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The Old Made New: A Look at the Static Comics of Daniel Merlin Goodbrey

This article was originally published on webcomics.com in 2008.

“I’ve always felt driven to keep trying new things creatively and experimental web comics just started to feel a little too familiar, y’know? Too safe. I wasn’t going to improve as a creator sticking to that ground.”

–Daniel Merlin Goodbrey

Best known for his impressive formalist experiments, usually featuring Flash interfaces (eventually culminating in his Tarquin Engine), Goodbrey was one of the early pioneers of the new artistic realms that web publishing opened to comics creators (For my thoughts on Goodbrey’s early works, see my contribution to The Webcomics Examiner’s article "Aggressive Experiments"). In the past three years, however, Goodbrey has produced only one of his “hypercomics,” the 24-hour comic Never Shoot the Chronopath, which he published this past December. Most of his efforts these days have gone into more traditional seeming fare: two static humor strips and a longform tale of undead cowboys.

It would be a mistake to think that Goodbrey has given up on pushing himself creatively just because he isn’t inventing wild new interfaces, though. “Experimental” is a relative term, and nothing stymies innovation faster than repeating oneself. And even the most traditional methods can help a creator to break new ground if they’ve never tried those methods before. In fact, the least interesting work that Goodbrey has produced in recent years is the most overtly experimental; “Never Shoot the Chronopath” is an enjoyable little comic, but nothing we haven’t seen Goodbrey do before.

On the other hand, Goodbrey’s Brain Fist, All Knowledge is Strange, and The Rule of Death all incorporate forms and ideas that are new to Goodbrey’s body of work, even if they don’t look so different from the kinds of comics most people read every day.

 

Brain Fist

The trick with Brain Fist was defining the iPod as a “looking into” device. I think there’s potentially a more intimate connection there than with the comics page -- all your attention focused into this single little glowing square.

Goodbrey’s first effort at more traditional comics was Brain Fist, which wrapped up last August after nearly a two-year run. An unabashed talking head strip, Brain Fist presents a succession of monologues (Goodbrey describes them as “one half of a conversation.”) by a rotating cast of characters including a trigger-happy old cowboy, a devil lady, a foul-mouthed talking cat, and a woman with no eyes. The tone of the strip is generally bleak, exploring the worst impulses of the damaged and the damned, with a frequently philosophical bent. The strips most often feel like simple black comedies, but just as often they venture into petite drama, such as the strip "In Tears", in which a young murderess describes an event from her childhood:

I asked my mother once. Why it always had to end in tears. And I remember she…she just looked at me. So much sadness in her eyes. And then at last, she let out a breath. And answered simply: "Because otherwise it wouldn’t end."

The result felt like something of a cross between the self-conscious thought experiments of Dinosaur Comics and the amusing horrors of A Softer World. But like A Softer World, Brain Fist is at its best when Goodbrey leaves out the punch line -- the absurd extremism of the characters creates a wonderful tension between the ridiculous and the genuinely frightening. Relieving that tension with punch lines only reminds us that we are looking at cartoons rather than horribly plausible people.

As static as Brain Fist is, there was still a structural experiment at work. The comic was designed with portable devices—the iPod specifically -- in mind. Goodbrey saw the potential to tap into that “more intimate connection” by turning a comic into an implied conversation between the reader and the character on the screen. (And given the growing ubiquity of camera phones, it’s not far off from the direction on-the-go communication is actually headed.) My own first experience of Brain Fist was its web incarnation, but I downloaded several strips to see how the experience compared.

The first obvious difference is that the panel-to-panel transitions become much more suspenseful, since you can only see one panel at a time. The second strip, titled “Fist,” makes particularly good use of this fact -- when you can’t see what’s coming, the transition from the character’s face, to his open hands, to his bloody fists, and back again is very jarring, as it ought to be.

