The Devil’s in the Details: an interview with Sean Azzopardi and Daniel Merlin Goodbrey
Creators Daniel Merlin Goodbrey and Sean Azzopardi have been writing, drawing and self-publishing comics since, respectively, 1998 and 2002. In 2008, they teamed up for the first time and brought us the espionage horror Necessary Monsters, which was initially available in weekly instalments online before seeing release in print form as mini-comics. The series is now being published by AiT/Planet Lar in a collected edition.
In this interview, Goodbrey and Azzopardi chat about, among other things, how Necessary Monsters came about, the process of working together for the first time and also give us their thoughts on the British comics scene generally. Questions by Matt Badham, interview copy-edited by Matt Badham, Joe Gordon, Sean Azzopardi and Daniel Merlin Goodbrey.
Matt: Could you both please give us a bit of background on your involvement in comics, both as creators and fans?
Daniel Merlin Goodbrey: Let’s see… as a fan I started with The Eagle and more specifically Dan Dare, which my dad used to buy and read to me before I was old enough to read for myself. My first real comics love as a kid was the UK Transformers comic, which I think a surprising number of UK creators have in their comics-DNA somewhere. Later I eventually discovered US comics via a stint as an X-Men zombie in the ‘90s, before finally swearing them off and making a concentrated attempt to broaden out my comics reading when I headed to university.
As a creator I started on the web around ‘98 in the early days of experimental web comics. I was a multimedia student and there just seemed to be all this untapped potential for what comics might become when mutated via the web and computer screen. I spent my initial years in comics trying out one crazy formalist idea after another (all archived here) but over time I started to become more interested in telling longer stories and this led to a gradual slide towards print comics.
(a frame from The book of merl, a hypercomic by and (c) Daniel Merlin Goodbrey)
I began in the small press by doing mini-comics, which eventually led to me winning the Isotope Award in San Francisco. This opened some doors for me in the print world and my first proper book, The Last Sane Cowboy, came out from AiT/Planet Lar in 2007. This in turn lead on to some work-for-hire opportunities at Marvel, with me writing an Avengers short story in 2008 and an Iron Man 2020 series being serialized in Astonishing Tales in 2009.
Some-when in all of the above I started working on Necessary Monsters with Sean, initially serializing it on the web, then bringing out mini-comics for the UK small press scene before finally seeing it collected by AiT/PlanetLar for the US/UK direct market. This path for Monsters kind of encapsulates my approach to longer narrative comics, I think – not working to any one format but instead trying to access as many different markets as possible during the life of a work.
Alongside the print comics I’ve also tried to keep one foot in the world of the web. At the busiest point of last year I was actually doing new comics five days a week on the web (Necessary Monsters on Mondays and Wednesdays, my own All Knowledge Is Strange on Tuesdays and Thursdays and The Rule Of Death with Douglas Noble on Fridays). I’m also still trying to do the crazy hypercomic stuff, although finding the time for that is sometimes a bit of a stretch. This year I managed to do one new hypercomic, Four Derangements, as part of a retrospective of my work in South Korea and a new hypercomic installation with David Baillie at a children’s mental health clinic in Paris. Busy, busy, busy!
(one of Daniel’s brilliant All Knowledge is Strange strips, (c) Daniel Merlin Goodbrey)
Sean Azzopardi: I have read comics on and off for as long as I can recall. There was the newsagent era in the ‘70s, then rediscovering them in the ‘80s, with Swamp Thing, Watchmen, Dark Knight etc. Then a big gap until the late ‘90s. And I have stuck with them since then.
As a creator, in the ‘80s I attended the Portobello Project (1986-88), which ran comic classes taught by David Lloyd and Nick Abadzis. I then drifted into fine art, a crazy detour that lasted 12 years. Around 2001 I decided to have another go at comics, and started on the slow road to learning self-publishing. The job I was in at the time facilitated two important elements to this progression. One being a photocopier and the second a regular Internet connection. Through the latter I discovered most of the people I know now, through yahoo groups and the Warren Ellis Forum (WEF) – how influential has that been!?! I then made mini-comics and started attending conventions, and it all developed from there.
(a page from the highly recommended Twelve Hour Shift by and (c) Sean Azzopardi)
DMG: Ooh, good point. The first major webcomic project I was involved in – Rust at Popimage, with me doing the art and Alasdair Watson writing – came about as a result of the WEF too.
Matt: How did Necessary Monsters and your collaboration on that project come about?
