Daniel Merlin Goodbrey and Dan Berry get together to talk about interactive comics and hyperfiction, incorporating sound into interactive comics and Sonic the Hedgehog.
Transcript by Renée Goulet
Dan Berry: This is Make It Then Tell Everybody. I’m Dan Berry. Daniel Merlin Goodbrey and I sat down to talk about hyperfiction and hypercomics, academia, sound and time and Sonic the Hedgehog. This is Make It The Tell Everybody. Hey, it’s Daniel Merlin Goodbrey, how are you doing?
Daniel Merlin Goodbrey: I’m good, how are you?
DB: I’m pretty good. I think the first time I heard your name… I’m just going to drop some names here, was when I was a student I rung up Scott McCloud to get some feedback from him, pick his brains about interactive comics, and he told me to look at your website.
DMG: The nice thing about Scott is you can ring him up, and he will give you input on things.
DB: And here’s his number, we’re just going to read it out! [laughs]
DMG: Just ring up Scott! I wouldn’t have a career in comics without Scott McCloud. A, because he got me thinking about a lot of things, but B, because he was incredibly generous with promoting the stuff I do to a lot of other people. He’s one of those really nice people that generally just wants everyone who is interested in comics to succeed at comics.
DB: Yeah, I can’t find any selfishness in there.
DB: Which is great! I remember his website, when I was first really getting into comics, he ran this blog on his website and I would check it daily, more times than was healthy per day. Like, refresh, refresh, refresh. I don’t think I even… I guess there’s a thing about the internet where you don’t really see a person on the other end of it, and I didn’t think about time differences and the fact that it would be 2:00 in the morning or something. Refresh, ‘Come on. Come on, more stuff! I want more stuff on this website!’
DMG: I still really miss the fact that he hasn’t been updating his blog for the past few years. I still have it in my list of blogs and every now and again I just check, to make sure there’s not another update.
DB: So Scott, if you’re listening, you’re letting us down.
DMG: Start again.
DB: Go back and start again! So Daniel, you are a purveyor of hyperfiction?
DMG: Yeah, mostly just hypercomics these days I guess. I started off with a master’s degree in hyperfiction, and during that I started making hypercomics, and most of what I do is comic related these days.
DB: Can I ask a dumb question?
DB: What is hyperfiction, and what is hypercomics?
DMG: Hyperfiction or hypercomics, comics which have multiple pathways through them, determined by the reader. There’s a nice, simple way of explaining them.
DB: A choose your own adventure.
DMG: Yeah, a choose your own adventure, or choose your point of view, or choose the order in which you pick through a sequence of events, but some kind of choice.
DB: Okay, so it’s up to the reader? Now, is it a reader?
DMG: Reader’s a good word. Some people would say ‘user’ I guess, and that would be fine too, and I think with some you could say player. I usually use either reader or player, depending on whether it’s more game-like or not.
DB: How did you get into doing this? I’m going to show my hand completely here, I don’t think there’s many people doing what you do. Am I wrong in that?
DMG: There’s not a huge number. There’s always been a few, and a few people wandering in and trying it out.
DB: I think I was one of those people that wandered in and tried it out.
DMG: Yeah, I think you wandered in and tried it out, yeah definitely.
DB: And then wandered off again!
DMG: Well, you know, I wandered off for a while and then wandered back.
DB: We’ll talk about that later.
DMG: I was doing my master’s degree in hyperfiction. Interactive narrative type stuff, and I’d done an undergrad in that kind of thing, multimedia design, animation type stuff as well. While I was doing the master’s and finishing my undergrad, starting into my master’s, I was just starting to make comics digitally as well, because I’d always been interested in comics, but felt like I didn’t have the art skills to make them, but I was finding I could make them using computer trickery.
DB: Cheating you mean?
DMG: Cheating, yeah! If I ever write a book about comics, I’ve always wanted to call it ‘How to Cheat at Comics’.
DB: Nice! [laughs] I bet that would sell.
DMG: Yeah, I think there’s a market. So I started to think about combining what I was doing in my own time with what I was learning, and trying to make digital comics that were also hyperfictions, or also had this element of choice to them. I enjoyed it, and I enjoyed that way of storytelling more than traditional storytelling, and I also enjoyed it because, like you said, there weren’t that many people doing it, so it felt like there was a chance to figure stuff out that other people hadn’t figured out, which when I started out was really exciting. It’s like, ooh, new things.
DB: Yeah, because I think that we have very, very similar backgrounds. I was big into ActionScript and Director. I don’t know if that’s going to age me at all. I used to love Director by the way.
DMG: I hated Director.
DB: Did you? Okay, well you’ve been listening to the…
DMG: I finally learned how to use Flash properly, because I had to go back to using Director, so it played its role.
DB: [laughs] I think we had a similar education, and then when I started my master’s I was looking at interactive narratives as well before dropping out and taking a real job. I think that we’ve got a lot to talk about with what we were trying to achieve with interactive comics and interactive storytelling. What were you trying to achieve when you first started doing this?
