Ryan North is a Toronto-based writer, cartoonist, and computer programmer. He began writing the award-winning webcomic Dinosaur Comics in 2003. Since then Dinosaur Comics has been collected in four print volumes. From 2012 to 2014, Ryan wrote the Eisner- and Harvey-Award-winning Adventure Time comic book series. His other writing credits include The Midas Flesh and Marvel’s The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl.
Outside of comics, Ryan co-edited and wrote for the 2010 short story collection Machine of Death (inspired by a Dinosaur Comics strip) and its 2013 follow-up volume This is How You Die. Also in 2013, he published To Be or Not to Be, a chooseable-path version of Shakespeare’s Hamlet; a sequel called Romeo and/or Juliet is currently in progress.
As a long-time fan of Dinosaur Comics and a contributor to This is How You Die, I was excited to get the chance to talk to Ryan. We corresponded via email.
In the past, you’ve said you don’t like the label “writer.” Is there a label or a job description that fits your career to this point? Does “cartoonist” cover it?
Oh, I’d almost forgotten about that! I’ve always been twitchy around labels. These days if I’m at a party and someone asks what I do, I’ll answer depending on how interesting I want to seem. If I want to seem the least interesting I’ll say I’m a computer programmer (which is true! I run Project Wonderful, which is an ad network I wrote that is designed, unlike all other ad networks, NOT to suck) but if I want to seem more interesting I’ll say “writer.” And if I want to seem super interesting I’ll go with “cartoonist,” although that’s risky because there’s always the chance they’ll want you to draw something when you say that, and then you have to explain you’re not THAT kind of cartoonist.
But given all that I do, I think “writer” fits the largest volume of it. These days I’m much happier to call myself a writer than I was a few years ago.
Is being a cartoonist something you wanted from a young age? At what point did it start to feel feasible as a career?
I always liked comics, but they weren’t something I could really read that often. We grew up in a small town, and there was no comic book store in that town, so all I got was Archie Comics at the supermarket and knowledge of Batman and Superman through cultural osmosis, basically: cartoons and toy boxes, I suppose? This has all changed now with the internet making comics so insanely accessible, but when I was a kid that wasn’t the case. So, I didn’t really read many comics while I was growing up. But when I graduated high school I got a job, and I remember with my first paycheque I dipped into a comic book store and bought some books that seemed interesting, and got really hooked really quickly. It’s such a fun medium, and such a crazy one too.
So I started a webcomic a few years later, in the last year of my undergrad degree, and that was Dinosaur Comics, the comic where it’s always the same pictures but different words AND DEFINITELY BETTER THAN IT SOUNDS, HONEST. And I kept that up while I was in grad school, which was another two and a half years. And then when I graduated grad school I faced this choice between getting a real job, or, instead of that, just NOT getting a job and doing comics full time. It seemed like it could work, so I tried it, and it did!
So to answer your question very precisely, it started to feel feasible as a career at the end of my graduate degree in 2006, I think around April or May. But I didn’t announce I was doing the comic full time for another year after that, because I had this weird fear people would be angry at me since Dinosaur Comics wasn’t “real comics” or whatever. Anyway I got over that and now it seems ridiculous!
Was it always going to be Dinosaur Comics, or did you experiment with other kinds of characters?
My original plan with Dinosaur Comics was to change the pictures every month. They’re at qwantz.com, which was a made-up name that meant nothing, and I thought “Okay, I’ll do a month of dinos, then I’ll do a month of astronauts, and then WHO KNOWS??” I thought I’d run out of ideas for the dinosaur layout and have to come up with a new one. But the weekend I was to change the pictures from dinosaurs to astronauts it seemed like a lot of work, and the dinosaurs were working fine, so I left it and figured I’d use the dinosaurs for another month or so. That was twelve years ago now! I guess I got lucky with that first dinosaur-centric layout.
Do you feel like, working online, you’re able to do things that you wouldn’t have been able to do twenty or thirty years ago?
Yeah, uh, basically EVERYTHING I do would not have been possible 30 years ago? Take Dinosaur Comics: that’s a comic with the same pictures every single day, but different words. You show that to 10 people, maybe one of them will say “oh hey cool, I want to check that out”, and the other nine will say “this is not to my taste” if they’re polite, and “this is garbage and not a real comic” if they’re less so.
