An Award-Winning Graphic Novel… On the Web

Reported and produced by Lindsay Totty
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Every week, Rob Balder and Jamie Noguchi meet for dinner at Teaism, a Japanese restaurant in Washington, D.C. For those few hours, their table becomes an office. After they discuss fantasy, sci-fi, and video games, they get to work on their graphic novel, Erfworld.

Rob is the writer of Erfworld, an epic fantasy full of magic, intrigue, and “a giant fat guy as our main character,” according to Jamie, the novel’s illustrator.

That “giant fat guy” is Parson Gotti, a gaming geek who is transported to a universe full of evil ogres and valiant knights. It’s fantasy and science fiction stories like this that Rob and Jamie grew up on.

“The bar was not very high in the ’80s,” Rob says. “Because if… Buck Rogers was not the greatest science fiction TV series in the ’80s, what was? Knight Rider?”

“Transformers?” Jamie suggests.

Armies of Teddy Bears

Even though Erfworld is an epic war story, Rob brings an irreverent sense of humor to the subject matter. And the art style Jamie uses to draw it is best described as cute. Rob says that this is intentional.

“We want the cognitive dissonance between opposing armies set to destroy each other and the cute teddy bears,” he says.

Jamie says it’s about making their creation distinctive. “If we came out with this hyper-realistic looking artwork, we would be lumped in with all the other fantasy comics out there,” he says. “And if we did just cutesy stuff with cute gags, we would be lumped in with other comics that are out there… We kind of wanted to make our own voice.”

Rob Balder created the rough idea for Erfworld with another cartoonist years ago, but it never got off the ground. That is, until March 2006, when he met Jamie Noguchi at a meet-up for Washington-area “webtoonists.” It was the beginning of a unique partnership.

After 45 minutes of listening to Rob explain the concept, Rob says, laughing, that Jamie “just sort of leaned back in his chair with his arms crossed and said ‘This has to be the best thing I’ve ever drawn.’”

A Good Time for the Graphic Novel

It wasn’t long before readers and critics noticed. Last year, Time magazine included Erfworld on its annual top ten list of graphic novels. What sets Erfworld apart from the other books on that list is that, for now, it’s published entirely on the Internet. Jamie says the Web gave them a convenient way to build an audience they wouldn’t have found otherwise.

He says the Web allows everyone to contribute. “So it’s not just your old standbys, the guy who’s written 50,000 books and you go to him because he’s written 50,000 books. It can be Joe Schmoe in the college dorm, who says ‘I have something stupid to say or funny to say’… That’s what the Web allows us to do.”

The Web also allows graphic novelists to do with a computer what they can’t do on paper, like insert animated panels or sound effects. Rob and Jamie want to create a wiki — an online database about the Erfworld universe to complement the comic.

“When people saw a character… they could click on the character out of the comic, and get the wiki page popping up on that character,” Rob says, adding a new dimension to the reading experience.

Rob and Jamie are hoping that the success on their Web site and mention from Time will get their comic published in print. Many of Rob and Jamie’s colleagues in the webtooning community have already made that leap, either through self-publishing or by getting picked up by large publishers.

“This is a good time for the graphic novel in general,” Jamie says. Traditional book publishers are picking up original graphic novels like never before. And they’re looking to webcomics to publish too, Rob says.

Rob and Jamie are hoping to put out the first print volume of Erfworld sometime this year. They’re also considering moving their office to a new location.

“We should go to Hooter’s,” Jamie suggests. Rob protests. “The problem with Hooter’s is distraction — auditory and visual distraction.”

But then comes the clincher: “Dude, they have fried pickles there,” says Jamie, and they set a date for next week.

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