The Robert M. Cook Interview (Creator of the Mansion of E)
[Last year, when I started up Forsaken Stars at Comic Genesis, I was almost immediately drawn into a Secret Santa Gift Exchange via their forum, and I was assigned Robert M. Cook’s alternate-world fantasy the Mansion of E. Wanting to put my best foot forward, I threw myself into reading the strip, following the adventures of Sylvester, the Earl of E, his brother Mortimer, and warrior companion Rosemary, having no idea that it had been going for the better part of a decade, and that it had a wandering, tangential plot with veritably hundreds of characters. This wasn’t just a strip, this was world-building at it’s most obsessive, and I spent countless hours trying to develop a single strip that captured the essence of MOE. In hindsight, that’s impossible. Any one strip is just the tip of a wondrous, strange iceberg.
Fast forward one year later as I prepared to interview Mr. Cook, and I came to realize a few of his plots have suddenly come together and bear fruit! What’s up? I asked myself. What’s changed? Or was this planned from the beginning? George R.R. Martin is still trying to figure out how to bring his Song of Ice and Fire novels to a close, maybe he should talk to Robert Cook!
Who is Robert M. Cook? His About page gives us this modest, self-effacing nugget, “Not much to tell. I’m a balding slacking Gen-Xer who lives in the Pacific Northwest and still somehow enjoys drawing cartoons on his computer.” He’s a mainstay within the Comic Genesis community, currently hosting a Halloween Costume Swap for the characters of several strips, and he presides over the Mansion of E Forum hosted at talkaboutcomics.com. He’s approachable and friendly, and an eagle-eyed google search will uncover his love for older pc-based games, blogging and even his political views.
Robert recently added Forsaken Stars at Comic Genesis to his Links page in honor of Forsaken Stars’ first year online, which in turn brought me to this illuminating, informative and humorous interview covering Mr. Cook and his incredible, minutely crafted and long-running Mansion of E.]
What is your favorite [movie] quote? – If I had to pick just one, it would be this from Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein: “Are you saying that I put an abnormal brain into a seven and a half foot long.. fifty-four inch wide.. GORILLA? IS – THAT – WHAT – YOU’RE – TELLING – ME?!?”
What is your favorite Shakespearean play? – While I understand the importance of his work, I’ve never really been a fan. Again, if I had to pick something.. The Tempest. I’ve actually seen it performed, which helps, and the general weirdness appeals to me.
Describe your evil twin. – He draws a wildly-successful sell-out webcomic starring a big-breasted fan-service bimbo.
If you could time travel, what would be your first stop? – I would go visit my father’s hometown when he was a kid; it was a strange little place evidently, and I could see my paternal grandparents, who I never knew.
What is your creative process? Hardware? Software? Have you updated and upgraded since you began? – I create the MoE entirely on my midrange Windoze computer, using an old copy of Paint Shop Pro, which is like Photoshop without a lot of the bells and whistles, or the huge price tag. I collect all the fonts I use from free sites on the Internet. That’s pretty much how I’ve been doing it from the start, although I’ve learned a few shortcuts over the years to speed up the process.
Did you ever think you would be working on Mansion of E for as long as you have? – Probably not. When I first started, it was more a gag-a-day thing and I had no idea the mass of continuity it would eventually turn into. Even now, while I know (roughly) how the story ends, I don’t know how long it will take to tell it. Or where exactly the best place to leave off is..
Who is the MOE character with which you identify most? – Sylvester; he’s a younger, thinner version of me with more hair. He and Rosemary’s relationship was inspired by the one between me and my sister when we were children.
How did you come up with Sundays in Subshaft 44f? – It was my attempt at doing a little less work the one day a week where I get the fewest
visitors anyway, while still publishing -something-. 44f started as a one-time gag involving “scenes around the Mansion”, but I quickly realized I could use these three poor suckers some more. Spoiler: I think I will be switching to something else on Sundays in the not-too-distant future…
MOE has a sometimes frustrating and sometimes whimsical way of meandering and going off on tangents, and it seems as if it’s taken seven years to get to some real, mind-blowing, somewhat satisfying payoffs. How much do you enjoy meandering versus planning? – I do the strip because it amuses me, and not because I’m trying to build an audience, but yes, I regret now the meandering, because it’s almost certainly driven people away. If I were starting over, I would stick much closer to Rosemary/Sylvester/Mortimer/possibly Comshaw. Or not do it as a webcomic at all, maybe instead as a website where every room in the Mansion/Basement is depicted, and a visitor can just wander around at will… Failing that, I have made a deliberate effort in recent months to wrap up a bunch of the plot-threads and get the action moving forward.
SPOILER ALERT! Skip the next question if you haven’t been reading MOE in the last couple months or so! So go read, then come back to this one!
And how satisfying has it been for you to bring so many threads suddenly together recently? – Again, it felt good to finally move things forward. I had long planned Rosemary and Sylvester’s confrontation with Villipend, for instance, but I admit it, I stalled getting them there, because I kept agonizing over the details.
What works have influenced you? – Douglas Adams. H. P. Lovecraft. The Muppets. The old Infocom text-adventure computer games. Terry Prachett. Isaac Asimov. Robert Sheckley. Stephen King, particularly his Gunslinger novels. Tolkein.
Where do you do your best work? – World-creation, coming up with niddling little background details. Yes, I’m well aware my art isn’t that great. I ever win the lottery, I’m hiring some starving real cartoonist…
If you could live anywhere in the world where would it be? – I’ve never been anywhere I like better than my current home, the Pacific Northwest..
Good climate, lots of trees and water, no poisonous bugs or snakes, halfway sane politicians..
What is your favorite word? – Sasquatch.
