An Interview with Ryan North
February 1, 2013 was the tenth anniversary of Dinosaur Comics. Almost every weekday, Ryan North posts a comic featuring T-Rex, Utahraptor, and Dromiceiomimus. The same simple artwork is repeated, day after day, but the conversations range from recipes ("Food is just pals you eat!") to love ("I'm just throwing that out there. Maybe it's time to gently press some lips together") to euphemisms ("Instead of saying 'I'm sad' you can say 'I'm a friend of Aquaman's'"). Dinosaur Comics is playful, strange, and hilarious. It is one of my favorite things on the Internet.
North also co-edited the short story collection Machine of Death, which topped Amazon's bestseller list. He currently writes the comic Adventure Time, based on the Cartoon Network show created by Pendleton Ward. Illustrated by Shelli Paroline and Braden Lamb, with backup features by every second-big-name in alternative comics, it's the tale of a thirteen-year-old boy and a talking dog in the bizarre fantasy world of Ooo.
His most recent project, To Be or Not To Be, an illustrated Choose Your Own Adventure-style book that lets you play as Hamlet, Ophelia, or Hamlet's father -- is crowdfunding's latest success story. It raised so much more money than expected, it literally made Ryan's head explode. He explains this, and more, below.
Can you talk about comedy without feeling like you're cutting jokes into pieces?
Oh, sure, yeah. That's the fun part. Here's my grand theory of writing. If you're going to write comedy, or erotica, or horror, you have chosen the three easiest genres to write. Your body tells you when you've hit the mark. You know when a joke is funny because you laugh. You know when a scene is scary because you get scared. You know when erotica's good because you get distracted. When you're writing drama, it's really hard to tell if a scene is perfect, right? But if you laugh when you're writing, you know you've at least made yourself laugh. So that's my theory of comedy writing. Your body helps you out.
But you're not necessarily going to laugh at a good joke, or be turned on by your own erotica, are you?
Yeah! But I've never made any serious attempts to write erotica. Actually, I'm surprised we're having this conversation...
This interview got weird fast.
We just jumped right into it! In comedy, I am actually trying to make myself laugh. That's why I always write alone, and not in coffee shops or anything. I feel like laughing at your own jokes is up on the list of super-big faux pas. It seems really onanistic and self-absorbed, but, at least for me, that's how you write comedy. Assuming that you're lucky enough to have a sense of humor that's shared by more than one person.
Can you take me back to the genesis of Dinosaur Comics? Who were you, back then?
Who was I? I was ten years younger, finishing up my undergrad degree, and just starting up grad school. It was a class assignment. The class was divided into thirds, and we had to do something "interesting with the Internet" with randomly assigned domain names. After a couple of weeks, my group had done nothing, and I was like, "Screw you guys, I'm putting up these comics!"
They'd basically come from wanting to write a comic, but being unable to draw. My first idea was a comic where it was always the same story, told with different pictures, which was precisely the wrong project for me to be doing. So I flipped it. What if we had the same pictures with different stories? Those initial couple of months it was just me and my mom reading the comic, and she lost interest at some point... so it was several years before I had an audience to speak of, people who'd email me and say "nice comic" and stuff like that.
Three years later, I'd finished my grad degree, and I had a choice between getting a real job or being an Internet cartoonist. And it was really easy. All I had to do to become an Internet cartoonist was to fail to get a real job, which is the easiest thing in the world to do, right? I didn't even send out any resumés! I just didn't apply for jobs, and then I had this new job. The process of writing a Dinosaur Comic each day is something I really enjoy. I don't know how real cartoonists do it. It takes me three hours to write a comic, but they have to spend another three hours drawing it. Once I've written it, it's basically done. I've been doing it ever since.
I was thinking about James Kochalka's daily diary comic American Elf, just finished after fourteen years. Dinosaur Comics isn't as autobiographical, but does it come with the same kind of pressure? Did you fall in and out of love with it over the last decade?
I feel like we've been pretty steadily in love the whole time. It's not autobiographical like American Elf by any stretch, but I realized recently, when a fridge breaks down or I get a bad cold, it usually works its way into the comics: "Oh yeah, in 2008 my fridge broke down! I remember that!"
The paradoxical, and I think interesting, thing about Dinosaur Comics is that it's surprisingly flexible. I can do comics where it's just a straight gag, or one where T-Rex is describing a book he'd like to write, or has already written, which allows me to have fun with bad writing. There's so much you can do with the fixed layout and the characters that show up, it doesn't feel like a constraint.