SA: I had a table next to Daniel and Douglas (Noble) at the 2007 UK Web & Mini Comix Thing. I had read a lot of Daniel’s work, but had never really spoken to him. I asked both Doug and Daniel if they would like to collaborate on something. We talked again at that year’s Caption, and we began exchanging emails, on likes and interests. At this point, there was no solid idea of what we would do.
Matt: Did you guys brainstorm Necessary Monsters together then?
SA: After that initial email, no. I told Daniel what I had in mind, there was a brief period of silence and then the first script appeared. There was no input from me. The script, set-up, ideas were all from Daniel’s fertile brain.
DMG: That brief period of silence was me wracking my brain to try and figure out exactly what story we were going to collaborate on. I was really excited to have the opportunity to work with Sean on a graphic novel-length project, but for a long time I just couldn’t figure out what would make for the best fit between the two of us. I think to start with I had these notions of a very Indie, very low-key kind of narrative but nothing I came up with felt quite right. It was only when I tried reversing my thinking a bit, aiming at something that was actually a bit more commercial – a bit more of a romp – that ideas began to stick together into the eventual shape of Necessary Monsters.
Monsters grew out of a collection of odd character names – Charlotte Hatred, Cowboy 13 and Chicken Neck – that I noticed together in my notebook and thought might be the start of some sort of team. I also had this other name, Gravehouse, which I was turning over in my head as some kind of supernatural thriller set in a graveyard. I think I then took a longish train journey, during which time the ideas got all tumbled up together in my head and the basic premise of Necessary Monsters fell out the other side.
(some of the memorable cast from Necessary Monsters, from left to right: Charlotte Hatred, Cowboy 13 and Chicken Neck, art by Sean Azzopardi, (C) Goodbrey/Azzopardi)
Matt: Daniel, for those readers unfamiliar with Necessary Monsters, would you please give us a quick run-down of the plot/setting.
DMG: Necessary Monsters is your basic Mission Impossible-style spy thriller, only instead of focusing on a group of morally grey espionage specialists it stars a group of morally black supernatural psychopaths. The world of Necessary Monsters is one where the bad guys of modern horror movies – think Freddy Krueger, Jason Voorhees, Leatherface, Candyman and the like – are the ones secretly pulling the strings.
The story focuses on the actions of a covert agency known as The Chain, whose mandate is to ensure that no one supernatural menace becomes so powerful as to truly threaten the extinction of mankind. But far from doing this for altruistic reasons, The Chain’s real motive is simply wanting to ensure that there are always enough humans around to keep it’s monstrous founders amused and well fed. It’s worth stressing, The Chain are not the good guys, which for me was really the thing I wanted to explore in telling the story. I wanted to try a straight reversal of heroic fiction, but still keep the cast likable enough to carry the audience along without questioning exactly what kind of horrible creatures they were cheering for.
Matt: Daniel, how far did you succeed in the above, your stated aim?
DMG: I think we succeeded pretty well, judging from the positive reader feedback we’ve received so far. It’s something I want to keep pushing if we do more Necessary Monsters – especially with Creeping Tuesday, who’s kind of our Luke Skywalker by way of Freddy Krueger central character. With Tuesday I’m trying to do this perversion of the classic heroes journey, with the seductive forces of good trying to tempt her from the one true path of evil.
Something that I hadn’t counted on in the planning stages of Necessary Monsters was how much the spy fiction trappings of the series would throw off readers as to the characters’ motives. Several early reviews for the series made the assumption that the characters were somehow serving a greater good and so it was okay to enjoy reading them do all these terrible things. I thought I was pretty explicit up front about these being the bad guys, but I think people are just kind of used to their spies being bastards and so were happy to see them through grey-tinted glasses.
Matt: Sean, please tell us a little about the art.
SA: Once I received the story from Daniel I made the (with hindsight) mad decision to draw the whole book in Photoshop. To this day I can’t recall why, but if I ever find the bug that put the idea into my brain, it will get evicted for sure. I love stark black and white graphic approaches in comics and cartoons. Despite the amazing advances in colouring and printing in comics, black and white is king. So, I half had in mind a combination of Eduardo Risso and John Ridgeway (solid blacks and negative space describing the design, with scratchy cross-hatching to model the form.)
Knowing Daniel’s work I was hoping that I would get to draw some crazy shit, and also stuff that I would have to research, as well as make up. I embraced a lot of behind-the-scenes approaches, using photographs, 3D models, tracing. Whatever got the job done really and made the pictures in my head possible.
