Return to Camelot: An Interview with Daniel Merlin Goodbrey
Daniel "Merlin" Goodbrey is one of the artists I know both myself and Frank "Damonk" Cormier were pretty into when ComixTalk launched in 2003. So it's a bit surprising to me that we've had a 5 year lapse in interviewing him. These days Goodbrey has a day job teaching at in the School of Film, Music & Media at the University of Hertfordshire with a focus on Digital Animation. And far from disappearing these past years, Goodbrey has continued to create memorable work on the web and in print as well as continue to experiment with hypercomics and other experimental notions in comics. And not unlike the direction of "webcomics" as a whole, Goodbrey has increasingly blurred the lines between web and print in his creation of comics.
I was looking through our archives - we actually interviewed you over 5 years ago in 2003. Back then I think there was a lot of excitement with experimentation with the form of webcomics of which you were in the midst of things. Do you still see activity in stretching the comic form through new technology like the web and other digital formats?
I think things have settled down quite a bit now on the web, but there’s still a lot of room for experimentation, yeah. New mobile device formats are something I’d like to play with more at some point, and I still want to get at the integration of comics and sound properly. I’m actually involved in one major new experimental project right now that I can’t talk about due to an NDA. If and when that one sees the light of day, it may potentially allow me to scratch a lot of my formalist itches all at once.
I still have this big pile on unused ideas for web and hypercomics that one day I hope I’ll be able to return to. At some point I figure their pull will become irresistible and I’ll have no choice but to dive back in.
Beyond creating your own webcomics you created and offered for sale the Tarquin Engine, a flash-based tool for the creation and delivery of zooming infinite canvas comics. Is that project done or is there another version you think you'll want to get to at some point? Do you still sell any copies of it; are people still releasing new work with it?
I still sell the odd copy now and then, yeah. Although I’ve never managed to properly keep track of what people end up making with it, which is something I feel a bit bad about. I do plan to return to Tarquin and do more with it at some point in the future, but when that point might be is a rather nebulous thing at the moment. I have a loose plan in place for how I want to develop the engine further and have talked through the idea of partnering up with another webcomics developer that has the resources to take the engine to where I think it needs to go next. But it’ll be at least a year or so before anything can really move ahead on this front and several ducks need to agree to stand in an orderly line first. More news and less metaphors as soon as I’m free to talk about it.
It was very exciting to see the interview with you in Tom Spurgeon's blog this summer - I don't know whether that's a case of Tom reaching out a bit more to less traditional comics or you making more inroads to comic generally but it was good to see you get the coverage. For those of us who know you primarily through your webcomics and work on the Tarquin Engine, tell us what you've been up to with Marvel and how those gigs came about.
The Marvel work came about as result of webcomic innovator and now Marvel editor John Barber inviting me and few other folks to pitch some stories for a planned third Avengers monthly series. The idea at the time was for the book to have a lead story created by an established name creator to draw in a regular readership and then a backup story provided by a different new-to-Marvel writer each month.
Unfortunately the book hit a few bumps in its gestation and ended up getting cancelled before it was ever solicited. But by that point enough short stories had already been commissioned that it made sense to gather them all up and release them in a one-shot, hence the Giant Size Avengers Special that hit the stands in December last year. The book ended up selling astonishingly well for a five dollar special and was generally well received by the fans, so I was pretty pleased with how my first official work-for-hire gig turned out.
The next thing I’m doing for Marvel came as a result of being asked to pitch a one-shot filler for one Marvel character which then kinda mutated into a six-part story for a rather different version of the character. The story is called “Endless Stolen Sky” but it hasn’t been officially announced anywhere yet so I’m gonna have to be kind of vague as to exactly what it’s about and who it stars. I will say that I’ve seen the pencils for the first two chapters and they are all kinds of awesome, so I’m really looking forward to when this one makes it to the stands.
Did you find the work environment for Marvel to be constraining? How much freedom did you have and was it a difficult adjustment?
Not constraining as such, but it was definitely an adjustment. Learning to write to the format took me quite a few tries – I went through eight versions of my first script in total – but I’d really never done anything like that before, so I’m not surprised. My second time at bat there has gone a lot smoother – partly because I’m much more used to scripting now in general than I was with the first gig.
I think if you’ve read a few Marvel comics you already come into the process with a pretty good idea of what you can and can’t get away with. Then on some level you try to ignore that and get away with as much as you can anyway. It’s still a bit of a surprise what ends up getting flagged as a no-no and what makes it through to the page. Transvestite Nuns as your main villain? Not so much. Extremis-enhancile crack-babies piloting Stark-tech armour? Go to town! I think you’ve always got to try and get as much of your own style across in the story as possible, because otherwise what’s the point of them hiring you in the first place? Fortunately in John Barber I have an editor in whose judgement on such matters I place an absolute trust.
