Webcomics’ Own Breath of the Dragon: An Interview with Merlin

Daniel "Merlin" Goodbrey has been skulking around the webcomics scene for years now, shamelessly exposing small gaggles of readers and creators alike to the wanton nakedness of his raw Imagination. While not a ‘mainstream biggie’ (yet), e-merl.com holds its own in any measuring contest when it comes to quality of writing and entertainment value, and leaves the pack behind when it comes to breaking new ground in our burgeoning digital field.

Daniel "Merlin" Goodbrey has been skulking around the webcomics scene for years now, shamelessly exposing small gaggles of readers and creators alike to the wanton nakedness of his raw Imagination. While not a ‘mainstream biggie’ (yet), e-merl.com holds its own in any measuring contest when it comes to quality of writing and entertainment value, and leaves the pack behind when it comes to breaking new ground in our burgeoning digital field.

Like his nick-namesake, Merlin conjures up mindboggling project after project with seeming effortlessness, each one daring to push the boundaries of the medium further and further. His latest work, The Mr. Nile Experiment, has just wrapped up its extremely trippy month-long run.


COMIXPEDIA: Let’s start out with the basics: what’s your life background?

MERLIN: That’s the basics? Okay, well, lets see. I’m English. Grew up in Suffolk in the south east of England but now I’m living in the little city of St Albans, just above London. Born on Halloween. Raised by a family of Antique dealers. Got my Master’s degree in the digital practice of hyperfiction a year or so back. Currently working as a university lecturer and freelance designer to pay the bills. You may have heard that I’m partial to the odd drink or two, but it’s all viscous lies and rumours. Most of which were started by me.

CP: Why webcomics? How and why did you start into this particular medium?

M: Because they’re just about the fastest visual story-telling medium in existence. I think that’s the main reason. I like telling stories with words and pictures and I like doing so quickly. Initial idea to distributed comic in an evening – that’s a hard act to beat.

I first got involved with webcomics from working on Rust with Alasdair Watson. Alasdair was the real brains behind the series – I was the art-monkey. But just working from a script that was specifically written with web-delivery in mind was a real eye-opener. Getting nominated for an Eagle Award was a rather nice bonus, too.

A short time later, Reinventing Comics came out. This was, coincidently, around the same time I was starting on my Masters degree in hyperfiction. The course was pretty open ended as to what path of personal study I followed. Pretty soon webcomics and hypercomics were taking up quite a lot of my study time. By the end of the Masters I’d published Sixgun and decided that, yes, this is what I actually want to spend my time doing for the foreseeable future.

I was much more surprised to find myself falling into teaching, but in the end it turned out to be just the right thing to balance out my work comics work. Plus, it was a decent way to pay for luxuries like food and clothing. And necessities like vodka.

CP: What inspires you content-wise?

M: A bunch of different things.

Music is a big inspiration. So is cinema. Often a lyric in a song or a particular line in a film will set me off down the path to a new character or a story idea. Characters especially. I’ve got notebooks full of odd little character names waiting for a home. A lot of my ideas start out from this sort of simple word play.

Oh, and titles. Titles just pop into my head and then I have to do something with them. Same with conversations. I’ll get a single line of a conversation from somewhere and then it’ll go round and round in my head while I’m driving somewhere.

The ideas that are often the most fun to do are the ones that just appear fully formed out of nowhere. I Bleed Scorpions was like that. I looked down one night and noticed I had a cut on my foot. Didn’t have my glasses on, so it looked a bit like a scorpion. Boom. Whole story in my head. Just picked up my notebook and wrote out the more-or-less complete dialogue. Okay, it took half year or so to actually do anything with it, but still.

Behind all that stuff there’s also a deeper interest in magic and the nature of reality that tends to inspire a lot of what I do. I don’t tend to talk about it too much, because it’s still something I’m trying to work out the details of for myself, but several of my stories connect to my own developing style of magical non-practice.

I’ve been described before as one of the mad-scientists of web comics. That always kind of amuses me, since I really don’t have much time for real-world science anymore. Although, now I think about it, that’s not actually a bad description of magic. Mad Science.

CP: What inspires you form-wise?

M: Lists. Shapes. Rules. Patterns. Since a lot of what I do is improvisational in nature, I find having a solid structure to build around helps a lot. Sixgun had rules about the number of panels I could use per story. Doodleflak had a shape. Nile had his 28 Days. A Final Dream of Clocks had, well, a clock.

Other than that, just the plain old urge to learn through doing. That means asking lots of simple questions like: What would happen if I did this? Can I figure out a way to do that? I’ve seen that used for this – what if I used it for that? If do this, will anyone else be able to work out what the fuck is going on?

