Paul O'Connor has been a friend of mine for many years. When Malibu Comics was just a small start-up, Paul was one of the company's first freelance writers. Eventually, he wrote more than a dozen series for Malibu before turning his attention to video games, working for Oddworld, Sammy, Appy Entertainment and now for Machine Zone (Game of War). In 2014, at the Comic-Con International: San Diego, he seized an open opportunity from Mark Waid's Thrillbent...and the result was the new 4 Seconds, illustrated by Karl Kesel.
Emmy winner Tom Mason, one of the founders of Malibu's Ultraverse line of comics and creator of Dinosaurs For Hire, is the author or co-author of many children's books, teleplays, and other projects.
Tom Mason (TM): How did 4 Seconds come about?
Paul O'Connor (PO): 4 Seconds was a total shot in the dark! I wrote comics for a few years with Malibu in the late ’80s/early ’90s, but left the business to do video games. Around 2011, I found my interest in comics rekindled by the Marvel movies, and started up my Longbox Graveyard blog to review Bronze and Silver Age comics as I revisited them (and that blog is still going strong at www.LongboxGraveyard.com).
Because I was working in mobile games, my interest naturally gravitated toward digital comics, which put Mark Waid’s Thrillbent platform on my radar. I appreciated that Mark was walking the walk when it came to digital, putting his own money on the line by launching Thrillbent, and I was intrigued by the possibilities for evolving comics storytelling offered by his platform. Everything converged when I read that Mark was offering an opportunity to publish on Thrillbent with an open-microphone pitch competition at [Comic-Con International: San Diego] in 2014…I was going to the show anyway; I was a fan of Mark’s site; and I like to pitch ideas, so I decided to give it a shot.
TM: What was the pitch?
PO: Pitching comes easily to me, it is something I like to do, and I generally do a good job at it. I’ve had plenty of experience pitching big projects in my video game career (including a pitch to Steven Spielberg that didn’t go forward, but was an awesome experience). I knew that delivering an effective comic book pitch in fifteen seconds – which was Mark’s firm time limit – was something I could do with a good chance of success. I spent about a month working up my pitch, leaning heavily on the log line format that Blake Snyder lays out in his book Save The Cat, and I crafted a pretty good one…the problem was the idea wasn’t especially fresh. It would have made a fine comic, but it didn’t have any special snap, and I realized with dismay, literally the night before Comic-Con that my pitch was just laying there because it didn’t take any special advantage of the very unique Thrillbent form.
TM: So, Plan B?
PO: I was ready to round file the whole idea, but then I decided to work backwards…to lay out a few parameters for myself and see if I could craft a pitch driven not by trying to describe some comic book idea that I had in the back of my mind, but instead driven by what would work on Thrillbent and what would succeed as a pitch. I decided the idea had to be relentlessly visual and be the kind of story best told (perhaps only told) in Thrillbent form. I flashed on the idea of precognition as something that would show well via Thrillbent, and developed the bare bones of my pitch that night. The next day, riding into Comic-Con, I laid the idea on my old friend Chris Ulm (former Editor-In-Chief of Malibu Comics), and he gave me some valuable feedback, helping me simplify and sharpen the pitch. Over lunch, I tried the revised pitch on my friend Matt Wilson (creator of Warmachine and head of Privateer Press), and he told me the pitch was all premise, but no pay-off…that it need an “and, then…” twist, preferably one with emotional stakes.
I banged out the last revision on my phone, showed up the panel, went up to the microphone, and said: 4 Seconds is a noir thriller about a petty thief who discovers she can see four seconds into the future. That’s just enough precognition to get into trouble, but not nearly enough time to pull off the heist that will save her sister’s life.
And I won! (Then I had the cold bath moment of realizing all I had was fifteen seconds of material, but I was on the hook to do a whole story!)
TM: As editor, how did Mark Waid's input help you shape your story?
PO: Mark’s a fearless guy…he committed to my doing this project on the basis of the pitch, with no way of knowing if I could deliver the script or not. I think he was prepared to be a lot more hands-on than things ended up being – when he saw my first treatment, and then my script sample, and could see the way I was thinking about the project, I think he realized he could take his hand off the wheel and just let me go. In the back of his head, I am sure, he always figured he could step in and rewrite the script if I handed in a turd, but I made an effort to keep him in the loop with frequent updates and I expect Mark was happy that I had it covered, given that he’s always busy writing a million books a month.
TM: Karl, how did you get involved in 4 Seconds?
Karl Kesel (KK): Ever since Mark Waid showed me the storytelling possibilities for digital comics, I wanted to work in the medium. You can do everything a traditional comic can – and so much more. My good friend Ron Randall and I did the one-shot “City of the Dead” for Thrillbent and it was the most exciting, creatively stimulating and fulfilling experience I’ve had in comics since...well, since I got into comics! And I wanted more of it. Mark offered me a seat at the table a number of times, but for various reasons it never quite worked out. When I heard about Thrillbent’s San Diego pitch contest, I told Mark I’d be interested in drawing it. He kept that in mind, and one day sent me Paul’s script. Once I read it, I knew I had to draw it. First and foremost: it was a damn good story, extremely well-written. Second, Paul understood the medium better than most. I could instantly see what he wanted to do, and that it would work. I wanted in, and thankfully Mark and Paul gave me the nod.
TM: How did you and Paul work together?