The question of establishing a more intimate connection with the reader is a bit more complicated. I can see the sense of intimacy that Goodbrey suggests, but I can see just as much potential for the opposite. I asked my wife, who was unfamiliar with the strip, to read a few installments on my iPod and describe the experience of reading them that way. Her word: “isolating.” Even if you capture the sense of having a conversation with the character, it’s impossible to get away from the feeling that they’re talking to you through a tiny hole from inside a tiny box. The intimacy that’s achieved is an uncomfortable intimacy; the closest approximation I see is how I imagine a conversation in a confessional to feel. But that’s okay; the tone of the comic is confessional, and these are disturbed, off-putting characters. Any intimacy with them should be uncomfortable.

Even if you don’t have an iPod, Brain Fist is still enjoyable as a webcomic. While the iPod was his inspiration, Goodbrey hoped to create a comic that fit comfortably enough into multiple delivery formats—iPods, the Web, and print—that readers would feel they were reading the comic in its native format, no matter which delivery mechanism they were using. It’s not actually in print yet, but it certainly does work on the web. Even so, it’s worth taking a look at Brain Fist on the iPod; it’s a rare sort of comic that actually does maintain a sharper edge in that format.

 

All Knowledge is Strange

Trying to work the three-panel strip format twice weekly lets me stretch a bunch of different writing muscles and also gives me a home for the ideas I have that don’t fit anywhere else. And I’m drawing things! With my hands! And a Wacom! Not being one of nature’s drawers, I’m finding the process to be an amusing diversion.

Goodbrey’s follow-up to Brain Fist, All Knowledge is Strange, is a simple humor strip, with a dry, occasionally bleak, sense of humor. Subtitled “A Pictorial Almanac of Necessary Facts,” most strips begin with a trivia category, followed by three examples of questionable veracity. For instance, the category of “Problems Guns Can’t Solve” accurately includes “Zen Koans,” while the more enigmatic category of “Lies the Moon Will Tell You” includes “It’s all going to be okay.” All Knowledge is Strange has been updating every Tuesday and Thursday since last September.

The most immediately striking thing about AKS is just how un-Goodbrey-like it is. It really is true to the four-panel gag strip format, even if the humor itself is darker than the norm for such strips. There is no structural experiment here beyond Goodbrey just trying his hand at the structure that everybody else is already using. Even Brain Fist, as straightforward as it was, was clearly still playing with form, even if not as ostentatiously as Goodbrey’s previous work. But All Knowledge is Strange is comics at its simplest. Goodbrey may play a little loose with the traditional rhythm of Set-up, Beat, and Punch-line, but the rhythm is there nonetheless.

It’s often easy for creators with an experimental bent to dismiss the four-panel gag strip as played out and uninteresting, but anyone who’s actually tried it knows just how challenging it is to come up with consistently funny material that fits into such a constrained format. And setting challenges for oneself is the heart of experimentation. Even if other creators have already mastered those challenges, the only way to truly learn the lessons of the exercise is by undertaking them oneself. It’s pleasing to see that Goodbrey has the humility to understand this, however avant-garde his own natural inclinations may be.

Just as pleasing is the fact that Goodbrey’s comedic talents have grown since Brain Fist. All Knowledge is Strange may not have the depth or character exploration of Brain Fist, but it’s much funnier. Goodbrey is clearly letting loose a little here, setting aside his usual intellectual concerns and just having fun. It’s certainly not the work that Goodbrey will be remembered for -- humor strips are still not his primary talent -- but as he says himself, it’s an “amusing diversion” amidst the creator’s headier projects.

 

The Rule of Death

What Rule of Death actually is, is the last bastion of me Making It Up As I Go Along…. I’m just writing it till it’s done. I kinda know where it’s going now (sort of. Mostly. Ish), but I only found that out by accident along the way. And I found it out while the audience was watching me find it out, which makes for a different kind of writing experience.

