional portrait format that print comics use. Every Thrillbent comic uses the landscape format, but not all of them use the same aspect ratio, so if you want to create a comic in the same style as The Eighth Seal, the first thing you’ll need to do is figure out the aspect ratio of your comic.

Aspect Ratio: The aspect ratio describes the proportional relationship between the width and height of an image. Most Thrillbent titles use the 4:3 aspect ratio because that’s what the first Thrillbent comic, Luther, used. But I was interested in experimenting with a wider screen format for The Eighth Seal, so I decided to try out the 5:3 aspect ratio. Take a look at the example image below to see the differences between the two. On the right side of the example, you’ll see 11×17 comic art boards with little boxes measured out on them. Those show the sizes that I found most comfortable to draw my original art at for each aspect ratio.

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An aspect ratio of 5:3 can offer a little more breathing room for the art and lettering depending on your composition. 4:3 is a little more squarish but translates better to print, by stacking two screens to create a printed page, if you ever want to convert your digital comic into a traditional print comic. Honestly, I never think about print when I’m working on The Eighth Seal. In my mind, it’s purely a digital comic. I didn’t think that way when I worked on Luther, and it caused me to hold back on some unique digital storytelling techniques because they didn’t translate well to print. The focus with Luther was to explore a digital format that could later be converted to print. I didn’t like that I had to hold back the digital storytelling so that maybe one day the comic could have a print run. This approach just seemed to take something away from both formats. So now my personal opinion is that it’s best to give each its own spotlight and treat print and digital as completely separate formats. Allow each the freedom to show off their unique traits instead of forcing one to be more like the other.

Art Tools: The next thing to consider is the art tools that you want to use. You can use traditional art tools or create all of the art on a computer. Completely up to you. Artist Peter Krause uses the program Manga Studio to create all his art for Insufferable straight on the computer. I draw all of my original art with traditional tools (pencil, paper, ink, etc.) and scan the art into my computer to be manipulated in Photoshop.

Storyboards and Swipe Effects: When creating a chapter for The Eighth Seal, the team basically uses a five-step process of script, storyboards, line art, coloring, and lettering. Those are essentially the key steps to creating the final images for the comic. Take a look at the example image below to get a better idea about what I mean.

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When I start work on a chapter of The Eighth Seal, the first thing I do is read the script and create the storyboards. This is the same process as creating layouts for a page in a print comic, but I just got in the habit of calling them storyboards because of how they look and read on a screen. Call them whatever you want. A lot of the stuff that I’m going to explain is still so new that it doesn’t even have a name yet. I just make up names to help keep things organized, but feel free to use your own terms if you find them more comfortable.

Before I jump into my storyboarding process, I’m going to explain one of my most-used terms, “Swipe Effect”, which is just a play on the terms “special effect” or “sound effect.” It refers to a moment when the reader swipes on a touchscreen device and something changes in an unconventional way when compared to traditional comic book storytelling.

Some Thrillbent writers use the term “on the swipe” in their scripts when they want the artist to create a swipe effect (i.e., “on the swipe, she changes into a monster”). This style of storytelling can make something appear, disappear or create the illusion of movement. I usually just run on instinct when it comes to swipe effects, so I wasn’t sure how I was going to explain my approach, but when I started analyzing my techniques I realized that there was a lot more structure to my process than I had originally thought. So I’ve broken down my techniques and labeled parts to better explain why I do what I do. I’ve also created visual examples to help explain this stuff. These are just some of the basics to start with. There are still many ways to experiment with digital storytelling outside of the examples that I give below.

Action Swipes: These seem to be a favorite among readers. This style of swipe creates the illusion of movement by layering two or more screens that have slight changes to the position of characters or objects. It’s probably the closest I get to something like animation. This technique is a great way to make the reader focus on a specific character or object. It’s also useful for adding a surprise reveal and can even slow down the pace of a scene. Check out the example image below to get a better idea about how these work.