How is John these days? Did you get the sense that he remains interested in the web and the more experimental aspects of comics?
John’s good, although appears to be in a permanent state of being very, very busy. My impression of being an editor at Marvel is that, in addition to it being a very hard job, it’s also a pretty creatively rewarding one. I think a lot of John’s comic making itches are scratched pretty directly by the day job and that plus the long hours don’t leave much time for the world of webcomics. But hey, you should really ask John himself. I certainly hope he does something else for the web at some point. All these animated motion comics that are doing the rounds at the moment still don’t hold a candle to John’s work with Flash in terms of actually using animation within language of comics to tell stories.
Is All Knowledge is Strange kind of your central connection to the web these days? Since it's published on your homebase of e-merl.com I would imagine it to be. What other projects on the web and off are you working on right now?
All Knowledge is Strange probably draws my biggest regular audience on the web, yeah. A few running jokes aside, most instalments stand alone which means they can easily be picked up and passed around by the various social networking and content surfing sites that have popped up all over the web. I find I do particularly well from the Stumbleupon crowd, who jump upon certain strips and really promote the hell out of the series for me.
In terms of output I’ve actually never been more active on the web than I am right now, as I’m currently involved in running brand new webcomic content five days a week. All Knowledge Is Strange runs twice a week at E-merl on Tuesdays and Thursdays, Necessary Monsters runs on its own site on Mondays and Wednesdays and The Rule Of Death is still ticking along nicely at Serializer every Friday. This of course wouldn’t be possible without my two most excellent artistic collaborators, Sean Azzopardi and Douglas Noble.
The Rule Of Death just started into its seventh chapter, "We Always Die At Noon", in which we finally get to grips with that staple of the western – the shootout. Between myself and Douglas we’ve always been playing something of a game of subverting standard western clichés – I think our central character being a walking corpse helps a lot in this regard. The recent direction the story has taken is proving to be a lot of fun to write and Douglas is currently busy figuring out new ways of showcasing our first brief moments of proper gunplay. I think folks are in for a few surprises in the coming months.
Elsewhere and off the web I’ve got three other projects in various stages of being written but it’s really too early to say much about them yet. Two of them will be AiT books when they’re done and the third, if all goes according to plan, will be my first actual comic book series. More news to come when they’re all much closer to appearing on a shelf somewhere.
You mentioned in the Tom Spurgeon interview that working with collaborators has been "immensely freeing creatively". I wanted to zero in a bit on your approach to collaboration. What's the process you go through in terms of crafting the story of the comic and then working with collaborators to mesh the words and the art towards a final comic?
It varies a lot from collaborator to collaborator. With some projects – particularly work for hire – you often don’t know who’s going to end up drawing the script so you have to cover all your bases. If you actually know and are in regular contact with your artist then there can be room for things to be a bit more organic. I always try to play to my collaborators strengths and if I can tailor my writing to something I know they enjoy or have an interest in, then I think you can get a real synergy going between the two of you.
With Douglas on The Rule Of Death, I write a pretty bare bones script on the understanding that Douglas likes to control the pacing of the comic himself and so there’s not much point holding him to too tight a reign. Also because we’re working to the web with no page number constraints, he’ll often re-sequence what I give him to his own tastes, breaking a page of script down across more pages or re-ordering panels to suit his judgement. Providing the plot keeps moving as I intend and he resists the urge to tamper too much with my dialogue, we usually manage to avoid any fist fights over the matter.
On Necessary Monsters with Sean, things are a bit more formal. I write full script and because we’re ultimately working towards a print collection with a specific page count there’s much less wriggle room in the execution. I still tend to give very little in terms of page layout input, as I feel that just works better in the hands of the artist, but all the main beats of the page are there to be followed. Once a page is complete, I’ll also then slip into editor mode and if there’s something on the page that I think needs fixing either in my dialogue or in the art I’ll say it. I think this approach has really helped hone Sean’s work on the series – he’s really pushed well outside his comfort zone in places and the artwork he’s delivered as a result has been fantastic. For my own part I still want to go back and do another dialogue pass when the whole thing’s done – I feel like I’ve been too wordy in places at the moment, but the beauty of the web is there’s no such thing as a final cut.
I've heard from several creators also about Stumbleupon. Are there any other Web 2.0 services you're finding effective at marketing your work?
