Want to hear a story? A month ago, the majority of comic book fans had no idea who Daniel Lieske was. However, all that changed when the German digital artist posted the first chapter to his online opus "The Wormworld Saga" and became the much-talked-about subject of countless news articles and shout-outs from across the web all praising the relative newcomers first entry to the graphic novel landscape.
"It's really overwhelming. I would be lying if I said I did not expect any response because I am active on the internet for about 10 years and in that time, I have gained what I would call a reputation among digital artists and people from the game industry," Lieske told CBR News from his home in Warendorf. "I was expecting that when I launched 'The Wormworld Saga' I would get some reaction from this peer group, so to speak. But that 'The Wormworld Saga' spread to the whole Internet and spread over to people who have no idea about digital painting... and I've gotten a lot of response from people who don't even like comics but that were really enticed by 'The Wormworld Saga' and its format, that really totally took me by surprise."
Within the few short weeks since its posting on Wormworldsaga.com, approximately a quarter million people worldwide have read the first chapter to the digitally drawn and written story. In one day alone, traffic to the site peaked at 90,000 visitors. The story's popularity took the creator by surprise, especially when he checked his inbox and saw the "avalanche of e-mails and responses." "I really was not any longer able to respond to them," he laughed. "I really try to respond to everyone who writes me, but these days, where the traffic doubled every day, it really wasn't doable anymore."
Despite his busy schedule—between building up his recently-launched video game company, finally finding time to respond to the multiple of e-mails from fans and taking care of his wife and recently born son—Lieske spoke with CBR News about his own saga, which began as a 15-year-old kid selling comics his fellow students.
"Everybody has this memory of school being a safe haven to hone your skills. It's a little closed-up world where you can practice the role you'll have later in life. I was the comic guy in school," recalled Lieske. "I had a series of satires about our teachers being transported to the spaceship Enterprise [from 'Star Trek']. It was an evil Klingon plot because they realized that they'd never be able to overcome the Enterprise because the crew was just too sophisticated. So, they had the idea to replace the Enterprise crew with our teachers because they are, like everybody knows, they are not sophisticated. That was a series of three books, each 48 pages. That really was a big hit in my school—not just with the pupils, but also with the teachers, who felt flattered that anyone would care enough to draw them in their comic."
The young budding comic creator spent his weekends making copies of the comic on his dad's Xerox machine and stapling the books together, and then sold the issues to students. It was during that time, standing there in the schoolyard, that Lieske first realized he could make a career out of comics. However, he ended up taking a branching path on the road to professional comic creator, obtaining an internship at a video game company upon graduation. There, he got into digital painting and game art. It wasn't until 10 years later that an online contest brought the two paths together again.
"In 2006, I participated in a competition on CGSociety.org. They have these CG challenges where you are given a theme and for that theme you have to create artwork. There's a jury who judges the artwork and you can win quite nice prizes—graphic arts, computers and such," explained Lieske. "In 2006, the theme was 'The Journey Begins' and a few weeks before that, I had this image in my mind of a little boy sitting in the attic, watching this magic painting. It was a very small idea, but as kid I enjoyed sitting in the attic. It's a magical place for me. I entered the contest with this concept and it actually made it to second place, which was a very nice accomplishment for me at that time because it's a big international contest and made for some really nice awareness of my artwork. After the contest was done, I received some e-mails from people who wanted to buy a print of that image. That kind of reanimated this little schoolboy in me that stood on the schoolyard and sold his artwork to other people."
In the four years since the inception of that idea, Lieske began to develop his saga more and more, filling notebooks with ideas and sketches. "I just had to share it in some form. I tried to write a novel from the story, but it always became a visual description that wasn't really nice to read. I decided to go the comic route again because I had learned a lot in the game industry about illustration and art direction and I thought that these skills might be the right skills to create a next generation comic, so to say."
"Next generation" became the key phrase for the project. When the creator first began to receive e-mails about purchasing prints to his CGSociety contest image, he realized that the internet served as his new schoolyard, a greater and easier way to further the relationship between artist and reader. "I would say that thinking about publishing a lot of barriers in front of me. In comparison to the idea to find a publisher and show them your work and to be dependent on their judgment and to risk that nobody would say, 'Okay, it's good. Let's publish it,' the idea to just put it on the Internet and see how it goes was much more attractive to me," he said. "And now that 'The Wormworld Saga' is on the Internet and receives a lot of positive feedback, it's much easier to talk to publishers. Although, I'm not at that point at the moment because it's hard to edit it into a classic book format."