DMG: I think I was just trying to see what was possible. When I first started it was, how do comics use the qualities of the web in ways that they’re not currently? What are the things that you can do on the screen that you can’t do on the page? Just trying every different possible thing I could to see what worked and what didn’t work. That’s what got me into it. It was just that idea that here is a medium where all the rules haven’t been written yet, so we can do what we want. Going back to Scott, it was reinventing comics and seeing all these possible ideas, and going online and seeing there really weren’t many people actually trying out the things that were being suggested. It seemed like this gap, to start trying them out.
DB: I remember one of the most outlandish things I tried, was I had this… because I was doing a lot of Web3D stuff with ActionScript 2, so I’d created this enormous virtual cylinder that was populated on the inside with panels from comics, and you would fly through this with these panels. You know, you would change the point of view, so you’d work your way around this cylindrical spiral. It was ghastly. It would really, really make you sick.
DMG: That sounds really cool!
DB: It looked really cool, but you couldn’t read that way because it would make you so sick.
DMG: Oddly, the next chunk of stuff I want to work on after I finish my current chunk of stuff, is stuff in that area. I said stuff a lot there. I’m starting to get really interested in panels placed into three-dimensional space, and how you would navigate that, and how you would read it, and what you could use it for.
DMG: I need to skill up in a few things I don’t really know how to do yet. I need to learn some 3D stuff that I don’t know before I can start tackling that.
DB: Sure. Hire a nerd.
DMG: Hire a nerd. Well you see, that’s the trick.
DMG: The reason a lot of people don’t do this stuff is they’re not both tech person and cartoonist, and you can try and find a tame tech person, but it’s hard to do.
DB: Hard to tame! I mean, they’ve got wild hearts.
DMG: Yeah, and like everyone else they want to get paid, or they want to start working on your project and then disappear and stop answering emails after two months. The same kind of thing as when you start out as a writer and you want to try and find an artist. It’s the same kind of problem, finding other collaborators.
DB: That was certainly my experience of it. My experience was that I had a lot of creative skills, and I think I had a really good understanding of comics, and I think at the time I thought I had a really, really good idea of how comics worked and what you could do with them as well. My tech skills were, I’d say a B. They were a B grade. They weren’t amazing, but they weren’t terrible, and I think that that little bit of knowledge was probably a bit of a dangerous thing, really. Probably.
DMG: I always consider myself someone who hacks code together rather than actually has any ability to write it well, so you can get by on a lot of knowing just enough to get by. But after a while… there are large projects I know I do want to tackle in a year or so, where I am going to try and find people with actual talent in the area to do it, rather than relying on what I can manage to scrape together.
DB: Frankenstein’s web interface.
DB: What was the first interactive comic you did that you unleashed into the wild and had any feedback from?
DMG: The first of any note was Six Gun, which was my final piece on my master’s, which ran at Comic Book Resources. It got some attention, not massive attention, but it was a substantial work in which I tried out lots of different ideas. The one that really got me noticed properly was a piece called Doodleflak. Again, because Scott promoted it on his blog, and also weirdly went on television on some weird cable TV show I don’t know.
DMG: Yeah, he was interviewed on some TV show in the US, and it was one of the pieces he showed. I think it was called Screen Savers. It was something that became something on G4 that then got cancelled. Anyway, that got a lot of hits and me a lot of attention. It also got me invited out to San Diego for what was going to be a digital comics panel with a whole bunch of people who were doing digital comics at the time, doing stuff that Scott liked. We were all going to be on a panel together, and the panel then got cancelled, but by that point I’d decided, ‘Fuck it, I’m going to San Diego anyway.’ So that got me out to San Diego Comic-Con, which was a big jump in terms of meeting people. Before that I’d never been to any comic convention, or really met anyone in comics before.
DB: So you literally jumped in at the deep end.
DMG: Yeah, if you want to go to a first convention, never having been to anything like that, go to San Diego. Every other convention experience you have will seem easy by comparison.
DB: Wow. Baptism of fire.
DB: Well now. So you took this initial success, and these first initial contacts you made in San Diego. How did you build from there?
DMG: Well I just kept… towards working on the end of my master’s I realised that what I wanted to do was make digital comics, and it’s what I wanted to keep doing. So I just kept making them. At the same time I fell into lecturing. So I fell into doing bits and pieces of lecturing at the university where I’d been a student. I just kept hanging around teaching until they gave me a job.
DB: This is remarkably similar to my career path so far.
DMG: It’s a good tactic.
DB: Basically, don’t leave. Don’t stop doing stuff and then they’ll…
DMG: Eventually they feel awkward.
DB: They have to give you a job. It’s the law.
DMG: I always was very clear, I only ever would work part of the week. Up until a few years ago, I’ve only ever been point 5 as a lecturer, so I always had half the week to work on comics or work on other stuff that whereas it wouldn’t make me any money most of the time, would let me keep doing what I wanted to do. That gave me the time to keep making more and more experimental comics, and after a while I became the guy that you find when you want to do something weird with comics. So if you’re an Italian architect wanting to make a comics installation for a children’s mental hospital in Paris and you Google things, you find me, and then I’m the one who gets hired to help you do that.
DB: A charmed life.