Stumbleupon is the only one I’ve got to grips with so far. Or rather – it got to grips with me. I just got picked up by some stumblers one day and have enjoyed regular repeated stumbling ever since. At some point I plan to get to grips with this stuff properly and see if I can’t get the strip noticed at a few of the other similar services that are out there.
In fact, while in the process of answering this question, I was just browsing across PC gaming blog RockPaperShotgun and noticed that they’re using this service called Add This that seems pretty neat. I may try building it into E-merl the next time I’ve got some free web design time.
Are you reading any webcomics these days? Is there anyone doing anything inventive this year that's really amazed you?
I’m reading lots of webcomics as always, but I actually feel a little out of the loop in terms of what’s new when it comes to innovation in the webcomics scene. I realize now how much I miss Scott McCloud’s blog which used to be one of my main sources for the next cool new thing. Will this interview have a comments thread? If so perhaps readers can drop off suggestions as to folk currently doing new stuff with the form that’s worth checking out. Tell me, oh mighty ComixTalk audience - who are the new innovators?
The Last Sane Cowboy was received really well and got me noticed by a whole new audience of readers that had never encountered any of my webcomic work before. I think without it the Marvel work would also have been much less likely to come about – getting your foot through the door with one comics publisher really does help other publishers to take you seriously. Cowboy also recently got translated into a gorgeously produced new French edition released by L’an 2 as Le Dernier Cow-boy Raisonnable. I’m hoping that it might just manage to do the same trick twice and open up my work to a new European audience too.
Getting back to Necessary Monsters – the series is five chapters long and it’s going to be in the region of 120 pages when it’s done. We are indeed going to be putting out a print version through AiT – we had that deal in place from day one. I’ve been saying for a while now that the new dominant model for independent comics is going to be web serialization leading to print collection and Necessary Monsters is me putting my money where my mouth is.
Chapter two just started running at the site, while I’m about to start writing the script for chapter four. For me it’s been a chance to play in the world of horror films that I probably watched far too many of as a kid, while at the same time trying to put a bit of a new twist on the genre by squeezing it through the tropes of your classic spy thriller. Sean has really been knocking it out of the park when it comes to the artwork and the early reviews have been pretty glowing, so we’re both rather stoked about how things are going so far.
It's interesting that you mention that web serialization to print model -- it does seem to be the emerging consensus for how creator-owned work in comics is going to be created and distributed. The web provides a very low-cost model to distribute the comic to a potential global audience and the book collection provides an opportunity to sell something to the fans the webcomic attracts. But do you worry that approach may hinder efforts to push the "web" part of webcomics?
Hmm. Maybe? If by “web” you’re talking about the more experimental web-only formalist aspects, the problem you hit that really hinders you is when it comes to making money from your work. Generally speaking, the more experimental works take longer to produce and attracts a smaller audience than traditional webcomics. You also then have a work which, if it’s truly inventive with its use of form, really won’t work in print. And once it’s done… what do you do with it? With the book collection you reach not only your existing web fans but also a new audience of book-buyers but your experimental comic is always tied only to its original audience.
The other day I was thinking about what it would take for me to return to a long-form hypercomic project just in terms of the finances involved, which is something I’d never really considered in those terms before. I ended up ball-parking a conservative estimate that, just in terms of my own time, I could deliver an aggressively experimental twelve part serial for £15000 across the course of the year (that’s um… $26,500 ish). I thought that was kinda interesting since, in terms of say a big companies advertising budget, that’s not really much money. If anyone with a spare corporation lying around wants to buy my brain for the purposes of web craziness for the next year, do get in touch.
How was your Comic Con experience this year?
Huge amounts of fun as ever. While it’s definitely a business trip for me now, the whole thing is still such a blast to be a part of. It’s like this large, extended and every growing comics making family that I only get to see and get drunk with once a year.
This year I got snuck onto the So You Want To Do A Graphic Novel? panel at the last minute and ended up fielding a bunch of “how to serialise on the web” questions, which was cool. The panel as a whole was lots of fun and had a packed out audience which took us all a bit by surprise. There was a real positive vibe to the whole thing and we had lots of people coming up to the AiT booth during the show afterwards saying how much they’d got out of it, which is always rewarding to hear.
I also experienced my shortest ever idea-to-pitch turn around while at this year’s show. Came up with a premise for a new book in the shower on Friday morning, found two artists for it on the floor during Saturday and had the pitch accepted by a publisher on Sunday afternoon. I’ve been plugging away at script and character designs since I got back to the UK and the book continues to advance at a rather astonishing pace, given its out-of-nowhere origins. Again, I’m dancing around saying what the book is actually about because it’s just a bit too early to be announcing it. But much less cryptic announcements to come at E-merl in the near-ish future, I promise.