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Interview With Ryan North
Interview With Ryan North
Ryan North is the creator of Dinosaur Comics, an eternally ingenious comic strip that has managed to maintain tupperware level freshness since 2003 with the use of only a single image. In this interview we learn whether Ryan prefers Gates McFadden or Marina Sirtis, whether T-Rex or Utahraptor would win in a race and why I'm not even as cool as Hitler!
Do you enjoy talking about your projects? If so, which do you enjoy talking about more? You comic projects or your non-comic projects?
Basically whenever you're talking about yourself in an interview context it's pretty enjoyable. It's like a test, except all the questions are about things you are intimately familiar with, and by definition you know the answers. All you have to do is be careful not to use TOO many racial epithets and you are golden!
So to answer your question, I enjoy them both pretty much the same!
Dinosaur Comics has been called a constrained comic. Do you feel this description is valid or that all comics are technically constrained comics in their own way?
Well, I mean, we're all constrained by the limits of the medium, our imagination, the span of human life. I think it's fair and meaningful to say that Dinosaur Comics is constrained, because with the same pictures everyday, there are some things I can't do (for example: change the pictures). But if you look at the layout and how it's used, it's super flexible, so I don't feel constrained. I can add "LATER:" above a panel to change the visual narrative of the strip, and when I sit down to write a comic, at least I'm never facing a blank sheet of paper, right?
I believe that one of your writing strengths is the ability to always play off the context of the situation. I've noticed in past interviews that you'll often reference your what you're saying and then reference that reference. Is this is a compulsive habit or does it take constant conscious consideration?
It's not conscious, no! My experience with most people who tell or write jokes for a living is that they're always practicing; it's something you always do. It's not like you sit down and say "Okay, I am going to be funny for the next 30 minutes" - it's more like, "Okay, I am hanging out with my friends and we all want to have a good time, so let's go with that and see what happens". It's hard to explain, but it's like in a conversation with someone, something they'll say will give you the idea of what you want to say in response to that. I find a lot of jokes happen the same way, and you get callbacks and references because they're fresh in your head and you know the other person has the shared experience there. Maybe?
I feel like now I need to set something up so that I can call back to it later! I referenced racial epithets at the start, maybe later on I'll casually use one like it's no big deal. This - this might be a bad idea.
The young Gates McFadden or the young Marina Sirtis?
Haha, oh god. I think I'll go with Heavenly Gates, but only because Two-Takes Frakes was not an option.
Does having static artwork give you more time to write and arrange better dialog or just more time to do other things? I read that it's not unusual for you to spend 2-3 hours working on a single comic. Would it be a day-long project if you had to do daily artwork or would you try to cut down on writing time?
I honestly don't know how real cartoonists do it. It takes me 3 hours to write a comic, but then it's usually only a few minutes to lay it out and get the voice lines just right. If I were drawing pictures it would easily take me that long, if not longer, or I'd have super terrible drawings. I think some compromise is needed for people who aren't talented visual artists, and as I am a 100% not talented visual artist, I compromised pretty heavily there. But let's not call it compromise! Let us call it "a novel and aggressive exploration of the visual aesthetic and narrative structure inherent to the sequential arts".
Nachos or taco salad?
I just had ice cream, man, so both of these are sounding gross wrong now. But yeah, nachos, because you can basically include a taco salad as a nacho topping (if you think this is not possible then you have not made nachos as I have and you are not living your life to the fullest, probably that is a fact)
I'm very interested in hearing cartoonists talk about the state of comics both online and offline. Where do you think comics are going in general? Are they taking a new direction or are we basically all rehashing what was done 100 years ago?
I challenge anyone to look at a comic like MS Paint Adventures (mspaintadventures.com) and say that it's the same comics that were being made 100 years ago. That's a comic with tons of updates every day, animation, user interaction, and so many crazy things happening that could only happen online. It may be the first true webcomic, in that it'd fail in any other medium. I love it.
At the high level, I think the trend is towards gag-a-day stuff over long storylines, but that's probably just because there's more of an audience for "I need a laugh at work" than "I am planning to invest months learning this plot and characters". But that doesn't mean the two can't coexist. Questionable Content and The Adventures of Dr. McNinja both have (great) ongoing plots, but also a joke every day. I think that's a great combination.
On the flip side, comics 100 years ago were doing some amazing things that nobody does anymore. Little Nemo was a daring newspaper strip that ran full page, full colour, and played with the limitations and conventions of the medium. Nowadays we get 3 panel black-and-white jokes about Mondays and lasagna. It's hard to imagine something like Little Nemo surviving today - except maybe as a webcomic? Here I am talking up my medium again! IT WILL SAVE COMICS.