DMG: It’s a charmed life, other than that happens once a year. You have to try and eke out your salary between them. You get roughly one interesting a job a year, for a few years. And every time you do you get another thing for your CV or on your website, so it ticks over.
DB: So the last thing you do then, pushes you forward into the next thing you do. Interesting.
DMG: I get bored very easily, so it’s very important, almost with every project I do that I’m trying to do something I haven’t done before, if that makes sense. It kept me trying new things with every project I was working on.
DB: When you say that you get bored very easily, how does that manifest itself normally?
DMG: What I realised when I was starting out was I can’t overthink a project before I’m working on it. If I write the project out ahead of time I don’t complete the project, because for me, a lot of the time the bit I find interesting is the act of creation, coming up with the idea, and everything else is the thing I have to do to get the idea out the door. I immediately did the thing that I tell all my students to do, which is put the epic aside and do short stories for a considerable amount of time, because that’s how you’ll get good at telling stories. Then you’ll also finish them and they’ll be out there, rather than you’ll get a chapter in, and never finish your 400 page, sweeping story.
DB: I think that this is really, really good advice, and I think if anyone’s listening and they’ve not made comics before and they’ve got this 900 page book in them that wants to come out, start small.
DMG: Start small. Leave the book in there, it will get better with every small story you tell first.
DB: Yeah, it’s not ready yet. Just let it bake a little longer.
DMG: The only slight caveat to that advice is, or do it as a webcomic. Because you can. Don’t overthink it, just do a page every week and put it up, and there are plenty of people who have got their 900 page epic out that way, although be aware that you will absolutely hate the first, I don’t know, 950 pages of your 900 page epic if you do it that way.
DB: How do you keep yourself on the straight and narrow while you’re doing a project then?
DMG: It’s got easier as I’ve got older, I guess. Also I have more demands on most of the projects I work on. I have to finish them, because otherwise I let me down, or I let someone I’m working with down, or I screw up my doctorate. All these incentives!
DB: So it’s fear?
DMG: It’s fear. It’s fear and being better about saying the scale of the project that I’m going to do. Say Necessary Monsters for instance, where I’m working with…
DB: Sean Azzopardi?
DMG: Sean Azzopardi. For the two volumes that we’ve done, I did what I wouldn’t usually do, which is I wrote a full outline of everything beforehand because I had to know I wasn’t going to get to the final part and then not have an ending, because Sean would be spending a considerable chunk of his time on it. Even then, I then don’t write the scripts until issue by issue, so I can have fun in the discovery process on the script. It does still happen, like, I was working on a project a bit more than a year ago. A follow-up… a game comic, which I guess we’ll get round to talking about called Margaret Must Succeed, and it was going along and it was going along. I spent a chunk of time working on it, it got to a point where I just realised I’d got bored of it and I got bored of the process in it, so I shelved it, and I hadn’t done that in a long time because most things I work on, I want to know I’m going to get them out the door. I’m still not great at it, but it was useful because I realised what parts of making game comics that I enjoyed and what parts I didn’t, and I’ve made the mistake of setting out on a project where I found out, ‘Actually I don’t enjoy that part of the process.’
DB: Which bits do you and which bits don’t you enjoy then?
DMG: Well, Margaret was my attempt to make something more puzzle based and more mechanical, and in a way a bit less narrative based, and what that meant was spending a lot of time figuring out variations of puzzles. Probably to get it really good I would have had to have spent a lot of time testing and replaying those puzzles, and doing that kind of iterative process you do for good games design, whereas I’m much more interested in the world explorational aspects, and the more narrative aspects of gaming, which makes sense because that’s what I do. This was my attempt to try and do that in a different way, and I failed. I think if I was to do that again, I’d have to bring on a collaborator or really get that stuff working well before I started the project, so once the project was underway I didn’t have to figure it out as I went along.
DB: You mentioned earlier that a big problem with any project is overthinking it. How does that work? Because it sounds like the more you think about something, the better it will be.
DMG: Well, it does depend, because I have been, by the nature of… I’m currently studying for my professional doctorate. That does involve a process of overthinking. Perhaps it’s not overthinking if you have to do it, but I have been… the last few big projects I’ve been doing, I’ve been thinking about a lot. It’s not the death knell for a project and I think the last few I’ve been doing are much better because I have been thinking about them a lot, and trying to work that in, and doing things I wouldn’t have done without that process. But most of my webcomics, like Dice With The Universe, that I’m doing at the moment, by the very nature of the project, I have to make it up week on week in Dice because I don’t know what’s going to happen until the audience roll dice at the end of each week.
DMG: Yeah. Well, I can cheat slightly, because I can slightly have some…
DB: Oh, you’ve got a six! Just as I had hoped for.
DMG: No, but I can write both outcomes, so I can get a little bit ahead of myself. Although then you get into this weird situation where you’re actually creating a lot more comic than ever sees the light of day, just so you’re not desperately strapped for an idea when the dice roll comes the way you don’t want it. But I wanted to do that, because I’d never done a project which really involved audience participation, and I’d ignored the whole social aspects of the web in most of what I’d done, so I thought I would do a project that steered into that for a bit.