So now I’ve got this comic that 9 in 10 people will dismiss out of hand. You put that in a newspaper, you’re gonna get tons of letters saying “what IS this garbage??” But you put that online, and that 1 in 10 audience can self-select, and find this work that feels like it’s weird and original and speaking directly to them. And that’s terrific! Just terrific.
Some of the things online move back to print, too. Alt text (jokes that show up when you hover over an image) ended up being backported to print when I wrote the Adventure Time comics, where they showed up as little notes at the bottom of the pages, and that’s continued on my Unbeatable Squirrel Girl comics for Marvel. I love it: it’s almost a little stylistic signature, but it also helps readers get their money’s worth when they’re buying a comic, because they can see I’ve literally crammed jokes into the margins.
You wrote a short story for each of the Machine of Death books. What did you find different about that form as opposed to writing comics?
It’s freeing, in that you can write a lot longer, but it’s also scary because you’ve got no limits. It’s a complete blank page, which is something I don’t face with Dinosaur Comics because I always have that visual template to work with / play with / struggle against / etc.
I remember for my story in the Machine of Death sequel, This Is How You Die, I wanted it to just have the interesting parts of the story, so I borrowed a style my friend Joey Comeau does, which is to tell these stories by only showing the interesting parts. It seems like a really obvious idea that shouldn’t work, but what you do is cut out all the connecting scenes and just show the scenes that matter right up to the point where they stop mattering. And what you get out the other side is a bunch of scenes jumping ahead in time as they go, but you can set up these scenes as little punchlines, little jokes, and the overall effect is of this super-tight writing. Anyway, it worked really well for that and I was glad to have such talented friends I could lift styles from wholesale.
You’ve collaborated with other cartoonists on projects like To Be or Not to Be, as well as Adventure Time and The Midas Flesh. How do those collaborations start? Are they developed jointly, or does one contributor approach the others with an idea?
It depends on the project! For To Be or Not To Be I asked artists if they’d want to illustrate and ending, then I gave them one and said, basically, “go nuts!” So they had lots of freedom there. For Adventure Time it was our editor, Shannon Watters, who connected me with the artists, Shelli Paroline and Braden Lamb. And we got along like gangbusters, both personally and creatively. They’re so great to work with. And so when I wrote Midas Flesh, I wanted to do it with Shelli and Braden again, and they made themselves available. What great people! Everyone should hire them to do everything.
But in comics the writer always has the easier job. I can say “in this panel there are 1000 Finns” and that took me ten seconds to write, but it could take the artist all day. And you have to respect that! They’re doing the heavy lifting, they’re the ones translating a comic script visually, and I always let them know that if they want to change things, definitely go ahead and do it. Braden and Shelli would do that on Adventure Time often, tweaking jokes, moving stuff around, etc., and it always (always!) improved the script I wrote, so it was super great. Collaboration really can produce work that’s better than what you can do on your own!
Is there anything you’re reading right now that we should check out?
My goal this year was to read 52 books in 52 weeks, and it’s been a lot of fun going through so many books. I was big into The Three Body Problem by Liu Cixin. It’s scifi in the sort of Asimovian tradition, in which a lot of smart people sit around and discuss physics problems, but it’s gripping and really clever. And then there’s a sequel that’s equally gripping and clever but also a very different book at the same time, which is impressive too. There’s a third book in the trilogy, but it’s not translated into English yet, so we’ve all got to wait.
Comics-wise I’m big into whatever Chip Zdarsky and Matt Fraction are doing, either together or apart, because they are so great.
Finally, do you have any advice for other people who are interested in writing comics, but who maybe aren’t the best at drawing?
There’s lots of ways to get around that limitation (clip art, photos, stick figures, etc.) all of which have examples of really successful comics using those styles! So I wouldn’t worry about that. My main advice is to write comics every day, and then, critically, PUT THEM ONLINE. Here’s what you’re doing when you put your work online: you’re putting it where people can see it, you’re making it possible for you to develop an audience, AND it even acts as this weird, long-form, super-entertaining resume. I got the job writing Adventure Time because Shannon read my comics and liked them and thought I was a good fit for the job.
So it’s this great situation where you’ll get better at writing comics the more you write, but you can turn your “practice comics” into a career almost by accident. So yeah, put your work online! It might be embarrassing at the start but it’s totally worth it.
Kyle Schoenfeld is a U.S. writer currently pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. His short stories have been published in the anthology This is How You Die and the journal Bricolage.