Tom Spurgeon's Web site of comics news, reviews, interviews and commentary
















July 13, 2008


CR Sunday Interview: Daniel Merlin Goodbrey

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imageWhat little I know about the writer and cartoonist Daniel Merlin Goodbrey intrigues in a way that it's surprising I didn't interview him a long time ago. He's a considerable presence within webcomics and is a generally prolific cartoonist in that realm, perhaps best known in the on-line world for developing the Tarquin Engine. Goodbrey's a "new media lecturer" -- which sounds fantastic -- and done a number of works in hypercomics, yet he's also written an old-school, print-bound Avengers short story, and has just completed another such assignment for Marvel.

A number of the writer's on-line efforts are reachable from his site, E-merl.com, including titles such as Doodleflak, Externality, The Formalist, the Mr. Nile comics, Sixgun, The Last Sane Cowboy and the work we talk about here: All Knowledge Is Strange, Brain Fist, Never Shoot The Chronopath, The Rule of Death and this chat's ostensible raison d'etre, the webcomic-intended-for-print-trade Necessary Monsters. I enjoyed our brief back and forth, and had a good time catching up with his work.

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TOM SPURGEON: What does a "new media lecturer" lecture about? Can you give us the shape and form of one of your lectures?

DANIEL MERLIN GOODBREY: My lecturing work has covered a broad area over the years, from web and multimedia design through design for mobile devices, comics, games and animation. I teach as part of the School of Film, Music & Media at the University of Hertfordshire and technically when they hired me my focus was on interactivity -- hence the "new" media bit. These days my main teaching focus is actually on the Digital Animation area, teaching narrative, storyboarding, interactivity and general preproduction and conceptual development skills. You can see some of the students' output from the degree at http://h3da.co.uk/.

Comics actually figure into my teaching quite a lot, with all our animators and games artists producing short print and web based comics in their first year as a way to get to grips with storytelling and narrative design skills. I've also tutored quite a few final year students doing interactive comic projects across a range of courses. Anyone with an interest in the area tends to get sent my way eventually.

SPURGEON: Daniel, I can remember when you showed up in comics, but I don't know that I remember hearing anything about you before that time. Where did you come from, and how did you become interested in comics?

GOODBREY: I come from a family of Antique dealers in deepest Suffolk, the only child to escape the dread call of the ancient lords of brick-a-brack. I was into comics from a young age -- my Dad used buy and read me Dan Dare in Eagle before I was even old enough to read them for myself. I read various comics growing up -- the awesome Transformers UK weekly comics were an early crush.

I got my hands on dribs and drabs of American comics in single issues every now and then which blossomed for a few years in the 90s into an obsessive X-men collecting phase which is now thankfully well behind me. I started actively trying to read a real range of different comics when I went to University, urged on by the friends I'd made at my main online hangout of the time, the old Comic Book Resources Never Ending Message Board.

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SPURGEON: More specifically, what led you to launching Sixgun? That was an extremely ambitious work.

GOODBREY: Sixgun was the final project during my Master's degree in the digital practices of Hyperfiction. I had about three months or so just to work solidly on it, so I really had the time to explore a lot of different approaches to how comics on the screen could work. At the time I'd been experimenting with webcomics for the last couple of years both in my own time and as part of my official studies. I had all these ideas for how comics might work online -- some influenced directly by Scott McCloud's writing, some based on trying to apply the workings of hyperfiction narrative to comics. So Sixgun became my test bed for a lot of these ideas while at the same time trying to explore this world of the Unfolded Earth that I was having fun inventing.

SPURGEON: Maybe unfairly, I think of you as one of the more experimental figures from that first wave of cartoonists who were doing work on-line, a strange and wooly group celebrated by McCloud. What was that time like? Am I right in thinking there was a much less assured way of thinking about webcomics and what they would become at that time? Is there anything or anyone that you miss from that time period?

