Fantasy stories are supposed to take the reader away and transport them to a new world. Farlaine the Goblin does that in grand style by taking the reader into multiple unique lands in a journey that they’ll keep with them for a long time to come. Pug Grumble is the creative mind who created Farlaine the Goblin and this is my interview with him.
Hello Pug! It’s great to interview you.
The fantasy genre is lined with muscular loin-clothed men with a high kill count. Joining the likes of Bone, Groo, Dr. Seuss, The Hobbit, Mouse Guard, Farlaine the Goblin takes a completely different approach to fantasy. He will defy expectations from new readers and define to established readers. How would you introduce your favorite goblin and his series to our readers?
Here’s my convention pitch, which gives a good flavor…
Farlaine the Goblin is the story of a friendly little tree-goblin shaman who’s trying to find a forest of his own to settle down in. He’s been wandering for years, has gone through hundreds of lands, and only has a handful of lands left to explore.
But these are no ordinary lands! These are the wackiest and weirdest lands you can imagine! In the Saltlands everything is made of salt, even the people! In the Racelands you need to race everywhere you’re going or you get stuck in an invisible box! The Vaultlands is full of bank vaults where people store their valuables, but their valuables are weird things like giraffes and socks and angry emotions! So there’s a reason he hasn’t found a forest and a home yet.
There are 7 books in the series, each about one of those final lands Farlaine visits.
Farlaine is a fun and engaging fantasy story. What would you cite as your inspirations behind Farlaine?
Oh, there are a bunch! Growing up I was always a huge fan of the Disney duck stories like Uncle Scrooge and Donald Duck, especially by Carl Barks and Don Rosa. I found Asterix later in life and fell in love there, too. I read things like Bone and Mouse Guard as an adult, but those were more contemporary than ‘influences’, aside from the idea that other people were making fun comics.
I also grew up with the late 80s/early 90s boom of Todd McFarlane, Whilce Portacio, and the rest of the Image crew, which all had a huge influence on me in different ways. The art for sure, but also the realization that you needed to finish the story you started (which Image didn’t always do!).
And then in the movie realm, Hayao Miyazaki was nothing but inspiration! Wow, those movies are just wonderful.
I would also include an artist like Seth Fisher, who I discovered right before starting my series and who made a huge impact on me. Seth put SO much personality into his work that it was impossible not to feel you knew him personally. And he drew ‘beyond the borders’, where you felt like there was always a fully realized world just beyond the panel. He did amazing things sometimes, like suddenly shrinking the characters down to child-sized or putting silly jokes in the panel borders. Storytelling-wise, he was on another level:)
While Farlaine is unique in the fantasy genre but you didn’t stop there. Your format is not the standard for comic books. What is the print format for the series and what inspired it?
The format is a very funny topic:)
Originally, I intended to do my comic in a similar style to Asterix and Uncle Scrooge and more European-style comics, which is a 4 tier page made up of 2 pieces of bristol board. I did the first short story Farlaine in The Tinderlands with that format, but realized I drew so slow that it would take me forever to finish a single story! So instead I cut it in half, using only two tiers instead of four. The dimensions are based directly on the size Asterix was drawn at.
I also did this for a few other reasons. Farlaine carries his tree Ehrenwort with him everywhere he goes, which makes him a very wide character to depict, which meant if I did a traditional vertical format I’d constantly be needing to work around that. Horizontal just fit the character and the story. It also didn’t hurt that he was on a quest, which meant the horizontal format led to a default reading style of him journeying from left to right.
Finally, it stood out! I couldn’t even tell you how many people stop by my table as the only person having a horizontal comic at the convention. Which seemed pretty normal to me having grown up with Garfield and Calvin & Hobbes often collected in wider formats.
Strangely, the publishers and stores in America HATE this! They are all about books needing to fit in their racks and boxes, so a lot of them wouldn’t carry the book. The readers never cared, but the stores did.