Perhaps the most interesting of Goodbrey’s recent projects is his most traditional effort to date. Scripted by Goodbrey and Illustrated by Douglas Noble, The Rule of Death is the story of Pete Colby, a man who died -- then changed his mind and came back. Colby is no flesh-eating zombie, just a quiet man who just wants to get back to living the life he occupied prior to his demise. But he lives in a small town in the old west, where people tend to notice when the dead decide to walk the Earth, and they’re generally not happy about it.

The story is subdued and thoughtful, but with the promise of darker things to come. Colby spends much of the early chapters trying to devise a way of convincing the townspeople that he didn’t really die in the first place; failing that, he begins trying to negotiate a peaceable coexistence with them. Meanwhile, Death himself has become aware of Colby’s violation of the natural order, and is on his way to pay him a personal visit.

Douglas Noble’s artwork on the series is neither pretty nor immediately eye-catching, but his dark rough lines, evocative of woodcuts, do an excellent job of setting both time and mood. Noble’s design of Colby in particular looks satisfyingly deathly, without looking typically zombie-ish. And what his drawings lack in refinement, he more than makes up for with an exceptional eye for knowing how to compose a panel with just the right amount of visual information to set tone and build mystery. (According to Goodbrey, Noble often breaks scripted pages into many more comics pages than is Goodbrey’s intent . “I get my revenge by writing more scenes featuring the dog, Jasper. He hates the dog and keeps threatening to kill it off in an adlibbed barbed-wire accident. Really it’s a very synergistic working relationship we have.” – Goodbrey) This is especially important for a story as heavily dialogue driven as this one -- much of the action is just a sequence of philosophical conversations, making it quite a challenge to keep the story visually interesting. But Noble’s depictions of the conversations maintains a high level of tension, making clear that these philosophical ponderings aren’t mere indulgences; decisions are being made, and those decisions will have real consequences down the line.

Working with a collaborator has clearly given Goodbrey a renewed sense of freedom in his approach to storytelling. Goodbrey’s own artwork has a coldness to it, which is well-suited to his experimental structures and self-aware explorations of warped realities, but has a somewhat limited emotional range. (In truth, a lack of confidence in one’s illustration prowess is often part of what motivates experimental creators to go in that direction in the first place.) By handing over the artistic duties to Noble, Goodbrey has allowed himself to delve into more emotional subject matter and more complicated character relationships. Not to suggest that The Rule of Death is in any way a melodrama—the characters themselves are actually very reserved, as one expects from stories set in the mythos of the Old West. But Noble’s artwork brings out the emotional subtext of the characters, even when the characters themselves are trying to keep their feelings under wraps. Goodbrey has moved from exploring the nature of narrative to exploring the nature of life itself, exploring themes of identity, morality, and societal acceptance.

Since this is a true narrative, it will be impossible to judge just how successful it is until it’s completed, but so far it’s enjoyably creepy, with a fun premise, an intriguing cast, and compelling themes. With this series, Goodbrey is proving that he is a versatile writer, really does know how to tell a story, with or without experimental trappings.

 

Looking to the Future

The future looks busier than ever for Goodbrey, who has projects in the works for a variety of publishers and media, not to mention the ever-increasing brood of ideas still at the pure concept phase. As with The Rule of Death, many of Goodbrey’s upcoming projects are collaborations where he’ll be providing scripts, but leaving the art to other hands. Sean Assapardi is illustrating Goodbrey’s web-to-print series, Necessary Monsters, which does not yet have a publisher. He’s also working on a graphic novel called Improbable Division for AiT (no artist attached yet), and an as yet unannounced six-part project for Marvel.

And he certainly hasn’t lost his interest in exploring the possibilities of technology. He plans further exploration of mobile comics, though he has no specific project in mind yet. And he hopes to attempt a “sonic comic” one day, once he’s found “the right story or collaborator or sponsor.” Oh, and there’s one more mysterious technology he’s excited about -- but he won’t say what it is because he’s under NDA. What that might mean is anybody’s guess, but with Goodbrey involved, it’s bound to open the door to a whole new world of comics-creation possibilities.

 

This article was originally published on webcomics.com in 2008.