By the time Mark Waid penned the 1996 miniseries event “Kingdom Come” for DC, he’d already built a reputation as a smart, innovative writer on titles including “The Flash” and “Captain America.” In the wake of its success and while working alongside Grant Morrison to re-invent the Justice League, Waid realized he had reached a personal peak of sorts, a conclusion that brought him to an artistic crossroads.
“I woke up one day and thought, ‘Jeez, I’ve written Superman and Batman. I’m a professional comic book creator. I get to work in a medium I love and do the thing that I would do for free as a child and I get paid for it. This is a great life. And … I’m 35. What now?'”
Then came “Empire.” In 2000, Waid and Barry Kitson introduced their creator-owned brainchild starring the power-mad Golgoth, a world-conquering villain who, in a then-revolutionary turn, served as the story’s protagonist. Now, 14 years later, the multiple-Eisner-Award-winning Waid has returned to continue the story of Golgoth in “Empire Vol. 2,” available alongside its acclaimed predecessor via subscription from Waid’s Thrillbent company.
As “Empire Vol. 2” No. 2 arrives this week, Hero Complex talked with Waid by phone about classic storytelling, the future of comics and “Citizen Kane.”
Hero Complex: You’ve said that you were drawing on a larger storytelling tradition in casting Golgoth as the protagonist of “Empire,” and that you were specifically influenced by “Citizen Kane.” Why are those other traditions and influences important to you as a writer?
Mark Waid: As a writer, what I’m drawing from is the ability to tell stories that aren’t wrapped up in really strong, impeccably ethical superheroes solving the problem and dusting their hands off and everything is going to be fine from now on. I just really like the Shakespearean tragedy of heavy is the head that wears the crown. The trials and tribulations that go with getting everything you seem to want only to turn around and realize that it has netted you nothing — that’s a much longer storytelling tradition than a man who can leap tall buildings in a single bound. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve written a million superhero comics and will continue to do so and love the medium, but it feels so good and liberating to be able to step outside and stretch.
HC: By the time you wrote “Empire Vol. 1,” you had already achieved a lot of personal success in the comics field. Did those themes – Golgoth feeling disillusioned after vanquishing his enemies — come from a personal place?
MW: It very much did. Honestly, my epiphany and the thing that sparked “Empire” almost 15 years ago, maybe longer, was waking up one day and realizing that I had achieved every goal I had set out for myself since I was a little boy. Where do you go from here? Now again, that’s not a tragedy. That’s one of those “Oh, my diamond shoes are too tight,” problems. I got everything I want, what do I want now? But that certainly got the ball rolling in my head. To take that problem of, “What now?,” and transfer it to its absolute limit. You give that dilemma to a character that has quite literally taken over the world and there is nothing standing in the way of him and anything he could possibly want in a very literal sense. So what now?
HC: Early in “Vol. 2,” a rebellion against Golgoth is gathering steam. Will that become a major focus of the narrative going forward?
MW: The idea that there’s a rebellion brewing and there’s more challenges along that line forthcoming, I’ll be perfectly blunt with you, that’s to get exposition across. That’s more of a storytelling tool than the actual story. The actual story is, without spoiling anything from “Vol. 1,” now that Golgoth has apparently no reason to do anything further and no human connection, now what? I’m fascinated by this idea that here is a character that apparently has ultimate power, but in fact, is the most powerless man on Earth. He is trapped by this idea that he can’t break character, he can’t break the façade, he can’t one day decide not to do this anymore. Because if he does, the entire world goes up in flames.
HC: You can really see the “Citizen Kane” parallels there.
MW: Totally. “Somehow I will find something to fill that sled-shaped hole in my heart and yet I never do.”
HC: Much of the story’s dramatic tension comes from not knowing Golgoth’s origins, not knowing what’s under the mask. Do you plan to reveal much of his back story? How do you plan to maintain that sense of mystery?