GOODBREY: I can remember how exciting it was at the time having this medium to work with which hadn't actually been nailed down yet -- where all the rules hadn't been written and there were all these ideas circulating that no one had tried yet. Ideas that no one had tried! How crazy was that? You get raised on the gloom of all-been-done-before and then you have the luck to stumble on a medium where, actually, it hadn't.

So the sense of being a pioneer in something, even in something as weird and as niche as hypercomics, that was a really cool feeling at the time. I made a lot of new friends as result of the scene too, for which I really owe Scott a huge debt of gratitude. He was the one who talked me into making my first trip to the states for San Diego Comic-Con in 2002. Not only was it my first time in the US, it was my first ever comic convention so I kinda got blown away and instantly hooked by the whole madness of the thing.

imageSPURGEON: Do you feel that webcomics have become more calcified in the last half-decade in terms of format and commercial expectations?

GOODBREY: Pretty much. There are definitely several well developed paths you can move down now and a good chunk of established wisdom as to how to approach comics on the web. Which is not to say there isn't still a big gap for further experimentation -- there's still a bunch of ideas I never got to try and hope one day to return to. But it feels generally to me like the need for such experimentation is just less pressing than it was before.

That's from an independent creator's point of view anyway. I think the big established comic companies have got a lot to do now to figure out their place on the web. It's some interesting times they're living in.

SPURGEON: If I remember right, you recently wrote at least one Marvel superheroes story, which seems light years from the kind of work you've been doing on your own. What was rewarding about that experience? Was there anything that surprised you about doing that kind of writing?

GOODBREY: The Marvel gig was the first time I'd worked for any editor other than myself, so it was a big learning curve for me. But it helped a lot that the editor in question was John Barber, an old comrade from the experimental webcomic days. I've always been a big fan on John's writing so I had a huge amount of trust for the advice he was giving me. I went through something like eight versions of the script -- the whole process proved to be a great crash course on how to write for Marvel comics. In fact I think my script writing in general -- which I hadn't really done that much of at that point -- improved dramatically as a result.

The story itself was an Avengers short story. What surprised me the most was that out of the ideas I pitched, they let me run with the one staring Spider-Man and Wolverine. You kind of expect your first Marvel gig to be staring some unknown like Woodgod or Daddy Longlegs, not actual name players. I'm pretty happy with how the final story turned out -- I got to write two icons (and Luke Cage!) plus introduce a new villain to the Marvel Universe who might one day get to throw someone important off a bridge. You can't really ask for more on your first time out.

SPURGEON: In general, how has being more collaborative in your projects changed your writing or outlook on same?

GOODBREY: It's been immensely freeing creatively. I've never been wholly comfortable as an illustrator, doing the job more out of necessity than anything else. The basic problem is, I can't draw that well. I've got a solid enough design sense but just not the raw drawing talent to match the pictures I see in my head. The way I got round this problem when I was starting out was to explore all the options I could find for cheating at artwork. Working in deliberately simplified styles, photo manipulation, outright tracing or even going the elaborate route of using manipulated 3D rendered models as I did on my Unfolded Earth comics.

But even with all of the above, I was always very aware of the story ideas that were just beyond my ability as an illustrator. The scenes or settings or characters that I couldn't happily cheat my way around. And everything -- everything -- takes so damn long to draw. For me the speed of invention -- which is the bit I actively enjoy -- is so much faster than the speed of illustration that the lag between the two can sometimes be unbearable.

So yeah, now I'm in the position to move away a bit from illustration and focus chiefly on just being a writer, it's been a wonderful release. I've got a bunch of ideas just waiting for the right artist to come along and I'm good to go. Although finding that right artist is still a frustratingly slow process (hey, aspiring comic artist types! Want to illustrate a graphic novel? Genre, style and content negotiable but strangeness guaranteed! Get in touch!).

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SPURGEON: All Knowledge is Strange is distinguished by a) your drawing it, and b) being an obvious take on classic gag formats. What have you learned about each?