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Traditional Swipes: These really aren’t typical swipe effects, but they are a type of swipe that occurs often. Basically, Traditional Swipes are just screens with traditional comic panel-to-panel storytelling, nothing appearing, disappearing or changing. Just good, old-fashioned sequential art. Mixing in a decent number of these types of screens helps to keep the reading experience balanced and allows the reader a chance to sit and just read without having to constantly swipe.

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Full Screen Swipes: Much like Traditional Swipes, these really aren’t typical swipe effects, but they are a very useful swipe technique. A Full Screen Swipe is an image that takes up the entire screen. Think of it as the “splash page” of the digital comic format. It’s a great way to highlight a dramatic moment. The image can have a border to create a sense of confinement or be borderless to make the image feel boundless and open. It can even be entirely black, which creates an empty space in time if placed between two story screens. You can also place a word balloon over an entirely black screen to create a quieter opening or ending to a scene. I try to not use more than three Full Screen Swipes in a row so that the reader doesn’t start to feel like they are just swiping through an image gallery instead of a comic. But sometimes I break that rule if I feel the extra screens will add a strong kick to the overall sequence.

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Alternating Swipes: This is probably my most-used swipe effect. It’s useful for revealing a surprise to the reader. This type of swipe causes storytelling changes that jump back and forth between different sides of the screen. It can go left to right, up and down, diagonal, whatever way you want. You can get pretty complex with this technique. The trick is making sure it carries a rhythm to it that doesn’t confuse the reader. This is also a great swipe effect for slowing down the pace of a scene because it requires the reader to swipe for small bits of the story.

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Isolation Swipes: I use this swipe effect to put extra emphasis on a panel or image by isolating a single shot on the screen. On the example image below, with example number 4 you’ll see that I used four back-to-back screens with Isolation Swipes. I did this to show a more dramatic progression of time and allow each shot to feel more prominent. When combined with Alternating Swipes, Isolation Swipes can help to slow down the pace of a scene and offer space to reveal a surprise element of the story.

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Inset Swipes: This is another swipe effect that I tend to use a lot. Inset Swipes are similar to inset panels used in traditional comic book storytelling. They are smaller images or panels that appear, disappear, or change while inside, or overlapping, a larger image or panel. Inset Swipes can offer opportunities to reveal a surprise or slow down time.

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Letter Swipes: These can be a fun way to reveal surprise dialogue. This swipe technique makes it so that lettering can appear, disappear or change. Pretty easy to understand, but tricky to master. Sometimes when new lettering appears, the old lettering is removed so it will not confuse the reader about what to read next. It really just depends on where you want the reader to focus after a swipe occurs.

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Combining Swipes: This example isn’t about a single swipe effect, it’s about what happens when you combine multiple swipe effects. Take a look at the example image below, you’ll see that most of the time I use multiple swipe effects in a scene. Let’s examine this a bit further. With example number 3, I isolate the shot of Amelia to put emphasis on her feeling alone. I felt it was important that this be the very first image we see in The Eighth Seal because Amelia feels alone in her fight against her mental instability. On the swipe, we see Dr. West appear on the left, talking to her about her problem. After another swipe, we see a Lettering Swipe get rid of Dr. West’s word balloon, and a close-up of Amelia explaining her situation appears on the right. By using Alternating Swipes along with the other swipe effects, I created a back and forth feeling to their conversation. When we swipe again, the close-up of Amelia on the right is turned into an inset image with new lettering, and is overlapping, and within, a new full screen image of a school. Amelia is telling a story about an event that occurred in the past, and I felt this was a fun way to slowly transition to that memory she is about to share. On the final swipe, we see Amelia disappear as her memory takes over the screen, the colors of the environment become more vibrant, and new captions appear. The swipes I combined to create this sequence were Isolation, Alternating, Letter, Inset and Full Screen.

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So now that we have some of the basics down, next week we’ll look at how we create and assemble the actual digital comic.

Nov 26, 2013 In: Comics, Thrillbent 101 9 comments

Digital – The Time is Now

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I’ve missed out on a lot in comics.

I missed out on the ‘all genres for all people’ pulp period of the forties and early fifties. Then I missed the ‘needs more antihero’ excess of the nineties. Heck, I even missed the explosion of ‘webcomics for gamers by gamers who can’t game anymore (because drawing).’