Do you think dinosaur meat is tasty?
I think some of it would have to be, you know? Other dinosaurs seemed to like it. Some seemed to be ALL ABOUT it!
Follow-up to Q2: It seems like almost all comics are constrained by style as well. A comic always develops into something, it evolves until it reaches a certain point. Once it reaches it, it just sort of grooves there, as if it's constrained to a set of rules. Calvin and Hobbes started a little rough, but by about the point where Watterson was drawing the half-page Sunday strips, it had hit it's groove. The characters were developed, the drawing style was established, and the only thing that changed were the stories and situations. Penny Arcade has followed an interesting progression and continues to evolve but seems to have hit a pretty solid groove in the past year or two. Even if it evolves further, it's going in a particular direction according to set of rules. There is an entity floating in the air which is imposed by a combination of what the artists wants and what has already been established. An idea plus a person seems to have an eventual conclusion which both parties are constrained to for an optimum result. In that way all the best comics are constrained, making the term seem a bit redundant.
When a comic is new, it is undefined. You're not sure what it's going to be. The characters are not real yet. But after a certain number of impressions or situations, it becomes a thing. Not everyone likes to read Garfield, but all comic readers can identify those characters and have the same brand come to mind. People are aware of the thing. What are your thoughts on how a comic becomes an entity of it's own? How long do you think it takes before a world becomes established in a person's mind? And how would you measure that? In frames? In story time? Or possibly time thinking about it?
I think for this I'd think about Star Trek TNG, which has a great example of a rough first season with SOME promise (Conspiracy), a rough second season that starts to hit something interesting (The Measure of a Man) and then a third season that really showed the series had arrived.
I think part of it is how we plan things: when you're starting something out, you say "Okay, it's gonna have these characters in this situation, maybe I'll want to talk about this or that", and then you start doing it. With Dinosaur Comics the main thing was the layout, but I went with the first one I came up with, slightly modified after I discovered it sucked and I couldn't write comics with it. Then I wrote 10 or 15 comics on one day to make sure that I could tell more than one story with the pictures, and then I started, and here we are!
I think if you look at DC you can see in the early episodes a lot of things I no longer do now: experimentation to see what worked and what didn't. T-Rex and Utahraptor use articles in front of their names ("I hope I see the Utahraptor today!") and there's some clunky structural things there that worked poorly. I'm still experimenting to see what sort of things are possible with the pictures, but in the earlier days there was a lot of low-hanging sucky fruit that I've already picked, taken a bite out of, said "gross", and thrown over my shoulder.
In a sense I think maybe series hit their groove when they become predictable, which sounds bad (we want our entertainment to be novel and entertaining), but I mean it in the sense of "we know these characters and how they'll behave". Early Picard on Star Trek seems like an incredible hardass now, but at the time, that was who we thought the character was. Early Utahraptor and T-Rex are way more antagonistic than they are now, but that was before I realized they were friends. Once you've sorted out who your characters are beyond descriptions on a sheet of paper, you can start being consistent and, hopefully, reliably entertaining.
I'm thinking of counterexamples, of things that emerged fully formed, but even when you look at something super planned out like Babylon 5, the first season is way rougher than what came afterwards. Maybe Graham Lineham's comedies are good counterexamples: he values having characters stay consistent for comedy's sake, so you can watch a series one or series three episode of Father Ted or The IT Crowd and they'll be hilarious all the time. Maybe you should ask this question to Graham; I think he's nailed it and can hit a groove right out of the gate!
I think music can be a good analogy to comics. I like to think of stick figures as stripped down bare-bones music, where better artwork is like elaborate or symphonic music. So I suppose Dinosaur Comics would be closer to a capella? Either way, I think both sides of the spectrum can be impressive. It's impressive when an artist can articulate elaborate visuals to tell the story, and it's impressive when an artist can articulate the story without elaborate visuals. I'm certainly impressed that DC continues to work so well and it's mind-blowing what you've been able to do with a single image and MS Paint. It does remind me of a well performed a capella piece, which holds up on it's own without a lot of other instruments. Also, I find the image of T-Rex singing quite humorous.
Thanks! A capella is an interesting analogy because if writing is singing and drawing is instruments, you've replaced the instruments there with singing approximations of them. That's not exactly what I've done, but I do use the writing to recontextualize the images all the time ("LATER:" or "MEANWHILE:" or "SUDDENLY, IN TUDOR ENGLAND:" help quite a bit). But I always argue that the drawings ARE important, and they're what make Dinosaur Comics what it is. Without them you lose a lot of the character (and characters) and warmth of the comic. I write the comics as text and then lay them out, and the comics, when they finally become comics, are so much better than the script I started with.