MW: I think part of the way to do it is to keep rolling in new characters. As old characters shuffle off the mortal coil of the story — and again that’s part of the appeal to me as the writer is that anyone can go at any time and no one is safe — you get to roll in new characters with their own mysteries. I’m a big believer in the idea that for every new mystery or question that you stir up in a series, you really ought to pay off something. I think that’s only fair for the readers and the fun part is doling out the secrets. But it’s something I literally have charted out on paper, almost a mathematical formula if you will, in a series of boxes and grids — like … as this gets revealed then I want to key some new mystery that you didn’t see coming or some new strange character or some new revelation about Golgoth’s own background. It’s something I’m very conscious about in a very calculating way. How do you reveal secrets and make sure every reveal doesn’t stop the story?
HC: How has the time between volumes affected the way you’re telling the story?
MW: I think I have a much better sense of nuance when it comes to character stuff, that I tend to think less in broad superhero strokes and broad melodrama. I think I have more insight into the human condition. I was 35 when I started this and now I’m 52. It gives you a much different perspective on the nature of evil and the nature of human beings, both good and evil. I have a more seasoned perspective on why people do the things they do.
HC: You wrote an open letter to “young freelancers” last year that was really well-received. What do you think about artists putting things online and doing things for free to get their name out there?
MW: More and more, the way it’s going to work is that with your creative role, no matter what endeavor it is that you’re pursuing, trying to market it yourself through a major mega-corporation, whether it’s Sony or Warner Bros. and find distribution like that, I think that’s a dying way of doing things. It forces you out of your personal place, it forces you, by nature, to be more commercial and it forces you to sand the edges off your work. Whereas, and I say this knowing it’s a lot of work, I think what today and tomorrow brings us is the chance to connect more with your audience. It’s less important for you to gamble that Sony and Warner Bros. can help you find an audience of a billion people. It’s a safer bet to say that if you can find 15,000 or 20,000 people who like what you do and are willing to support you at a fair market price for what you give them, nobody gets rich that way but everybody gets paid. And you put yourself in a much better position because you can do what you do and the things that only you can do and you don’t have to worry about serving corporate masters. Digital gives you that opportunity. It’s the democratization of comics. At this point, all you’re losing is sweat equity if you do online comics. You don’t have to pay printers, you don’t have to cough up big money, you just have to get out there and put it up online and it will find an audience. If it’s good, then people will gravitate toward you. You’ll have to do your own marketing and pushing and stuff and I’m not trying to tell you, “If you build it, they will come,” but at the same time, building it is the most important part of the equation, and in my experience, do it right and you’ll find an audience.
HC: How’s the experience been for you when it comes to promoting and marketing Thrillbent’s titles?
MW: I’ve always said, that’s the hardest part of what we do. I knew that was going to be the hardest part going in and I still vastly underestimated the power of publicity and marketing. I know how to deliver content. That I can do. But especially given the rapidity with which social media changes on a seemingly annual basis…. I have to stay on top of all of that, which is great because it keeps me young and focused. But at the same time, that is, by far, the most challenging part of it. The good news is, I’ve been doing this for almost 30 years, I’ve built up enough of a fan base that I can count on them to be my lieutenants in the field and go out there and spread the word and that’s terrific because I know I’ll fulfill my end of the bargain. I’ll work night and day to give them content that they’ll enjoy. But man, my advice to anyone following in my footsteps is go hire the three best PR guys you know and then go hire three more.
HC: What’s next for Thrillbent and for you personally?
MW: On Thrillbent, “Empire: Vol. Two” is just the opening salvo. We have a new series from James Tynion IV and from Seanan McGuire who’s a fantasy novelist and more of my own material that’s going to go up over the summer. And then, I’m still in the trenches doing “Daredevil” at Marvel and having a blast, and I’m still a store owner out here in Muncie, Ind. So, I keep my hands in all aspects of the industry. It’s a good life. It really is.
– Justin Sullivan | @LATHeroComplex
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