DB: That’s interesting. So were you thinking about your audience as being a single reader?
DMG: I was thinking of my audience as the steadily decreasing number of people that follow me from series to series I do on the web, I guess. With every webcomic I’ve done, since All Knowledge is Strange, my audience has slightly reduced, that I imagine I’m going to be having a conversation with ten people by the final webcomic I do. I have no idea who my audience is. I’m very bad at most of the things you have to be good at to really succeed at webcomics, in terms of self promotion and knowing your audience and targeting a specific audience, and constantly, constantly getting out there and promoting your work to people and getting it in front. All that stuff I’m just not good at and don’t really do. So what success I’ve had with more traditional webcomics has just been pure luck, I think.
DB: [laughs] Do you think it’s more difficult if you’re working online to have a presence at conventions and festivals, because what you deal with is essentially intangible? It’s magic dust that floats through the air.
DMG: You have to be smart about it. I mean, when I was really interested in conventions and getting stuff into print, I was trying to do more things that could be both online, but then collected in print. When I started out my stuff was… there was just no way to collect it in print. It was very much screen based, and then I moved much more towards the, kind of, serialise online, but collect in print model that a lot of people have. Then it’s very easy, because most of what you do can also be print based. I’m now back working digitally again. I’m doing stuff that really is only digital. The big difference I’ve found is, I’m really beyond the point of caring about comic conventions. I’ve started to realise that I just don’t really enjoy the part of the conversation where I sit and try and sell people books anymore. I like going to conventions, and I like talking to people about the work, especially digital work at the moment, and I’m really enjoying that. I really enjoyed the last Thought Bubble, because I got an opportunity just to do that as part of a lecture on comics. I was sitting at a booth, not really trying to sell, more trying to have conversations about what we were doing.
DB: So if this was Peanuts, you’d be Lucy sitting at her psychiatrist stand.
DMG: Idle advice. I think increasingly what I want to try to find to do, because I do enjoy going to conventions, but I want to find ways in which I can do little installations or little things where it can just be about showing what I’m actually working on mostly now, which is digital stuff, rather than trying to shoehorn myself into print.
DB: Okay, so the basic setup of a festival is, it’s a big shop.
DB: Without something to physically sell, there’s no point being at the shop.
DMG: You have to have a pretty good turnover of new content to sell. When I was really doing this seriously I’d have new books for most shows I did, and you’d have the turnover of your regular customers coming back. I just don’t get new stuff into print very often now, so that immediately cuts into what you’ll sell, and it’s just… I don’t sell that well at shows anymore. You go to Thought Bubble, that is a show full of nothing but amazingly talented people and books. It’s not where my head’s at. My head is on the screen at the moment, and the conversations I want to have are on the screen. I feel I’m going to enjoy these things a lot more if I actually go to them with that in mind, rather than with selling print books in mind.
DB: So you want to go to a festival and change the conversation.
DMG: Yeah, I want to talk about what I’m actually doing, rather than talk about the thing I’ve done just for the fact that the festival is happening.
DB: That’s interesting. I don’t know how to do that.
DMG: No. I have no idea!
DB: I’ll be honest, I don’t know how to do that. I don’t know why you came to me to ask!
DMG: Thought Bubble felt like a step in the right direction this year, and I really enjoyed it, and now I have to figure out how to keep doing that. Because I don’t want to just show up and have a chat, because I find if I… I almost never go to a comic show where I don’t have a table or something to do, because otherwise I just feel like, ‘I’m walking around. I am not at this. I should be sitting down somewhere.’
DB: Oh, ‘I’m the wrong side of the table.’
DMG: ‘I am at the wrong side of the table,’ yes. So I don’t know exactly how that will work. Lakes was really nice as well.
DB: Yes, it was lovely.
DMG: Why I enjoyed it, I think I made the mistake of having a table at Lakes. I think if I’d just been at Lakes to have a chat, I would have enjoyed it all the more.
DB: What we need is a festival that’s just chatting.
DMG: It’s just chatting! Well, I know they’re not for everybody, but I have in the last few years started going to academic conferences, and I have been kind of enjoying them.
DB: Have you?
DMG: You know, I have.
DB: Sorry, you noted the ‘really?’ in my voice.
DMG: I know you had the opposite experience.
DB: Shall we get into that?
DMG: Well, let’s get into it a bit. Partly I think the scene is much richer in just the last few years. Just since I’ve started I feel like there are more and more of these things, and more and more interesting conversations happening at them. You just have to pick your panels a bit, I think. There are more people who are both practitioners and academics at them. Also I think there are interesting academic conversations happening there as well. There’s been a real explosion in good comics theory books being published in the last few years, so there’s actually a good amount of stuff to react to and chat to. I’m primarily a formalist, so I’m interested in how the form works and talking about how the form works. There have sometimes been, for my liking, not enough of that at conference.
DB: Sure, yeah. I think that was part of my problem as well.
DMG: But I feel like there’s more than there used to be.
