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American Erfs: Rob Balder and Jamie Noguchi

Erfworld is a hilarious adventure comic set in a world that seems to operate according to the laws of a role playing game like Dungeons and Dragons.  The main character Parson is from our world and he is suddenly thrust into the world of Erfworld in the midst of a titantic battle between various factions.  It's funny on a lot of levels.  Yes you will probably laugh more and longer if you've ever played a role playing game but even if you haven't Rob Balder's wordplay and Jamie Noguchi's artwork will still entertain you.

Rob Balder is well known to many webcomic creators and readers for his work on Partially Clips, a satirical comic that uses clip art.  He's also a musician and an associate editor of the fiction and fandom 'zine Nth DegreeWe interviewed Rob for ComixTALK once before back in 2004.  Jamie Noguchi currently has a day job as a self-described "multimedia monkey" for NASA and used to work as a colorist with UDON Entertainment.  He also illustrates various things including Erfworld and hopes to someday move into doing full time illustration.

I've known Rob and Jamie for years now - I met Rob initially at SPX and have hung out with both at local Washington Webcomics meetings.  They both strike me as passionate about comics and story-telling and I was not at all surprised at the success of Erfworld.  I got a chance to interview them by email about the state of Erfworld and plans for 2009.

Give us the 30 second pitch for the Erfworld movie.

Rob: That involves thinking like Hollywood, which hurts.  But I'll take a stab:

"The Erfworld movie is Shrek meets Hitchhikers' Guide meets Lord of the Rings meets Pokemon meets The Simpsons meets Narnia meets Harry Potter meets Saving Private Ryan.  A fat obsessive gamer geek (we can thin him down and pretty him up) gets transported into a gamelike fantasy universe where the war is real.  Cute (and completely marketable) monsters of all types are at war, and our hero has to be a general for the bad guys.  The kids on the internets LOVE it, which should threaten you, knowing how precarious the relevance of your medium must seem to you at 3 am.  So throw money at it!  Buy the option now before some younger, hipper producer grabs it and makes you look like a dinosaur!"

Ow.

 

You've both done comics on your own previously -- how did the collaboration for Erfworld come together?  How, specifically, do you work together on the strips; is there a lot of back and forth or does Rob just hand Jami a script?

Rob:  Jamie and I were meeting at the Washington Webtoonists group.  We both started discussing the possibility of a new project.  I think I was realizing that there were things I could never do in PartiallyClips, like story, characters, iconic marketing mascots, little things that make people actually give a crap about following your webcomic.  Meanwhile, Jamie was talking about how he mainly wanted to draw, and his writing in Angry Zen Master was kind of a meandering excuse to draw people beating the snot out of each other.  It was a good fit for teaming up.

Our process goes like this -- I plot out the book, noting what has to happen on each page.  Then I script the page completely, down to the panel sizes and positions, who is in what panel, and what they are doing and saying.  I give groups of these scripts to Jamie. 

Jamie does panel borders in ink, pencils and inks on the Bristol board, scans that into Photoshop and colors it.  Then I get the hi-res flat and letter it in Corel Paint Shop Pro X, and take a second pass at the writing as I do so. Some of the pages are substanially re-written in lettering, to make the words flow to the art.  The whole process is about 25 man-hours per page between us.  I'll attach a sample script from a recent page for you to excerpt.

Jamie:  We also meet every week at least one or twice in person to talk about story points and to just sit and work.  We've been to numerous locations around the DC Metro area.  I think we'll do a travel log at some point to document all the tasty places we've met to work on the comic.

 

Setting up show on Rich Burlew's Giant in the Playground website must have been a great way to launch a new comic.  How did the Order Of The Stick fans take to Erfworld and what's the mix of OOTS and non-OOTS fans in Erfworld's readership today?

Rob:  First of all, we're tremendously grateful to Rich for giving us this brilliant opportunity, one that no webcomic has ever had at launch.  Keep that in mind, please, as you read the rest of my answer.  :)

In the first six months of having Erfworld on GiantITP.com, I had more criticism and abuse thrown at me than in 13 years of the public school system.  It was ridiculous when we started.  Rich had a huge audience there, people who were there to read HIS comic only (and maybe call each other names while arguing over the differences between Neutral Evil and Lawful Evil.) 

Erfworld needed a lot of pages and time to establish its own story, in its own universe, without playing off a complex set of RPG rules everyone in the crowd already knew.  So until enough of that story had played out for a reader to get a handle on it, they were angry and confused.  They either tried to judge it as a gag comic (it fails as one), or they compared it to OOTS, which is something that pretty much no webcomic is going to hold up to, especially there on the home field.

