Daniel Merlin Goodbrey

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Daniel Merlin Goodbrey is one of the most important and prolific pioneers in digital comics. He started his experiments around 2000, and set to explore numerous forms and uses of online publishing, from simple webcomics to full-on interactivity, designed for computers or tablets. As a logical consequence of his long time questionning about forms and tools, he recently started a professional doctorate at University of Hertfordshire and is involved in the Electricomics project. In spite of all this, he remains strangely unknown in France, even among the little community involved in digital comics practice or research. This conversation is an attempt to sort out this paradoxical situation.

Tony : You started to experiment with comics and Internet around 2000. One could say that year represents a turning point with the publication of McCloud’s Reinventing Comics. Was that book something of a trigger for you ? Or had you come to digital comics by another way and for other reasons ?

Daniel Merlin Goodbrey : Reinventing Comics was definitely a big inspiration for me, yes. But I actually started seriously making comics on the web in 1999 with a series called Rust. It was written and designed by Alasdair Watson and I provided the artwork. Alasdair had some interesting ideas about how to use animation in a way that served the narrative and using html to construct the layout of the comic so it would adjust dynamically to the dimensions of the screen.
Working on Rust primed me to the potential of digital comics and then when Reinventing Comics came along it properly broke open my head with a bunch of new ideas. There seemed at the time to be a lot of possibilities that McCloud was suggesting but that not enough people were really trying out or experimenting with. So I endeavoured to fill that gap and started making experimental digital comics as quickly as I could. At the same time I was studying for my Master’s degree in Hyperfiction (interactive branching narratives) and a lot of ideas from those studies were also feeding into my work.
In 2001 for the major project at the end of my Masters I created the hypercomic Sixgun : Tales From An Unfolded Earth, which was then serialised in six parts at Comic Book Resources. I really tried to stuff Sixgun full of all the ideas I could about layout, interaction, navigation, hyperlinks and multicursal (non-linear) narrative structures. I think it’s what really put me on the map for the first time as “that experimental digital comics guy” in the UK and US scenes.

Tony : An undoubtedly well deserved title ! Sixgun offers a great example of the complexity of your digital comics. Going further than McCloud in his own creations, this digital comic mixes infinite canvas and its cousin (that I’ve named) the infinite panel, and playing with breakdowns and panels combination. On your website, it is listed in the “hypercomics” section. By the way, you use at least three different terms to describe digital comics : hypercomics, webcomics and also in a certain way hyperfiction. French researcher Julien Falgas pointed out the difficulty to name this new art form. Why have you chosen these terms and what do they mean for you ?

Daniel Merlin Goodbrey : Okay yeah, those different terms need a little unpacking. Hyperfiction was a name I picked up while studying my Masters. I think it’s a term that’s not really used that much now, but essentially it’s a similar term to hypertext or hypermedia, just a little broader. So the stuff on my website under the category of hyperfiction is mostly little projects I made on my masters and I don’t really think of those as comics, but rather these little interactive narrative experiments. Ted Nelson describes hypermedia as :

branching and performing presentations which respond to user actions, systems of prearranged words and pictures (for example) which may be explored freely or queried in stylized ways (1974, 313).

Which is maybe a little formal, but he invented it, so I guess that’s fair enough. Webcomics are… comics on the web. You could get pickier than that, but that’s essentially what they are. Hypercomics… well in essence, they’re webcomics + hypermedia. Although they don’t actually have to be on the web (you can get hypercomic apps or games) and they don’t even have to be digital (you can get book-based hypercomics or elaborate gallery-based installation hypercomics). I’m going to quote myself on a precise definition of hypercomics because there’s no one here who can stop me doing it :

A hypercomic can be defined as a comic with a multicursal narrative structure. Cursality is the apprehension that there are multiple paths in addition to the one followed… …Multiple paths through a narrative mean a choice must be made by the reader as to which path to follow… …In a hypercomic, the choices made by the reader may determine the sequence in which events are encountered, the outcome of events or the point of view through which events are seen (Goodbrey 2013, 291)

That’s a little abridged, and I go on for a few more paragraphs, but those are the basics. Fun fact : Ted Nelson also invented the hypercomic way back in 1970. Clever guy !

Tony : Clever guy indeed ! Thanks for these definitions. You clearly trace a boundary between some of these terms : hyperfiction on one side, and different types of digital comics on the other side. I have a trick question for you : where would you place the boundary between traditional and digital comics ? And between digital comics and other digital medias ?