Does the repeated art help or hinder you when you sit down to write?
Here's the advantage: I don't have a blank sheet of paper. I know T-Rex is probably going to be in the comic today. If I need it, there's stuff I can bounce off of. I can play with the layout, I can play with the characters, maybe put in an off-screen character. I can put narration above one of the panels saying LATER or MEANWHILE or FIVE UNIVERSES OVER and that changes the visual narrative of the strip.
There are days when I sit down and think I don't know what to write. Like I've used up the last idea I'm ever going to have! But you power through and you work something out. I have a giant text file of snippets, things I'd like to explore, unfinished stuff, so if I feel like I'll never think of another idea again, I can go there and polish up something I didn't get to work in the past.
It's funny. I did an interview with my old campus paper, a couple of years back, and I said the same thing, "I have this giant text file of ideas." The article went to press as "I have a giant textile of ideas." Like I have this giant rug that I stare at, and go "Hmm, yeah, I'll write a comic about that." I didn't correct them because I thought it was amazing. That's the new official history. I have this giant rug I get my comics from. It's my secret to writing.
How much do the visuals matter when you're writing in terms of story or pacing? You often get a big laugh out of using a close-up of T-Rex's face as a wordless reaction shot...
The core of that question is that if you remove the pictures in Dinosaur Comics -- if it was just Ryan's Text Blog of Wacky Stuff -- would it be as good? Would it be worth reading? I think the answer's no. You'd lose the look of the characters, and you'd lose the magic of comics. Of words and pictures, together. The pacing you get through the visual narrative adds a lot to the comic.
And as a bonus, if you've read the comic more than once, you usually realize the pictures are repeating. Then you're in on this sort of joke. You know what you can expect, and I can play with that expectation. When I turn that second panel into a reaction shot, that's a way of doing it, right? It's funny because it's a good reaction, but I hope also funny, because you didn't see it coming. Sometimes I'll have the top row of panels be one comic and the bottom panels another. Once I had the top panels as T-Rex's thought bubbles from below. There are always different ways to surprise you.
How would you describe T-Rex's character after ten years?
Every adjective I'm going to give to describe T-Rex can also describe his pictures. He's basically defined by what he looks like. So he's very excitable, fun, interested in ideas, and if you look at the pictures, he looks like a fun dinosaur. It would be hard to write him as a depressed, forty-year-old, super-sad guy, because he doesn't look that way.
Imagining that just broke my heart.
I know! Sad people are so sad! I think the art's largest influence, actually, is in defining the characters. Dromiceiomimus has the most neutral expression, so I have the most flexibility with her. But T-Rex is probably going to be excited about something in panel two, unless I make that narration, or a book cover, or some other stretch.
That's probably my favorite thing about Dinosaur Comics: its overwhelming belief in enthusiasm. Are there days when you're not feeling that enthusiasm, and T-Rex feels far away from you?
I don't think I've ever tried writing enthusiastically about something I'm not enthusiastic about. It'd be really hard, and it'd seem kind of... I was going to say "fraudulent," but it's not that. You can always write stuff you haven't experienced. But normally I share T-Rex's enthusiasm and Utahraptor's skepticism. I'm a very skeptical person, I find, but I also like a lot of things.
Dinosaur Comics has a deep conviction about the importance of "pals," too.
Pals are one of my top five interests.
With the fixed art, these dinosaurs are kind of trapped together, but instead of snarking like in a sitcom, they're just really good friends who enjoy each other's company.
Yeah! If you look at the first two or three months, I tried doing comics where T-Rex and Utahraptor didn't like each other. They don't really work, because the structure is such that you get T-Rex's side, and then Utahraptor shows up, all he can do is tell T-Rex off and disappear. That's not funny. I mean, he had some good zingers, but it's not very satisfying. I've tried to do times when they're not pals because "Good Writing" equals "Drama"! But it doesn't work very well for these characters. And the nice thing with pals, when you're super-pals, is that you can disagree and have fights... but you're still pals.
T-Rex is also a storyteller, like you said, but his stories always seem to get away from him. He accidentally changes genres halfway, or gets too literal about storytelling logic. Does this describe your writing process, too?