I missed all of these great times to be a comic creator because I was either non-existent, was repetitively drawing vases in art class, or repetitively playing Diablo. But that’s ok, because I think now is the best time to be a new creator in comics and I’m going to tell you why.

Disclaimer: while some of us can buy comic book shops to calm the digital/print seas I have neither the capital nor the guts to do the same. So while I’m going to assign today’s excitement to the ‘digital revolution,’ I’m just going to say that I want Moth City to be printed. The thing is I love books. Plus you know, trees, yuck – the way they just stand there making you feel short and horribly reliant on their life-giving oxygen. Bullies.

In fact I hate trees so much that I make vertical, print-ready versions of every single Moth City page I do. Its arduous work, a true commitment to climate change, and you can see examples below:

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So now that I’ve calmed the people who printed this post out before reading it, let’s talk digital.

Just the fact that I can talk to you about comics at all is a reflection of what digital comics can give us. I’m in New Zealand, the place that TV shows use to stand in for ‘incomprehensibly faraway.’ If someone in a spy drama is digging too deep into their own division’s shadowy ops, they’re probably gonna be sent here. (KIWI FACT: spy castaways made up over 10% of our population at last census).

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So yeah, I’m far enough away from most places that I break out in sweat every time I have to pronounce aluminium/ aluminum, and if I was making Moth City ten years ago you never would have seen it, weird spelling notwithstanding.

Mark would never have seen it either, and I certainly wouldn’t have had the chance to introduce so many people to my favourite bigot, Governor McCaw or (more this season) my favourite hired killer, Jun.

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It doesn’t sound sexy, but distribution is everything now. The ability to disperse comics to waiting readers all over the world for effectively no cost has the power to change the way we tell stories. I’m not talking about our fancy Thrillbent swipes and doo-dads, I’m talking about risk-taking.

Everything I’m doing with Moth City is ill-advised. Period piece? Marketing will hate it. Wait, what the heck is the Chinese Civil War? Nah, no way. Who’s the protagonist? You don’t have one? Well at least tell me that you stick with one genre… oh, a crime/horror/thriller/alt-history/Kung Fu action? We’re not printing that… The first scene is a business meeting?! Get outta here kid.

(Note to self: Imaginary Editors are probably right about starting a comic with a business meeting, even if the characters are discussing Bio Weapons and one of the workers has a knife just begging to be used.)

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Would Moth City have more mass-appeal if I didn’t make these decisions? Of course, but no one else was going to write it like I wanted, were they? While today’s ‘Creator Owned’ print tag means the best of experience, in digital it reflects a largely indie crowd that naively avoids Marketing 101. Just look at the stuff coming out on Comixology Submit and on Thrillbent – what a diverse little eco-system.

Will our ideas always come off? Of course not. But we get critical feedback quickly, we get analytics by the minute and download numbers instantaneously. We can learn fast. Cost to creator? Sweat. Benefit to readers? More creators from all over the world, working in more genres and taking more risks.

You’re ignoring the vast diversity of Webcomics you say, sure – but I consider Thrillbent a webcomic collective. A rare place where you can read long-form webcomics in a format that works. And the stories plug into lovely PDF or Comixology chunks to be absorbed in blocks while blobbing out on the couch, or (according to Comixology) on the toilet.

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I’ve said it before, digital can be the new pulp – risk-taking content, by professionals and noobs alike, dispersed widely for affordable prices. And we could all do with some more pulp in our lives. With Moth City I’m offering up a genre mash that shows you characters that make mistakes, damaged people you’ll grow to love, antiheroes you’ll grow to hate, and a setting you’ve never seen before.

The new season just launched, you should check it out.

Nov 15, 2013 In: Comics, Site News 2 comments

Moth City and Thrillbent’s Commitment to Free

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First things first: rest assured that THE DAMNATION OF CHARLIE WORMWOOD will return in a few short weeks with Volume Two. The creators haven’t taken a break; on the contrary, they’re working ahead so we don’t lose any time come the holidays. We’ll announce the return date very shortly.

