First published in The Webcomics Examiner, December 2004
Daniel Merlin Goodbrey’s first major impact on the webcomics world came in 2001 with the release of Sixgun: Tales from an Unfolded Earth, an impressive Flash-based experiment in non-linear narrative. The title screen presents six character portraits, each of which acts as an entry point to a different narrative chunk. Each of the six narrative chunks uses a different experimental mechanism for exploring a series of story threads, all of which take place in an “unfolded Earth” where portions of reality have recently disappeared, only to reappear much altered. It is a world populated by mutants, aliens, and the risen dead, where all sense of internal logic has been eschewed. History itself, like the narrative structure, has become non-linear, allowing futuristic Cit-Cop robots and a gun-toting, chainsaw-dueling Abraham Lincoln to wander through the same timeless landscapes.
While Goodbrey’s world setting for the story is fascinating and his characters are intriguing, it’s his experiments with the narrative mechanics that really made Sixgun the groundbreaking event that it was. In one sequence, the reader explores a duel between Abraham Lincoln and Isambard Kingdom Brunel by way of a series of sliding panels that must be manipulated alternately up and down or left and right with the mouse. In another, the reader can glimpse the inner lives of each of six people waiting at a bus stop by clicking on the individual panel containing the character. A third presents the entire comic as a single large sheet viewed through the window of the Flash frame. The reader slides the entire sheet, following a series of trails through small snippets of story about a man condemned to lifetime imprisonment in a maximum security sitcom. Simply following the trails here is not enough — in each corner of the comics sheet, unconnected bits of back story hide, waiting for the exploring reader to find them.
This emphasis on innovative story mechanics continues throughout Goodbrey’s work. In 2002, he released Doodleflak, a self-contained series of disconnected and darkly humorous gag strips arranged as a series of branching spokes. Doodleflak was notable primarily for debuting the Tarquin Engine, a Flash-based tool developed by Goodbrey specifically to aid in the development of branching, infinite canvas comics by automating trails, zooms and scrolling. Goodbrey continued his experiments with the Tarquin Engine in Externality, a somewhat more ambitious experiment in improvisational infinite canvas work. (Rumor has it that Goodbrey will eventually make the engine commercially available. He has already lent it out to Scott McCloud for use in one of McCloud’s own daily improv comics.)
Goodbrey’s interest in the purely theoretical side of comics narrative becomes even more evident in The Mr. Nile Experiment and his most recent self-contained piece, The Formalist, a pair of semi-narrative comics form essays that directly explore the structure of reality within the comics form. The Mr. Nile Experiment was originally presented as a month-long experiment in producing a daily comic, wherein each day represented a new formal experiment hosted by the amusingly evil and meta-fictionally self-aware Mr. Nile (an anagram of “Merlin”). As usual, Goodbrey displays his affinity for looping narratives; of particular interest is his exploration of the ways in which dynamic panels can be used to change not just the forward movement of a story but the nature of the story thus far.
Mr. Nile later returned as the lead character in the Mr. Nile Journals, Goodbrey’s ongoing comic on Serializer.net. Backed up by Spooky and Ignatz, a pair of characters first introduced way back in Sixgun, Mr. Nile once again stands in as host to a series of formal experiments. This time around, Goodbrey has imposed limitations on himself, including a three panel layout in the spirit of traditional newspaper strips and a pseudo “journal comic” premise, all of which are intelligently deconstructed through Mr. Nile’s continued meta-fictional self-awareness. While Goodbrey’s ideas have always been intriguing, until now they have largely been pure theory with only hints of how they might play out in a more ambitious story. By blending the best of his ideas with the most memorable characters from his previous works, he’s produced some of his best comics to date. For what may be the first time in Goodbrey’s work, characterization and plot are playing as much of a role as the structural experiments, making for a comic as entertaining as it is intellectually exciting.