What makes you emotional? – Reading about people being horrible to each other. I’ve deliberately tried to avoid putting any out-and-out villains in the MoE.. Even Villipend was more Horribly Broken than Pure Evil.
What makes you laugh? Comedy influences? – My favorite comedy writer is an American outdoor humorist named Patrick McManus. I like Bill Bryson’s comedic travel books, and I’m also very fond of the Jeeves and Wooster stories by the English author P. G. Wodehouse; Hector the robot is my overt
If you were an animal in the wild, what would you be? – Maybe a seal, something that’s good at swimming; it would be fun to explore the ocean
without having to lug along scuba tanks.
If you could travel back in time, what mistake(s) would you want to correct? – My choice of colleges. I had fun, and it’s a fine school for the right sort of person, but I should have gone somewhere more practical. Like art school.
Is Rosemary based off of anyone you know? – As noted above, she’s an exaggerated version of my sister, both in looks and personality.
If you had only six months to live, what would you do first? – I would like to see New York City once before it or I die.
What are you most proud of in your life? – Drawing two thousand comic strips without cracking up. My biggest claim to Internet fame, however, may be the alternate tile-set I drew for the computer game NetHack. (If you don’t know about it, don’t ask, it can suck away months of your life..)
Do you own any pets, and if so what do you have? – None at the moment.
Who do you admire most? – I’m not much of one for collecting heroes, but I like how Gary Larson did The Far Side, making it funny and smart without being a Great Artist, and knowing when to call it quits.
What person would you like to meet least in an elevator? – Rush Limbaugh. Runner-up, Cthulhu.
Favorite Place to Eat? – Any good seafood restaurant. Another reason to live in this part of the world.
What are some of your favorite Disney or animated films? – The Emperor’s New Groove, which may well be the funniest thing the Disney company
has ever produced. Yellow Submarine is my favorite from non-Disney stuff. Any of Brad Baird’s work, but particularly The Iron Giant and The Incredibles.
Define yourself in 3 words – Sheltered weirdo cartoonist.
What is your favorite TV show? – At the moment, probably Mythbusters, with Top Gear being a close second. (Despite my dislike of cars in general.)
What is your favorite place? – I suppose the small lake I grew up on, although I don’t have any real urge to go back there in person, and see it all changed and built-up. The memories are fine.
If you could have one super human power what would you choose? – If I could wave my hand and summon a finished cartoon into existence every day, that’d be cool.
What is your favorite song of all time? – Tom Lehrer’s “The Vatican Rag”. Warning: Catholics will either find it hilarious, or be horribly offended. Mr. Lehrer’s another one I admire, for writing witty and catchy songs and being horribly subversive while he’s at it.
Hat creatures, globules, sneetches, talking, prophetic horned toads, Weirdos, beaver sharks… Tim Burton has nothing on you! Have you ever thought about writing a spec script for MOE as either an animated or stop-motion feature? Or looking into amateur animators to create viral Youtube videos? – Yes, I’ve often mulled over what a MoE film would be like, and who would voice characters and such; and yes, I think a quirky spindly stop-motion work like Burton’s stuff would be the best fit. But seriously? I simply don’t have the fan-base to make such a project feasible.
MOE has such a massive cast of characters, what process do you use to keep track of them? – I have almost two hundred pages of typed notes, and a database listing the details of every single strip, including who appears in them. And yes, I consult them constantly.
Are many of them based on townspeople you’ve grown up alongside? – I lived out on that lake, a long way from town, so no, not really. However, see below..
Do you have a large extended family? Any strange or kooky favorite family members? – Sadly, there aren’t that many Cooks left in my branch of the family; most of the current generation (myself included) didn’t have any kids, and we’re slowly dying off. Crazy Rhid, however, was heavily inspired by a cousin of mine who loved to play around with explosives and.. died one day doing what he loved. Growing up I had a collection of interesting aunts, one who supplied the name (but not the personality) for Rosemary’s Aunt Eva. Uncle Frederick probably came from them, with a sex-change along the way.
Any juicy tidbits you’d like to share about the next seven years of Mansion of E? The next seven months? The next seven days? – There’s one soon-upcoming revelation that will change things in the Basement in a very fundamental way; I’ve tried to drop a few hints, so I don’t know how big of a surprise it will actually be to readers. After that, the action planned for “tomorrow” may be ranging a little further afield than people are expecting. And very long term.. it’s possible that someday I will end “The Mansion of E” and pick up the plot under an entirely different name… because MoE would no longer be an appropriate title.
Finally, any other projects you’re working on or have a hand in you’d like us to know about? – As noted already, I’ve always been proud of the alternate tile-set I created for the ASCI-based game NetHack; it’s gotten fairly good reviews from people who use it. If people really want to fall down this particular rabbit-hole, (at least it’s free) they can learn about the standard game here: http://www.nethack.org/ and my tileset is here: http://cook.web.eschelon.com/nhack.html
Thank you so much, Robert, this interview has been invaluable. It’s almost like the advice to new webcomickers glows between the lines! Both what not to do and what to do, and above all enjoy what you do. Anything other advice you’d like to give aspiring or current webcomickers? – “Don’t start doing it”, I suppose. Unless you absolutely literally -have- to draw; such people exist, evidently. If this doesn’t cure you nothing will.
OK, one word of encouragement. Your art doesn’t have to be perfect. You can even use stick figures, if your ideas are good enough. That’s something else I’d do, if I had to start over, is probably follow the lead of The Order of the Stick…
Yeah, I love Sticknia Comics myself! So good. Thanks again for taking time out to chat with me and I hope your readers and mine found it just as enjoyable.
– Thanks for doing it. It was fun.
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