DB: Playing devil’s advocate here in my role as interviewer, so I’m going to offer an exaggerated view of a lot of the academic conferences that I was going to, and that I got quite disheartened by. It was the idea that the purpose of academia is to bring new knowledge to a group of people doing a thing. I remember thinking, ‘Great. I like that idea. I love this, I really do.’ My whole career, my work life is entirely based on that and I think I do it quite well. Going off to academic conferences and reading some of the weightier academic books about the theory and practice of comics, it was really, really difficult to get into. There was a whole different set of vocabulary that you needed to understand to be able to get something to improve your practice by. It seemed like it was running at odds with the general ambition of academia to get people better at doing stuff. I don’t know. I felt like if I saw another… you know, someone talk about Sandman again, and again, I’d just pick up and walk out.
DMG: Well I think you will always get people talking about Sandman again and again.
DB: And if you have written a paper about Sandman I do apologise, but I’ve seen a lot of these things now, and I’m kind of over it.
DMG: But I feel like it has got better. I mean, I’m very new at this, and I don’t want to denigrate the academia that was happening before but I also want to make clear, I am in no way part of what…
DB: Don’t listen to Dan! I’m not affiliated with Dan!
DMG: But I feel you go to most conferences now, you get a really wide spectrum of papers about lots of interesting things. But then I tend to apply quite a laser focus to only actually attending the ones that are as relevant as possible to what I’m doing, because it’s the only way to ever finish a doctorate, is to do that. So I feel that there’s lots of people saying things that I find useful or interesting for my work and my research, and the core of my research has always been, because I’m also a practitioner, trying to do stuff that is genuinely moving the practice forward, and not just theory forward. That’s because I’m doing a professional doctorate. I actually have to do that, I don’t get a choice.
DB: Your hand has been forced.
DMG: Yes, my hand has been forced. Yeah, I’m kind of enjoying them both, but I think I’m probably… I’m enjoying lecturing more in a way… like, for a long time lecturing was just the thing I did so I could do comics, but I actually genuinely enjoy that part of my week now more than I used to. I feel like I’m an actual… you know that thing where you mostly just are constantly faking everything you do and hoping no one will call you on it? I hit a point with lecturing when I suddenly realised, within a very narrow field, and I was very aware of how narrow the field was that I knew about, I actually was quite good at that part of my job. I could suddenly not have to fake the fact that I’m a lecturer. I could just be that. You feel very good about yourself for a little while.
DB: Yeah, sure. I think that again, in the same narrow parameters, there’s stuff I really excel at in teaching. Broader than that? Meh.
DMG: Yeah, not broadly, but narrowly I can be confident about the thing I know narrowly how to do.
DB: Ask me some questions about comics and stories and stuff, I can excel at that stuff. If it goes broader into cross media, cultural, blah, blah, blah, no. Not so much. So you mentioned earlier Electricomics. What’s this then?
DMG: Electricomics is a Nesta funded research and development project. It’s their R&D for the Arts Fund, something like that. We have an official name we always have to give that I always mangle.
DB: For someone who doesn’t know what a Nesta is…
DMG: Nesta are a European funding body that give money to people to research things. In our case they gave it to us to research digital comics, and specifically to make a few things. A tool set, a creation tool kit that people can use to make digital comics. By digital comics I guess we mean specifically comics on an iPad for now, or an Android, but we mean an iPad because that’s what we can afford to develop initially, and an anthology title called Electricomics, which will collect a few well known comics names making some digital comics, using some of what we’ve learned to create some digital comics that do things a bit differently from how you would do them on the page.
DMG: That’s it. That’s basically what we’ve been asked to do, so it’s being led by Alan and Leah Moore, who are comics creators you may have heard of.
DB: Sure. Name rings a bell.
DMG: Vaguely familiar. So it’s got a kind of weight of people who genuinely know what they’re doing when it comes to print comics. Then people like me who are both there to be part of the university research that’s attached to it, but also to provide some of the knowledge of digital comics. But beyond that, trying to keep it very open, so I’ve been trying to say things that have happened with digital comics without trying to drive the direction of the project too much, because I don’t feel that’s… you know, it’s for the project to figure out what we end up making rather than me to just say, ‘We are doing this.’ That’s basically what it is. Because it’s a research and development project, it’s highly possible that we will fail, and that’s okay. Also, it means that what we’re doing, everything we do is open source. Everything we discover gets released to the public at the end, so it is very much, at least in its initial form, its initial year, a non-commercial project. We’re just trying to figure this stuff out.
DB: Now you used a word in there that I imagine has many, many hidden depths. This one word you just glossed over and then it was done. When you said, ‘tool kit’. To me, my programmers brain goes, ‘Ah, no! It’s loads of work in there!’
DMG: Even within the project we should have perhaps more clearly defined up front what all partners meant by the word ‘tool kit’, because we’re realising that… there’s a lot of discussions about that. We’re still having discussions. It will be some sort of thing that lets you make comics on a screen.
DB: Okay. It’s literally a tool kit.
DMG: Beyond that, we don’t really know the specifics yet. We’re still figuring them out. We’re still figuring out how much of that we can actually deliver within the time and budget we’ve got. So it’s hard to say more than that, at that point. But that’s roughly what it will be.
