Web comics; they’re like print comic books, only online and free… if you don’t count the occasional money draining pop up, or two.
Here at Unleash The Fanboy, we’re known as a paperback loving bunch, bringing you weekly reviews of the latest and greatest comics from the wide world of fandom, so its only fair we show some love for their online cousins.
Behold Exterminatus Now. Updated weekly, the title is set in a fictional universe that has its roots in science-fiction, fantasy and all manner of genres. One of my favorite tales available on the web, it’s also a hilarious title that’s filled with laughs and jokes constantly – just like any good web comic ‘funny’ should.
Yet Exterminatus Now is a story that also has its share of plots and narrative developments too.
Fortunately, the team of four guys behind Exterminatus Now were more than welcome to let us interview them about the comic and everything that goes on behind the screen.
UTF: First of all, Exterminatus Now is created by four people. Could you each say a little about yourself and your involvement in the title?
Stuart “Eastwood” Edney: Largely I set the ball rolling, and then make the other gents do the heavy lifting.
Garry “Lothar Hex” Webber: You could call me the “main” writer, but it’d be more accurate to state I’m the most prolific since I tend to bang out the most scripts in the shortest amount of time.
Alan “Virus” Graham: I make-a the pictures. Not as prolifically as we all might like, and I sink more hours into each strip than is probably sensible, but I like to think they turn out pretty. But being the Art Monkey doesn’t mean I’m not also capable of writing when the mood strikes. I’m the only one not currently living in the UK, as I’m in the process of emigrating to Canada.
Martin “Silversword” Faulkner: I’ve largely settled into the role of Webmaster these days, pretty much ever since I built the new site, but I still write the odd strip or storyline here and there and do all sorts of character/world design art.
UTF: Next, how would you describe Exterminatus Now (EN) to someone who isn’t familiar with it?
Eastwood: The trials and tribulations of a pair of men in black and their two mercenaries, as they battle the paranormal, the daemonic, and their own personal daemons. They are also all cartoon animals.
Virus: (but more plainly, it’s a supernatural, sci-fi, action-adventure with a (sometimes darkly) comedic bent)
UTF: What are the main influences behind EN? How did the comic come into existence?
Eastwood: As the old story goes, EN was based on a shared crossover/world building project some ten years ago. The Sonic influences have since receded into nothingness, but the Games Workshop influences still pervade. If you want to know who to blame, blame Dan Abnett for writing the Eisenhorn trilogy, that’s what sowed the seeds. But as I said, we’ve managed to go from merely aping the original source material to become something that can stand alone.
Virus: Meeting through a Sonic the Hedgehog fan forum, Martin and I signed onto Stuart’s project, and for a few years we all dabbled in the world building with no real goal in mind. We may or may not have taken it all too GrimDarkly serious, but being a self-deprecating lot, a series of self-parodies and running gags began to crop up to make fun of ourselves. One day I took a funny bit of dialogue Stuart wrote, drew it up in comic strip form and asked “Think we can do this on a regular basis?”
Lothar: And this is where I shoehorned myself in to the group. I had no interest in Warhammer at the time (and still barely do) and couldn’t design something serious to save my life, but when Eastwood told me about Exterminatus Now, I offered my services as a writer. My own influences, probably more than a smattering of Terry Pratchett and early 90’s British TV comedies.
UTF: Having four people on the creative team isn’t common in web comics. Do you feel it gives you an advantage, or do you often have conflicting opinions?
Silv: Yes, definitely those things.
Eastwood: I don’t see how either are mutually exclusive. Because we have conflicting opinions, it gives us the advantage. We’ve only ever had a full-on argument about something once, and that cleared up as quickly as it kicked off. For the most part, having another three people around helps, especially if they’re going to be critical of whatever idea you bring them.
Virus: More minds, more ideas. If one writer runs dry of inspiration, there’s usually someone else with a story hook we can run with. It’s also nice to be able get in a networked art app and kick around design ideas with another artist.
Lothar: It works because we’re friends and while we have similar tastes in humor we also have our own takes on it. We usually bounce ideas off each other and we’re not afraid to say to anyone else in the group what we think of an idea, good or bad.
UTF: With four people, how do you create the comic? Do you have to organize meetings or such?
Eastwood: Writing is usually done alone, although there have been occasions where I’ve sat down with Garry over Skype and we’ve hashed something out. But usually, you’ll put something together in your free time, then present a pitch or early draft at a writer’s meeting. Organizing those varies, but the phrase “herding cats” comes to mind. We go through cycles of having them every week and barely speaking to each other for months. It all depends on what we’ve otherwise working on.
