The Wormworld Saga - Is Cinematic Art and Storytelling The Key to Viral Content and Board Game Adaptation?
Daniel is the mastermind behind the year 2010 internet sensation of "The Wormworld Saga," an online graphic novel about a young boy on the journey of a hero in a fantastic world. Upon release, the novel amassed more than a quarter million views in less than a month and the story continues to unfold today with the help of Daniel's dedicated readers. And the reasons for his success? —stunning illustrations with awesome cinematic compositions, detailed world-building, and a captivating storyline with charming characters that has called for the novel's adaptation even in the board game industry.
Hey Daniel, thank you for making your time! First up, could you tell us a bit about yourself?
Thanks for your interest in my work! I’m a digital artist and comic book author from Warendorf, Germany. I was born in 1977 and right after school I started to work at a local computer games studio as a computer graphics artist. In 2010 I launched my digital graphic novel series “The Wormworld Saga,” which I’m publishing online and for free on a regular schedule. On the side I’m working as a freelance concept artist and illustrator.
Was becoming an artist always the most obvious path in mind? If not, what was the pivotal moment that led to pursuing art as a career?
I definitely spent an above-average amount of time with drawing during my childhood. I started to draw little comics about my friends and our imaginary adventures during my elementary school years. And I didn’t stop to do that up until my teenage years, when I had a brief phase in which I was very interested in pyrotechnics and special effects for films. At some point I was very close to becoming a pyrotechnician, but before I could pursue that career I got into contact with computer generated graphics and especially 3D graphics and animation. With these tools I could create special effects without burning a hole into the lawn, which was very much appreciated and endorsed by my parents. At the same time I encountered Japanese manga, which spurred my interest for the comic medium. I guess this set me on the path to do illustrations and sequential art, which I still follow today.
One of the most frequently asked questions by artists is "how to find my style". How would you answer that question?
I think you shouldn’t worry too much about your style. It will develop naturally just like your way to walk or to speak. You might have phases in which you try to imitate other artists, and you should absolutely do that. But in the end, this will only have a limited influence on your style. Your style reflects the very individual way your brain processes information. The best way to develop your style is to do a lot of work and thus challenge your brain to process a lot of information. This flow of information will carve its own ways through your brain and those riverbeds will eventually surface as your style.
Before we dive into your more recent works, let's go back in time for a bit. You started your career early on by selling your comics in the schoolyard. How did this idea come about and what sort of comics were you selling? What was the response like from your peers? And I'm curious, how much money did you make from it?
When I was 16 years old I started to develop a comedy story in which I sent my school teachers into space. They replaced the crew of the starship Enterprise – an evil plot, devised by the Klingons, to make the Enterprise an easier target. It was a hilarious story full of slapstick and references to our daily school life and everyone loved it, the teachers included. I happened to produce 3 books with a combined 150 pages and I sold them for 0,5€ (1 Deutsche Mark back then) on the schoolyard. I must have earned about 100€ to 150€ with each book. Not very lucrative for the amount of work that went into the production. But it was worth all the effort. I was recognized as the “comic guy” at school and there even was a school play, based on my story, which was performed during a big school event when our principal retired. The play had a computer animated intro that I had created on my own and I will never forget the applause the whole performance received. That was just when I was finishing school and I knew that I couldn’t do anything else than telling stories from that point on.
That's awesome! Seems like it was an early indicator of your passion for storytelling and entertaining people. What were some of your favorite comics at the time that inspired your works?
As a kid, all I knew about comics was “Asterix” and maybe a few glimpses of superhero comics. It came to me as almost a shock when I discovered the manga “Akira” as a teenager. Suddenly there was a comic as detailed and epic as a movie. And there was action and violence and politics and sci-fi technology! From that day on I was sold on the comic medium. Unfortunately, there’s no such thing as a comic industry in Germany and the only way for me to use my skills in a professional way, was to work in computer games. That wasn’t a bad thing at all. I learned a lot more about computer graphics that way and I was able to earn a living from my artistic skills. But that way it took me over 10 years before I would finally reencounter my love for sequential art and start my next comic project.
On Christmas Eve of 2010, you published the first chapter of The Wormworld Saga, an online graphic novel that you've been continuously working on for the past years. Could you give us a brief description of what this world is about?
The Wormworld is a far off place, situated in what I call the “Atmosphere Cloud,” a cosmic region where many worlds float close to each other inside a shared breathable atmosphere. The protagonist, a young boy called Jonas, reaches this world through a magic painting in his grandmother’s attic. The Wormworld is threatened by the dormant god of fire, who is expected to be woken up by his minions anytime soon. And of course, it’s Jonas’ mission to stop them.
Where did the idea for this world come from and what sort of themes are discovered within?