But Erfworld just kept being there, and people kept reading it because it was there.  And then there was this turnaround at about page 50, where you could just see all the minds start to change.  These days, it's a very different dynamic in the forums.  The readers we've won over have been won over pretty hard.  They're on the edge of their seats.  Now they're insulting each others' mothers about the rules of movement between zones in an Erfworld city.  At worst they scream "bad storytelling" when Parson suffers any kind of a setback.  But you know, just because people are screaming bloody murder on your roller coaster doesn't mean you should stop the ride.

As far as a mix of OOTS vs non-OOTS Erfworld readers, I have no idea how you'd measure it.  I am certain there are some people who go to the site and read Erfworld and not OOTS, but I would be shocked if that number turned out to be more than a percentage point or two of the total site traffic.  I think nearly every visitor to the site reads OOTS, and by our estimate 65-70% of them also read Erfworld.  The rest no longer bother to flame the Erfworld forums.

 

How far are we into the Erfworld story at this point?  How much longer will the comic run?

Rob:  We can't reveal that, exactly.  Book 1 has been completely scripted for some time, and clearly we're closer to the end of that than the beginning.

The comic will run until the end of Book 1 and then we will move out of the GiantITP nest to our own website for Book 2.

 

Is the entire saga all already plotted out?  How much do you alter in the specific strips in the process of creating them with Jamie?

Rob:  As I say, Book 1 is in the can, as far as scripting.  Book 2 right now is shaping up as a plot outline, but that's going to be a long road.  The total length of all script pages in Book 1 was well over 100,000 words, so anyone who doesn't like the term "graphic novel" can suck it.  I've written a prose novel, and this was much, much harder.  Book 1 of Erfworld was three regular novels' worth of effort.

I do alter the pages quite a lot in lettering.  Either I change the flow of the text to better match the artwork (and block out as little of Jamie's work as I can), or I add/change text to clarify a point of confusion among the fans (which is really the only way I use the forums for feedback), or I just add more jokes.  The gags like the SFX and magic words are kind of ornamental, but for a lot of readers the little throwaway humor is their favorite part.  Several people told me that making the magic word to mass animate dead be "Trioxin" made their day.  That's the kind of thing I add in lettering, sometimes stopping to do an hour or two of research to get just the right word.

 

How is merchandise for the strip going?  I had read that you were planning a book collecting some of all of the series; is that still in the works?  Have you launched anything else for the comic: the usual like t-shirts or other ideas?  And speaking of book - the only hit on google I found for "Erfworld book" was this link --  is that kosher with you guys or this mahself service ripping your images?

Rob:  The merch hasn't been great but we haven't tried very hard to make it great.  We have much bigger and more interesting plans for much after the new site goes up.

The book is being pitched to publishers right now by our agent, a seasoned pro with 25 years in traditional publishing, who now specializes in placing graphic novels.  We're hoping to land a deal that times well with the end of the story and the launch of the new site.  Our agent has already sold other graphic novels to several of the houses we were interested in.

The link you have there is not technically okay in terms of the non-commercial clause of the Creative Commons license, because they run ads.  But I have no problem with that content being on that site.  It may gain us readers and loses us nothing.  I'm grateful to the person who loaded that there, actually.  It's good viral marketing.

 

How has reaction to the strip been overall.  Obviously you've gotten some great praise from critics like Lev Grossman.  Do you feel like the strip has continued to grow in 2008 after the great reception in 2007?

Rob:  Yeah I think I may have answered this one above, but yes.  The fans have gotten deeply into all the aspects of Erfworld, from the characters backstories to the rules of combat and magic, to lots and lots of speculation about what's coming next.

 

Do you have a favorite strip or storyline from the comic?  Which ones do fans seem to bring up the most?

Rob:  I was really proud of the sonnet page.  That was originally meant to be a kind of intermission at the halfway point in the story, but the intervening days between then and Ansom's attack on the city veered into some complicated territory we hadn't planned for.

Jamie:  Just in terms of character development, I really like how Wanda's turned out.  She wasn't as scary as she is now when we originally conceived her.  But she's grown to be one of my favorite and most feared characters.  Also, I love drawing new clothes for her.  Oh, and I like drawing random ass shots of Ansom.  Not enough man booty in comics these days and I intend to change that!

 

How do you go about promoting your work?  What seems to be most effective at pulling in new readers?

