Worldbuilder: The Paul Duffield Interview

At a time when we failed to fully understand the implications of webcomics, Paul Duffield helped define the new medium, both as a cultural phenomenon and as a commercial vehicle for artists.

Part One: The Leap

Paul Duffield isn’t accustomed to the limelight. There’s an innate humility he shows when speaking about himself. It’s self-effacing. But not a direct resistance to sitting down and speaking about the impact of his work—whether that work be the hugely successful Freakangels or his newest project, the groundbreaking (and equally breathtaking) Firelight Isle. It’s no surprise then, that when the conversation turns to the potential impact of The Firelight Isle, Paul responds by talking about his influences and design philosophy.

"I was inspired by the webcomic The Wormworld Saga to work with the infinite scrolling canvas idea," Duffield begins, "but I wanted to meld my own approach to organic, grid-less layouts and produce a different reading experience. I've got a full blog post on the process. (It goes into a lot more technical detail than I can here).

"It's worth noting here that the 'window-pane' layouts in Freakangels were prescribed by the scripts.

"You can see my own approach to layouts more clearly when Warren let me loose on pages like this one."

The "Warren" of whom Duffield speaks is of course his Freakangels collaborator, the iconic graphic novelist Warren Ellis. Prior to Freakangels, Ellis approached Duffield after Duffield posted art to a webforum started by Ellis.

Duffield relates the story of their meeting, "Well, before Freakangels, I'd had a web presence for a good six or seven years, mostly just doing my own webcomics for fun, so it wasn't a new medium to me at the time. But the thing that landed me the job ended up being somewhat of a coincidence…" Duffield trails off lost in thought for a moment or two.

He picks up again, "Back when Warren's forum was still The Engine, I posted my work as new creators tended to do, and it just so happened that someone who worked for Avatar Press and knew that Warren was looking for an artist with a Euro-Manga aesthetic for a new project.

"It all developed from there, so despite having done webcomics for fun and no profit since about the age of 16, my second major professional project ended up being another webcomic!"

Duffield takes a minute to consider the road he traveled until that point.

"Well, I probably would have told you that I was if you'd asked me back then... I'd been drawing comics as an amateur for years," he ventures, "and I'd just come off the back of my first professional project doing a 200+ page adaptation of The Tempest, so I was feeling a bit chuffed with myself. But looking back I had very little experience!

"None of my webcomics had had audiences above a few dozen friends, and my work was more-or-less unheard of outside the UK."

Freakangels was truly groundbreaking in at least two arenas. Not only did it offer a reinvigoration of a classic format (the weekly strip comic that used to appear in Sunday newspapers), but it also demonstrated a viable commercial model for creators. Through Avatar Press, Freakangels would release as a series of collected editions.

The business model hinged on the idea of freemium, an idea Wired editor Chris Anderson explored in-depth in his books The Long Tail and Free. In a nutshell, readers of the weekly online releases would read for free, while those buying the collected editions would pay a premium for the various bonus materials. The free online comics would help promote the project, while premium content would subsidize the free readership and more.

The Freakangels project gave Duffield the scope to assert himself as a major player in the comics industry. When asked about feeling a sense of pride, he responded in a self-effacing way.

"I did. I was very puffed up inside! Although being British, I was also ludicrously humble about it if anyone asked! At the time though, the horizons had very suddenly become more Freakangels, because initially it was presented to me as an indefinitely ongoing series."

The conversation turns towards the ending of Freakangels, and Duffield reminisces, "It wasn't until book four that I was actually told that there'd be a concrete ending, and at that time I was considering stepping aside and letting another artist continue the story."

He picks up, "Well, at the time I was getting burnt out by the schedule, and was anxious to move onto something new creatively, especially given that I'd always wanted to be a writer/artist. I hadn't got round to telling my publisher, so I was in the process of asking a few artists whose work I thought would be suitable if they'd be interested in taking over. Right when I thought I'd found someone, I was about to email Avatar and say that I wouldn't renew my contract after book five, and out of the blue I got an email saying it would end with book six!"

