Pug Grumble, the pen name for the mysterious creator behind one of the most effortlessly charming series you’ll ever come across, would rather your attention be on his creation rather than himself, which is fine because his creation is wonderful. Farlaine is a book about a goblin shaman desperately searching for a home for his best friend, the tree Ehrenroot. With the sixth book en route very soon, Graphic Policy recently sat down for a quick chat about the on going creator owned book series.
Graphic Policy: For those who haven’t heard of, or read, Farlaine the Goblin before, can you tell us what it’s about?
Pug Grumble: Sure! Farlaine the Goblin is a story of a little tree goblin shaman named Farlaine who’s been searching for a forest to call his own for a looong time. He’s been searching for years, has gone through hundreds of lands, and is down to his final 10 lands left to explore. His only companion on this journey is his best tree Ehrenwort, who he carries in a pouch on his back. Ehrenwort is from his parents forest where Farlaine grew up, which means Ehr provides a conduit back home to the magic of that forest. This magic lets him make seeds grow really, really fast!
The series is 7 books long and each book is a self-contained story about one of those lands. And they’re all weird lands! In The Saltlands everything is made of salt, even the people. In The Racelands you need to race everywhere you’re going or get stuck in an invisible box. The Twistlands is full of twisters and tornadoes of every shape and size. The idea being – there’s a reason he hasn’t found his own forest yet!
GP: Where did the idea for the story come from?
It all started with a drawing. I started doodling this big ogre/troll with big horns and a grass skirt and all these skulls and potions on his belt. He was casting a spell and was a very scary looking dude! But I also gave him an empty backpack that I didn’t know what to put in. I did the rest of the drawing first, and while pondering what to put in the backpack it suddenly clicked – a tree! If this guy was a shaman, that’s what he’d carry with him if he went on vacation. He’d take a tree so he could cast spells away from home!
It seemed perfect. I labeled the drawing “shaman from another land”.From there I started to ponder him and draw him more. He just stuck in there, and over the next year or two he became more polished, his personality emerged, and a story started to take shape. Finally, I got to a point where I really wanted to bring this character to life and read his story myself. So I did :)GP: The story has a very all ages feel to it without being overly kid like, which is wonderful. Do you find it more challenging to write in a style that appeals to both young and old kids?
PG: When I first started writing the series I wrote it entirely for myself. There was no plan to write for any specific audience; I just wrote what I wanted to read.
After I finished the first three volumes and started showing it to people I began hearing the phrase ‘all-ages’ bandied about and realized I’d accidentally written a book that appealed more broadly than I’d guessed. I think I just have a silly view of life that accidentally translated well :)
After I made that discovery I tried to keep it in mind going forward. There were some stories where I might have thrown in a swear word or made something a little more adult, but intentionally toned it back down to avoid crossing the line I’d accidentally set up. I still remember one book where I wrote “helluva”, thinking nothing of it, and had a reviewer complain it wasn’t a kid-friendly word. In my mind I was using a word common enough to be found on a brand of cheese, but to some, it was too adult. I changed that word for subsequent printings and made sure to now read for those kinds of perspectives.
I also tried hard to simplify some of the wording and length, especially after Book 3 where I felt I got too wordy and over-explained things. I tried to use less words, tighten things up, and be ready to break apart panels or add pages if it made for an easier read.
Even now I still overwrite a page or scene and find myself chopping out and rewriting dialogue to keep things within reason. I never want to talk down to kids, but I also don’t want to intimidate them with word balloons :)
GP: Personally, I’d never have considered “helluva” to be a crass word, but then I’m probably less offended by certain words than most. That being said, I think the all ages tag line lends a much purer feeling to the book; I couldn’t imagine the story any other way at this point. How long does it take you to create each issue? Can you talk us through the process?
PG: Yeah, I can’t really fault the original comment too much. If you’re reading the book to a 5 year old it could force a tricky explanation for a parent. And in general, it probably helped send me down a safer path going forward :)
WARNING: Rambling Ahead!
The books have taken me more and more time as I’ve gone, pretty much the opposite of what I was expecting when I began!
When I first started I’d left a job and had some savings and unemployment to last me a year. I had the first book written before I started and had the plot and story well defined for books 2-3, so I had a good sense of where I was going with those first 3. Those 3 books I finished drawing in 9 months, roughly 110 pages of art.
But from there things slowed down dramatically. I had to go back to a desk job and a long commute, so the next year was spent editing the first three books, drawing the covers, pitching to publishers, and finally designing and printing copies of Book 1 in order to submit it to Diamond so I could get in their catalog and into stores.
