By Matt O’Keefe
Not only has Mark Waid been pioneering digital comics over the past few years; he’s also broken new ground in mainstream comics. In Daredevil and Indestructible Hulk heroes are actively addressing their mental health, taking steps to lead better lives. I spoke to Waid about the approach he’s bringing to his Marvel books and his role as co-publisher of Thrillbent.
Did you have a specific game plan when you started writing Indestructible Hulk?
I did, but it’s changed pretty radically. The set up was that there’s Bruce Banner, and all he needs is acceptance and funding for equipment so he can make a name for himself. As I got further into it I realized that Banner has a lot of inner demons that are very akin to depression or anxiety issues that he can’t just hand-wave away.
I love the new directions of your Marvel books. Both Bruce Banner and Matt Murdock have fresh “onwards and upwards” attitudes. They’re deciding to change, whereas most of the time superheroes are more reacting to external events.
The thing is – it applies more to Daredevil than the Hulk but certainly Hulk, too –
Daredevil clearly is dealing with chemical depression issues in his life and, frankly, so have I my entire life. I’ve made no secret of that– and something I learned is like any chronic condition it doesn’t just go away, but what you can do is use cognitive therapy to get past the worst of it.
I think you see very clearly in Daredevil that depression is inertia. What fuels depression is that sense of helplessness, that sense of not knowing what to do next, that image of sitting on a gargoyle in the rain on the rooftop, frozen by inaction. To me, Daredevil come to grips with that and is actively pushing past. I wrote a scene where he feels that paralysis that comes with depression and he pushes through it. He makes an active decision to move forward. Any movement is better than no movement at all.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen depression covered in superhero comics to the extent you’ve done.
Depression is one of those conditions that as society we tend to be judgmental towards, like there’s something shameful about it. We don’t want to admit that it’s not just “a bad mood” but a genuine condition people deal with. But part of coming to terms with depression is not letting it define who and what you are, not letting it rule your life or set the rules for you. It’s figuring out instead how to manage it like any chronic condition in a way that minimizes the impact on your day-to-day living and allows you to live as normal a life as possible.
In dealing with medication over the years and trying to figure out the best cocktail of pills to treat my depression, one of the most uplifting things I heard came from a physician who was listening to me worry about side effects. He said, “The whole goal of taking medication is to minimize the side effects as much as possible so you can best live a normal life.” And that goes for non-medicinal cognitive therapy, too. In other words, don’t feel like you have to accept that there are crippling, inescapable side effects to treatment– that’s giving up control. You need to monitor your medication and your treatment and work hard at making it work for you.
Back to Daredevil…he had an epiphany. He came to realize that you can keep digging and digging and digging a hole for yourself, but once you hit a certain level, you have to decide whether or not you’re going to just live at the bottom of a pit for the rest of your life or make an effort to climb out.
And Matt’s self-administered treatment–just powering through the inertia and not dwelling on the past–may not be the best treatment. We’ve addressed that and will continue to. His may not be the most beneficial or smartest way to deal with his problem, but it’s better than nothing. Sometimes his attitude will change depending upon the circumstances around him because, again, it’s an ongoing process, finding the right way to deal with the condition.
Who do you think is handling their mental health better: Matt Murdock or Bruce Banner?
[Laughs] I think now Matt – in the past Bruce has probably done a slightly better job. But to be fair Bruce has a perfect outlet for his own demons, it’s big and green and strong. He can morph into a whole different form that can be a release valve for him. Daredevil is Daredevil 24/7.
I appreciate the fact that Bruce Banner, like Matt, finally put his foot down one day and said, “I am not going to be the victim of circumstance anymore.” I think a lot of the problems that Bruce has – his sense of identity, sense of helplessness, feeling like a victim to his situation – are far more ingrained in him than we realize. My Thrillbent partner John Rogers likes to say, “The most addictive feeling in the world is feeling hard-done by.” To buy into the notion that fate is fate and there’s nothing you can do to take control of your life. It’s a very human way of dealing with problems, but it’s not a very heroic way of dealing with them. That’s what characterized my rethinking of Matt Murdock and what characterized my rethinking of Bruce Banner. If you’re going to deal with your emotional problems honestly and change your life, the first thing you need to do is draw a line in the sand and say “ it’s going to be different from now on, starting here.”