Silv: Once we’ve seen a draft, we’ll edit in waves, going through story lines we have in development and suggesting tweaks, alterations, new punchlines and sometimes even new directions, depending on what stage the storyline is at. Slowly but surely this all folds together until we’ve got a finished set of scripts that goes into the queue.
Virus: I suppose it should be noted, we don’t live near each other; all communication takes place over the internet. So minus the network sketch sessions mentioned above, once the scripts are done, I go off into a darkened room alone for hours on end and enact the terrible rituals that result in a finished comic.
UTF: Exterminatus Now has some quite lengthy plot arcs, primarily because it updates once a week. Would you the title is more story driven or comedy based?
Eastwood: I’m not seeing a difference between the two. The driving focus is the story lines, which for the most part hang alone and don’t link into each other, and we do have breather-periods between each one where we have single strips and small arcs.
Virus: My favorite type of comedy is that which emerges from stories and character interactions. In much the same way that action and drama benefit from moments of comic relief, I think comedy often benefits from “dramatic relief”. It seems that over time, we’ve grown into more elaborate storytelling (but always with punchlines!), and moved away from the stand-alone gag comics. We still try to do those, but I find them a little harder to get my teeth into nowadays.
Lothar: Sure you can have your one off jokes, but I find that stories themselves lend to great comedy moments. I often come up with some of my best jokes while in the act of writing a story because I get to a point where the characters reactions to the situations they’re in come out naturally.
UTF: As a web comic, how do you feel the British humor in EN translates internationally online?
Eastwood: I have no idea. The only time I run into this is when people take what’s a stock phrase in the UK and assume it’s a shout-out to Discworld, or Red Dwarf, or whatever. I dunno, there’s a strong market for black humor these days, although we’re probably more grey than black.
Virus: From Monty Python, to The Office, to everything in between, I think British comedy has long held an international audience. American cable channels have aired British sitcoms for decades, and with the internet making the world a smaller place, people today have more exposure to British comedy than ever before. That said, I’m not sure there’s really that much difference. Were it not for the URL and occasional use of “arse” instead of “ass”, I wouldn’t be surprised if some readers didn’t notice.
Silv: Well, there was that one guy who was translating the comics into Russian, but none of us speak Russian so we don’t know how well that works out. Still, although we’ve got a bigger percentage of British readership than most web comics, our majority of readers are still in the US, so I guess it works out fine. To be honest, none of us have the outside perspective we’d need to really be able to tell what counts as ‘British’ humor as opposed to just humor in general.
UTF: The comics layout and format in terms of paneling have changed over its duration. Is there a set layout, or do you adapt to the current needs?
Virus: Early on, I felt that four strict panels was a form of creative discipline. If we always had to reach a punchline by end of panel four, it would enforce comedy pacing, inhibit long-windedness, and put a cap on how much time and effort was required to draw each strip. I’d also never drawn comics before, and was simply intimidated by the options I’d have if I had to lay out more elaborate panel sequences. By sticking to to four even panels, it was one less variable for me to worry about.
Over time, EN‘s writing and art became more ambitious, with action sequences, splash panels, and set-pieces. It moved from resembling a newspaper comic strip into more like a long-form comic book. Scripts became more dense, with more events, jokes, and plot in each, so even though we still only update once a week, there’s much more story happening in each comic. A conversation can play out in one strip instead of five like it used to.
Looking back, I’m surprised I stuck to the quad panels for so long. There were a few times, usually at the action climax of a story, when I added in sub-panels or split a panel in two in order to illustrate those more complex events, but when that was over, I defaulted back to four. I suppose those times were practice in panel design, and eventually I dropped the template altogether.
I do still maintain the page dimensions (although they’ve grown slightly since the beginning). If I had infinite canvas space I might draw every panel big and detailed and it would take forever, so constraining myself forces me to choose carefully what to highlight and how to use the space effectively. Plus it will make a print book much easier if and when that comes about.
Lothar: It was around about our “Big Trouble in Little Taika” storyline where we decided to forgo the 4 panel set entirely. Myself and Stuart were discussing it and the idea had been broached before. It eventually came down to the fact that the 4 panels was limiting what we could show and that Alan would probably appreciate being let off the lead. So we brought it up at one of our impromptu writer’s meetings and went ahead. It’s been a great benefit, not only does Alan get more freedom to go wild with his art, it allows us to do longer form jokes, write proper actions scenes, and generally have more fun. We still have to mindful of the strips dimensions so we know what space Alan has to work with so we can’t go too crazy, and we’re always editing scripts if they seem over long.
That said if Stuart had his way every strip would be about 100 panels long, and filled with scenes such as “Eastwood puts on his seat-belt.” With footnotes and pie charts.
UTF: Are there any plans to produce any books or merchandise in the future? Would you like EN to earn you income, or is this purely for enjoyment?