GOODBREY: Heh. Yeah, um, contrary to my rant in the last question I'm actually having fun drawing the art on AKiS. Maybe I'm just using a wacom tablet and doing some glorified tracing but it feels like the closest to what I'd consider "proper drawing" that I've done in a long while. And there are things I can't do when I'm writing -- like listen to music or watch TV -- which I can do when I'm drawing, so illustrating two AKiS strips a week makes for a nice change of pace from my other comics work.

In terms of structure it's trying to work the gag strip format, which is something new for me again. It gives me an outlet for quick ideas and little moments that I'd otherwise struggle to find a home for in my other scripts. I think one of the interesting things about the series is that it also lets me plug into a bit of a different audience. Because the majority of strips stand alone they tend to be great for bringing in new readers and lend themselves to being passed around between friends. I get a lot of traffic now from sites like stumbleupon.com and regularly see little spikes in readership as particular strips are discovered and championed by individual readers of those services.

SPURGEON: A visual signature of All Knowledge is Strange is that you use static imagery but then vary the framing of the image -- moving it up or down, perhaps. Why do that with your comic instead of the more common direct repetition?

GOODBREY: It just felt right at a design level. Partly there was a practical consideration -- the amount of words tended to vary a lot from panel to panel, so keeping characters static left me either crushed for room or with too much dead space a lot of the time. But I also found a variance of height gave the reader a kind of line to draw them through the strip. On some strips I think it reads kind of like camera drift during an interview, which is an effect I like. On others it feels in my mind like the character is drowning as they speak, which seems to resonate with the general tone of the series.

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SPURGEON: Talk a bit about the Brain Fist project, which I believe was your attempt to do something in comics for the iPod interface. How successful do you feel that project was now, looking back? What did you take away from that experience? Did working with that kind of limited visual access point, this basic square, change the way you look at certain comics at all?

GOODBREY: I think mobile devices potentially offer a more intimate connection between comic and reader than you get from even the printed page. I like to describe them as "looking into" devices -- you channel all your focus into one little square of light and that's potentially quite a different experience to reading across a whole page or computer screen.

With Brain Fist I was trying to tap into that, trying to make a direct connect between the characters and the reader by having them address the audience directly. On the whole I'm pleased with how the series turned out and I think it was a good fit for the mobile technology of the time. Although I suspect some of the ideas may need revising and revisiting a bit now that the iPhone has become dominant with that lovely screen and interface it has. Brain Fist itself is now sitting there done as a complete book which I'm currently trying to find the right publisher for. I'm hoping eventually the success on the small screen will carry over into print.

Recently I actually got to play a bit in the mobile comics arena again but I can't say more than that due to an NDA I'm under. But in general terms I think we can expect this to be a real growth area for comics in the next few years. There's huge amounts of potential here still waiting to be tapped into.

SPURGEON: Am I right in thinking that you sort of semi-ironically started working in more traditional forms as a way of challenging yourself as a writer? I have to say, that sounds like a line more than a statement of artistic intent. How has the experience so far met those goals?

GOODBREY: What it really came down to was wanting to tell longer, more complex stories. Experimental comics tend to work best with short stories. You tell a short, complete story and you try out the idea and then you move on. I did try doing a much longer experimental comic -- The Nile Journals (which are currently offline, unfortunately) were kind of a hybrid of experimental animated comics and longform weekly serialized narrative. They ran for over a year at Serializer and I had fun doing them but they were also a huge amount of work to invent and implement every week.

So I was at the point where I felt I wasn't going to get better as a writer by just telling short stories and I knew that being overly experimental in the long form was problematic for me. It seemed obvious to me that if I wanted to start telling graphic-novel-length stories then the best format to work towards was that of the graphic novel itself. Maybe the story would initially be serialised online or in print, but the ultimate goal and format had to be a large print collection.