On Indestructible Hulk you seem so flexible. When Walt Simonson comes aboard, you write a classic Thor story for him. The last two arcs were event tie-ins. How much of that is part of the gig and how much is by design?
It’s funny… It’s just part of the gig but I’ve managed in the last few months of the current run to turn it to my advantage. I’ve been playing very openly with the notion that Hulk tends to be different every time he appears. Part of that is because of whatever biochemical stuff is going through Bruce’s brain at the moment of transformation, the severity of the trauma that awakens the Hulk at that moment. I’ve been leaning into the fact that Hulk has had so many different approaches and attitudes over the years.
Shifting to Thrillbent, what does your role as publisher entail?
Most everything. It’s still a skeleton group of people, but it’s gotten to where most of what we are doing, the production end of it, is fairly automated. The people we are publishing get it and my attention turns less towards teaching how to do what we do and more towards looking for content for the next wave. We’re trying to time another push for April or May this year with brand new materials by bigger name people. I’ve been busy putting all those wheels in motion, and at the same time writing more content myself.
You have plans to write a new Thrillbent series?
At least one. We’ll definitely be bringing Insufferable back at some point in the spring but beyond that there’s at least one more Thrillbent series I’ll be doing and maybe two. It all depends on schedule.
Is Peter Krause going to do Insufferable along with Daredevil: Road Warrior?
He’ll be done with Road Warrior by the time Insufferable’s back on his drawing board–the Daredevil gig is only a four-week series, but his work is spectacular on it. Thrillbent’s not involved in the Daredevil: Road Warrior Infinite Comic directly; Pete and I are just
taking a short Insufferable break while we remind the Marvel audience why Peter Krause is a force to be reckoned with and somebody to be followed back to Thrillbent.
The online store’s been up about six months. How’s it been going from your perspective?
Good. Not quite as robust as I’d hoped. There are four factors to selling anything: content, distribution, publicity, and marketing. We are great at content; we are good at distribution. Because of the limited amount of time in the day, however, marketing and publicity is where we fall down. That’s no fault of the people at Thrillbent behind the scenes; that’s on me – I don’t have as much time as I’d like to pound the drum and get people to swarm to our site. When I talk about it through social media, people come, but the moment I turn my attention to something else it’s hard to keep the momentum up. The next push in April or May we’ll try to figure out a way to make that more sustainable.
Is there a term for the type of comic Thrillbent publishes? Everyone seems to call them something different.
We don’t have a term yet. We’ve been talking about that. We sure need one, don’t we? When you say digital comics, that’s not specific enough. Digital comics at this point mean anything from just reformatted printed comics, to what we do, to [shudder] motion comics. It’s not a very specific term. I am open to any and all suggestions.
Rich Johnston suggested naming them de Campi comics, after Alex de Campi.
Let me rephrase: I am open to any and all suggestions but those from Rich Johnston. I kind of like that idea, and I love Alex de Campi; we’re putting her Valentine material on our site and she’s going to be doing new installments for us. But if you ever see me enthusiastically taking a suggestion from Rich Johnston, you can assume I’m being blackmailed somehow.
[Laughs] What are some digital comics not published by Thrillbent that have really caught your eye?
Last question: what’s inspiring you, whether it’s fiction nonfiction, real life, whatever?
What tends to inspire me more than anything else is the news. Getting up in the morning and cruising a bunch of science and social justice websites and see what’s happening in the world today that I can translate in today into comic form. Social justice issues for Daredevil to tackle and science developments to seed stories for Bruce Banner.