Who would win in a one mile race? T-Rex or Utahraptor?
Utahraptor is at the finish line and T-Rex is right near the starting line, shouting "NO FAIR I THOUGHT WE WERE ON TEAMS"
When do you feel most creative?
Morning! I write before breakfast generally, and everytime I've tried it's been really hard to write all day, or to start writing into the afternoon. Who knows why? NOT ME.
Do you have any advice for new webcomic guys? (Besides "get lost", of course)
No man, I love new comics! It's not like in papers where a new comic is instant competition for me. There's tons of space on the internet, and people tend to just read an extra comic and get extra entertainment for free more than they tend to say "I SHALL ONLY READ THREE COMICS; NOW IS THE TIME TO MAKE SOME CUTS."
My advice is pretty much the same you'd get from any professional cartoonist online: update regularly, respect your readers, don't put up work you're not proud of, and don't be a dick.
Anything new with Project Wonderful? I've been considering trying ads again (for visitors who are not signed in) for a while now, and PW has seems like a good choice.
Oh, there's tons of new stuff all the time! It's under constant development. We just added asynchronous ads (ads load alongside content, rather than forcing everything to wait while they load) which is a neat technical trick, but unless you're looking for it you probably won't care. It's fun to add features like that to balance out new shiny bells and whistles that people DO notice!
Are there any new Ryan North projects in the works?
I think with Dinosaur Comics, Project Wonderful, Machine of Death, Oh No Robot and the rest I've got a pretty full plate! That said: yes.
I was just checking out your Twitter feed and noticed you have another feed, @skinnytimeryan, where you just post your weight. It seems that your weight continues to drop and I worry that if this trend continues, you will eventually disappear. Do you have a contingency plan to avoid this?
Haha, as you can tell in the time that has elapsed since you asked this question, my contingency plan is to get fat and keep losing the same weight over and over. BRILLIANT.
The "my scale posts my weight to Twitter" thing is kinda ridiculous. It's such useless and yet personal information for anyone but myself, but it's really motivating to know that there are all these strangers out there keeping tabs on my weight loss. I've seen people describe it as both what's wrong with Twitter and society in general, and also somehow really satisfying.
Anyway I'm about 5 pounds away from my goal; tell your friends
Is Twitter one of those ideas you wished you would have tried first? For me, I never would have imagined that it would work. I think part of the reason is that, as a programmer, I forget just how much most people struggle with technology. I focus on writing simple code and as a designer I focus on making simple user interfaces. But I sometimes forget the usefulness of a simple idea. I've read that you create websites that you know will be useful to yourself. Would you have thought a site like Twitter would be so useful to so many people before it became popular?
Nope! But Twitter's described as the communication medium none of us knew we needed and now none of us can give up, right? I think even the creators didn't realize what they had until people starting using it in ways they didn't anticipate - the whole @reply thing was started by members and then built into the platform. But you're right: I code the things I find useful, some of them hit and some of them don't, and it's not really possible to predict which will be which!
I'm glad somebody invented Twitter though because it's pretty great!
Do you have buffer comics? Or are you more the draw and upload that morning/evening type? Either way, what is you opinion on working ahead of your publishing schedule, on freshness vs quality?
When I started the comic I did 15 all at once, and that was my buffer, which lasted me 15 days and then I had to start doing comics again. For the first several years it was always "write the comic the morning of, put it up the second it's finished" which got you absolute freshness, but also meant that if I wasn't funny that morning the comic wouldn't post till the afternoon or sometimes the evening, which was the worst. Starting in 2009 (I think?) I made a concerted effort to be a Professional and I've kept at least a one-day buffer since then - one day giving me the ability to put the comic up at a consistent time at least.
Having a buffer took some getting used to, because I would continue to tweak the comic after I'd pronounced it completed when the next day came around and it was time to post it. And those tweaks weren't generally making the comic better - they were changing things to very little effect. What I've settled on now is reading each comic before I post it and if I still think it's good, great, up it goes. If I don't think it's good then I don't post it and start rewriting it (or go with another one in the buffer, if it's big enough) but generally those rewrites go beyond just tweaking it.
You never want to put something up that you're not proud of, and that's my guiding principle. "Freshness" doesn't really enter into it because I don't do too many comics that are riffing on the news that morning, and nobody REALLY knows if I've been tinkering away on a comic over years before it gets posted that morning (which has happened! One comic was started in 2005 and only put up this year, and nobody could tell, but it was SUPER SATISFYING to finally be able to finish that strip.)
Sometimes, I want to WRITE LIKE THIS. But I feel like I'm ripping you off and failing. What is the secret to pulling off the all-caps enunciation?