You created an all-ages comic with Farlaine. Considering some of the works we referenced above like Bone, Asterix, Dr. Suess, and the Hobbit are all-ages classics that a considerable amount of people respect, I think that the tag of all-ages often gets misunderstood. What is your interpretation of all-ages?
It’s funny, but ‘all-ages’ was a label I learned AFTER I wrote the first 3 books.
I started off simply writing the story I wanted to read, with the characters I wanted to include. I wanted to write something I could show my mom and not feel awkward about, so they unintentionally ended up very G-rated. It just fit the stories and my own personality. I always equated it to writing a Steven Spielberg comic – something like E.T. or Raiders of the Lost Ark or even Jaws, where there are moments from other genres thrown in, but overall it was accessible to everyone.
After I showed it to people and they told me I’d written an all-ages book, I leaned into it more. My original expectation was that I was writing a story for me, regardless of my age.
My follow-up to Farlaine is a novel, and while it’s got some very strange subject matter about people that like to poke and prod themselves, it’s still told in that same general all-ages style with no sex or profanity. Maybe it would be rated PG.
You tag Farlaine as “a Fairy Tale about Finding Your Forest”. This has a lot of synergy with the all-ages aspect. A lot of elements of fantasy are very much in line with fairy tales. What were your favorite fairy tales as a child and as an adult?
Probably not the most traditional ‘fairy tales’ as a child; I always leaned more towards movies and comics than reading Grimm’s.
I would immediately put the Miyazaki movies on the list as modern-day fairy tales. Stories like Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke are simply wonderful. Laputa is another one. I always say that Kiki’s Delivery Service is very much the mold for Farlaine, about a young kid leaving home to find their place in the world.
I loved some of the classic Disney movies like Sword in the Stone or their rendition of Ichabod Crane and Sleepy Hollow.
Peter Pan as a character is a wonderful fairy tale! That’s one of my favorites for sure, in all his incarnations.
And then there were the movies and TV shows of my youth like Star Wars, Ice Pirates, Thundercats, Transformers, etc., and the obscure shows that didn’t last like Voyagers, Misfits of Science, Street Hawk, and Automan, many of which followed classic hero archetypes.
The 1980s animated Transformers: The Movie held a huge place in my heart growing up and I’m sure influenced a lot of things for me without even knowing it.
All of them are basically fairy tales, just with different types of characters from fairies and witches. To me, it’s really about the story and the characters that inspire me.
Your art is quite simply a delight. There is a lot of emotion and energy and even when things are sad, there is positivity in your lines. What is your art background?
Thanks! That’s always nice to hear, especially for someone like me who has a little art background and sorta hacks things together, hahaha.
I was not an artist growing up, and in fact, was so bad at drawing that the art teacher used to excuse me from class! I didn’t even do stick figures!
But I got really into comics in my teen years and around age 15 I decided to try copying a drawing of Spider-Man by Todd McFarlane. After that, I was hooked and started drawing more and more. But since I had started so late, I stunk! I would doodle the same poses again and again and could never hold a candle to my classmates who had spent years drawing. But I enjoyed it and kept at it, doodling on my homework and random scraps of paper all through high school, college, and then real-world desk jobs! I’d be the guy sitting in meetings doodling while people talked.
I took a couple of art classes here and there, but never much. My college only offered 1 or 2 classes for non-majors. But I kept at it, drawing for fun, and when I was in my mid-30s and had the idea for Farlaine I decided it would be a fun challenge to draw it. I figured it would give me something to do while sitting on the couch at night. I also knew that nobody else could really capture what I was going for except me.
I think you can see a LOT of progress as the series continues. The first issue or two I think looks very amateurish, but by the time Books, 5-7 roll around I felt I was really getting the hang of it and I’m proud of that art. I also switched tools partway through, from disposable Microns to a classic nib, which added a whole new dimension to the art. It was an epiphany for sure!
Your art goes hand-in-hand with your writing. They work magically together. What is your writing background?
Not much different from the art! Just something I enjoyed doing and got better at over time.