DB: So you mentioned this is a research project and there’s a chance it might fail, and that’s a good thing. Of course it’s a good thing because you’ve got to strip out fear of failure from all of your research, because if you only did things that you knew would happen then you aren’t really learning anything new?
DMG: Yes. Something I realised about me, is I’ve historically been bad at allowing myself to fail. I often don’t do that enough. I tend to construct projects in such a way that I know… I’m pretty sure I can succeed at them. People talk about that so much, the idea of the need to fail, and it’s true and it’s something that we say to students. You need to allow yourself to fail at things as well, but I’ve realised it’s something that I actually struggle with myself. So I’m trying to do more projects where I have that opportunity to fail in them, if that makes sense.
DB: Yes, it does. So for this project to fail specifically, I guess it’s got to not achieve what it is you want it to do. What is it that you want it to do?
DMG: I mean, it will be hard to fail completely, because even if we don’t manage to do what we want to do, we’ll come out of it with everything documented.
DB: Unless the laptop goes on fire or something.
DMG: Well, we are using backups.
DB: Oh okay! [laughs] Good start!
DMG: It cannot be a complete failure, but it could end up not producing something… it could not produce anything I guess. That could happen. That would be bad. Or the tool kits we produce could be not as complex as we want it to be, or it could end up not being useful for the people we want to use it, which are people that don’t really have the technical knowledge to make digital comics, because that has to be, kind of, the point of it. If you know your way around a computer and around HTML5 or something like that, you should be able to make a digital comic. You shouldn’t need us to help you.
DB: You sounded like a parent telling everyone off then! ‘You shouldn’t need any help, you people out there!’
DMG: You shouldn’t need any help. You know how to make HTML5 webpages, you can make yourself a digital comic. Google it!
DMG: I don’t know where that voice came from.
DB: I don’t know, but it worked. It worked for me.
DMG: Good. I don’t know if you have this when you’re teaching students, but it’s amazing what they don’t know how to Google. They’ll ask you a question, and they’ll be completely stumped, and you’ll just put the question into Google in front of them and say, ‘That’s the answer, the first thing that comes up when you ask that question.’
DB: Now have you seen the website lmgtfy.com?
DMG: I have not seen that website.
DB: The website is ‘let me Google that for you’. So you type in, you know…
DMG: Ah! I’ve heard the long version, not the acronym.
DB: It’s a whole website, and so you type in your ‘how do you’, I don’t know, ‘mix paint’. You type that in and it would create you a little link that you can send to someone, and that little link then does a little animation of their question going into Google, and then clicking on the first thing that comes up. It’s pretty good. I think it’s what the internet was invented for.
DMG: That does sound pretty awesome.
DB: I don’t use that in my professional life, but I would love to. [laughs]
DMG: Yes. I feel like we’ve possibly wandered off topic somewhere along the line.
DB: No, no, this is all gold. I mean, we’re wandering around dropping gold nuggets here, and people are going to wander around picking them up.
DMG: Okay. Say something so I can say something else in response to it.
DB: Where do you get your ideas from Daniel?
DMG: Oh, I knew that question was coming! I don’t know where I get my ideas from. I don’t know. I think I used to get… I’ve heard you ask this question before.
DB: See, the way I think about ideas, if you’ve listened to the show you’ll know I have a few different ways of thinking about them, but I don’t think I’ve talked about them this way before. When I was doing a lot of digital stuff, you’d have to have this concept of how it was going to work before you could actually do it. I think with a lot of my art, I can have an idea for how I’m going to draw something and I can test it by drawing it. I find it far more difficult to have an idea and test it digitally. There wasn’t as much of the playful element with the technology. I can play in my sketchbook with pens and draw 200 different kinds of ducks if I want to, but it’s going to be far harder for me to sit down with Flash and code 200 variations of this duck I’ve got in my head, I guess.
DMG: That’s easier. Within most of what I do, especially with the digital stuff, I start with usually a shape or a structure. So I have some kind of concept of what it is I want to explore with a project, and some kind of concept of the form of that. So that might be a particular configuration of panels that I know I’m going to zoom around, and I start with a shape and then I start to think about filling the shape. Or it might be a particular mechanic. Like the idea that we’ll treat the panels as a world, and every time the person navigates, their avatar moves from one panel to another. That can be a specific idea, and then I can think, ‘Well I know I’ve got that. That’s what I’m going to build this around. What then is the story I use to tell that, in that shape or in that configuration?’ Mostly that’s how I work. I usually start with the formal thing first, and then figure out what kind of story it’s going to be. The next thing I usually do after that, because increasingly… this is something I’ve found as I get older. When I was younger I’d just have a bunch of mad ideas and I’d whack them into a piece and that would be enough. Or I’d have an interesting line of dialogue, and I’d write a piece around that. Or I’d think a thing, and I would just start doing something. Most of all my early stuff is just like, interesting idea, interesting line of dialogue, dah, dah, dah, dah, comic. But I have less time to work on everything now. Life is such that you have less time to do everything.
DB: Tell me about it!