That’s about it. Oh, and Reinventing Comics by Scott McCloud. And just sort of, you know, Scott McCloud generally. McCloudian. That’s a word now, right?

CP: Do you get any of your ideas from print comics? If so, in what way (feel free to cite particular influences if you’ve got some)?

M: I’m wary of taking story ideas directly from print comics (there’s enough recycling going on already) but there are certainly many creators that have been of influence. Let me take a quick look over my bookshelf.

Well, there’s Grant Morrison. His work has had a big influence on my worldview in general. I don’t think we really have very similar writing styles, though. I’ve closer to someone like Warren Ellis in that respect. My pacing is very Ellis at times.

Alan Moore and Dave Sim, for their ponderings on reality (and not the latter’s ponderings on the sexes, which I do my best to ignore). And Alan Moore again in general because, well, he’s just a genius when it comes to writing comics.

Mike Mignola for layout, use of silence and again for pacing. In terms of art style, what I think of as my ‘realistic’ style started from my attempts to use Poser to emulate Frank Miller’s work on Sin City. Although the final result ended up looking more like Brian Michael Bendis (who I’d never heard of until someone told me my stuff resembled his. I then tracked some his work down and that in turn went on to have an influence on how I structure my dialogue).

CP: What sort of feedback have you gotten so far?

M: Lots of good, positive, work-affirming feedback for which I am very grateful.

CP:Who have you noticed are your biggest fans?

M: Hmm. Not sure on this one. The point where I really felt like I was getting somewhere, in terms of people noticing my work, was making Scott’s Top Ten. The exposure that gave me (plus Scott plugging E-merl on TV) was a really great boost to my work ethic.

CP: What are the limitations/obstacles you find yourself fighting against when thinking up new ideas?

M: Endings. I find coming up with endings to be a right bugger. And it’s especially annoying because I find coming up with beginnings far too easy. One of the things that appeals to me about hyperfiction is that, if you’re careful, you can get away without ever really having an ending.

Thinking about how I’d illustrate an idea can also be a problem. I really can’t draw that well. My artistic skills basically consist of finding new and more devious ways of using a computer to cheat. That limits me to the kind of narratives I can carry through on my own.

It also connects to my other main problem – maintaining my interest in an idea for long enough to see it though to completion. Webcomics are fast, but I wish they were faster. I’d love to have a machine that produced fully realised illustrations as quick as I could think of them. Comics at the speed of thought. That would be cool.

CP: You’ve divvied your comics into two distinct categories, one being named “hyperfiction”. Why the division, and what exactly IS hyperfiction?

M: Well, some of them are hyperfiction and some of them aren’t. As to what Hyperfiction actually IS, here’s a definition cannibalised from my Masters:


1 being made up of inter-related sections of text, image, sound, or some combination of those, and the links between the sections

2 having a structure which is essentially ergodic in that the particular instance of the artefact experienced by any reader/user is a locally unique outcome determined by their choices from among possible actions or pathways

Does that make sense? So, for example, the World Wide Web itself is a hyperfiction. Computers games are hyperfictions too. People are really lot more used to dealing with these sort of things than they think. It’s just the name that makes it sound funny.

The fact that I’ve got a hyperfiction section on my site is really a hold over from when I was studying for my Masters. Next time I redesign the site I want to try to find a way to re-categorise things a bit. Maybe allow pieces to be listed under more than one category or theme. It’s a bit of a conundrum, because I want to make my work easily accessible to folk in the web comic community, but I don’t want to turn away visitors who come from more general web arts or academic backgrounds.

CP: Aside from a few downward scroll comics (Mr. Nile, Inanimate Monkey), you seem to create new formats or ways to deliver a comic and then leave them aside. Why are there never any second forays into a particular experiment?

M: Why aren’t there more people ripping off my ideas? That’s what I want to know. I shouldn’t have to follow up on an experiment – that should be somebody else’s job (if I was the kind of person that felt comfortable using emoticons, I’d be using the little smiley face now. Or Maybe the winking-smile one. Is there an emoticon that means “Yes, I’m being sarcastic, but maybe I partly meant what I just said anyway?”).

I dunno. I do think there that is actually quite a few instances of continuity in my experiments. Elements from one delivery structure will often carry over into another. But doing a hypercomic usually takes me a considerably longer amount of time than a straight webcomic. To justify that outlay of time to myself, I really feel I have to be trying something new with each one. Besides, there’s a whole host of new ideas on interaction and structure that still lay unexplored. Why re-chart places I’ve been when there’s still so much territory waiting to be mapped?

CP: While you don’t repeat comic formats, you have brought back characters on more than one occasion – The Ninja With No Arms, the Sixgun crew, and your latest character recurrence, Mr. Nile. Any particular reason?