I get emails from people apologizing and saying "Look, I write like you now and I can't stop. Sorry?" and if they're good email writers it's great, because you think, "Hey, that's funny! Awesome. I'm glad that's what I sound like to others." but the rare times they're really terrible at emails it's awful because you think "Aw man, that's what I sound like, this is the worst."
I started using the all-caps enunciation to transmit "here's how this line is said" delivery information and if there's a secret, it's to use it only where you'd emphasis a word in real life! But you can also put entire sentences in caps for a semi-ironic shouting effect. I HAVE USED THIS EFFECT SOMETIMES MYSELF, YOU GUYS.
It boggles my mind that (until recently) most mainstream comics printed sentences in all caps, with bold for emphasis. It may be a small point, but bolding a word is not the same as putting it in caps, and when you have access to both, you can pull off different effects. Why limit yourself in that way for no real benefit? (Says the guy who never changes the pictures).
How does your "comic filter" work? Almost every artist must first determine that a creation is "good" before he displays it to others. Do you have a gut feeling that tells when you something is worthy? Is it more of a logical approach? Is it whatever is done by due time? Or, do you not worry about such things?
I've actually developed a grand theory of this recently, and it goes like this: there are three genres of creative expression that I believe make it easier to know when something is "good", and they are erotica, horror, and comedy. Each of these genres is special because when they're working right, when they're capital-G Good, your body PHYSICALLY CHANGES STATE, which is amazing. Good comedy, you laugh, good horror, you can feel scared and twitchy, and good erotica, you get to have private times. This is great, because if I were writing drama it'd be a lot harder to tell when I'd done something good, a lot more room for doubt, but with comedy, once it makes you laugh, you're golden.
Of course there's different senses of humour (and what's scary, and what's hot) but if you're writing for yourself, writing to appeal to people who share your interests / sense of humour / EROTIC IMAGINATION, then your body helps you out by letting you know when you've nailed it.
This is a long and probably unnecessarily sex-centric way of saying I know a comic's good when it makes me laugh, and I find it hard to write in a public space because it's considered so gauche and weird to laugh at your own jokes. But man, why would you want to tell jokes you don't find funny?
Exactly how cool do I have to become before I get my own Wikipedia page?
All I can say is HITLER has his own Wikipedia page, and I would've thought that you'd be cooler than Hitler, but, well, Wikipedia seems to differ. I'm sorry. I don't know what Wikipedia's deal is.
Some people see comics as a dying medium, while I see it as just beginning. I believe there will soon be a creative model which follows resolution. For economical reasons, the standard path will be for good stories to be made into comics and good comics to be made into shows or movies. What do you think? Are comics on the way in, on the way out, or is this the golden age?
I actually ALSO have a grand theory for this, and the short version is that due to comics being generally homogenous for decades and even generations, the medium got a bad rap. In the early 80s, unless you were actively seeking them out by going into a comic store (and most casual readers of a medium don't go into a specialty shop), you'd be exposed to comics through three vectors. One is Archie comics, teen romance sold at the supermarket checkout. If you don't like teen romance, Archie isn't going to be that appealing. The other is newspaper strips, but economic forces had conspired to make those as safe and homogenous as possible, and you're not going to see much beyond jokes about how Mondays are terrible and lasagna is delicious in the newspaper comics section (with a few notable exceptions, obviously). The third is movies and television, where you'd get a general cultural knowledge of Superman, Batman, and the rest.
But these three vectors (Archie, newspaper strips, and superheroes) are all very generic: teen romance, safe jokes your grandparents will enjoy, and power fantasy, respectively. And if you're not into those three genres, you'd be forgiven for saying "I guess I just don't like comics", because that's all you'd see comics doing. And of course that's ridiculous, and if someone said "I just don't like books" your first instinct would be to say "You're crazy, try this book, it's one of my favourites." But that's where comics was: a medium that can do anything, but seen only as a collection of genres.
And then webcomics show up! And they're generally free AND easily accessible, and folks start sharing them over email, and it's a very low time commitment to read a single installment. And my theory is that webcomics is acting as an ambassador for comics, showing people that comics aren't what they think they are, and that they can do anything, just as you can write a book about anything or make a movie about anything. There's so many webcomics that on all sorts of subjects in all sorts of styles, and I really believe that as people start reading those, getting exposed to them through their friends, they'll start seeing the comics as more than a collection of genres.
I sometimes get emails from people saying "Hey, I don't like comics but I love what you do" and I'm always tempted to write back and say "Surprise! You like comics." It's all comics, and the genre of what you're doing doesn't really matter. Even if you don't change the pictures, you're still working in that medium, creating something that hasn't been seen before.
©ALLOFTHEYEARS Steve Burke * home * rss