KK: He wrote the script, I drew it. That’s a bit of an over-simplification, but not much. Paul’s vision was very complete. It didn’t need fixing. My main job was Not Screwing It Up. We talked once or twice on the phone, exchanged a slew of emails. I tweaked the precog FX slightly— Paul had envisioned the numbers 1 through 4 integrated into each precog panel, Eisner-like, to emphasize the 4 Seconds Cassie can see into the future, but given how small those panels were going to be I suggested making the panels themselves shaped like those numbers. Not that everything I did made Paul’s life easier. At one point I decided to show a scene as if it were a blueprint, mostly because to my mind we hadn’t fully established the setting and how different places related to each other. I think it made the story clearer, but it also came out of nowhere and was stylistically unlike anything else in the story. Paul, God bless him, changed some captions so it made complete sense and seemed like we planned it all along. From where I sit, Paul and I had a wonderful working relationship, with great give-and-take. I’d work with him again in a New York minute...or 4 seconds...
TM: Can you describe the length of the story/format/page count etc.
PO: It is built for Thrillbent, which means it is a digital-first story. It’s not a “motion comic” – it’s a real comic book, but it lives on your screen instead of on the page. You control frame advances, meaning you read the story at your own pace, but because this is digital instead of paper, we can use cinematic techniques like wipes and fades that don’t work in traditional comics storytelling. We also play with panel structure, balloon placement, panel refreshes, and all sorts of cool stuff that this particular format allows…I think readers will be surprised and (I hope) delighted by some of the techniques we have employed here, which I don’t think have been used many other places (if at all). Because of the digital nature of the book, it is hard to peg a specific page length…I think Karl said that 4 Seconds (which is a complete story) was equivalent to about thirty pages of finished print work.
TM: How is it different making comics for digital formatting vs. traditional old school publishing?
KK: This could be a college course all by itself! Probably the biggest difference is that digital allows for a level of subtlety and sudden change that you can’t come close to in print. If you show a crowd on a subway car and then digitally flick to the next frame where the only change is one character has turned his head a bit – your eye immediately keys in on that change and is drawn to it. In print, with those two panels next to each other, that small change would be a lot less apparent, if not lost completely. Conversely, since you can never scan ahead, the dark-room-suddenly-illuminated-by-lightning-revealing-the-monster-behind-Our-Hero has a lot more visceral impact. Both of these make digital comics more cinematic than print, yet they remain comics – static images that you move through at your own rate. There’s the illusion of movement without any of that annoying (to me, at least) fake motion stuff. And then there are the things digital comics can do that can’t be done in print or film – a character walks down a street over the course of three panels, for instance; the main action (and dialogue) stays focused on that character, but readers see that someone is following him, always one panel behind. And that’s just the start. One of the most exciting aspects of digital comics is that it’s unexplored territory. New possibilities are being discovered constantly.
TM: What was Mark's role as editor on the project?
PO: My secret agenda in working with Mark was to get him to fall in love with the story, and then kind of slowly expand the length and the scope of the thing, and Mark was gracious enough to go along with it, ultimately providing a bigger budget for the story than I think he anticipated, all because he was a believer in 4 Seconds. Near the end of the project, Mark provided fresh eyes after Karl and I were too close to things to see things clearly, and he also gave me some perspective on a particular character motivation problem I was trying to solve for my bad guy, in effect telling me that I was thinking too hard about something that wouldn’t especially matter to the audience. Mark’s great.
KK: As far as the art goes, there was one, maybe two, images I drew that were not used in the finished piece. I’m not sure if that was Mark’s call or Paul’s, but it was a good one, editorially. Mark, for me, mostly worked extremely hard to make sure I could draw this, financially. And I know that wasn’t easy. I’m eternally grateful, and hope he feels it was worth the trouble.
TM: It was important to you to have 4 Seconds be free-reading – why was that important to you?
PO: I know from my work in mobile games that the difference between “free” and “paid” cannot be overstated. My company had a 99¢ game that was selling a couple hundred copies a day – when we set it to “free,” we had a million downloads in less than a week. It really is impossible to comprehend the difference in friction between making something free and trying to sell it for even a few cents. I think 4 Seconds is quality work, and the circumstances of its creation are interesting, and having Karl Kesel involved will create interest, but I just didn’t see where 4 Seconds was going to drive traffic for Thrillbent if readers had to pay to read it. On the other hand, making the story free eliminates the “last mile” obstacle to sharing this work with the widest possible audience, which synchronized my need to get this story in front of lots of eyeballs, and Mark’s need to find new readers for Thrillbent. It was win/win … and I really need to thank Mark for publishing this book and providing it for free out of Thrillbent’s pocket.
TM: What's the measurement for success?
PO: That’s a great question…I’ve been so focused on bringing 4 Seconds to market that I haven’t looked much past the launch. The first and most important thing is for 4 Seconds to be widely read, and (hopefully) enjoyed. If I can leverage this story into additional comics work, then that might be nice, provided the project was right. Of course I’d like to do a sequel to 4 Seconds, but the market will tell us if that makes sense or not. I did develop the property so that it could live outside of comics, and I think it would make a terrific television or film property. But it all depends on who sees it, and how much the right people like it…to borrow from my experience in mobile games, having a free property like this reduces friction in getting people to read the work, but it doesn’t do anything for “discoverability” – we still have to do a lot of heavy lifting to secure reviews of this story, and to get it considered for bigger things. Much of that is up to the fates.
TM: Do you also have a print deal with Thrillbent for 4 Seconds?
PO: As far as print is concerned, I know that Thrillbent has a publishing relationship with IDW, and I’d love to see this book in print, though it would take some re-work, as we leaned so heavily on digital storytelling techniques in creating this book. But that’s another thing the market will decide.
TM: Now that 4 Seconds is completed, what are you working on next?
KK: Right now I’m inking David Hahn’s POW! BAM! pencils on Batman ’66 Meets the Man From UNCLE miniseries. After that: I’m diving into a creator-owed project that I’m drawing and Cullen Bunn is writing. Very excited about that, but it won’t be out until later this year. And if a sequel to 4 Seconds ever came my way...