M: Not really. Sometimes it happens by accident and sometimes by design. I will admit that the ‘universe building’ element of mainstream comics is always something I’ve been fond of. Sixgun and the Unfolded Earth were partly conceived to give me somewhere I could scratch that itch without getting too bogged down in continuity. I’m sure I’ll be heading back there again before too long.

In the case of The Ninja With No Arms, I was just overwhelmed by the popular response to the character. When an idea for a second story came up, I decided to bring him back. I guess once a character’s out there, it can be hard to resist the urge catch up with them later and see what they’ve been up to. Take Inanimate Monkey, for example. I really never thought he’d be back. I mean he was popular, but his story was done as far as I was concerned. And then, during the early days of working on Mr. Nile, suddenly there he was. I was like, “what, now?” And he was all, “yes, now, you fucking fuck!”

Lord knows why, but during Nile I really warmed up to George Bush as a character. This makes no sense to me, as I can’t stand the bastard in real life. Jesus, too. I want to do more stories with Jesus. I’ve got a Ninja With No Arms Vs Jesus story that I’ll get round to at some point. And then there’s this kind of romance/wrestling serial I want to do, Jesus Loves Austin. With Jesus and Stone Cold Steve Austin as the principle romantic leads. I’m still waiting for my legal team to get back to me on that last one.

As for Mr. Nile, well. He’s something of a special case. He’ll always be out there somewhere

CP: You don’t only explore and experiment with form – you seem to have a thing for metatext. Where does this stem from? Why is it such an important element in your comics?

M: I’ve been thinking about this and I’m not totally sure where it comes from. It connects to my interest in magic, but the metaficton has actually been more of an influence on the magic, rather than the other way around. Certainly, metafiction is a theme I keep coming back to.

I remember seeing a page from Animal Man years ago. It was just a single page reprinted in some other book, showing Animal Man in conversation with his writer, Grant Morrison. That page stuck with me for ages afterwards. I eventually succeeded in tracking down a few issues of Animal Man and there was another moment that has always struck me as being incredibly powerful. The page where Buddy, tripping out on drugs, just turns to the readers and says “I can see you!” That’s probably my single favourite moment in a comic, ever.

Anyway, Morrison had set me to wondering. What would it be like to realise you’re just a character in a story? What would that do to you? What would that do to the story? To the world you thought was real? And what happens when the story ends, anyway? Where do you go? Where does your world go? My first stab at tackling some of those questions was in an animation I made called Neverend. But that wasn’t really enough to get the ideas out of my system.

So these thoughts were still there. Going around in the back of my head. And then, a bit more than two years ago, something a bit weird happened. I had what you’d call a moment of revelation. I realised that everything – you, me, the whole of reality – was a story. It was a very odd experience. The thought came to me in the form of a single short sentence. It’s A Story. I thought that and then it just felt like my brain had lit up. Everything suddenly made sense.

I’ve never really been able to explain to anyone else what this revelation actually meant or why it seemed such an important thing to have realised. But it’s influenced a whole heap of the work I’ve done since, as well as opening up the door for me to start playing with my own personal take on magic.

CP: There is a lot of interaction between your characters and a character/avatar that can only be the artist/creator. Some people call this “breaking the 4th wall.” Want to shed some light as to your intentions for using this narrative/theatrical device?

M: Can’t I just remain enigmatic about it? That way I might be able to pull off the illusion that I know what I’m talking about. No? Okay.

When a character wants to break the fourth wall, I don’t have a problem with letting it happen. But not that many of my characters actually know that they’re fictional, so it doesn’t tend to come up that often. I’ve teased characters in the Unfolded Earth setting with hints in the past, but none of them have picked up on it yet. Mr. Nile, of course, knows exactly what he is. Since the majority of his recent series was conducted as a direct conversation between him and the reader, breaking the fourth wall was pretty much unavoidable.

If I turn up in a story myself, it’s usually for one of two reasons: 1) I’m deliberately lowering my level of reality in order to play with some magic. Or 2) Someone broke something and I need to fix it.

CP: Let’s talk about your current project. What are you trying to accomplish through the Mr. Nile Experiment?

M: It’s interesting, because this interview will come out after Nile has finished, but I’m answering this question with a week of story still to go. Luckily, I now know what most of that week of story consists of. That wasn’t the case yesterday. But, okay, I suppose I should start at the beginning.

First off then, Nile was to get me making comics again. I hadn’t finished a piece since Fever back in November and I wanted to get something done and out there. I’d never attempted a daily strip before in the past. February, with it’s alluringly low number of days, seemed like a good month to use as the basis for my first try.