Daniel Merlin Goodbrey : I see your trick question and raise you a trick answer — I think the most useful way to think about the boundary between traditional and digital comics is to decide that there isn’t one. From my point of view it’s all comics — it’s all one form that has a shared set of key characteristics in the way it operates. Within that form you could point to certain different formats of comic that put more or less emphasis on each of those key characteristics. Some of those formats might be “traditional” and come with panels printed on pages or as newspaper strips. Other formats might be “digital” and appear as webcomics or smartphone apps or Virtual Reality Hyper Memes or whatever (I may have just made that last one up). But in the way all those formats operate, there’s usually more that unites than divides them.
I mean, I guess you could say that “traditional” comics are mostly on paper and “digital” comics are mostly not, but that doesn’t feel like a boundary that’s particularly useful to point out. And those “mostlies” are only going to get weirder as things like digital paper finally get beyond the R&D stages and out into the world.
As to the boundary between digital comics and other digital media… well. If there’s a set of key characteristics as to how the form of comics operates, I guess if you found a piece of digital media that didn’t display any of those characteristics, discussing it as a comic wouldn’t be very helpful. So that is your not-comic. The Un-Comic. The Eternal Adversary of all Comic Kind. And then over here we have a digital comic, that displays most of the key characteristics of the form of comics and might usefully be discussed as definitely being a comic. Between these two poles, you’ve got a bunch of other boundary cases that we could describe as being more or less “comic-like”. There would be examples that share most of the key characteristics of the form and could very usefully be treated and discussed as comics by all involved. And then there would be examples that some people are really going to enjoy having a proper argument over the status of. Such boundary cases can be really interesting and useful things to discuss, but they can also lead to quite repetitive and dull arguments. I used to be a bit more dogmatic on the comic/not comic divide, but these days I try to keep more of an open mind on the topic.

Tony : As an artist, you have explored and experimented a lot since the beginning of the 2000s, using all potentialisties of web browsers and seemingly adopting a critical approach. Last June, as you participated at the conference “Poetics of the algorithm” in Liège, you seemed to emphasize on the choices an artist faces between different predefined tools and standard formats, and how he ends up actually choosing. It came as surprise to me, coming from the creator of Tarquin Engine, a very personal and custom-made tool. So, paradoxically, as you become less dogmatic about what a digital comic is, you restrict your own creations to some standard formats. What led you to change your point of view ? And in what extend must Goodbrey-researcher and Goodbrey-artist negotiate, if that’s the case ?

Daniel Merlin Goodbrey : I think a big change for me, which lead to the paper I presented in Liege, was working with Leah and Alan Moore on the Electricomics project. For that project we were trying to develop a toolset that comic creators without a digital media background could use to make digital comics that really exploit some of the unique possibilities of the digital. While I still had my artist’s hat on at points during the project, my real role was as a researcher and consultant. It forced me to step back a bit from how I approached my own work (“there is one right way to do a thing, and that is the way I have determined that I am doing it and I shall build the tools to make it happen”) and embrace all the possible different ways someone might want to approach making a digital comic. This started me down the path of seeing all comic creation as a series of choices and outcomes, both positive and negative (“If you choose to make a digital comic this way, it will allow you to do this and this and this, but may limit your ability to do this and this and this”).
As to the negotiation between my artist and writer bits (“bits” is the correct technical term I’m sure), usually I’ve found them to be pretty closely intertwined and sympathetic to each other. I say “usually,” because this long, slow, digitally-mediated discussion we’re having is taking place strung out across the same period of time in which I’m finally finishing my doctorate in digital comics. So the answer to your first question was back in July when I was bringing together all my material and reworking published papers into cohesive chapters. Now I’m answering this question in the middle of December having finished writing my conclusion and therefore, really, my whole thesis is pretty much done. Because I’ve had to knuckle down to get everything beaten into shape, I’ve also had to essentially give up on making any comics for about half a year. This is the longest I’ve gone without a creative outlet alongside my other work in… well, ever, I guess.
So right now I’m very much a researcher but also looking forward very, very much to getting back to just being an artist for a while. Maybe I’m just getting old (I am definitely getting old), but what six years of doctoral study really teaches you is that everything is incredibly complex and no one really knows anything and there’s never one right answer or one right way of doing anything. And also, not making comics for six months really, really sucks. So, you know, starting in January I’m just going to make some comics for the sake of making comics for a while. Not that I want to put the research side down for too long, but I think I really need a bit of time to get rebalanced and recalibrated again before I’m ready to strike out for new territory.

Tony : Maybe it’s too soon to ask, but do you think embracing all the possible ways someone might want to approach making a digital comics has changed the way you approach the creation of digital comics ? And how ?
I would also like to come back to the question of what the choice of a tool implies for the creative process. First, could you expand on this statement : “there is one right way to do a thing, and that is the way I have determined that I am doing it and I shall build the tools to make it happen” ? Could you explain what was the creative process behind some of your works ?