When Diamond accepted me I then had to do all the publishing work of releasing 3 books, getting reviews, hitting conventions, etc. It was a lot of work to fit around the day job, so by the time I started writing Book 4 it had been a year since I’d finished drawing Book 3.
My goal was always to tell the best stories I could and not focus on a release schedule, so even though I knew it wasn’t great to have huge gaps, I tried to think longterm about the quality of the finished series. In my mind Farlaine had potential as a fairy tale that could appeal to audiences for decades.
Starting with Book 4 the stories weren’t set in stone, which meant a lot more time building the stories out. The process for Books 4-7 has been different from those original 3.
Book 4 I wrote and drew while working a full time job, so it took me more than a year to complete. I realized at that rate it would take me 5 years to finish the series, so I saved up some money and left the job with an eye on finishing Books 5-7 in one run.
Which finally brings me back to your original question – how I work now.
First I collect ideas for months, throwing story ideas, tidbits, lines of dialogue, plot points, world building, and everything else into a bunch of text files in a folder. Once I collect enough ideas and reach critical mass, I start to coalesce them down to a real story. I spend a lot of time on the plotting and writing side of things to try to not do obvious stories or repeat things I’ve already read. My hope is to come up with something a little different that I haven’t read before.
It usually takes me a month or two to write an issue of Farlaine, with my focus mainly on the dialogue and overall plot points and not as much on the visuals.
Once I finish the script I start drawing, but it’s almost like a different part of my brain, so I just print off a page or two at a time and draw what’s on that page. I don’t memorize it or look ahead, letting myself be surprised by things I forgot.
I generally draw one page at a time. For me layouts get boring and lose a lot of their enjoyment and creativity if I plan too far ahead. I prefer surprises and giving ideas the space to grow as I go. I often end up drawing things that weren’t in the script but came to me as I was working. I like that organic aspect a lot.
I also draw really slow. Most guys in comics seem born with a pencil in their hand – I didn’t start drawing until I was 15. So I’m slow and need to figure things out. What I discovered by issue 3 of Farlaine was an approach I stole from David Petersen of Mouse Guard. I started drawing pencil versions of all the characters and angles on separate pieces of paper, then scanning them in and Photoshopping them together with the dialogue onto a template page, which I’d then print out and lightbox. This allowed me to manipulate the sizes I drew characters and move them around to fit the dialogue properly. In that first issue or two you can see a lot of places where the proportions are off, the dialogue is covering art, body parts are randomly arranged or cut off. Most of that was my weak spots showing through:)
So once I started the ‘layout and lightbox’ approach I think the art got a lot better, but also took a lot longer. These days I usually spend one day on all those layout drawings, scanning them in, and printing off that 11×17 rough template. It then takes another day to re-pencil the page, tighten things up, add backgrounds, and finally ink it. I work traditionally with a nib and bottles of ink, so it adds time for ink to dry, pencils to be erased, etc.
From there I scan the finished art back in, do some digital whiteout, and letter the page, before finally printing off the next page of the script and moving on.
In general, I average about 2-3 pages of finished art/week when I’m in a groove. If I get caught up with publishing duties or the rest of life, sometimes that dwindles to a page or less in a week.
Since my stories are now ranging between 40-50 pages each, this means a single volume can take me 6+ months to write and draw, as opposed to those early ones that were cranking along in about 3 months!
GP: It sounds like you prefer a very fluid process when creating the comic. Have you ever found that the art can take you in a different direction than the original script?
PG: Yes, for sure. That’s a large part of the reason I try to keep it fluid. Many times I’ve overwritten what can fit on the page and need to consolidate it down, which can lead to creative solutions. Other times I’ve had ideas on one page that completely altered the next few that followed it. I’ve even had a few characters that grew organically out of what I was drawing. A good example would be in the third issue, The Racelands. I didn’t have a lot established for the other race participants in the original script. I knew one was going to be the pirate mushroom and another the timberjack, but little else. As I was drawing the book I really enjoyed drawing the pirate mushroom, so I tried to not only include him more, but tweak part of the end of the story to incorporate him.The fungal end of that story came from that fluid approach. And now he’s popping back up in Book 7, which I’m drawing right now. Originally, he was just a background character for a few pages.
GP: So it’s safe to say that the way you create the comic keeps the essence of Farlaine’s creativity?
PG: Yeah, I think of Farlaine as a fairly creative character, often having to think his way out of situations, and the comic is certainly similar. It’s a lot of writing or drawing yourself into a corner and then having to figure out a way out of it that works and feels authentic to the story and characters. There have been a few times I’ve certainly cornered myself and then spent a month trying to figure out how to get out of it!!
I’m sure there are a lot of parallels between the story and the creation of the book :).
Farlaine is available for purchase here.