Mark Waid - Exploring with 'The Unknown'

The Unknown #1, cover by Paul Pope

Over the weekend at Mega Con, Boom! Studios Editor in Chief Mark Waid discussed his two new projects that would be launching from Boom! Studios over the next several months. In April, fans will see the release of Irredeemable - a less-than-traditional, to quote Waid, “superhero-ish” title about a world’s greatest hero gone bad. In May, however, Waid is exploring the biggest unsolved mystery of them all: What happens to us when we die?

A four issue mini-series, The Unknown, written by Waid and penciled by Dutch artist, Minck Oosterveer, explores the human fascination with death and how science may (or may not) have an answer to the mystery of the afterlife.

Newsarama sat down with Waid during Mega Con to talk about this mysterious new project.

Newsarama: This weekend you spoke briefly about The Unknown; what can you tell readers about this new project?

Mark Waid: The Unknown is my new detective book. It’s a four issue mini-series with a Dutch artist named Minck Oosteerver—and he’s great. The high concept is: She is the greatest detective of her age; she’s the Sherlock Holmes of the 21st Century and she specializes in debunking the mythic…the mystical stuff…because it’s all about science to her. He is the ‘Watson’, if you will, he’s the assistant—and the big brawny guy. He gets the job as her assistant and, on his first day, she tells him that: one—she has six months to live which one else knows; and, two, she refuses to go to the grave with founding out the secret of what happens after you die which she considers the greatest mystery of all.

Together, they look into cases about life-after-death experiences or weird occurrences—for instance, their first case—without giving anything away—they travel to Vienna to speak to two scientists who have built a mysterious box which has some weird supernatural / spiritual connection—and it gets stolen out of a locked laboratory. So questions arise: Is it matter transference? Is it teleportation? Or is it something a little weirder and a little darker than that?

It’s this sort of descent into hell—this pulp-like, David Lynch-ian…

NRAMA: It sounds sort of like it’s mixed the occult mixed with fringe science…

MW: Kind of—it’s like fringe science but it only works for me, as a writer, if there is actually an answer to their questions. You don’t expect science to solve the answer of what happens to us when we die—so it seems to me that the only way to make that story interesting is to have an answer. I’ll let you know when I figure it out. (laughs)

NRAMA: How’d you meet up with Minck?

MW: (laughs) Actually, this is interesting, Matt Gagnon—Managing Editor at Boom!—had found him. We were doing Zombie Tales, a horror anthology, and we had a three part story that was written by Chris Morgan, the guy who wrote the screenplay for Wanted. Well, three distinct chapters called for three artists and I think he just found him on the web—and he blew us away.

It helped that he’d been published in overseas extensively; it helped that his portfolio was very strong; and, one of the things that helped him the most, was that he was friends with Barry Kitson. Barry recommended him and vouched for him. Frankly, dealing with somebody overseas, it’s good to have someone you know who can be a reference for someone so far away; that way, we know he’s dependable.

NRAMA: What’s your personal belief in the afterlife?

MW: That’s an excellent question; I’m still evaluating. If you would have asked me that question six months ago, before I started doing the research for this project, I probably would have told you that it was some basic form of reincarnation, I suppose. Not in a traditional sense, but in a sense that I think that there is a much greater force that we’re all a part of. On a personal level, I’m not a spiritual man on a day-to-day basis but I know that my belief is not that when you die it’s not done—I want to believe that there is something beyond that.

NRAMA: That said, where did the project for this concept come from for you?

MW: One of the most fun experiences I’ve had in comics was when I was doing Ruse for CrossGen which was my Sherlock Holmes pastiche and I love doing detective stories. There aren’t that many really good female analytical science detectives in comic book fiction and I wanted to tap into that and see what I could find. I also really like the non-romantic, platonic relationship between men and women—I like writing about that too. Again, the basic concept—once you’ve created a detective character—what is the one ultimate mystery? That’s what made it sing to me.

NRAMA: You had mentioned that it’s a mini-series—in your mind, what is better for smaller publishers—the safety of the mini-series or the potential strength of an ongoing? What’s the challenge in choosing the overall direction of a project?

MW: Both have unique opportunities, the mini-series gives you a full story with a beginning, a middle, and an ending. You’re in, you’re out and it can be turned into a trade paperback and it can be in print forever. The disadvantage of the ongoing is that no matter who you are, no matter what your comic series is, a monthly series will always dwindle and fail and unless you’re doing characters like Jim Lee, Brian K. Vaughn, and Brian Bendis are doing—your numbers very rarely go up; they always sort of slide down. That’s the reason so many people do limited series.