Daniel Merlin Goodbrey : Ah, a lot to unpack here. Let’s see. I think it could change the way I make digital comics, yeah. Although it probably is still too soon to ask — I need to get my teeth back into some of my own projects for a bit before I’ll really know if I’m working differently than before.
As to how I’ve worked in the past, I guess that’s varied quite a bit from project to project. If I was to draw out some common threads, I think most of my comics begin from one of three places :

1. A particular formal challenge or quirk that I either want to figure out or that I think I already know will let me do something new or interesting with the form.
2. Trying out an approach to creating artwork that will allow me to make pictures that do not look terrible and might hopefully sustain some sequential narrative.
3. A title or particular line of dialogue that demands a narrative be built around it.

Or often some combination of the above. Then the comic grows like choral, absorbing more stray ideas and dialogue and artwork until it’s finished. Somewhere along the way I try to think a little bit about the themes behind the story – enough that I feel like the comic might have something to say that’s worth the time I’ll spend working on it. And I try to make sure I have an end-point in sight that feels like a solid conclusion, as I don’t want to spend ages working on something that I find impossible to finish. But beyond that, if possible I try to delay solving all the problems in the narrative until as late as possible in the creative process. If I figure out a comic too completely before I’ve actually finished creating it then I know there’s a risk I may get bored and struggle to complete the finer details such as artwork and pages and lettering and… well, comic.

Tony : As a consultant for Electricomics, how do you decide what type of digital comic types the app’s users might want to make ? Did you rely on a panel of authors ? With only 25 years of existence, digital comics are still at an early stage : everything is possible ! So doesn’t giving an author a limited tool does appear too… limiting ? Based on experience, I know there is a certain wariness towards computers from comics authors. And indeed, most digital graphic narrative “innovations” originate with people coming from other domains (animation, video game, web, audiovisual) and often exceed what we can call “digital comic”. Do you think comics authors are really the best placed to make digital comics ? (this is a very personal and practical aspect for me, regarding the difficulties of teaching code — for example — to art students.)

DANIEL MERLIN GOODBREY : Yes, we worked with quite a few comic creators and took as much of their input on board as possible. We began with an initial group of traditional print comic writers and artists to get their perspective on what they’d like to be able to achieve with digital comics. Then as the project progressed we brought in a group of indie print and digital comic creators to test out the tools we were developing and offer suggestions for changes and improvements. Later in the process we also used the toolset with groups of art students at my University who again gave us input on what worked and what didn’t.
I think every group we worked with brought something different to the table. Established comic creators might be the people with most comic experience but the least digital know-how. The students were the most digital-savvy but were less confident in how to go about making comics. We were trying to make a set of tools of use to both groups, and all the shades in between. I think overall we were sort-of-quite-successful in what we achieved. And we would have probably been even more sort-of-quite-successful, but time and money constraints were a pain in the final stages of development.

Tony : How many different formats are available ? I only saw “infinite comics”-like formats, but that was based on the Youtube demos as I don’t own an iPad to get a first-hand experience. However, I noted a specific use of infinite comics with a large number of panels displayed at the same time — which I like to call “evolving page” (similar to this example, which you saw in Liège last year) — by several authors. Is there a reason for it or is it just a coincidence ? And since we’ve been talking about it for a while, what exactly is the Electricomics project ? How did it come to be, and what led you to participate in it ?

Daniel Merlin Goodbrey : Electricomics was a NESTA funded project to develop an open source toolkit for the creation of digital comics. It was led by Leah and Alan Moore and it had its beginnings as a transmedia offshoot from Alan’s Show Pieces film series. I came on board as one of the academic research partners on the project. I helped the team put together the initial funding pitch and then acted as a general consultant for all things digital comic related, while also using the project as an opportunity to advance my own research in the field.
The basic tools we developed allowed for the easy creation of panel delivery in the “infinite comics” style and, with a little tweaking, infinite canvas comics. But the format was also designed to be easily extendable with HTML5, so as part of the project we created some hypercomics with multiple pathways through the narrative and one comic that used the “tilt” feature of the iPad as part of its navigation process. The whole thing was built on an open source code base, so that means anyone is free to customise it further and then share those customisations with the rest of the users/creators.

Tony : To finish with Electricomics, what is its business model and why ? What are upcoming developments ?

Daniel Merlin Goodbrey : Good questions ! Sadly not ones I can answer though – the project is in a bit of holding pattern while we figure out the answers to exactly these questions. The main tricky bit is figuring out a source of further funding that would allow us to develop the project further without giving up the open access and ethical-comics-for-all ethos that was kind of at the heart of the thing. Leah Moore is the one leading the charge on figuring this stuff out, so I’m sure there’ll be more news on that front once any breakthroughs are made.

