The average viewer might see the comic as a charming ode to the carefree naivety of youth; of first loves and curfew-skirting dalliances with neighborhood pals. But for those who recognize the leads of the seminal Super Nintendo RPG Earthbound in the faces and apparel of these rapscallions, the message may suddenly feel highly personal. It's not a specific narrative moment from the game, nor does it utilize familiar dialogue, but its tone is that of how players may have romanticized the adventures of these beloved characters in their minds, or how they imagined they might feel in that setting. Perhaps it's how they felt once upon a time. Whatever the case, the voice feels authentic, and as such delivers an emotional wallop in just four sentences and seven panels.
For little more than a year and a half, cartoonist Zac Gorman has strived to locate that little pocket of feeling between the events of a classic game and the emotions triggered in your mind while playing it – and then translate that into one-off comics under his Magical Game Time banner. With subjects as varied as The Legend of Zelda and Costume Quest, Gorman has amassed a fan following by pairing common and universal themes with memorable characters and scenarios.
Based on the poignancy of his best work, you might imagine that Gorman has honed this craft over a lengthy span of time – that isn't the case.
Magical Game Time first emerged in June 2011, and aside from doodles in school notebooks as a teen, the 28-year-old artist hadn't previously merged his mutual loves of drawing and video games with any consistency, nor had he made comics in years.
Speaking with Gorman recently in Chicago, to where he recently relocated, he recalls initial steps into cartooning as a teenager growing up outside of Detroit. His initial work recalled Matt Groening's Life in Hell – very strongly, in fact. "I would show it to other people in high school, and they didn't read stuff like [Life in Hell], so they thought I was really edgy and original," he says. "But it was really just the laziest rip-offs of that."
Two years of community college preceded another two years of art school, after which he pursued graphic design and had a "really boring corporate design job" in California. "I didn't start drawing comics again until I had a day job that I hated, and it was like an escape," he explains.
The first Magical Game Time comic spotlights The Legend of Zelda – a frequent muse for Gorman's work – and shows Link navigating a lava pool, raging waves in a thunderstorm, and a blizzard, with the last two panels lightly animated to show the precipitation at play. In the final scene, Link topples a towering boss, to which Princess Zelda responds, "I'm not really looking for anything serious right now."
It's more humor-tinged than the later Earthbound piece, but no less effective at eliciting a reaction from readers. In this case, the piece earned more than 3000 notes – that is, likes and reblogs, the social currency of Tumblr. His next comic about the Wii U reveal made the rounds on gaming blogs, and between the two, it gave Gorman some much-needed positive reinforcement. "It was like, 'Oh, people like these. I'll do more.' That was as deep as the thought line went," he admits.
Luckily, people have continued to like Magical Game Time, turning that thought into a career for Gorman via sales of prints – both comic reproductions and full illustrations – as well as apparel, pins, and more, all from a dedicated storefront run through gaming merch wizard, Fangamer. He also recently released a PDF collection of his comics to help fund a sudden replacement for a broken computer, expecting to generate a couple hundred dollars, but the response more than covered the costs. A print edition of the book is now in the offing.
Pointing to one comic as a prime example of his talents sells short the diversity of his output. As noted, the tone can range from touching to amusing, though there's a delightfully absurdist streak in some of his work, such as his "gritty reimagining of Burger Time". Many focus on mainstream favorites like Zelda, while others make great use of Roll from Mega Man or even Chibi-Robo. Gorman occasionally appears in his own comics as a pink rabbit – a dual homage to Life in Hell and Link's form in the Dark World in The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past.
"It's distilling the essence of a game that I have a very personal relationship with. I think that's what people respond to more than anything," Gorman said of his process. He prefers to work with games that gave players less to go on – rather than story-centric epics – which affords him the opportunity to insert his own details using familiar imagery. As a mute character, Link in particular is a great canvas for players to project themselves onto, he explains.
"That little space in-between what's actually happening is where you're actually emotionally present when playing these games. I try to find that unspoken thing that was happening. Why do you feel connected to a character like Link who has no dialogue?" he asks. "Part of it for me, I realized, is when I was playing it – like a lot of kids, I was terrified of everything as a small, scared little kid in this big world that you're just discovering."
"This is what you were actually feeling when you were playing the game. It's somewhere between Link's experience as a character and your experience in real life. There's that little space there somewhere, and that's why you love these things," Gorman asserts. "That's what I'm always trying to figure out: Why I love these things. When you figure it out for yourself, you realize that pretty much everyone had the same experience. It changes a little from person to person, but in general, everyone already had these feelings anyway – but maybe hadn't verbalized it in animated comic format."
Luckily for Gorman, he capitalized on that available niche and has quickly built a following for his work, which has led to other opportunities as well. He's contributed multiple brief back-of-the-book stories for the Adventure Time comic series, and recently illustrated an alternate cover for a Bravest Warriors comic book. Both properties spawned from the mind of Pendleton Ward, who reportedly recommended Gorman to publisher KaBOOM! Studios after finding his work online.
While Magical Game Time remains his biggest focus, Gorman is dabbling in other areas as well. He's been working on tabletop RPG concepts initially as a hobby, but he'd like to release one for free or through a pay-what-you-want promotion, and he'd also like to explore longer-form stories – though even that seems intimidating to an artist and writer used to comic strips and short tales.
"Fifty pages sounded really ambitious right now when I said it out loud," Gorman says, laughing. "Maybe when I'm an old man, I'll be mature enough emotionally to sit down and work on the same project for a year, but right now that sounds unbelievable to me."
All the better for fans of his current short-form output.
Andrew Hayward is a freelance writer and editor based out of Chicago, Illinois. He is a regular contributor to Official Xbox Magazine, @Gamer, TechRadar, and many other publications, and edits the iOS apps and games coverage for Mac|Life. You can follow him on Twitter at @ahaywa.