In a way, it does. When you're writing, you're aware of the words you're putting on the page, and how they relate to other words you've read before. When you're constantly aware of what's come before, one way to be original is to break the rules. And there are a lot of ways you can break the rules that are really dumb and don't help you at all! So when I do that, and realize an idea is terrible, T-Rex can do it and it's funny and cute, versus me doing it and having a terrible book no one would ever enjoy.
I read a couple of Vonnegut books where he describes how he gives ideas to Kilroy Trout. He has Kilroy Trout write them so he doesn't have to. I appreciate that a lot. When you have a fun idea but you're not sure if it can carry a book, or if you want to write that book... but would love to get into it for six panels. Just hit the highlights.
Machine of Death was based on one of T-Rex's premises, and it became real! It was a collection of short stories by different authors, so I didn't have to write all of it. I just I wrote a story for it. It was a lot of fun, and it's super-gratifying to see fictional stuff become de-fictionalized. That is always fun. I've never considered it to be a bad thing.
Did T-Rex get to claim credit for it in the comic?
The introduction for the book says something along the lines of "Unlike most books, this one began with the idea of a green T-Rex."
What kind of relationship do you have with your audience? What obligation do you feel to those who've been reading Dinosaur Comics for years?
This brings it back to pals. When you're doing stuff online, you need to treat your audience like they're your friends. That may sound obvious and facile, but you see websites with have popup ads, content spread across ten pages, and all these really reader-aggressive things. It's distancing. With something like Dinosaur Comics, which makes most of its money with merchandise sales, you want people to think, "I like that site. I have fun times when I'm there." Not "Oh, man, I have to close three popups when I visit." For me, the relationship with the readers is about treating them, not like eyeballs or page views, but like friends. You want to entertain your friends, and have fun, and not let a third party exploit them for money.
Now you're writing the Adventure Time comic, too. How much do you have to modulate your voice for that?
I'm channeling someone else's characters. When they asked if I wanted to write it, I said yes, and it was pretty much the only show I would've said yes to. I already loved it, and I already knew the characters. It was easy to slide into it. The characters are so distinct and well-defined and distinct. Whenever I write Lumpy Space Princess -- again, only writing -- I read all her lines out loud in a Lumpy Space Princess voice to make sure I get the cadence right. It's super-embarrassing: "This guy's doing a valley girl voice, complaining about his lumps."
And Adventure Time is also all about pals and enthusiasm...
When it was announced, I saw some people saying, "Oh my god, Ryan is the perfect choice for this." Which is super-flattering, and I'd much rather read that than "Oh my god, Ryan is the worst possible choice for this." I try to make every comic worth picking up and worth reading. There's little alt-text, and extra comics beneath the main comics. Basically, I try to put as much as I can on the page so that it'll feel like the show, and you won't burn through the comic in three minutes.
The recent Choose Your Own Adventure issue of Adventure Time was fascinating. It didn't mean flipping back and forth between pages. It meant following maps between panels with your eyes. I felt like I was reading a Chris Ware comic starring a shape-shifting dog.
That's the nicest compliment I've ever received.
Was it a way to play with the techniques you'd considered for your Hamlet book?
Yeah. When I pitched that issue I was in the middle of revising the Hamlet book, To Be or Not To Be. I basically just pitched "Choose Your Own Adventure Time," they said sure, and I said, "What have I done?" I tried different ways of representing choice on the page, but the one I went with a) seemed like the most fun to read, because you get to follow little twisting arrows and stuff, and b) seemed the most clear. You don't want to lose the reader. On the first page, you have two choices that split apart and end on the same panel. It's super easy, and if you get lost, you can figure out how it works just by looking at that. As the pages go on, the choices get more and more complex until you have three separate storylines, all interacting with each other on the one page. If you started on that page, it'd be a disaster, but you train the reader as you go for this more complicated choice structure. I've spent a lot of time thinking about non-linear narratives lately, I guess. And it was fun to apply that to a visual medium.
For writing like this, at least somewhat pitched to kids, do you ever worry it's become too complicated?
No. I draw a super-pedantic distinction here between writing for kids and writing for all ages. All-ages means an adult can read it and enjoy it, and a child can read it and enjoy it. When I'm writing an all-ages comic like Adventure Time, I write like I'd write any other comic, but make sure the characters keep their clothes on and nobody swears too much. It's not that hard, I think, so long as you respect the audience. You treat them like pals. You don't talk down to your pals, right?
I wanted to ask about the success of your Kickstarter for To Be Or Not To Be, and what must've been your escalating freakout as you watched the funding rise to... was it $600,000?