Rob:  Heh.  We don't.  Seriously, nothing we could do personally for marketing would have an impact, and our efforts have to be focused on the comic itself.  We have to trust to the readers to be out there viral marketing by just sharing something they enjoy.  And they do.  Erfworld is all over TVTropes.com, for example, and I am sure that people do discover the comic that way.  Same with the Wikipedia article, which is meticulously maintained despite being under attack all the time (by the typical new-media-hatin' OCDtards who destroyed Wikipedia in order to save it, but I'm preaching to the choir here).  There's an ongoing discussion page at RPGnet about Erfworld that is 100 pages long now.  So there are lots of ways people find us.  The Time magazine thing in 2007 didn't hurt, but did you notice there WAS no Best Graphic Novels category in 2008?  We didn't expect to make it again, but that was annoying.  I hope they bring it back next year.

 

What conventions are your favorites to exhibit at?  What advice do you have for others just starting to show their work at conventions?  Do you have a favorite convention story?

Rob:  I attended 20 cons in 2008 as a guest/program participant.  Most of them were awesome, with only a couple of clunkers.  My current favorite convention is Penguicon in Michigan.  It would take me hours to give you all the reasons why, but it amounts to the fact that they love both comedy music and webcomics.  I get to interact with the top people in both of my creative pursuits at the same con, plus there's a good party scene, good sales, great atmosphere, and the concomm is wonderful.

As far as advice to webcomics exhibiting at cons, I would say that it can take years before your sales meet expenses, but go.  Go for the intangibles.  Go to meet other creators and trade stories and ideas.  I recently went to a con where my sales were blah, my concert was a total bomb, and the panels were generic.  But because of one conversation in the hallway with another webcomics creator, we might be seeing much more ad revenue on the new Erfworld.com site than we planned for.  And he might use what he learned about our experiences with an agent, or might even use our agent.  That's what cons do for you as a creator, more than anything else.  It's the intangible benefits of being there in person.

And as far as con stories, yes I have hundreds.  But usually I end up becoming someone else's favorite con story.  I have a reputation as "Party Rob." I'm the guy who mixes the fruity drinks that make everyone fall down.  I'm the guy who eats aerosol foods from the cleavage of fangirls.  I'm the reason Tim Buckley was hammered just in time for the Connecticon mega webcomics panel in 2004, and I'm also the bastard who suggested making him the moderator.  I'm the guy who took on Phil Kahn in a drinking contest, and made such poisonous selections that he barfed in five.  I'm the guy Rich Burlew's girlfriend called "a bad, bad man."

Yes, I have con stories.  Come to a con, try the purple stuff in the blender, and I will tell you some of them.

Jamie:  I tend to do the cons that I can drive to so my experience is a lot less extensive than Rob's.  I haven't had much success at marketing myself at these events mostly because I don't know how.  But I've made a lot of personal connections that have helped me in my development as an artists.  And I've made a lot of good friends on the con circuit.  I think cons are a great way to meet fellow creators, toss ideas around, and just geek out for a weekend.

 

What tools do you use to make the art for the comics?? Can you  give us a brief walkthrough of the process?

Jamie:  First I print out all the scripts.  I take notes in the margins and draw some thumbnails to hash out some basic ideas.  Then I start outlining the frames.  I draw the borders first with a .8mm Micron pen which is actually a pain in the ass.  I should probably do them in the computer so they're straight, but I started out doing them by hand so I'll end up doing it by hand until Book 1 is complete.

I use a mechanical pencil to block in the figures.  It's a big fatty Sumo Grip with .05mm 2B lead  I try to play around with camera angles doing my best to avoid straight-on shots.

After I block out the entire page, I go back in and try to tighten up my pencils.  I don't go too tight since I ink my own work, but I try to at least get in the facial expressions and some bits that I know will give me trouble like fingers.  Mostly fingers.  Then to inking!

I use Microns of various sizes for inking.  For all the line work, I start with a .01mm Micron.  I think I might get back into crow quill dipping pens for the next book, but Microns work in a pinch.  Then I outline the characters with a .5mm Micron.  A little Mars eraser to make all the pencils go away and it's off to scan!

I scan in at 600dpi and clean up all the screw ups.  Sometimes I draw something wrong so I make a note to myself to remind me to clean it up in Photoshop.  Once the line art is all ready to go, I downsize it 400dpi.  Time for some digital crayons.

I lay down character flats first which is a fancy way of saying I separate each character from the background with solid colors.  Then I go ahead and paint the backgrounds.  I add a shadow layer to the characters to give it that cell shaded, anime look.  Then I do any special effects I may need on another layer.  Then its off to Rob for lettering.

Sometimes Rob will send back corrections.  Sometimes Parson needs his Hamstard symbol because I forgot it (that damn Hamster!) or sometimes I'll need to add in some more uncroaked or whatever.  Most of the time I can just paint those in in Photoshop.  Once those are done, it's back to Rob for lettering.  And then we stick it up on the site.