DMG: If you’re going to spend a chunk of time working on something, and they are a chunk of time. The Empty Kingdom was eight months. You have to know what it is you’re going to say. You have to know you’re going to say something with it, because it can’t be an empty piece. So I have to think on some level, ‘This is a comic about this, and that is a thing that will be interesting to talk about, so it will be worth me spending the amount of time I will then have to spend on it.’ It may be that it ends up being about something completely else, but I have to justify to myself that the story I’m going to tell actually has some worth or value as a story. There you go.
DB: Good answer. You mentioned The Empty Kingdom, so this is the most recently released… is it a game comic? Is it a hypercomic?
DMG: It is a game comic and it is a hypercomic. What it was primarily at first, was a way for me to get to grips with how comics and audible sound, sound you can actually hear, might interact. One of the things I wanted to find out as part of my doctorate was that, because I’d been thinking about wanting to do something like that for a long time, for five, six years, but I’d never really got round to it. It was something I knew I wanted to do as part of my doctorate. So I started Empty Kingdom just as that. As, ‘Well I know I want to explore sound,’ but I didn’t let myself decide anything else about it until quite near the end, so I wasn’t sure if it was going to be more of a story, more of a game, just a wandering around, what they call a ‘going for a walk’ simulator. I didn’t really know what it would be until the end. By the end it’s like, yeah, I’d call it a game comic, although it is more about just going for a walk as much as it is about anything, I think.
DMG: And it let me figure out a whole bunch of stuff about how I think sound can work in a digital comic.
DB: How can sound work in a digital comic Daniel?
DMG: I’m glad you asked! I was building on other stuff people have done, and other things people had already thought. I think the way sound can best work in a digital comic is like sound works in a video game, which is the sound should react to the person reading it. So it shouldn’t be this pre-orchestrated soundtrack, it should be a soundtrack that shifts and changes in line with how a person reads. Time in comics should be set by the comic, not by the soundtrack as much as possible, so that probably means using loops of sound rather than sounds of fixed duration, because time in comics isn’t fixed, so the sound time shouldn’t be fixed either. It should be little overlapping loops that change. The trick about the sound in a digital comic is then finally, with what fidelity can you figure out where a person is in their reading of the comic? In a traditional comic you can really only tell what page they’re on, or maybe what double page they’re on, so you could only match the sound to the double page spread. In a digital comic there are a few different ways you might have some clues to what panel they’re currently reading. Then you get into this trade off between knowing where someone is in their reading, which you could do by having just one panel on the screen, and you only let them read a panel at a time, but then you’re losing a whole bunch of stuff about the page and the way panels interact, and all the other stuff that makes comics kind of cool. So you’ve got to find your middle ground and what you’re happy with.
Because of the nature of The Empty Kingdom, and it wouldn’t apply to a lot of digital comics, but it applied to Empty Kingdom, because you’ve got this avatar you’re controlling and moving through the panels, you can know with perfect fidelity exactly where they are in their reading every time.
DB: Because you’ve got an indication literally there on screen.
DMG: Yeah, literally this is where they are on the screen. So you can make the soundtrack change down to the panel, which gives you a lot more control. It also makes it much harder, because you really have to finesse the soundtrack to actually work at that level, rather than being a messier thing that might just change by the page. So that was one set of conclusions, and then the bit… I guess that was me. The bit about fidelity is me. I’m thinking now in terms of what I can claim to be new knowledge and what I have to say is other people’s knowledge, because that’s a thing you have to think about when you’re doing a doctorate. The other thing I kind of knew going in, but I wanted to gather the language to say, is the idea of the sync point, which is stuff that comes from film sound theory, but it’s where the sound you’re hearing syncs up with the image you’re seeing. On a film, the sync point has to be like, you have to hear the punch when the fist connects with the punch, otherwise you’re watching an Italian movie rather than a Hollywood blockbuster. So where do you put the sync point on the comics page, bearing in mind that time, as we said in comics, is this kind of indefinite thing rather than a definite thing? So I deliberately in the project had some spot sound effects as well as these loops. What I realised worked really well, was to put the sync point into the gutter. So you sync the spot sound to the thing you don’t see.
DMG: The bit in Empty Kingdom which I always use to make the point is the bit where you walk along, and as you walk past a rock, a bird sitting on the rock and it flies away. And what happens is, you see the bird sitting on the rock, you hear the bird flying away, but you don’t see that, and then you see the bird in the next panel in flight. So what you’ve done is synced the sound to, whatever you want to call the process, what McCloud calls ‘closure’. The idea, the motion you create rather than what you see on the page. That seems to work really well. I think. I’m pretty pleased with how it works, because then you’re not weakening what’s cool about comics, which is the reader doing the work of inventing the story.
DB: I agree with that. That sounds about right. That sounds good to me.
DMG: That’s what I figured out by doing The Empty Kingdom.
DB: To try and give an example of how this could and couldn’t work as well, I think the thing that works about The Empty Kingdom is the fact that it’s non-definite audio. So you don’t have your character going, ‘Doo, dee, doo, doo, doo. Here I am, walking along. Doo, dee, doo, doo, doo.’ Which I think would detract from it.
DMG: I think there are more experiments to do around other things.