Strangely, I always point to working in an office and having to write emails to coworkers in other countries that helped me move from wordiness to being more concise. For ages, I would write the same as I talked, which meant a very wordy style that rambled. Having to write a technical email to someone who didn’t speak English natively required me to edit and tighten my thoughts.
Comics were very much the same, and the early issues of Farlaine have more large word balloons and flowery language that I learned to tighten up as I went. By the final issue, I was fully understanding how many words I could put in a panel and when I was being redundant and needed to toss things out or add a page.
But in both cases, art and writing, I always view myself as a bit of a hack who throws together a first version and then spends the majority of my time editing and fixing it! Hahaha. My first draft of a comic will often take weeks for me to coalesce my thoughts and plot ideas into something workable, but then I’ll spend just as much time polishing and editing and tightening it down. When I wrote my novel I revised each chapter 20-30+ times after my first draft!!
At what point did you decide to marry your writing and art skills together? Was it a given from the start?
Yeah, from the start. I grew up loving the artists who wrote their own stories, Don Rosa, Jeff Smith, Carl Barks, etc. Some artists like Todd McFarlane were just starting to write their own stuff back then. And the same with movies when you’d see a writer-director like James Cameron or Wes Anderson or Robert Rodriguez who did everything.
Those multihyphenate creatives really drove the idea that the best stories were often when there was one creative mind behind it.
This is not to say that that was THEIR best work; I think the McFarlane/David Michelinie Amazing Spider-Man stories were far better than the McFarlane written ones, but there was something different when Todd was writing stories full of the things HE wanted to draw.
In a lot of ways, Farlaine is all about what I personally wanted to draw and was comfortable with drawing. You’ll never see me drawing a city scene or a car unless it’s something futuristic where I can tweak the rules to my strength. I recall Mike Mignola saying similar things about how he ended up doing Hellboy; he wanted to draw statues and monsters and skeletons.
You had a few guest artists of note. That must have been a great feeling. How was it, even given who they were, having others interpret Farlaine and his world?
It was a total blast!!
The first one was Charles Paul Wilson, who does amazing work on everything. Stuff of Legend, Wraith, etc. He did a ‘plush style’ version of Farlaine at the Baltimore Comic-Con for my friend Embryo, who I then forced to give it to me:) Hahahaha. I loved it so much, hired Charles for the first variant. It was so much fun I kept doing it for the rest of the series. It was also a great excuse to get artwork from some of my favorite artists:)
Skottie Young’s cover originally started with him reaching out to me about some Trencher art I owned that he was hoping I’d sell to him! I suggested he draw me a variant cover instead and he said yes:)
Larry MacDougall’s work I had seen online and fell in love with and thought would be a great fit. He was wonderful to work with and is now releasing an amazing Kickstarter of his own book, Gwelf.
The final one was the icing on the cake, David Petersen, who I’d approached a few times about a cover but he was always too busy. I had another artist lined up for my final cover but he ghosted me, and then a friend mentioned David may have an opening. He did, he was up for it, and he delivered the most amazing final cover I could have dreamed of! It felt like magical timing!
And all of them did wonderful jobs stepping into my world and showing me new interpretations. I loved it and plan to do it for any future series I do:)
The focus of Farlaine is for him to find Ehrenwort, his best tree, a forest to call home. I have a lot of plants at home. One of my favorites is a Monstera plant. I also have a Northfolk Pine in my home. Are you a fan of plants and trees? Do you have your own “Ehrenwort” at your home?
I love the visuals of them, and when I was working on Farlaine my phone was constantly filled with photographs of every interesting tree I walked past. I would love to have a greenhouse of plants but I live in a small place that doesn’t have the space, so I mostly just have a few nice ones at home, none of which I could name. But they’re pretty looking, with twisting trunks and personality to them.
BUT – I do have a little pug dog, who is as close to Ehrenwort as I could get. She follows me everywhere and any magic powers I have are likely tied to her:)
Farlaine has 10 crazy lands to see if one is suitable for Ehrenwort. Was there a symbolic reason for the 10 lands used in the story? Any story behind any of the lands Farlaine and Ehrenwort travel through?