So far I'm pleased with the change, if frustrated by the much slower speed everything tends to move at when you're aiming towards the long form. And I do still get to dabble with some of the weirder more experimental works, although these days I tend to do it more on a commission and consultancy basis. The advantage of having such a large body of experimental screen based work is that when someone outside of comics land has a crazy idea and wants to try something new, I tend to be one of the people they get directed towards.

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SPURGEON: Is Never Shoot The Chronopath your last strip of that kind for a while? How do you feel that kind of work is received not as an execution of formal principles but as a comic? Are you at the point where people can kind of get past this daring presentational style and process the work you way you hope?

GOODBREY: Hmm. I don't know, honestly. For a lot of readers the interface with the story is still so far outside the norm that it's going to be that which jumps out at them, I think. I hope I'll still have the chance to make hypercomics every now and then -- I think creatively they're a great palette cleanser -- they've always kind of been idea brain-dumps for me which let me turn lots of separate story fragments into an interesting whole. But the next one I do, I don't think it'll be a straight infinite canvas piece -- too much of been there and done that. It'll be something newer and weirder. At some point I'm sure the right opportunity or idea will suggest itself to me.

SPURGEON: Larry Young and AiT/Planet Lar haven't always had the smoothest go of things since those few promising first years, so I wondered what your experience has been like. Has that been a fruitful relationship for you thus far? Do you receive feedback and creative support from them, or is your relationship defined primarily by their facilitating the paper publication of your work as is? What makes them different to work for than other people with whom you've worked.

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GOODBREY: With AiT it really feels like "working with" as opposed to "working for." Larry and Mimi and the whole crew have been tremendously supportive of me and Last Sane Cowboy. Larry bent over backwards to make the book I wanted to make it -- it was always "you're the creator, we're going to do the book the way you want to do it." I think they took a chance with Cowboy -- it's quite a weird book all told and really at the edge of the kind of books they'd published to date, so I was very grateful for being given that opportunity.

When I then came to Larry with Necessary Monsters I thought I might have a bit of a hard sell to convince him it was a good idea to run it online for free under the AiT brand before collecting it, but again he offered complete support for the idea. I've got one other AiT project in the pipeline which is still in the script stage and that I kinda got distracted away from by the need to get NM up and running. But I'm back to writing that now and I'm looking forward to working more closely with Larry on it in terms of editorial input and trying to match the script up with the right artist.

SPURGEON: Ideally, what would be the outcome of your work in American mainstream comics?

GOODBREY: Ideally? I'd like to have written some good comics that get illustrated by a range of talented artists and which reach a large and diverse audience of readers. A steady, regular income from writing comics would be nice, too.

SPURGEON: I noticed that you re-published your last work through I think Thierry Groensteen's line -- how was that experience? Given the differences in the natural audience and the issues of overproduction facing that market, do you sense any real distinction in how your work has been received by those readers?

GOODBREY: Yeah, The Last Sane Cowboy came out from Thierry's L'an 2 label a couple of months ago as Le Dernier Cow-Boy Raisonnable. I was incredibly excited to have a book coming out in France as I always had this suspicion that my work might be well received there. Thierry did a wonderful job on the French edition and I'm really curious now to see what people make of it over there. I haven't seen any sales figures yet, but all the reviews I've managed to badly translate through Google seem to be pretty positive. One described the book as having "a poisonous charm" which I think is just the coolest thing ever, although I don't know if I have the original reviewer or Google to thank for the specific turn of phrase.

I've actually got this other gig lined up in France at the moment which is waiting on client approval to design a hypercomic for the walls of a children's mental hospital in Paris. It's one of those things that might or might not happen and has been in the pipeline for years but we suddenly got some forward movement again this summer. If it does end up going ahead it's going to be a whole new formalist challenge which I'm really looking forward to tackling.

SPURGEON: If there were a half dozen works, five from other cartoonists and one of your own, that you could recommend to someone on the fence about diving into on-line comics that wanted to know about "webcomics in summer 2008," what would those comics be and why?