On a side-note, me and Daniel are both writer/artists, and I really like this dynamic when it comes to working on a project. The understanding of the two roles bypasses a lot of problems that can rise from a non-artist/writer working with a non-writer/artist.
Matt: What were the pros and cons of the decision to work entirely in Photoshop?
SA: Well there were a lot of time-saving benefits. These were quickly replaced by constant crashes of computer, and far too much time wasted through having access to the Internet. I am trying to wean myself off too much usage, especially with the justification that ‘It’s research’. I am amazed at the amount of posting on FaceBook and Twitter that a lot of professionals do. Whatever project they are working on must be really boring.
Matt: Could you please expand on this statement a little: ‘On a side-note, me and Daniel are both writer/artists, and I really like this dynamic when it comes to working on a project. The understanding of the two roles bypasses a lot of problems that can rise from a non-artist/writer working with a non-writer/artist.’
SA: Yes, I wasn’t very clear on this. I found that working with Daniel he had a very visual idea of what was going on in the panels, and the page as a whole. It was very clear, because he has scripted and illustrated hundreds of pages for himself and for other artists. I have had scripts from writers that have very little visual awareness, and it can be very painful, and ultimately dull and uninspiring.
Matt: Daniel, the series reads like a bit of a love letter to video nasties, Japanese horror films, espionage drama and even the Dirty Dozen (‘We’ve gotta get a team together!’). How do you strike a balance between riffing off these various sources while still crafting a story that is very much in your own style?
DMG: Having thought about this for a bit I would have to conclude that I don’t know. I usually tend to build the initial framework of a story out of the strange little moments and characters and names and titles that clutter up my head. I guess this results in an essential undercurrent of my own particular sort of strangeness permeating the story. Necessary Monsters was me trying to be deliberately quite commercial in one sense and, yeah, it’s riffing on all sorts of stuff, but the devil remains in the details.
Matt: From what you guys have said, you, Sean, are working from a full script provided by Daniel. What are those scripts like in terms of their art direction (do you, Daniel, make any comments/suggestions about the composition, page and panel layouts…)? And what was the process when it came to designing the world and characters? How much of a back-and-forth was there?
DMG: Lots of back-and-forth on the character designs. Most of the characters went through several iterations as we tried to figure out the right look for them, starting with some initial descriptions from me and then providing as much feedback to Sean as I could while he tried out different approaches to each character. I think Tuesday’s design was probably the hardest to nail down – certainly the last of the major cast to fall into place, anyway.
In terms of script, I wrote full script but most of the time focused just on what was going on inside the panels and left page layouts to Sean to figure out. Occasionally I’d make a suggestion on page layout (usually limited to indicating what should be the biggest panel on the page) but I really felt much happier leaving that down to Sean.
In terms of composition within the panels I’m a bit more vocal, often providing some sort of suggestion as to how to shoot a scene (yeah, shoot – I use film language a lot for this stuff – it’s just what makes most sense in my head). When we first started out Sean’s natural inclination was to use medium and full body shots of the characters and I tried to push him more towards closer shots to up the tension a bit and give proceedings a more filmic feel. As the series progressed I think the amount of direction I gave dropped off substantially as Sean and I became more and more attuned to each other’s sensibilities.
Throughout the series I kinda also served as the editor on the book, critiquing the pages as they came in from Sean and making suggestions where I felt it was needed. Sean, bless him, had the patience of a saint when it came to this process and one of the advantages of working digitally was that it wasn’t too difficult to make small changes when required. Again, I found there was less and less that needed doing on this front as the book progressed and Sean hit his stride on the artwork.
SA: The character design stage was a lot of fun, what’s not to make a person shout ‘YES!’ when you read Chicken Head ‘s description? As for the script and the process of Daniel being editor, it worked really well. Daniel’s other life is a tutor, and I learnt a lot throughout the various stages. My understanding of composition and design has advanced for sure.
Matt: Prompted by Daniel’s answer, I want to throw this question at you both:
Quoting Daniel: ‘Throughout the series I kinda also served as the editor on the book, critiquing the pages as they came in from Sean and making suggestions where I felt it was needed.’
Sean, Daniel, how useful would it have been to have an actual editor working on the book with you? And is this one of the downsides of working on Indie projects, that there often aren’t the resources to employ someone as an ‘outside eye’? Having said that, did you guys at any point tap into your friends and peers in the comics community for feedback about what you were doing?