But we still want you back here every Friday, and to prove it, we’re giving something special away for free.

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Among the debts I owe Alex DeCampi is a big one for turning me on to MOTH CITY, a digital comic by an all-in-one talent from New Zealand named Tim Gibson. I visited Tim’s site at Alex’s recommendation and was immediately taken with how Tim was using the tools of digital to unspool his story. It was immediately apparent that, philosophically, we were of the same mind: pace it however you like, use techniques and layouts made for digital that aren’t effective in print, but always allow the reader to set the rhythm at which s/he reads. Here are some examples of where I thought Tim was getting digital storytelling massively, massively right.

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MOTH CITY goes through genres like Governor McCaw goes through indentured factory workers. Season One of Tim’s four-season story laid out the turbulent 1930s Oriental setting and set up the multiple factions vying for power. Season Two looks to resolve some of the early mysteries while diving deeper into the rabbit hole, about which more shortly. More action, strange alliances, new and violent horror elements and further insight into the cast of characters.

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Tim originally released MOTH CITY on his site a page or two at a time. I asked if he’d be cool with us serializing it on Thrillbent in larger chunks comparable to how we do our other ongoings (ten to twenty pages/screens per week), and the editor in me put in some time suggesting where I thought the most effective chapter breaks might be. My memory is that we went back and forth on only a couple, and of course they were only suggestions, but Tim remained gracious and enthusiastic all the way.

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I’ll be perfectly candid and offer another reason why I wanted MOTH CITY on this site: because it’s (a) not at all a story I would ever think to write and (b) totally beyond my predicted level of interest if you were to tell me what it was about rather than show me. In other words, it wasn’t the story which drew me in initially, but rather the way in which it was told. (I have since wised up.) Regardless, I really like how unique it looks on Thrillbent, and once I relaxed into Tim’s methods, it gripped me.

Tim wrapped the first volume (first season, he calls it) on Thrillbent a few weeks back with a terrific, gripping ending. If you followed it weekly, you know what I’m referring to. If not, we (thanks to Tim) have an offer for you. Today and through the weekend, right-click HERE for a FREE PDF download of the high-definition, DRM-free Volume One with some bonus material to help you catch up on this smart, smart comic. Normally, we sell this material on our storefront for a small fee; while we want to push digital sales to support creators, we’ve always balanced that with a for-free outreach philosophy to increase digital comic readership as well.

If you’re keen on what you’ve been reading here at Thrillbent in general, if we’re on your radar, then I know you’ll find MOTH CITY compelling. Read Volume One now, then come back next Friday for the debut of MOTH CITY Volume Two.

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What are the effects of McCaw’s bio-weapons and who took them?

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Why was McCaw’s chief scientist murdered and who was behind it?

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Just how will the world’s largest military, and their hardline representative Major Hong, respond as things on the island spin out of control?

And what if early bio-weapons were introduced to one of the world’s most devastating conflicts, the Chinese Civil War?

Find out starting next Friday.

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Nov 08, 2013 In: Comics, Site News 3 comments

Halloween Musings and a Big Fancy Announcement

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As a kid, nothing scared me more than the horror aisle at my local Blockbuster Video.

I would walk through it, head straight up, refusing to look from side to side. In the corners of my eyes I would catch strange demons staring at me, monsters that had been haunting my dreams since the last time I’d been forced through that particular gauntlet. But as hard as I tried not to look, they already had me. They’d crawled into the stronghold of my brain and they refused to come out. For years they festered and changed, manipulated by imagination into such unspeakable horrors that I’d yell at my friends for even just suggesting we pop in a scary movie.

It’s still funny to me that years later, when I finally embraced the horror genre, that almost none of those terrifying VHS covers lived up to what I’d imagined. I’d already written a horror movie in my head for each and every piece of box-art, and for the most part, my brain proved to be a much darker and twisted place than the horror aisle. I started looking back at those moments walking through the Blockbuster, trying to steer my way around the section, a little more fondly. Because the truth was, I could have avoided seeing any of those covers. The truth was I wanted the pulse-pounding experience of seeing vague, unspeakable horrors out of the corner of my eye. I wanted the nightmares. I never left the store without walking the horror aisle.