Originally I considered doing an ongoing series with some grandiose 50-issue plan where he would visit each and every land, but since I draw slow I realized the likely outcome would be me doing a few lands and then losing interest and never finishing the story, so I needed to whittle it down to something with an end in sight. It was originally going to be 10 books long, but after I did the first couple I realized even that was too many for me, so it shrank to 7, which seemed an ideal number since Harry Potter also maxed out at 7.
As for how I picked the lands, I made a spreadsheet of names and ideas that I added to for ages, throwing in everything I could think of. Many were the ones everyone would think of like the Firelands or the Dragonlands, but I made a point of throwing out anything that seemed too obvious or pop culture-y. Part of my goal was to tell a story nobody had ever seen before.
A few of the lands like The Racelands I knew from day 1 and thought were perfect, but many of the others I hemmed and hawed on. I had a general list of my top 10-15 when I started drawing the series, but even those were not going to be visited in a set order or necessarily included. For a while, The Tomblands was going to be a place to visit, but it seemed far more ‘Mike Mignola’ than ‘Farlaine the Goblin’, so it instead became a passing mention. Other lands like The Beardlands felt like a fun single note, but not worthy of an entire adventure.
Books 1-3 were planned out ahead of time and I knew everything that would happen in them, but Books 4-7 were much more flexible and in some cases, I had zero idea what the story would be about until I started writing it. I simply knew the starting point and where they went next, and maybe a few plot points that needed to happen, but the rest I had to figure out when I got there, which I actually found to be very fun once I got rolling.
Even the final issue was a bit of a surprise for me. I knew how the story would ultimately end, but not entirely how they’d get there. My original plan for the final issue was to have Farlaine visit a bunch of lands, each catapulting him on to the next one, but when I started writing it I realized that it would be a 100-page story! So I trimmed it down to just one, which I think helped.
Farlaine is a positive upbeat story. It is also a story of hope. Perhaps one of the outstanding ideas in the story is how you combine a positive upbeat attitude to a story of hope. You end up caring for Farlaine and Ehrenwort quickly in the story and there are dangers and risks. Ehrenwort might not make it. Yet, Farlaine keeps pretty positive throughout a lot of hard challengers. In fact, when the story begins, the two of them have been through hundreds of different lands on their search. It was wonderfully written. I’m curious if the aspect of hope and positivity during adversity was a conscious or unconscious effort on your part for the story.
Both? There’s certainly a Spongebob mentality to Farlaine at times, that bubbly ‘everything will be fine!’ kinda optimism, but I always said the story is really about failure. He’s spent a lifetime failing in his quest, but he needs to stay positive even if he keeps faceplanting. It’s not much different from me personally, who has been trying and failing at things for years! Hahahaha.
Farlaine is definitely a metaphor for my own life, with that eternal hope that maybe this time you’ll succeed and find your proper place in the world. There are all those poster-sayings like “leap and the net will appear” and “if you build it they will come”, which I think are great for motivation, but in reality, are sorta hollow. But sometimes you just need to have hope and believe in the impossible. I’m sure a lot of my own hopes are embedded in Farlaine.
Did you plan out any of the other lands that Farlaine and Ehrenwort already traveled through? If so, what are those lands like?
As I mentioned above there was a rough spreadsheet of land names and ideas I had, but no fully concrete list. I used the list as a reference point when I needed to pull a new land out for some reason and I would look through what I had and pluck one that would work. I always tried to avoid the common and obvious and pick the weirdest ones I could. I made a map early in the first issue that tried to show the volume of lands he had already gone through and crossed off, but even that was drawn for that page and not planned out ahead of time. When the map appeared later in the series I just redrew that image. I couldn’t tell you what any specific lands were, or even where his home was! Those were things I didn’t need to have concrete answers for so I left them fuzzy and flexible. It always seems easier to leave yourself an out instead of writing yourself into a corner:)
Farlaine was an ambitious project. A new and different fantasy character, doing it on your own, in a format not standard for retailers or readers. You received great reviews, appeared at the coolest conventions, and did the hard work. You cross the finish line and completed the entire series. That’s fantastic! During that entire time, the comic industry was changing, and now, it’s completely different than what it was then! What comes to your thoughts when you think about that time? What did you learn about the industry that you didn’t know beforehand?