That said, Irredeemable is an ongoing because the advantage of doing a monthly book is that even though the numbers may crest a little bit down—but when you look back at three or four years worth of work—and it gives your company something vital to show for itself.

NRAMA: A cornerstone…

MW: Yes—exactly! It gives the company a spine with some history to it. That’s why we chose to do Irredeemable as an ongoing because it seems safer bet because it’s a superhero-ish book with a series of mini-series after that; we’ll have to wait and see. The next thing I do for Boom! may be an ongoing—we don’t know yet.

NRAMA: I noticed you mentioned superhero books being a safer bet—why is that?

MW: It shouldn’t be but it is because we keep making that 80% of our audience is people who will die of old age before the middle of the century. The comic book market is still ruled by the ‘Big Two’ and the ‘Big Two’ still cater to their superhero audiences. I think everyone would agree that it’d be better if we had a better choice of genres across the field—but as long as people are buying superhero comics, they’re going to sell. I don’t mind taking advantage of that; but, at the same time, I like the feeling that working for a smaller company like Boom! gives me when I can work in other genres.

NRAMA: What are some of the bigger challenges in independent publishing?

MW: Well, (without going too long) the basic point is trying to make enough noise outside of Marvel and DC to have people notice you; because, if Marvel does Secret Invasion and DC does Final Crisis, those are big, loud, giant events and it’s really hard to make noise in the market place. Also, it’s hard to get any large amount of attention on projects that aren’t superhero books. But, the upside to that—the freedom involved with that—is that you’re not tied down to just doing a superhero book. For the most part, why would you bother? Marvel and DC are going to do them better anyway.

NRAMA: Recently, you made a brief mention of the web comics and the digital initiative that Boom! is going to be undertaking in the near future; would you care to talk about that?

MW: We’ve already taken the forefront on a lot of this stuff. We’ve been working with MySpace Comics and we’ve provided simultaneous online delivery of content that coincided with the release of our product in stores and that worked out really well for us—and the numbers on the mini-series –that was North Wind last year—did, in fact, increase. With Hexed, a book with Mike Nelson and Emma Rios, we are circulating that on MySpace Comics at the same time that we’re producing the issues and the feedback is really good. The numbers are bigger than we figured they would be and that’s great. That’s a start. We’ve also Farscape on the iPhone.

We’re trying a bunch of stuff and we feel that the next step is going to be creating projects specifically formatted for the web. Any time you try to take comics and put them on the iPhone or put them on the screen of a computer, what you’re doing is taking a vertical medium and you’re pretending it’s for a horizontal display. You have to do weird cut pastes to format print books for electronic devices—and the artist wasn’t thinking in that form when he was creating these projects. It’s the equivalent of watching a movie that’s been formatted to my television screen and it’s fine and good—but you’re missing stuff; it’s not the way the project was originally envisioned. I feel the same way about comics on the web, by and large; it’s a vertical comic you’re trying to present in a horizontal medium—and it just doesn’t work, you’re going to lose something. So what we’re trying to do more stuff that is particularly for the web.

NRAMA: You’ve also talked about financial growth for Boom!—and during the current recession, no less…

MW: Yeah.

NRAMA: What’s your secret?

MW: No secrets—the big Pixar deal we’ve arranged with their licensed properties is going to keep us where we want to be. Also, the fact that the Pixar books ordered in at about 30-40% higher than our best dreams had anticipated was huge. Will those numbers remain that way? We don’t know—but the important thing is that we were right when we said there was an audience for these types of projects. With our deal with Fox Atomic that help us get into book stores; it helps us with the web initiative; it helps us in so many other ways. And we still love working with comic stores—they’re our main retail partner—so we’ll continue to do what we can to further that relationship. Everybody knows that the secret to having success is to get our comics into as many places as we can.

NRAMA: Continuing on the topic of licensed projects and getting into larger stores, are both of these topics something that the industry as a whole should be pursuing in the near future?

MW: For now—until the chain stores die off and everyone starts ordering everything off the web. (laughs) There’s no argument about it—its economics; the more places you have your retail product out, the better your sales are going to be. Everyone wants to remember or thinks they remember when comics were available everywhere and market penetration was much stronger then. With the tightening of the economy, comic book stores are going to start to drop off like any other specialty retail stores—there are going to be hard times everywhere so we have to make sure comics are everywhere.

NRAMA: Alright, closing us out, Mark, sell readers to The Unknown.

MW: (laughs) Ahhh!

Wow, besides the Paul Pope covers—which are nice. I don’t know that Doc Savage the way of David Lynch is the way to pitch this to folks; half the audience has no clue who Doc Savage is! I’m not saying we’re going this—but if you like Fringe and House and you cram the two together into the same television show then that’s what you’ve got; there’s your book, right there.

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