Now I walk it a little more deliberately.

Horror simply fascinates me, as both a consumer and a creator. It’s an entire genre designed to explore and exploit the darkest corners of our mind and dig out some deep, primal fear. Some of it is more successful than the rest, but that simply makes the challenge of making horror all the more enticing. Fear is such a deeply personal, subjective thing, the only way to really approach true horror is to dig into yourself and find the things that you fear the most. Then the challenge is to exploit that fear in a way you’ve never really seen before.

I’d only recently broken into the comics scene when I saw the potential of the Thrillbent format in action for the first time. The dynamism of the layering techniques, and the ability to change elements from swipe to swipe… It got my mind racing. I knew I wanted to write original horror comics. That had been the dream long before I wrote my first back-up story in Batman. In Thrillbent I saw the perfect opportunity to tell horror stories in a strange, new way. I didn’t know Mark Waid all that well at that point, we’d met at a convention earlier in the year, but I needed to tell him the potential I saw to do something frightening. My original pitch document for The Eighth Seal had the following section embedded in the first page:

A QUICK NOTE BEFORE WE BEGIN

Thrillbent seems tailor-made for horror in a way that traditional comics never have been. In a medium where the reader usually has the ultimate power to skim over a page, and see a frightening beat before he or she gets to it, this new potential for real jump-out-and-scare-you moments in a comic book format is tremendous. The tension of the reading experience is raised significantly… If you’re reading a horror comic on Thrillbent, you never know what that next swipe might bring. By establishing scares early in the story, each week a reader will be on the edge of their seat, not sure if they’re ready to hit that right arrow.

More than just the potential for cheap scares, though, is the chance to show reality breaking down like never before. The layering style you’ve established, where the art stays the same for multiple “pages” with a tweak that redefines it by shifting the focus, or showcasing motion, allows for a whole new method of storytelling previously reserved for film and animation… Imagine a woman looking at her reflection in the mirror, and when you swipe the page her face has changed into something inhuman… Something monstrous. And in the next swipe it changes back. That’s a moment that can be handled more effectively in a Thrillbent comic than it ever could on paper.

With THE EIGHTH SEAL I want to explore these new possibilities. I want to push the new set of tools you’re showcasing in these stories to their absolute limit.

And most of all… I want to scare people. 

I still do.

Today, we launch the fifth chapter of THE EIGHTH SEAL. Once you read it you’ll see that this chapter ratchets the series forward precariously. We have been destroying First Lady Amelia Greene’s life piece by piece, and this is the shattering point. Or at least the first of a few key shattering points in the months to come. This chapter has some of my favorite art in this series to date. All of you who have been reading our series month-to-month know that Jeremy Rock is absolutely incredible, but this chapter… Wait until you see what he’s whipped up for you. I remember when I showed Mark the breakdowns on my phone at San Diego this year. It’s my favorite moment in the series. At least until the next chapter.

This is a deeply personal story to me, as strange as that might seem. There’s nothing more frightening to me than losing control of your mind, and seeing that lack of control manifest as a creature far beyond anything you’ve ever imagined. And there’s no better format I could be telling this story in than in the Thrillbent format. I couldn’t be happier to see the response it’s gotten. It’s made me want, more than anything, to launch further series in the Thrillbent format to explore more of my deepest and darkest fears.

So, that’s the other thing I got on my soapbox to tell you crazy kids about today.

HouseInTheWallPromo

 

THE HOUSE IN THE WALL is an unconventional ghost story that we will be launching early in the next year here on Thrillbent.com. The series will be co-written by myself and Noah J. Yuenkel (a newcomer to the comics field, whose work I’m sure you’ll be hearing a lot more about in the months and years to come), with art by the incredible Eryk Donovan. I can’t say much about the series just yet, but we’re designing it to push the Thrillbent format to the limit in a very cool and different way than we do with The Eighth Seal. I see the two stories as companion pieces of a sort, and can’t wait to see them running side-by-side on this website.