$680,000. Yeah. I launched it asking for $20K, and had goals up to $100K. I was pretty sure we'd hit $20K. I thought it was a good project, and if we did really well we might get $100K in a month. I had three question marks that were "surprise" stretch goals, the surprise being that I hadn't written them yet. I thought I'd have several weeks to puzzle this out. Then we hit the goal in three and half hours, and hit $100K after the first day. Once we reached about $400K, I basically said, "Look, guys, the book is now the best possible book I can make it. We've gone from a black and white book to full-color, every-ending-illustrated, and fancy-bookmarked. The book is going to be the most ridiculously well-produced book we can possibly make."
Then the goals were things like "I will literally explode," which I made as a joke thinking we'd never reach half a million. We did. There's the place in Toronto called Site 3, a maker space. They scanned my head, 3D-printed it, filled it with an explosive, and blew it up. It was a lot of fun. It was a crazy month, and I didn't sleep very well because I kept getting up early to see what was happening each morning.
Does crowd funding change your relationship, or responsibility, to the audience?
You're trying to do the best thing you can for your friends. The difference is now I have 15,000 bosses I want to keep happy. Basically, you do that by doing what you said you'd do, as quickly as you can, and keeping them posted.
You said one of the great things about Dinosaur Comics is that you never have to face a blank page. And with To Be or Not To Be, you had the original Shakespeare. Is this the ideal way to work?
It's funny. I was reading a couple of biographies of Shakespeare, and one of the authors was saying how there are many forms of creativity, and Shakespeare's creativity wasn't so much in inventing plots but lifting them wholesale from previous stories, finding the cores of the characters, lifting them up, and making them much better than they had previously been. He was very carefully drawing the distinction between what Shakespeare was doing, and what we consider in the modern day to be plagiarism.
I feel a lot of empathy with that, the idea of riffing off something that's come before. I'd tried writing a non-linear, second person, Choose-Your-Own-Adventure-style book in the past and gotten nowhere, because all I had was the idea "I'd like to write a book like this!" I didn't know what to do with it. Shakespeare gave me a plotline to bounce off of. Most of the book, probably ninety-five percent of it, isn't stuff that happens in Hamlet because your choices take you away from that. But people know what's supposed to happen, so you have expectations to play with and characters to throw around.
Your new webcomic with Christopher Hastings, Galaga, is based on the 1980s video game. Did that game even have a story?
When they said, "Hey, do you guys want to do a Galaga comic?" I said "As I recall, you're a ship that shoots bugs..." I even went to Wikipedia, thinking there was some text on the side of the arcade cabinet that I missed. There's not. These guys show up, and you shoot them. There's not much to hang a story on, but, in a sense, that was very liberating. There are notes you want to hit, but how you get there is the interesting thing. I do I feel like, in something like this, you should be hitting what people want you to hit. Like when they made a movie based on the board game Battleship?
I saw it.
Apparently, in the movie, they don't say, "You sunk my battleship!"
It's disappointing, right? You want that line in the movie! I recently watched the Clue movie, also based on the board game. It's brilliant. It goes all sorts of places, but also contains the lines you want to hear. "Mrs. White, in the lobby, with the gun..." For something like Galaga, we'll hit the spaceship-shooting-bug stuff, but since you know the audience is waiting for that to happen, you can surprise them along the way. Why would you make a Battleship movie if you're not going to say, "You sunk my battleship"?
Thinking again about the end of American Elf... can you see an end date for Dinosaur Comics?
I've been thinking about this a lot lately. We recently had the ten-year anniversary, and my friends Joey [Comeau] and Emily [Horne] who do the comic A Softer World started the same week I did, so they also had their anniversary. We were talking about how ten years was coming up, saying, a) what have we done with our lives? and b) what are we going to do with our lives? We're all stunned and shocked that we reached ten years. We didn't set out thinking, "This is what I'm going to do for the next decade of my finite life!" When I started the comic I thought I'd do it for a month, then two months, then six, then maybe a year, two years... and I stopped worrying about it.
The nice thing about the comic is it's so flexible, and I can do so many things with it. I'd like to say that I'll stop it when it starts to suck or becomes a chore to write. The point where it becomes a chore to write will be really, really close to the point where it starts to suck. If it's a chore, I'm probably not enjoying it. I'm probably not making myself laugh.
Martyn Pedler is a writer and critic in Melbourne, Australia, and Bookslut's regular comic book columnist.