Tony : Another aspect of digital comics is the links with other medias. You defined above a rather clear boundary between digital comics and “un-comics”. However, some of your creations are largely inspired by other medias. I’m thinking of The Empty Kingdom, which is essentially a point’n’click (by the way, is it a comic-like point’n’click or a point’n’click-like comic ?). As it is also the case for A duck has an adventure, it is hosted on a video game platform. To what extend are you inspired by video games and other medias as well as digital art forms such as digital literature ?

Daniel Merlin Goodbrey : I think the boundary space between the comic and the un-comic is actually quite wide and unclear. You have the very much definitely comics which exhibit lots of characteristics of the form of comics, and then the really, probably very much not-a-comic which exhibits few-to-none of the characteristics of the form. But the boundary space contains lots of examples of things that display some characteristics of the form of comics that could or could not be discussed as being a comic. I should stress that having that unclear boundary isn’t a bad thing – it’s a healthy space that allows our understanding of what a comic could be to grow and change over time as the form evolves and changes.
If I were to classify the two comics you mention, A Duck Has An Adventure and The Empty Kingdom, I would call them both “game comics”. Game comics is a term of my own coining to describe a hybrid format that exhibits some of the key characteristics of the forms of both games and comics. For me the most interesting types of game comic are those that make specific use of key characteristics of the form of comics in the mechanics of their gameplay. So it’s fair to say in creating these comics I was heavily inspired by indie and casual videogames and was aiming as much at gamers as I was comic readers. In fact, one of my stated aims in creating these game comics was to produce something that a gaming audience would recognise as being a game and that a comic reading audience would recognise as being a comic. I think I mostly succeeded at this, perhaps more so with the indie gaming audience which… how can I put this nicely… are a bit more open minded than the comics audience. Indie games include a very wide spectrum of different game styles, so I think their audience comes primed to expect the new and unusual. Comic readers… a bit less so.
For myself, all the game comics I have made are simultaneously very definitely comics and also very definitely videogames. There are some factors that I think push them to be more game-like or more comic-like, mostly to do with how the player interacts and plays with them. I won’t go into that here (it’s a whole other chunk of my thesis) but as result I think it’s fair to describe Duck as being a bit more comic-like and Kingdom to being a bit more game-like. As with all things, the opinions of others may vary.

Tony : You currently teach at the University of Hertfordshire. What place do you allow to digital comics in your classes ? How do you encourage your students to approach this object ?

Daniel Merlin Goodbrey : For students from an interactive media design background I’ve run hypercomic projects as a way to develop their understanding of interactive narratives and push their skills in terms of software and visual design. These students often don’t have much background knowledge in terms of comics, so it opens them up to a whole new area of study and the hypercomics they create often push things in an interesting range of different directions. Over the years a few have gone on to develop more complex hypercomics for their final major degree project, which has been quite a cool thing to see.
Currently most of my teaching time is on the Digital Animation & Games programme, which I took over the joint leadership of a year ago. These students often have very strong traditional art skills and are already at least a little familiar with comics, with a small number actively seeking to eventually work in the industry. We run a traditional comics project with all the first year students (there’s around 110 in each year) to introduce them to some of the basics of character/environment design and visual storytelling that they can then later apply to their animation and games projects. Comics are a great form to use for this as they’re relatively quick for the students to create, but at the same time they require them to think about all aspects of the design process, from character design, colour and lighting up through to narrative construction and visual storytelling.
For the students on the course focussed primarily on 2D animation I then teach a couple of other projects that directly incorporate digital comics. There’s one in the first year that gives the students the chance to make their own webcomic series as part of a module focused on online publishing/marketing and building an audience for yourself on the web. Then in the second year I run a hypercomics project where students have to create a hypercomic tablet or smartphone app. Here the focus is on introducing the 2D animators to working in an interactive context, both in terms of creating interactive narratives and learning some of the associated software and coding skills. In the third year a few students also opt to make some type of comic as the focus of their major project (so far we’ve had traditional graphic novels, webcomics and motion comics).
In addition to the above I also do a little bit of post graduate supervision for research students working in comic and digital comic related areas. That’s something I’d like to do a lot more of actually, so consider this an open invite : If you’re reading this and thinking of doing a Masters or Doctorate in digital comics, come to Hertfordshire !

Tony : As this conversation is coming to a close, is there anything else you’d like to add ?

Daniel Merlin Goodbrey : Oh ! I should probably mention that, somewhere during the months between answering the Electricomics questions and talking about game comics, I received my own Doctorate ! So I’m now officially Doctor Daniel, with a Professional Doctorate in Design focused on “The Impact of Digital Mediation and Hybridisation on the Form of Comics”. I say that not only to show off (mostly to show off) but because that means my entire thesis is now online here for those that might want to read it. It covers a lot the areas we’ve been discussing in the interview in a bit more detail (but sadly with drier language and a lot less jokes).

[Interview conducted over emails, between July 2016 and October 2017]

Entretien par in December 2017