Mitchellbravo here, interviewing Robert M. Cook, creator of The Mansion of E, a comic that has been updating every day of the week since 2003. The Mansion just reached its 10 year anniversary on July 16th, a formidable accomplishment. Now, when you first began working on The Mansion of E, did you ever expect you'd make it to ten years?
Robert: No. When I started, it was strictly a gag-a-day whim. It was only a few months in that I started trying to develop a back-story and serious continuity.
Mitchell: What was the turning point, would you say, when you started to get more serious about it?
Robert: I can't remember the exact moment, but it was around the time that Sylvester and Rosemary reached Le Tree restaurant, and I realized this little trip was going to run a lot longer than I originally planned.
Mitchell: Is this the first comic you ever made, or were there predecessors?
Robert: I drew a print strip when I was in college, long ago, but this was the first one I posted on the Internet. And from the start, it's been done entirely on my computer with a copy of Paint Shop Pro.
Mitchell: Did you choose the style to match the comic, or did it just happen to be your style at the time?
Robert: That was my style. If I was starting over, I'd steal a page from the comic Order of the Stick, and use stick figures.
Mitchell: I think the style suits the story well. It's simple, but not in a minimalist way. It allows room for details without requiring them, know what I mean? So, how have you changed as an artist over the course of the comic?
Robert: Probably not enough. I've learned a lot of technical tricks that speed up the process. Also gotten into using shading, after someone suggested it.
Mitchell: My favorite part about TMoE's art is how you use color to create atmosphere and mood. What's been your favorite part about drawing the comic?
Robert: The world-building. The actual physical drawing of the strip is probably my least favorite part of the process.
Mitchell: About how long does it take you to create a strip? You update daily, do you finish a bunch of pages all at one time and release them day by day, or is it more of a daily task?
Robert: I generally churn out one a day. How long it takes depends on how many panels and characters and scene-changes there are in a strip. If I can re-use a background from a previous strip, that speeds things up as well.
Mitchell: TMoE always has lots of little textual Easter Eggs hidden all over the place. Where do you come up with the ideas for them?
Robert: A lot of them come a site on the Internet that lists various holidays for every day of the year, both well-known and obscure. "National Pickle Day" or whatever.
Mitchell: Heh, I happened to notice a Lag B'Omer one from a few months back. What were some of the things that have inspired you, writing or artwise?
Robert: My favorite authors include Terry Pratchett, P. G. Wodehouse, and Tolkien. Gary Larson of Far Side fame showed that you don't have to be brilliant artist to have a successful striip.
Mitchell: I always got kind of an RPG vibe from the comic, I guess because of the amount of species we meet and just the way the mansion unfolds as the characters explore it. Where did you originally get the idea for The Mansion of E? How much has the "mission statement," if you will, changed since the beginning?
Robert: I used to play D&D as a kid, but in recent years I more enjoy just reading the rule and source books instead of playing. The MoE started as doodles in a notebook, with the lines "High on a hill overlooking Some Sea stands the quite remarkable Mansion of E". As I said before, originally there was no overarching statement, just randomness. Now.. I'm telling one very long involved story about an entire world.
Mitchell: That's pretty neat. How does the writing of the comic work? Do you have the story planned out for the most part? Or is it more of a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants type thing?
Robert: I know the plot in broad strokes, how everything will end, what will happen ultimately to/with the major characters, but the day-to-day details come as they come, which is why the Endless Day became that. When I hit the 10th anniversary, it was the first time where I actually planned the strips out a couple of months in advance.
Mitchell: How long do you think it'll get to "the end?"
Robert: I honestly don't know. I will not spend another ten years detailing the coming day. The strip may end before the story does, if Real Life causes enough changes.
Mitchell: Fair enough. How much time has passed in the Mansion at this point, by the way? This is the only comic I can think of where comic time can elapse so slowly without being dull and draggy!
Robert: Rosemary arrived at the Mansion in the evening of Day One, which was covered in the first twenty or so strips. Everything after that has been Day Two. Day Three will start this coming week. Of course, there's been various time-travel trips mixed in there as well, backwards and forwards.
Mitchell: What's your favorite story you've written so far in TMoE?
Robert: I liked the story I did following Agorn the Gnoll's return to the Basement from the Forest.
Mitchell: Speaking of the Gnolls, your comic has main characters that come from all different species. What's your favorite Mansion species in terms of design or storyline?
Robert: Gnolls. I like the way they look, and they are easy to draw. I don't like Ecadems and Queen Snakes, which is why I stopped featuring them.