GOODBREY: Oh God that's a tough one. You know, it's really hard to answer because webcomics are such a wide church now. I guarantee, whoever you are, there will be at least six webcomics out there that you'd love and would absolutely convince you to take the plunge. Unless of course you're someone who just doesn't like reading comics on a screen no matter what (a shrinking minority I think, but still representative of a chunk of the comic reading audience). So I think I'm just going to settle for plugging five webcomics I'm enjoying reading right now, if that's okay.

Dicebox -- Itinerant female factory workers in spaaaaaace! Beautifully written and illustrated by Jen Manley Lee. Kind of a travelogue, kind of a I-don't-know-what. I remain fascinated as to where Jen is taking this story and am very much enjoying the journey.

A Softer World -- I'm hoping this strip is already known to a lot of your readers. It really deserves to be. Sad and funny and cruel and strange all at once.

Girls With Slingshots -- a current favorite from amongst the serial comic strip crowd. Although I could have also have picked Octopus Pie for this slot which is equally as awesome.

Bee -- Jason Little's first Bee series Shutterbug Follies has already crossed over into the world of print, but he's been busy serializing her second adventure, Motel Art Improvement Service online for a while now. It's great! Sign up to the e-mail update service so you never miss a new installment.

Jesus and Mo -- I actually need to get caught up on my Jesus & Mo reading, as should you all. A smart, funny and uncompromising lancing of two of the world's major religions. The author's a lovely chap too, but sadly he has to remain anonymous due to the regular death threats he receives.

Oh, and I get to plug one of my own, don't I? Well, since we haven't mentioned it anywhere else, I think that should be The Rule Of Death, every Friday at Serializer. A collaboration with artist Douglas Noble, it's the story of a dead piano player in the old west who decides not to stay dead anymore. Think of it as essentially the least cliched zombie-western you could ever possibly read.

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SPURGEON: Can you talk a little bit about page structure in Necessary Monsters? Because you seem to be varying what you do design-wise wildly from page to page thus far. For one, is it difficult to structure more traditional pages so they work both on-line and remain eventually translatable to the printed page?

GOODBREY: What I've found with page structure when I'm not illustrating the work myself is that I'm much more comfortable leaving it for the artist to determine. When I first started writing scripts for other people to draw I tried giving all these complex directions as to how the page might be laid out, but they just ended up cluttering up the script. It felt like I was stepping on the artist's feet and taking too much freedom from them to do their job the best way they knew how.

So now in a script I tend to just limit myself to asking for a sane number of panels per page for whatever suits the rhythm of the story and trusting to the artist to do the rest. I'll often say something like "large panel" when I want a particular image to be the focus on a page, but that's about it. Very occasionally I do get a specific effect in mind and then I'll give details of how to lay a series of panels out, but I'm always careful to frame it as a suggestion rather than an absolute instruction.

So on Necessary Monsters layout, you really need to talk to my artist Sean Azzopardi. Sean's been a big part of the London small press scene for years now and I love that I'm getting the chance to bring his work to the attention of a wider audience. Although to answer another part of your question -- Necessary Monsters is definitely a comic written and designed for print, which we're first choosing to serialize online for promotional reasons. So there's no real tension in the page design there. A lot of my early work was designed only for the screen and remains essentially untranslatable to print in any kind of sane, economically or aesthetically viable way.

imageSPURGEON: What is it about comics that takes to these kind of arch, slightly surreal takes on the adventure genre with such ease? Do you have a pantheon of past work like the one you seem to be creating that informs this comic?

GOODBREY: Comics are a fast medium and the number of people you have to convince that a story is worth telling can be as few as one. Which I guess is true of prose too, but a well written comic story can feel complete at six pages or one hundred pages. People know they've had a complete experience when they've finished reading it -- they understand what it is when they've read it. In contrast a six page prose story... what is that? It doesn't quite fit anywhere. Or didn't -- I guess the web is the new home for flash fiction like this.