More than any kind of fiction, the stories I’ve always been drawn to tell are horror stories. I want to create horrific images that make you scroll by at top speed, trying not to catch another glimpse of the demonic creature staring right back at you on the page. And then you come back and scroll by again. And again. You try not to think about the creature, but you see it at night when you close your eyes and try to sleep. You go back to the website, thinking if you scroll by again, just a little bit slower, you might be able to let it go. You don’t want to go back there, but you have to. You need to get the monsters out of your mind.

But if you’re already afraid, they’ve found their new home.

Happy Halloween.

-James Tynion IV

Oct 31, 2013 In: Comics 3 comments

The Eighth Seal returns

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Our monthly (and very popular) serial THE EIGHTH SEAL returns to Thrillbent next Thursday, but we’re trying a new experiment and reversing the distribution procedure. As always, the new chapter will be free to read–but if you’d like to jump on board today and read/download it ahead of time (and show your support for some terrific, groundbreaking work), you can do so in the storefront for a few coins. Worth every penny, says I.

 

Oct 24, 2013 In: Comics 4 comments

3-Point Plotting

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(Writing 101 post, fair warning)

When we make serialized content, from comic issue to television episode, we deliver it in discrete chunks. Each of these chunks should feel somehow complete while still dragging the audience forward to the next installment. I know that over the long run you have a lot of cool stuff, well-thought out character dynamics, epic deep background, but how do we start when we’re just staring at that blank page? How do we build the basic … chunk?

First, some vocabulary. People tend to use two words interchangeably when talking about narrative structure: “plot” and “story”. E.M Forster wrote in Aspects of the Novel: “”‘The king died and the queen died’ is a story. ‘The king died, and then the queen died of grief’, is a plot. The time-sequence is preserved, but the sense of causality overshadows it.” (Have you read Aspects of the Novel yet? You should. Now.)

Fair warning, I tend to alter those terms in my discussions, for purely personal reasons. ”Plot” to me is the engine, the machine of causality driving the narrative. ”Story”, to me, has an emotional feel. I think of Neil Gaiman stories, fairy stories, “tell me a story”, etc. “Story” is the whole package, the characters’ emotional journey, all that … feelings goop. I can abide a poorly plotted tale that winds up being a good story, but struggle to think of a bad story saved by a strong plot. No one ever walked out of a movie saying “I felt nothing, but man, the causal chain was fucking tight. Two thumbs up.”

Right, so for purposes of this and any further writing: Plot equals casual chain engine, Story equals the emotional playground, themes, etc. etc, arty bullshit.

So, when faced with the mind-devouring void of a blank page, how do I start?  Personally, I go back to basics. Plotting almost every story I’ve written (or supervised the writing of) I need to see the DISRUPTION, REVERSAL, and CONCLUSION to even begin.

THE DISRUPTION is readily apparent in episodic structure. It’s the inciting incident, the problem, the change which the characters in the show MUST deal with. In an episode of CASTLE it’s the body dropping, in an episode of LEVERAGE it’s the introduction of the case. It’s also, crucial, however, in serialized stories. In every episode of BREAKING BAD you can spot the disruption to the status quo — no matter how screwed up the status quo may be — in the first act. “I have a dude in the basement I have to murder, and I at this point still an in-over-my-head Chemistry teacher …” The Disruption is the accelerant, the problem which looms larger than all the rest for at least this little chunk of the long form story.

An old acquaintance, a former enforcer for the Irish mob in Montreal, had a great expression which anybody who’s worked with me has heard: “Is that a five-minutes-from-now problem or a twenty-minutes-from-now problem?” The full explanation, best done in a voice slurred just a bit with Bushmills, went like this …

“Some problems can wait twenty minutes. Sometimes you gotta solve a problem in the next five minutes or unpleasantness shall occur. And sometimes there’s a guy in the room with a fuckin’ knife. Deal with the guy with the fuckin’ knife, and move on from there.”

The Disruption, ideally, is the guy in the room with the fuckin’ knife. Now, it’s not necessarily that. As you move the intensity of the Disruption back in the timeline, the tone of the piece changes. “Guy in the room with a knife” gives you danger, pulp plotting. A “five minutes from now” problem gives you urgency, but control. Part of the fun is in watching the ad hoc planning your characters throw together to deal with the “five minutes from now” problem. Competence porn lives in the world of the “five minutes from now” problem.  A “twenty minutes from now” problem gives you dread.