When asked about some final thoughts he might have on wrapping, Freakangels, and on whether he enjoyed the idea of the long epic having a definite conclusion, Duffield offers, "Yes, great all round! I was really happy I got to see the project through to its conclusion, since it was something I really enjoyed working on."

We continued by speaking about what Freakangels meant to Duffield as a working artist, and how he processed his commercial success. Duffield pauses before responding, perhaps recalling the emotional elements of the moment as much as the work process surrounding that achievement. He falls straight in, "Well, to start off with, the idea that someone could be hired by a publishing company in order to produce a webcomic, and receive a full page rate for it was a massive thing—especially since Freakangels was free-to-read. As far as I'm aware, I'm the first artist to have been given that privilege. That shifted my perception of webcomics from something that amateurs did for fun before they broke into 'real' comics, to a viable publishing model."

In terms of narrative and genre, The Firelight Isle couldn't be farther removed from Freakangels. While Duffield's earlier project focused on a band of super-evolved psychics living in a collective in South England in the wake of an unimaginable apocalypse (that they themselves had a hand in causing), The Firelight Isle is high fantasy set in a world of political machinations as much as military incursions. Think Game of Thrones that visually approximates a Western version of The Last Airbender.

To be fair though, The Firelight Isle probably has more in common with Shakespearean comedy and Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, than it does with other works in the genre of high fantasy. To wit, Shakespeare and Tolkien both organize their work around considerations of format (Tolkien coming to literary form through linguistics and philology). In the same regard, Duffield experiments with new formats that go far beyond the expectations traditionally grandfathered into reading paper pamphlets. The Firelight Isle is a celebration of the comics medium, unshackled from paper. Duffield's games with format are electric, they hark back to the genius of Frank Miller with early projects like Daredevil where Miller would "flatten" the vertical canyons of New York City to give a unique view of how Daredevil's acrobatic ability "flattens" the cityscape. Just like Miller did with Daredevil, Duffield offers readers a psychologically vivid experience of what it feels like to be immersed in a different geography.

And what's more, in The Firelight Isle Duffield's take on more than just artistic duties—he's the writer as well.

When I ask about any influence Shakespeare might have had on Duffield's work, especially in light of his having adapted The Tempest, Duffield remains reticent. "Being totally honest, I don't know a lot about Shakespeare's personal story," he responds, "I know The Tempest inside out, but before starting work on The Tempest, I'd only studied Shakespeare a little."

We switch back to talking about the origins of The Firelight Isle, on where Duffield drew his inspiration. "From a real hodge-podge of places," Duffield offers, "When I finished Freakangels, I started to consider what sort of story I'd like to write, so the beginning was a genre really. I've always loved fantasy, but if there's a genre I love more, it's cultural science-fiction (of the kind that Ursula Le Guin writes). I wanted to take a fantasy story, but write it in the way a cultural science-fiction is written, with a certain level of realism. After that came the characters, I knew I wanted young adult characters—a boy and a girl—to take the spotlight. From there the characters developed alongside the world-building, and the plot emerged as a consequence of the kind of culture that I ended up with. The development of the culture was heavily influenced by doing reading about anthropological studies, and listening to some lectures on the history of anthropology."

The scope of what Duffield's speaking about takes a moment or two to fully sink in. There's a kind of fearlessness to Duffield undertaking The Firelight Isle. It's not simply continuing the experiment he began in Freakangels, it's about evolving the medium of webcomics to the next level of complexity. What's more, Duffield needs to learn an entirely new set of skills as he goes. Earlier in this interview, to be able to process the full impact of Duffield's Firelight Isle, I likened the project to the Miller-era Daredevil. But that analogy runs deeper perhaps than I first recognized. With The Firelight Isle Duffield is leaping into an entirely new kind of webcomics. And in doing so, summons the spirit of perhaps the greatest Daredevil line, "To make that jump a man must either be blind… or without fear."

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