But still, there's more room I think in comics to tell these quick, weird pulp tales than in any other medium. And when you try and tell a story like that in a comic, no one looks at you like you're crazy. It's a place where stories like this fit and everyone can understand what it is they're experiencing. I've never done anything exactly like Necessary Monsters before but I do have a number of similar projects waiting in the wings across a few different genres that follow the same kind of pattern.

Necessary Monsters itself is essentially me riffing on the horror films I used to watch as a kid -- the Nightmare On Elm Streets, the Candymans, Hellraisers and the like. But then also trying to move things a little further and seeing if I can take these horror icons and make them fit inside the constraints of a spy thriller -- Mission Impossible and Alias territory. I also thought it'd be interesting to write a story where every character was full on irredeemably evil while still hopefully being likable enough for the audience to cheer on.

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SPURGEON: Necessary Monsters seems to deal in a kind of casual world-building -- there are multiple references to a wider context for the actions of the character. Is that something that interests you about the creative process? Is this material worked out against a detailed background yet to be revealed, or are you sharing in that revelatory creep at the same rate the reader does?

GOODBREY: I've always had a great love for world building and shared universes in comics. I think a lot of what first draws people into the larger Marvel and DC Universes is the fun of slowly uncovering more and more details of these fictional worlds that have built up over the years. But the actual result of this in my own work is that I've been really wary of world building, not wanting to fall into the trap of spending huge amounts of time on elaborate world detail at the expense of actually getting finished comics out there.

For a long time I focused exclusively on telling short stories, because that meant I could get something finished and out into the world quickly that would stand as its own little complete thing. I was definitely indulging in moments of world building with the Unfolded Earth stories but I tried to do it organically, letting the world assemble around each story as I went.

So most of the comics I've written so far have been all about sharing in that revelatory creep -- I make things up as I go along until usually about halfway through, by which time a larger plan and some notion of an ending has suggested itself. Necessary Monsters is a bit of a departure for me though, in that I decided to figure out a reasonably detailed breakdown of the whole story before I started writing it. One of the chief reasons for this was that I knew I'd be collaborating with Sean on the project and I wanted to be certain I wasn't going to lead him up the garden path on a story that didn't end up going anywhere.

The other main reason for taking this approach was that I wanted a bit more practice at writing in the work-for-hire mold -- basically I decided to create the whole thing as if I had an editor to appease on the project. I figured out full character biographies for the main players and organizations, did a proper pitch document and then sat down to write the detailed outline. There was quite a bit of world building necessary when it came to figuring out the main beats of the story, but I tried to let myself be led by the characters and the plot and then kind of build just enough of the world around them to keep things moving along.

The practice I got on planning Necessary Monsters has already turned out to be useful preparation for my next gig at Marvel which I finished writing last month but I guess won't start to show up until around the end of the year. There's actually a real big chunk of world building in this one and I had lots of geeky fun playing with a long untouched corner of the Marvel multiverse. I ended up with a whole bunch of world detail that just didn't fit in the story but that I hope I'll be able to come back too if the thing proves popular enough for any sequels.

SPURGEON: What do you see yourself not doing comics-wise in five years?

GOODBREY: Oh, Lord knows. By 2013? Well see, that's after the Mayan/Morrison/London Olympics singularity of 2012, so that means all bets are off. I could be overseeing the official Charlie Brown vs The Smurfs newspaper strip by 2013 and thinking it's the most normal thing in the world to finally write the long teased wedding between Marcie and Smurfette.

There's actually nothing I can think of currently that I'm not doing comic-wise that I couldn't see being turned on its head within five years. Absolutes have never really made sense to me -- I'm much more comfortable with high improbabilities.

*****

* from Necessary Monsters
* from The Rule of Death
* from Sixgun
* from Necessary Monsters
* from All Knowledge Is Strange
* from Brain Fist
* Never Shoot The Chronopath
* from Last Sane Cowboy
* from Necessary Monsters
* from Necessary Monsters
* from Necessary Monsters
* from Necessary Monsters

*****

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*****
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posted 4:00 pm PST | Permalink
 

 
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