Eastwood: I doubt we’d ever be able to live off EN. Whilst I don’t give a fig about Sega, I live in perpetual fear Games Workshop will try and drag us off into the night. Even if we’re pretty bulletproof against the legal aspects (Earlier strips, where the influences are far more obvious, notwithstanding), we’re just not big enough. That being said and done, merchandise is something we’ve spoken about on and off over the years. There are some things we’d like to do, but it’s a case of knowing what people will actually buy (as opposed to what they say they would buy) and knowing how much it would cost to have the merch made in the first place. I’d rather not sink a few grand into the project and be left with a shed full of shirts that aren’t going to shift.
Virus: I put a lot of hours into it each week, and while I do enjoy it, it would be nice to earn a little bit of money at the same time. We’ll let you know.
UTF: Like a lot of web comics, you have a forum. How important is the relationship between yourselves and the fan community?
Eastwood: Not very, but then again, I’m the poor devil who has to look after the forum. I think the thing to remember is we put EN out because we enjoy it, not because we feel obligated to. That people who aren’t us enjoy the comic is an eternal surprise to me. That being said and done, some of them are wonderful, generous human beings.
Virus: Many of our forum regulars are considered good friends, and we sometimes get together for activities outside the forum, like online gaming and pen and paper role-play. And we’ve met with several of them in Meat-space once or twice. A few months ago, we added a comment system, and that reveals an interesting and different cross-section of fans than those that frequent the forum.
Contrary to Eastwood, I do feel a little obligated, in a good way. I greatly appreciate the fan feedback, and knowing that people are excited to see the next update keeps me far more motivated than if I were in a vacuum.
Lothar: In the early days I doubt I cared much, but I was angrier and much less intelligent person back then. Now it’s great to have fans to talk with to gauge reaction, and while we’d never let the fans influence us to the point of writing story lines or characters that they asked for, it helps us improve the strip by knowing what strips fell flat so we can then look at it ourselves and see if we agree and then how we can avoid the same mistakes.
However the greatest thing that ever came out of our community for me was meeting my wife Raye. She was a fan of the comic as well as a friend of Alan, and we got together because of that. So I can never complain about the community too much.
Virus: Oh yeah, that too. I too met a lady-friend on the forum, and now I live with her in Canada.
Silv: We’ve been branching out to the fan community a bit more in recent months. The forum has always been a fairly small, close-knit place and as our only major source of fan communication has given us quite a narrow angle of feedback for a long time. After Alan and I went to the Calgary Expo earlier this year, the experience we had there communicating with fans directly made us very enthusiastic about creating EN for people other than ourselves and making it easier to get feedback from them, which is what led to me finally implementing the comment system on the main website.
UTF: The background universe for EN is quite large, do you find following 4 specific characters to be a limitation? Are there aspects of the world you haven’t been able to explore because of this?
Eastwood: We’re limited by the fact we can only put one comic out a week, which is 52 strips in a given year, which boils down to about two issues of an actual comic book. It’s just space and time, more than anything else.
Virus: The main cast become a vehicle that we use to explore aspects of the world. If we want to introduce a piece of lore, explore a location, draw a gribbly monster, we just create a mission that puts the team into that scenario. We have some secondary cast members, like the B-Team, the Wolf and Beaver, the Just and Dark Gods, that we can temporarily switch over to if we want to go further outside the box. Things are certainly far from stale for us yet.
Lothar: While Virus, Eastwood, Rogue, and Lothar are the main focus we use them to explore the world and the characters within it. We’re always introducing new characters, some that even stick around and come back and may even get their own time in the limelight. But we’ve never thought that our main four have ever limited us to what we can do.
Silv: If anything, it is harder for us to use any of the secondary cast for long if they aren’t interacting with the main cast. None of our other groups have the same well established character dynamics, which makes them a lot harder to write for, and with our limited update schedule it’s hard to justify spending the time expanding those secondary dynamics to explore aspects of the world with our secondary cast, instead of just finding a way we can utilize the main cast to do it instead.
UTF: Finally, how long do you plan to create EN? Is there an ending in mind, or are you simply creating EN whilst you have inspiration and ideas?
Silv: So long as it keeps being fun? We’ll keep on doing what we do.
Lothar: As long as Alan is willing to draw my depraved ramblings about cartoon characters having murder-suicide pacts, I’ll be sticking around.
Eastwood: I did fiddle with some ideas for an ending, but to be honest, we’ll keep writing stuff as long as we have someone to draw it.
Virus: And I’ll keep drawing it as long as the scripts flow. THE SCRIPTS MUST FLOW.
Exterminatus Now updates every weekend and can be found at exterminatusnow.co.uk