With the Wormworld Saga I’m kind of digesting all the stories that I experienced in my life and that I’m still experiencing today. You’ll find a lot of classic fantasy elements in it - a portal to a fantastic world, a prophecy that declares the young protagonist to be the chosen one, an evil power that tries to destroy the world, etc - but then you’ll also find other elements that you might not expect - like the cosmic aspect of the Atmosphere Cloud, time travel, technological disruption and a more differentiated perspective on the good vs. evil archetype. I clearly remember my irritation, when after all the “good guys fight the bad guys”-stories, that I experienced during the 80s and early 90s, I saw the animated movies from Studio Ghibli, in which the categories “good” and “evil” were mixed up a great deal and often turned on their heads. With the Wormworld Saga, my goal is to throw all these influences into a huge melting pot and create something new from it.
Studio Ghibli gets mentioned quite often among the artists I've interviewed. I was interviewing Justin Hillgrove the other day who took a lot of inspiration from them on character designs, while your focus was on thematic approach. I guess it just makes sense considering they are giants in this industry when it comes to inventing original characters and world-building.
So, are any of your characters inspired by people around you or maybe even yourself? Who has been your favorite character up to date and why?
I guess that, as an author, I put a lot of myself and my surroundings into my characters. I actually think that you can’t really invent stuff. You can only identify it and put it into another context. So, every character of the Wormworld Saga is a little piece of me or of personalities that I experienced in my life. My favorite character of the Wormworld Saga is Master Otomo, the warrior. I can sympathize a lot with him and I also wished to be as strong as him. I’ve intentionally named that character after one of my big idols: Katsuhiro Otomo, the creator of “Akira”.
How does being a dad influence your work? Also, what sort of impact (if any) has your graphic novel had on your sons?
I think that experiencing my two sons lends a lot of authenticity to the story of my young protagonist. Living together with my kids gives me a much more rounded picture of how a child would react in a certain situation. I clearly remember that I changed scenes, that had been planned for many years, simply because I realised that a child would not react the way I wrote it back at a time, when my sons weren’t born yet. And my sons enjoy the Wormworld Saga a great deal. They even have an authentic costume with all the items Jonas has and they enjoy reenacting scenes from the story. And they always come up with great ideas for new creatures that could live in the Wormworld.
The Wormworld Saga has had great reception, to say the least. What would you like to say to your dedicated readers who've remained your fans for close to a decade?
I wouldn’t be able to continue my work on the Wormworld Saga if it wasn’t for the support of my readers. The first chapter was created before my kids were born, in my free time. I don’t have any free time anymore that I could invest into producing my graphic novel, so the time my fans are buying for me, mostly via crowdfunding, is the lifeblood of the project. If there’s anything I’d like to tell them, then it’s that I couldn’t do anything without their support and that I’m very thankful for it.
I think many of your readers would be curious about this: How far has the storyline of The Wormworld Saga been planned? Do you see the end in sight?
The complete Wormworld Saga is a trilogy of three journeys that the protagonist experiences as a young boy, a teenager, and an adult man. The main story arches of this trilogy are already described in my notebooks. The first journey, that’s the one that currently is published as an ongoing series, has arrived at its mid-point. It took me almost 10 years to reach this point, so the completion of the whole trilogy lies pretty far in the future. I actually hope to be able to accelerate the speed of my production over time. But you can’t count on that so the whole project is a great exercise in patience and perseverance. Both on my side and on the side of my readers.
A great novel often lends itself to a variety of adaptations, and The Wormworld Saga was no exception. And back in 2016, The Mysterious Forest, a board game inspired by The Wormworld Saga, was released. Could you share what the game is about?
The Mysterious Forest is a collaborative game in which the players have to assist Jonas on a path through the Great Forest, a location from the Wormworld Saga. The plot of the game is loosely based on the events of the comic but Jonas’ mission is much simpler in the game. Still, all items and creatures of the game are a part of the Wormworld Saga lore and expand the Wormworld universe beyond the graphic novel.
What was the story behind the development of the game and how you joined the team?
IELLO approached me because they had encountered my work and saw a possible connection to a game design they had already acquired. When I read the game design document, I could clearly see all the elements of the game working in my universe just perfectly. Collaborating on the game was a no-brainer for me. It was a perfect match.
What did you enjoy the most/the least while working on this game? Also, was there a challenge that is unique to working on board games in comparison to other mediums?
The cool thing about the project was that we could use a lot of material directly from my graphic novel. Since I’m creating my panel artwork without any word balloons, we had a great resource to flesh out the majority of the visuals of the game. That way, the heavy lifting of the illustration process was done very quickly and I could concentrate on all the elements that needed to be created especially for the game. My personal highlight of the project is the player figurine that we created from an existing 3D model of my protagonist. That thing is standing on my desk and always puts a smile on my face when I look at it. I really can’t remember any annoying aspects of the project. There was enough time and I had a lot of freedom. As an artist, these are normally the most critical factors that ruin the fun on a project. In that case it was an overall great experience for me.
Though it may have been your first job in the board game industry, have you had prior experience with board games as a hobby?