I’m not really sure it’s that much different, is it? It seems the same to me.
My biggest regrets were doing it sideways and having large breaks between issues. It certainly hurt the sales numbers and meant it was tough to build up a readership. The world of comics has been convinced to ‘wait for the trade’, which works fine for Marvel and DC but is horrible for indies who may never have a trade!
And all the legwork of having to publish and market your book is very time consuming for one person, and the sideways aspect meant a specialized printer and needing to print huge numbers at once, which was costly.
And sadly, I didn’t gain much entry into the industry. To this day nobody has ever asked me to do a pinup or cover variant, let alone a publisher offering to release my next series. So in many ways, I feel stuck in the same place I started, but at least now with a finished series, people seem to enjoy.
And that’s really the best part of it all – that personal satisfaction that not only did I finish the series and create what I wanted, but that people read it and liked it. There is truly no cooler feeling than being at a convention and having a kid run up to your table to say hi:) Or those parents that spent time knitting a Farlaine doll for their kid and then sent me a photo. Those were awesome moments I cherish:)
And I obviously also now know I CAN do it, writing and drawing something that’s good, which is a big mental hurdle to get over.
But the industry itself? It seems like the same distant and foreign animal it did when I started, with me still looking in from the outside.
Although at least now I never have to wait in line to get into a con and get to chat with the creators I like before the doors open, so there are some fun perks:)
Are there any plans to revisit Farlaine or the world you built for him?
Not right now, but maybe someday. I love the idea of someone turning it into an animated series, so should the books ever be ‘discovered’ I’d happily dive into that. But for now, I told the main Farlaine story I wanted to tell, and while I could go back, comics take a long time to draw, so I’m more tempted to do the next project. The one nice thing about not being successful is that there are no expectations, so I don’t need to keep going back to the same well:) I can do whatever tickles me!
Farlaine would make a great animated feature. With all the streaming services available, has there been any inclination to see if that was possible?
Not really. It’s all about networking and I’ve never been good at that. Nobody even knows the series exists! Hahaha. Someone from Legendary Entertainment handed me a business card at San Diego last year, but then never responded when I followed up. The world thinks that comics are being mined nonstop for ideas and properties, but it seems like only the high profile ones that win Eisners or sell tons of copies. My book is too obscure and there’s no publisher behind it getting it in front of fresh eyes. But all of that stuff is really icing on the cake. The goal was to make some comics I wanted to read and that other people would enjoy, and I think I succeeded with that:)
What have you been doing since Farlaine? What do you have planned for the future?
The big thing has been finishing my first novel, Ouch, which just came out last month! (https://www.amazon.com/Ouch-Comical-Quirky-Masochist-Sadist/dp/0989005895) It’s a VERY different story from Farlaine, being more of a grown-up/college/cult type story about the love triangle between a masochist, a sadist, and a klutz. It sounds bizarre, and it is, but in a wonderful way that is very much in that same vein of creative and wacky that Farlaine is:)
I’m getting good reviews from the people that give it a try, but it’s so odd a lot of people won’t even pick it up! Hahaha. But it’s something I’m incredibly proud of and think is even better than Farlaine. My hope is that people will give it a try and spread the word if they enjoy it, but it’s looking like the same uphill challenge that Farlaine was. Much of the world seems to enjoy rereading the same things they’ve read before, and I love creating the stories I’ve never heard of:)
Thank you Pug. You can find out more information on Pug and his fantastic Farlaine the Goblin at http://www.farlaine.com/
If you are into fantasy and want something engagingly different, compellingly new, and binge-worthy, you’ll enjoy Farlaine the Goblin.