DMG: Well, it would certainly have been nice to have someone to catch all the continuity errors we made, which got a bit painful at times. Although our online readers were actually very useful in this regard, letting us know via the comments thread for each page where we’d let mistakes slip through. Another advantage to the online serialisation was this: being able to fix as you go in a medium more forgiving of edits than print.
And I do tend to use other creators as a sounding board at times, yeah. Most often Douglas Noble as he’s usually around somewhere on a Friday, with a glass of vodka and Coke in his hand, more than happy to dispense some comics wisdom (I just asked him about this on MSN and he says, I quote, “Any and all good ideas were mine.” Lies, obviously, but his heart is the right place). I think in the case of Necessary Monsters, I talked more with Douglas in the early stages when I was trying to figure out exactly what I’d be working on with Sean. I kinda, sorta stole Sean from out of under Douglas, as they were mid-collaboration on Sightings of Wallace Sendek when we started work on Necessary Monsters. Sendek has since made it into the B.A.S.T.A.R.D.S anthology and can be read online here; good stuff from the two of them, as always.
(a recent page from Sightings of Wallace Sendek by and (c) Douglas Noble and Sean Azzopardi)
SA: The wider question of editors is an interesting one. In mainstream publishing, there seems to be a crisis in this area. I was reading one senior pro (the name has escaped me) saying that some editors dealing with their work just didn’t have sufficient knowledge of the medium to edit the work. I imagine as well that there are some editors who let the creator get on with it, assuming everything will be fine and just collecting the work for the deadline.
This shows in some shelf-bound product, with speech balloons so full of dialogue they are practically novels and speech balloon placement that unnecessarily obscures art (for me, ideally, the balloon placement should be integrated into the artistic process, not done afterwards, to avoid this problem). It seems that the interventionist, Archie Goodwin-type editor is a thing of the past (which, reading about him, is a real shame). With regards to Indie publishing, we are, as Daniel has pointed out, our own editors. In this situation, working with someone else is so refreshing. We bounce off each other during the process, both picking at areas that need correcting or improving.
There are, though, some good models of editing that I’d like to mention now you’ve raised the subject.
The RAW model seemed ruthless in their editorial approach, and look at the fantastic results that Art Spiegelman and Françoise Mouly got.
In the UK, Tom Humberstone with Solipsistic Pop has taken on a curator/editor role, although I’m not sure if he actually has an input on the actual work. But the result is amazing – he’s clearly someone who has a strong idea of what they want – and the obvious care he’s taken on Solipsistic Pop has resulted in lush production values.
Matt: Could you guys just take me through the thinking behind publishing Necessary Monsters in the way you have, online, then as mini-comics and now in a collection?
DMG: The idea was basically just to get it out there in front of as many different audiences as possible. Initially our focus was web-comic serialisation to print collection, which I think is going to be the dominant model for independent comics for a while. We had the print deal with AiT agreed before we started serialising online, the idea being that the online version builds word of mouth and positive press for the eventual collection, which is where you (hopefully) make your money.
The mini-comics part of the puzzle came a little later – we realized we’d be doing tables at all these comic shows, so it made sense to have something physical to help promote the book and get another section of the comics audience talking about us. I think originally we’d maybe only thought of doing the first chapter as a mini to give a taste of the story, but response in the small press community was so strong that we decided to put out all five chapters as minis.
SA: I think Daniel has covered most of it. For me it was a first, serializing the material online, then printing it up as minis. It was a really immersive process, having feedback from Daniel, and then from people posting on the website (I was amazed at how many stuck with it from the beginning) and finally from the readers of the minis. I guess what I’m trying to say that there gave me an awareness that there was an audience, that the work wasn’t being thrown out into the void. (It’s certainly a good way of overcoming nerves, although not a way to banish self-doubt.)
Matt: What’s next for Azzopardi/Goodbrey, both as individuals and as a team? (And will there be more Necessary Monsters?)
DMG: I can reveal exclusively in this interview that there will be more Necessary Monsters, yes. We’ve both been taking a nice little break to recharge ourselves, but my notebook is starting to get so clogged up with sequel ideas that I think I’m just gonna have to break down and start writing the thing. Look for Necessary Monsters 2: Murder Box to start appearing online sometime later this year – probably in the summer, I should think.
Apart from Necessary Monsters I’ve a couple of new projects on the horizon, but neither of them are far along enough that I can talk about them without jinxing them. Instead I shall plug my other two ongoing webcomic series, The Rule Of Death with Douglas Noble and my own All Knowledge Is Strange.
