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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:

Hyperfiction:

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.