DB: The ‘doo, dee, doo, doo, doo’.
DMG: Yeah, the ‘doo, dee’. I think there’s stuff you could do. I was very careful not to include the sound of his footfall most of the time, because I think it will drop you out. So it’s very much… and I’m very careful about saying The Empty Kingdom isn’t the one way to do sound, it’s just…
DB: …a way.
DMG: It’s a way, and I think it helped me figure out a few more things that hopefully we might feed into Electricomics if we have time and budget by that point.
DB: One of the things I always find interesting about interactive comics, when I was really giving it some thought was the differences… I mean, you talked about comics as being a non-time based medium. If you’re not watching them, they don’t do anything, whereas an animation or a film, even if you’re not watching it, it’s going to carry on regardless. It’s 94 minutes long, or whatever it is, whereas a comic is as long as you inflate it with your own sense of time. It’s almost like, remember when you’re a kid and you play Sonic the Hedgehog on the Master System.
DB: So you’d get to know these characters and you have fun with them, and then the TV show came out, and you’ve got Sonic’s voice and you’re like, ‘Who’s this guy? I don’t understand this!’ I think that there’s an awful lot to be said for the idea of the tone of voice of the characters that you bring to the comics page yourself. I don’t know if it’s something to do with context and the way that you can use audio and dialogue together. I think that if you replace the voice inside people’s heads with, [squeaky voice] ‘Hi, you guys, I’m Sonic the Hedgehog,’ or whatever it is. See I don’t even know what Sonic sounds like anymore.
DMG: He sounds exactly like that.
DB: Thank you. Thank you.
DMG: [squeaky voice] ‘Hey guys!’ Just like that.
DB: We’re both available for voice work if people want to get in touch.
DMG: It could be the start of a whole new career.
DB: [laughs] I felt like it would take something away. With comics you get to invest yourself so heavily in these characters that, again… what was I saying? It was about context. If you understand the voice of your characters already, from reading them in a comic… and I think a lot of the stuff that I was doing, the problems that I was having with adapting comics to an interactive form, was context. I already had context for reading these stories and what they were like, and I was approaching them as a reader, rather than a creator, I think. Does that make sense?
DMG: Yeah, that makes sense, and I think the danger is, part of the other things I realised working on The Empty Kingdom, there’s a thing McCloud says in Understanding Comics where he talks about the idea that when you’re creating a comic you have to give both the words and the pictures a chance to lead. He calls it a dance. Most people who experiment with sound in comics create a comic or take an existing comic and try and whack a soundtrack on it.
DB: Yeah. I hate that, by the way.
DMG: Yeah, I know. It doesn’t work. Well it can work, but it’s not going to work as well, because you’re not giving sound a chance to lead. You’re just whacking sound on to words and pictures. If you’re going to make a comic which is not just about now combining words and pictures, it’s about combining words and pictures and sound, each have to be given… you have to think about that all the way through, and each have to be given a chance to lead as part of the finished thing you produce. Because I’m not actually great at sound, The Empty Kingdom, I started with the sound. I gathered lots of sounds from freesound.org and I used that for the basis for what the comic would be, because that way I knew I would have sounds that worked, and then built the rest of the comic around them. I think that’s part of the problem. I think, you know, had Sonic spoken when you first played that game, then that would be his voice and it wouldn’t be weird that he’s speaking now. But because you encountered Sonic as text on the screen, and action, and then were introduced to the animated version, it’s weird.
DB: But I never had the same problem with Mario.
DMG: Yeah, I don’t know. Maybe we know how Mario sounds?
DB: ‘It’s-a me,’ of course.
DMG: He’s an Italian plumber, and that’s… I don’t know. I don’t know. Maybe there’s just… I don’t know. Now we’re getting into wild…
DB: This is a whole research paper in itself.
DMG: I think the idea of dialogue is really interesting, because there is no voice work in The Empty Kingdom and my gut feeling is, once you start putting spoken audio into a comic, it’s too time based, and it will take you too away from the comic from. But I am kind of curious about… I don’t know whether I’ll ever get around to doing this, maybe doing a comic where one character speaks in audio and the other character’s speech is in speech bubbles and they’re having some kind of conversation. Or maybe the narrator is audio, and the character is speech. I think there’s some kind of interesting interplay there that might be explorable.
DB: That’s interesting. So, if you want people to go to a website or go and have a play of your game comics, or is there anything they can buy or follow you online? What do you want people to do right now?
DMG: They should go to probably my website, which is called e-merl.com, which is where I put most of my stuff. You’ll find my weekly series, Dice With The Universe, and you’ll also find links to my new comic, The Empty Kingdom, which was the one we were talking about in detail.
DB: Which people should go and play.
DMG: Which people should go and play. And I guess I should also say people can also go to electricomics.net, which is the website for the Electricomics project. Which is electric, omics. You’ll find it, Google it. I don’t know why we even give out URLs anymore. Just Google…
DB: H, T, T, P, full stop. [laughs] No wait, that’s wrong! Anyway, brilliant. Well Daniel, thank you ever so much for speaking to me.
DMG: Thanks very much, it was fun.