Mitchell: Fair enough! Can you tell us a bit more about the Trogs? I think they're the most interesting to me, personally (because of their changes as they mature).
Robert: There is a specific reason that they go through this process, that will eventually be revealed. As shown in the strip, the process can be effected if they are exposed to the various kinds of magic which come bubbling up from the Hot Zone below the Mansion.
Mitchell: Oh, excellent. Looking forward to that. Can you give us a little background on what inspired some of the various species? They're all easily identifiable and unique.
Robert: Gnolls are essentially re-named Kobolds from D&D, because I like the name better. Troglodytes are an even more direct lift. Nomes are named that (not Gnomes) in homage to L Frank Baum's Oz books, and to further distinguish them from Gnolls. Motihauls were originally created as two seperate species, back in the early days, then retconed to male and female. They were named after the game-show host Monty Haul. Oozes are civilized D&D black puddings. Gobules are homages to the board game The Awful Green Things from Outer Space.
Mitchell: Do you have a method for naming conventions for each species?
Robert: Some of them. The forest Nomes are mostly named after spells from old Zork games by the classic text-adventure company Infocom. Many Motihauls are named after shopkeepers from the dungeon-crawl game NetHack. Eyebolts are generally given names that are hopefully-appropriate words from old English. There is a organized "in-universe" system behind the Ghasts' unpronounceable names.
Mitchell: Who's your favorite character in the Mansion?
Robert: I guess Comshaw, if I had to pick one, if only because again he's among the easiest to draw. Though I find his general attitude admirable as well.
Mitchell: He's a pretty upstanding dude, and I'm not just saying that because he's a Poker. You have a lot of different plot lines running at the same time. How do you keep track of everything, where everyone is, what they're up to?
Robert: I probably don't keep good enough track, and likely have forgotten stuff at times. Still, I have a couple hundred pages of general background notes, and a complete database of every single strip.
Mitchell: Has there ever been a storyline you just kind of lost track of or forgot about? Some continuity "oops" moment?
Robert: Oh, of course, though I can't think of any specific examples right off hand.
Mitchell: I think, in general, because of how much stuff you have going on in the comic, something would have to be REALLY obvious in order for it to be an audience-visible plothole, anyhow. What was your biggest challenge when you started out? What's the biggest challenge nowadays?
Robert: Starting out, learning something about art; I don't have much formal training. Now.. since you mentioned it, keeping the continuity sort of straight.
Mitchell: Heh, I imagine it's a bit of a juggernaut to keep control of. Can you tell us a bit about your reader base?
Robert: It's not all that large; I don't spend any money on advertising, so I've collected my group of masochists over the years mostly by word of mouth. I do this strip to amuse myself, but if a few folks want to come along for the ride, that's cool.
Mitchell: Are you in charge of all the site maintenance, or does anyone else help you out? You have a lot of extra features most people don't include.
Robert: Yes, I do all the work on my site, though I give major props to the Comic Genesis people for setting up the system that makes a lot of it painlessly automatic.
Mitchell: Neat, even the transcriptions? That's awesome.
Robert: Most of the transcriptions have been done by me, but it is possible for viewers to do them, and they have helped with them in the past.
Mitchell: Ah, I see. I always thought that was a cool thing for you to include, especially since TMoE works pretty well "literature-wise" as well as comic-wise.Who would you recommend the comic to?
Robert: People who like long, involved fantasies Fans of complex world-building.
Mitchell: What's the worst thing anyone's said about TMoE?
Robert: Nothing too vicious. "The art sucks" is about as bad as it's gotten.
Mitchell: Sounds tame enough. And what's the best thing anyone's said?
Robert: One or two people have told me its their favorite comic, and they aren't even family members.
Mitchell: If you could send 10-years-ago Robert a message, what would you tell yourself?
Robert: "Start keeping better notes, now!"
Mitchell: On a related note, do you have any advice for other writers of longform stories who are just starting out?
Robert: Again, keep lots of notes. Also, if you're doing this in webcomic format, the end result probably isn't going to look much like what you started with; trickling it out one strip at a time isn't the same as finishing one sentence in a novel.
Mitchell: My last big question I have for you, and it's a mushy one- What's the most rewarding thing you get out of making The Mansion of E?
Robert: Getting feedback from readers is always nice, of course, even if it just "the art sucks". Also, going back and re-reading a strip weeks or months later, and being able to say "I did that? Hey, that didn't turn out too badly at all!"
Mitchell: It really is an enjoyable and smooth read. Thanks a ton for your time, Robert, I really appreciate it! And I recommend anyone with some free time in their pocket to spend, go check out The Mansion of E.