See all those feelings? Tools in your Plot tune your Story. A good Story plays with these timelines all the time, changing things up. New problems emerge as knife/five minutes/twenty minutes problems, or the existent problems change in intensity as the Story progresses. The latter’s preferred, by the way, as you move forward in the narrative. Better to have a “twenty minutes from now” problem jump up at you than just dump a new problem in at the last minute.

Regardless, the Disruption is the main problem your character will be focused on solving for the amount of time you’re expecting the audience to pay attention. In episodic TV, the stays quo is implied (the continuing show premise or serialization), allowing you to drop the Disruption as close to the opening of the show as possible. In a TV pilot, however, you need to spend precious page weight describing the unfamiliar status quo. This is one of the reasons the pilot is rarely the best episode of a TV series.

THE REVERSAL is best described by my friend DJ McCarthey: “It’s the moment, when the movie … becomes an entirely different movie.” Too many scripts I’m submitted have a bunch of mini-reversals, the dreaded “and then” syndrome. Stuff happens, and then other stuff happens … Even in a well-plotted story when all the plot developments occur primarily because of the actions of the characters or logical but unexpected complications of the setting (the much loved SOUTH PARK creators advice “replace all moments in the outline  of ‘and then’ with ‘therefore’ or ‘but’) the story feels flat.

It’s a subtle distinction, but a good central reversal — and the middle of the story is the right place for it — always seems to elevate even a straight-ahead episodic-style story.

One of my favorite examples is ALIENS.  Their Reversal is when the missions transforms from a rescue mission to a desperate escape. In one issue of BLUE BEETLE I wrote, it’s the moment when Jaime’s problem goes from stopping the bad guy to saving lives, and realizing he’s not going to be able to save all of them.  In the LEVERAGE series finale, it’s when you realize that the story’s not about what Nate Ford did to steal medicine for a sick kid, but what he’s doing right now to steal something we don’t know aboutwhen Sterling shows up. I’ll fully admit we didn’t pull this off every time in LEVERAGE, but we did our best.

To me — and hell, remember all this is very personal, your mileage may vary — the best reversal is the point of strongest conflict in any interpersonal conflicts in your Story. Because, remember, if you’re doing this right, the emotional Story is riding right along on top the engine of that Plot. That Disruption didn’t just introduce the change in the world’s status quo, it was the spark of whatever emotional Story you want to tell with this particular chunk. If the Disruption set up the differing opinions and viewpoints of the characters, the Reversal is what throws those conflicts into high relief. It’s the testing ground, what sets up the emotional payoff to …

… THE CONCLUSION. The end. The new status quo. Not the return of the status quo, but the new one. Whatever new equilibrium has been reached. “Equilibrium” because it’s a situation, in serialized storytelling, which should be able to be easily disrupted. The status quo is always a delicately balanced thing, little stepping stones of resolution as you leap across the river of your season-long Stories.

Even if your series is highly episodic and the Plot brings closure, the new status quo establishes the emotional balance of your continuing Story. If even a little bit, attitudes are changed, secrets revealed, the basic emotional dynamic of the characters is explored, and someone has shifted if even just a little bit. (Note: we’re talking serialized narratives here. Different purpose for the Conclusion in close-ended work.)

Narratives with no Story progress are almost impossible to sell these days, and I think that’s because the audience has moved past being simply amused by Plot, or perhaps become too meta-aware of Plot structure for it to hold their attention in a meaningful way. There are cheats, of course — “nobody ever puts down a whodunnit” is a hack we’ve been exploiting for decades now — but generally, audiences expect more than just a satisfying causal chain. They felt something. Maybe they need to see that reflected back at them by the characters.

End of day, when faced with a blank page, I start with those three ideas. Disruption / Reversal / Conclusion. FWIW, the fact that the Disruption and Conclusion are bound to each other by the nature of the Story you’re telling, I find the Reversal the most interesting piece of work in writing. The Reversal’s often more revelatory about the inner style of the writer than any other piece of their work.