(public transport continues to get worse in a scene from The Rule of Death by and (c) Douglas Noble and Daniel Merlin Goodbrey)
SA: Well, like Gravehouse I thought I was out of the game. (Although I have been writing a script/pitch of my own). Seems like that is about to change…
Matt: Oh, and I almost forgot, has NM – the trade – got any extra features, such as an intro, artists sketches, that sort of thing?
DMG: The trade features a brand new introduction from Kieron Gillen and reworked artwork across all five chapters. Think of it as the Special Edition of Necessary Monsters, now with better special effects and even more Azzopardiness but with Han still shooting first and less incongruous CGI dinosaurs.
SA: Yeah, all that. Thankfully I had time to correct a lot of the pages that were rushed, due to deadlines. There is a panel with Chicken Neck that has really benefited from a re-work.
Matt: Please give us your overview of the current state of the Brit’ comics industry. What’s good? What’s bad? What needs to change?
DMG: Hmm, lets see. Well, it was a good year in terms of conventions, I think. Between the injection of youth provided by the two MCM conventions and the crowning of Thought Bubble as the UK’s new première comics event, it feels like we’re on really solid ground again. I didn’t bother with Bristol or Birmingham this year and didn’t feel like I’d missed out on anything at all, so maybe those shows could both use a bit of a sprucing to compete with the new up-and-comers.
Apart from promoting Necessary Monsters at every available opportunity, I actually feel like I’ve been a bit removed from the Brit’ industry this yeah – quite a chunk of my time was spent back in the international world of hypercomics, with my Paris collaboration with David Baillie and a retrospective show at SICAF in Korea. So I don’t have that much more insight to offer. Sean? You got any pearls of wisdom for us?
SA: I feel out of touch with the scene now. I missed Bristol and Birmingham last year, and not having LUC (London Underground Comics) anymore has kind of sidelined me in terms of having an informed opinion of what is current. I think what I did learn last year is that there are massive amounts of opportunities for people to get their work seen, or to apply for grants and residencies. I think that there is an industry.
There is certainly an economic model, if someone would take the time to actual add up all sales of comics, in whatever format, that has been produced in the UK, I would imagine it would be a healthy total. All those two-pound minis, selling throughout the year, then trades, etc. I would have to say it’s in a healthy state, as much as print can be at the current point in time. It is at the point of moving into a new form, and the page is going to be another fetish form preserved by fanatical purists. Or something like that. But what is really positive is the amount of young people that are involved, as readers, as makers. I was involved in two separate workshops last year, and the enthusiasm for comics was inspiring.
(Bunuel and Dali eat your hearts out, this is how to do an eye-slicing scene! (c) Daniel Merlin Goodbrey and Sean Azzopardi)
Matt: And, finally, what are you reading comics-wise? And are there any up-and-coming creators, Brit or otherwise, that you think we should be looking out for?
SA: At the moment I’ve the twin headed beast of Alec: The Years Have Pants (Eddie Campbell) and Asterios Polyp by David Mazzucchelli on the go. People to look out for include Marc Ellerby, Adam Cadwell, Tom Humberstone, Julia Scheele, Matt Sheret and Lizz Lunney. Others from America are Alec Longstreth, Liz Baillie, and Liz Prince.
DMG: It feels like I’ve had less and less time to actually read comics this year, which shall probably result in a culling of my pull list sometime soon in the new year. I’ve been enjoying the usual names in US comics – Ellis, Ennis, Fraction, Bendis. Outside of that… well, it’s probably the year of Gillen & McKelvie, isn’t it? Those two chaps just keep going from strength to strength in all their comics endeavours.
In the world of the small press, it’s been great to see the return of Paul Fryer to active comics duty. He had two new ones out this year – Sticks and Rockfall – both of which were lovely little slices of perfectly staged action. In webcomics… well I always feel like I’m late to the party when I recommend a webcomic that people are probably all reading anyway but in the last year www.oglaf.com has caught my eye. Decidedly NSFW [not safe for work] and rather pornographic but also consistently funny and wonderfully illustrated. Worth a look, if you don’t mind the odd naked elf with your tea on a Monday morning.
FPI would like to thank Matt Badham, Daniel Merlin Goodbrey and Sean Azzopardi very much for sharing their time and thoughts with us; you can check out Necessary Monsters online here and the collected edition can be ordered here.