I think that I’m slowly crawling out of a very long hiatus concerning board games. As a teenager I played board games a lot (especially Settlers of Catan) but with the job in the computer games industry I started to spend more and more time with computer games. Now that my sons are approaching an age where we can actually play more complicated games together, I’m looking forward to dust off some of the classics on my shelf and give them a second life.
If you ever need recommendations for board games, feel free to post on our forums! I'm sure all of us here will be more than happy to lend a hand :)
Anyhow, how did it feel when you first received the finished product? Did you have a chance to play it with your sons?
I think the game is a very nice product. I love how you can open the lid and read a little excerpt from my story. And I already mentioned the nice figurine. I think, for a fan of the Wormworld Saga, that alone is worth the purchase. And of course we’ve already played the game many times at my home. My kids were just the perfect age when the game was released and seeing them enjoy the game always makes me very happy.
Could we expect to see other adaptations of The Wormworld Saga? Perhaps a film, cartoon, or another board game with a slightly older theme?
I'd certainly do anything in my capacity to expand the Wormworld universe. Currently efforts are made towards a Wormworld computer game. There already exists a playable demo but we’re not quite there yet to make a super official announcement, with visuals and everything, about it. And of course I would enjoy seeing an adaptation of the Wormworld Saga into film or animation. I could also easily imagine a more complex board game set inside the Wormworld universe. I guess time will tell if any of these visions will see the light of day.
Now that you have decades of experience under your belt, what do you think are the key elements an illustration needs to drive a story?
There are so many aspects to be taken into consideration when it comes to designing illustrations. I don’t know if anything sticks out to me enough to put it into the spotlight. But it might be noteworthy that any good illustration actually needs to be started by thinking about the story. As a young artist I painted a lot of artwork that was completely void of any story. It’s a natural thing actually. If you start drawing and painting you’re concerned about things like anatomy, light and shadow, texture and brush strokes. What you’re painting becomes secondary when you’re trying to wrap your head around all these complicated concepts. There’s an actual risk that you just continue to hone your skills year after year. There’s a lot to learn after all. At some point I encountered that painting for me had become some kind of sport. The painting itself became my sole focus and I slowly started to get bored by it. My output decreased. It took me some time to refocus on the reason why I had started drawing and painting in the first place: to tell funny stories about my friends and later about my teachers and schoolmates. Only when I started to put the drawing and painting second place behind the storytelling, I was able to take the next step in my artistic development. I started to work on the Womworld Saga and that was also a major boost to my painting output. Up to this point I’ve created about 1300 finished panel illustrations and hundreds of concept sketches for the Wormworld Saga. I’ve already invested over 5000 hours of illustration work into the project. That’s the kind of mileage that will hone your skills and you need a good reason to put in that effort. If you’re at a point where you don’t feel as motivated as you used to feel, you should concentrate on WHY you paint and not what you paint. And the why will always be a story.
Couldn't have hoped for a better response. I keep falling into that pit too, where I get so focused on "becoming a good artist," that my original desire to tell stories about my son ends up whittling away. Again, great advice and a reminder for everyone out there.
As we near the end of the interview, could you describe for us the moment when you felt you had "made it" as an artist? If you feel you're not "there" yet, what would be the next milestone you'd like to achieve?
I think it lies in the nature of art that you can’t really “make it”. Of course, you can consider “making a living from art” an achievement. I kind of cheated my way around that point because I was lucky enough to find an art related job just after school. So, I kind of took it for granted to do art for a living from very early on. But even if you’re still working towards that goal, you’ll find that after achieving it, the real struggle only begins. As an artist you’re constantly trying to get a deeper understanding about everything. And there’s obviously no end to that. That’s both the curse and the blessing of the artist. You will never arrive but you also will never be bored on your journey.
Lastly, are there any exciting developments in the works you could share with us? What would be your dream project?
I’ve already mentioned the computer game project. I would actually love to see that production to be fully funded and taking off. Computer games have been a big part of my life and my career and it would be very exciting to use that medium to expand the Wormworld universe. With a bit of luck, that could happen in 2020, which would be awesome because it’s also going to be the 10th anniversary of the Wormworld Saga. Apart from that, I’m just excited about the fact that my readers provide me a modest but stable budget to continue my work on the Wormworld Saga graphic novel and I’m eager to travel ever deeper into that adventure.
Thank you Daniel! It's inspiring to see your commitment to the Saga and hope to see it continue to unfold with the help of your fans. Also, I wanted to show support in my own way by inviting our readers to your Patreon page.
Readers, here are links for you to follow Daniel and to support The Wormworld Saga:
- Website: https://wormworldsaga.com/
- Social Media: Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, Youtube
- Support Daniel by checking out his Patreon page
Thanks for the read as always and you can find more of my interviews below. It's a random selection of 3-4 of my past interviews:
- Justin Hillgrove's World of Monsters Creates Perfect Family Games for Adults
- Board Game Wingspan's Artist Spent 20 Hours Straight on the Barn Owl Card
- Board Game Meets Wildlife - How Catherine Hamilton Illustrated the Evolution Series