The concept of Disruption/Reversal/Conclusion is fractal, of course, but we’ll discuss that in another post.

Oct 21, 2013 In: Comics 14 comments

ARCANUM: Hey, That Art Looks New!

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Hello all, and welcome back to a slightly different looking ARCANUM.

After the pilot story — “here’s your team, such as it is”, it’s time to dig into the meat of the ARCANUM 5-season arc. You’ll notice the art style is a bit different. This is not because we’ve changed artists. No, Todd just has multiple awesome styles in his back pocket. Clever bastard.

Old look:

Blog ARCANUM 1

New look:

Blog ARCANUM 2

(God, I love the hands in that image. Hands are a bear for artists and actors. Seriously, you can tell how good an actor is by what they do with their hands when at rest.)

The change comes about to a great degree because, over the course of the hiatus, we reconsidered the tone of the story overall. I kept talking about that 1st great season of X-FILES, where they are just suffused in that Vancouver grey. Like the X-FILES pilot our first real story happens in the Northwest.  This isn’t a matter of slavish imitation, but certainly the similarities resonated as I was plotting out this storyline. And like X-FILES we are an alien invasion story. The aliens just happen to be ancient fairy stories. (And hey, doesn’t that sketch kinda look like a grey …)

“I think we’re more a horror comic,” I said to Mark during one conversation. “Like a Vertigo book, in the old days when Vertigo meant Vertigo.” One of the main themes of ARCANUM is that magic is disruptive and scary and awful. Magic is a corruption, a rot. The big brassy high-colored 1st chapters made sense in order to give us the action look in that 1st Incursion, but as the story goes on ARCANUM very much becomes a tale of unsettling noises in the night, madness borne of broken physics. Soon we’re going to be in the realm of high-beam flashlights and basements filled with things that make you re-swallow your lunch. DUNGEONS & DRAGONS told through the DELTA GREEN lens.

So Todd is now giving us greys and washes, with slightly more impressionist backgrounds and faces very much built around the eyes and mouth. It’s more overtly an character-acting style, which fits. In particular, the Thrillbent process exploits facial expressions in an almost animatic way, which works well with this style.

It feeds back in to how I’m writing, too. Knowing we’ll be dealing with a more subdued palette, in my head I feel the action will come across as more grounded, more noir, and so I write different action sequences.  This may be more bleed over from my film background, but it’s even a matter of choosing close-shots during fights rather than wide-shots.

I’ve said before that I find comics writing brutally difficult, because you have to not just be the screenwriter but also the director and editor on every page. The artist, though, has to be the A-operator, all the actors, and the Director of Photography.  As everyone in Hollywood knows, Directors get all the juice, but the Director of Photography — the DP — is the real power on a set. In television in particular, Directors come and go on literally a weekly basis, but the DP is there for every episode. If your favorite show has a signature look, it ain’t the “directed by” guys giving you that candy. For an insight into the process, here’s an interview with the DP of BREAKING BAD.

(Bonus anecdote: On my first one-hour drama, I asked the DP what, exactly a Director of Photography does. He said “We’re the guy who stands behind the Director and whispers: “… you don’t want to do that.“)

All this echoes something Phil Hester (@philhester) recently tweeted: “The surest way to be seen as a great comic book writer is to get your claws into a genuinely great comic book artist.”

We certainly hope you enjoy the return of ARCANUM. Please do check it out, and our other fine comics like Mark Waid’s INSUFFERABLE, the dark, gritty crime drama of THE DAMNATION OF CHARLIE WORMWOOD, and the very creepy horror comic THE EIGHTH SEAL

Thrillbent is just beginning. Thanks for reading and spreading the word.

 

 

John Rogers has been in the entertainment industry for 20 years.  He created and ran the TV show LEVERAGE and wrote the comic BLUE BEETLE for DC Comics. For Thrillbent, John writes ARCANUM.  Follow him on twitter @jonrog1.

Oct 14, 2013 In: Comics 7 comments
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