One of the things that had bothered me about Fever, was that it had ended up as such an out-and-out horror story. I mean, I needed the writer character in that story to react out of fear in order for the story to work. But it niggled me that being taken over by a fictional character had ended up sounding so horrific. I couldn’t see any real need for that to always be the case.

Mr. Nile had played a small bit part in Fever, which was enough to draw the attention of a poster at TalkAboutComics. They asked when we’d be seeing more of the character. I’d always planned to give Nile his own story at some point and this post set me to thinking. If I was going to tackle a daily comic, why not let Nile write it? That way, if everything turned out to be a terrible disaster, at least I’d have someone fictional to blame it on.

Going into the piece there were a few ideas for experiments that I knew we were going to try out, but the main bulk of Nile was improvised and completed on a day-to-day basis. Initially I’d hoped each day would be a new self-contained experiment, but that quickly proved impractical. Most of the concepts we were interested in needed quite a bit of theory to be established first. There also turned out to often be more than one application of each idea to investigate.

By spreading the exploration of some concepts across several days, we could then work with a couple of day’s worth of strips in hand. Although this lead-time quickly got eroded at the weekends by things like anti-war marches and getting drunk with John Barber. By the end (as in now) I (we) was (am) working (acting very confused) with no safety net at all. Lots of late nights and early mornings are being used to see things through to completion. I’m really looking forward to the prospect of some proper sleep when March finally roles around.

CP: What’s next after the Mr. Nile Experiement?

M: I’m not sure I should answer this question. I’ve found talking about an unfinished project always seems to doom it to never be completed. Ah, what the hell.

One project that I know is finished, is Kicking Hitler To Death. This is a collaboration with John Barber that I wrote the script for and he’s adapted in Flash. This is the first time I’ve written something for someone else to draw, and it’s turned out really well. Expect to see this one surface relatively soon.

The other project I’m working on currently is another collaboration with John, this time with me handling the Flash work and him writing. It’s a guest episode for Vicious Souvenirs, so I don’t know exactly when it’ll be out. I’m not usually that interested in just handling the artwork on a story, but VS is such a great series that I couldn’t say no. Plus, I wanted to have a go at telling a straight click-through comic story using Flash, which is something I’ve never really done before.

After those two are finshed, I’m not really sure what’ll be next. I want to do something for Modern Tales Longplay and a couple of ideas are starting to solidify as to what that may be. I’m thinking that it’ll be Unfolded Earth related and easily suited to print adaption, because I’m also keeping an eye towards having something to sell during the summer con season. I had a real blast doing I Bleed Scorpions for San Diego last year, but I’m hoping to produce something a little longer and more evolved this time around.

Aside from those… I honestly don’t know yet. New stuff will keep appearing at E-merl as it occurs to me. In a perfect world, that’d mean at least one new piece a month, but it usually ends up more like every one-and-a-half to two months. Keep watching the sky, anyway.

Oh! And I’m going to be in a book. Toon Art: The Graphic Art of Digital Cartooning by Steven Withrow. Steve interviewed me and I sent off a bunch of artwork for inclusion, although I’m not sure exactly what the finished result will be. I think it comes out some time in July. Look for it at Amazon.com and in good bookstores everywhere.

CP: I’ve heard people cite you as a herald for the future of webcomics. Where do YOU see the future of webcomics as going?

M: Yeah, I’ve been asked this before. Thing is, I really don’t know. If I knew, I’d be doing it now, just to get the jump on everyone else. But, with that in mind, here’s some rambling on the subject anyway:

I think straight webcomics as a form are starting to settle down. Creators now have a pretty good idea of what works and what doesn’t. The arrival of pay sites like Modern Tales and news sites like Comixpedia are all signs of a medium that’s really started to get it’s act together. There’s still plenty of room for innovation (and plenty of very talented innovators at work), but I think maybe there’s no longer such a driving need for it.

So I guess I see the situation like this. Comics have now successfully made the transition to the web. They’ve become webcomics. That’s done. The future, for me personally, lies in working out what webcomics might become next.

Maybe that means hypercomics. They’re still pretty wide-open as a form. And, while there seem to be new webcomic series starting up every week, there are still relatively few people attempting to create new hypercomic works.

Maybe animated-comics are the ones to watch. John Barber and Brendan Cahill are both doing some great work at Modern Tales, using animation as a panel delivery tool without sacrificing traditional comic story-telling techniques.

Or maybe it’ll be sonic-comics. Admittedly, that’s a term I just made up to describe comics that use sound as a major story telling device. There aren’t many of them about yet, although I’ve dabbled a bit and plan to do more at some point in the future.

I dunno. Hopefully, the future for webcomics will be good and weird. The trick will be making it good, weird and easily readable. And, y’know, making them a bit more financially rewarding wouldn’t hurt.