Still, Lieske said that more than a few publishers have approached him since the "Saga" went live. By utilizing the new online medium—and having it work, which Lieske called "the really important part"—he said that it becomes much easier to approach publishers after the fact. The possibilities of the process became apparent to Lieske after meeting Jason Brubaker, who originally published his graphic novel "reMIND" page-by-page online. "That showed me that the internet was an incredible place where things can happen that you won't expect," said the artist. "It's not a way to get readers, but it's in the fact like how [reporters] are approaching me and wanting to write a story about it. A week ago I was sitting in a radio studio and that was totally overwhelming for me because it was an international radio show featuring 'The Wormworld Saga.' That never would have happened if I had merely published it as a book."
With "The Wormworld Saga," along with the quality of art, the story itself garnered much attention from the online and comic book community. Although only a chapter in, Lieske's tale of a young boy about to embark on an incredible and magical journey quickly captured readers. Lieske himself was inspired by similar tales found in many fantasy and adventure movies from the '80s, like "The Neverending Story" and "The Goonies."
"Interestingly, in both films, the adventure starts with an attic," laughed Lieske. "Then there's the influence from computer games. The scene when Jonas opens the treasure chest and pulls his sword out, it's like a scene from Zelda. You can imagine the tune that comes with opening a chest. Then there's Japanese anime movies, especially the ones from Studio Ghibli. You will find a lot of panels in the first chapter that are inspired by anime. The blue sky with the clouds which was in 'The Girl Who Leapt Through Time.' The depiction of nature and the idea to take time to show nature, those are ideas I got from movies like 'Spirited Away' and 'Howl's Moving Castle.'"
As far as exact story details of things still to come for Wormworld's young adventurer Jonas, Lieske gave some clues. The artist plans for a trilogy series, divided into three separate journeys into the Wormworld. The first, currently in progress, plays like a classic fantasy tale. "You have the young adventurer. You have the fantastic world that is somehow a mirror of the protagonist's mind. You have the element of fire that will be the big threat in the Wormworld," explained Lieske. "The second and third journeys are there to present more layers of the narration. This is something that I have been inspired by the Studio Ghibli movies. What fascinated me was that the characters in it are not shallow. You do not have the 'pure evil' character in a Miyazaki movie. Every character has a motivation. Even the 'evil character' has some motivation that you can understand. That's an element that I want to bring into 'The Wormworld Saga,' too. Generally, what you can say is that I'm trying to combine classic Western fantasy stories with some Eastern philosophy about good and evil."
Lieske definitely sees "The Wormworld Saga" as a very big story, but also as a gateway into making comic creation a possible full time job. However, doing so might take time, between his current job in the gaming industry and realistic time he can devote to drawing more chapters. This year, he plans to stick to the same path as last, with keeping his day job but working on the graphic novel on the side. But always the progressive thinker, Lieske already has a few plans on how to properly monetize his work. "I already have donations on the website, but I think it's not a secret to tell you that from donations alone, you're not able to make a living," he confessed. "What I'm really looking forward to is to create an app for tablet devices like the iPhone or the iPad. The beauty in the app idea is that it can be offered as very inexpensive to the audience—you would have a product that costs around two dollars—and you could sell it in an infinite amount. So, the sky is the limit."
However, the biggest concern with Lieske isn't solely making money. Right now, especially in concerns to "Wormworld," it comes down to being able to finish the entire graphical saga before his own personal one ends. "If my goal is to tell 'The Wormworld Saga' in its whole—and that would be like something between 40 and 60 chapters—and I stay on this one chapter a year approach, I run the risk that I would not live long enough to tell it," laughed the creator. "I know that I have to figure out how to make more chapters in order to finish this story. I would be devastated if I wouldn't be able to finish this story. In the end it really becomes good, I tell you. That's a big motivation for me.
"I tracked all the time that I spent on the project. I know exactly that I have spent 250 hours on the first chapter and that if I would be able to substitute my salary, I could do four chapters a year," he continued. "Four chapters a year would be a great accomplishment for me because then I would be able to tell the story in 10 or 15 years—and that would be great because I would be able to do another story perhaps."
Lieske admitted that currently he had no other ideas planned. However, he did suggest a spinoff tale centering on the "spaceman" that "Wormworld's" star Jonas is a fan of. But as the creator himself adequately put it, "That's a whole other story."