Danielle Krage interviews Ryan North – writer of games, comic books, non-fiction books and more. They dig into considerations for comedy, including Ryan’s experience of writing The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl and Danger and Other Unknown Risks.
This fun conversation covers – timing, collaboration, translating comedy, crafting jokes, originality, and entrepreneurial approaches. There’s even a bonus joke from ancient Greece!
You can find out more about Ryan and his work at:
CLICK HERE FOR TRANSCRIPT
Hey everyone. I am very happy to have Ryan North with me today, who is a writer of games, comic books, graphic novels, nonfiction and more. And I came into Ryan’s work through reading The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, which is so much fun and also Danger and Other Unknown Risks, which was an absolute delight. So, so many things I want to ask about those. But before we dive in, Ryan, is there anything else you’d love people to know about you and your work or your connections to creating comedy?
Ryan North (00:31.857)
No, that’s a great intro. It makes me sound terrific.
Yeah, you are terrific. Claim it. Amazing. So I actually have a super basic question to start off with, which is that when I was looking at your work and things being referenced as comic books and graphic novels, I actually had to Google to check what the difference was. So I wonder if other people like me who might be like, I think I know, but I’m not sure….how do you think about those things differently, for someone that’s hearing those terms?
Ryan North (00:40.293)
Sure. I think of myself at a party and I’m meeting someone new and I have to decide how interesting and how classy I want to sound. If I want to sound cool and fun, I’ll say comic books. I want to sound intellectual and distinguished. I’ll say, oh, I write graphic novels. They’re the same thing. There’s a small distinction to some people where a comic book would be like a magazine style floppy thing you’d buy at a store and a graphic novel is more of a perfect bound book.
Ryan North (01:26.717)
Comic books can be published as graphic novels. They’re almost synonymous and no one would ever correct you for using one or the other. Unless you went to buy a floppy magazine and said, ‘I’d like to purchase this graphic novel.’ People might look at you funny, but it’s, don’t worry about it. There are enough barriers to getting into comics that you don’t have to worry about the words you use to describe it.
Oh, that’s helpful. Thank you. I do feel like quite a newbie in that world and navigating my way through it. I will go to the bookstore and sometimes be slightly overwhelmed. So it was lovely having the filter of comedy, like to find your work. Obviously that’s not all it is, but that was a really fun way in. I was Googling…. best comic comics or best comedy graphic novels. Super helpful.
And again, another fairly basic question, because you know so much more about this than I do…. I’ve never collaborated with an artist. I’m exploring writing fiction and I love comedy, but I’ve never worked with a visual artist. And some listeners may be in that position too. There may be writers who love comedy, but have never worked with an artist. And I know that you, for example, work with Erica Henderson a lot. So I’d love if you could just take us a little bit behind the scenes in terms of… I know it’s different for everyone, but your process in terms of when you think about what the pitch is, what the characters are, what the arc is, how you like to work together. As just one example.
Ryan North (02:46.289)
Yeah, so comics is generally a collaborative medium where…. there are cartoonists who do all the writing, they do all their own drawing, they do their coloring, they do their own inking, they do their own lettering, they’re a one-person show. A lot of it is not that. A lot of it is people specializing. And I specialize in writing and Erica specializes in drawing. And so we met doing a comic for Marvel called Unbeatable Squirrel Girl where they basically cast the book. Cast me as the writer, cast her as the artist, and we’re there to do a job. We’re not there to make friends. But then we became really good friends because we clicked so well. We had the same vision for the character and it became this really great relationship.
And so when we did a book together, Danger and Other Unknown Risks, the process there was different. Normally doing a book for Marvel, I write a script, but you need to keep in mind that this script is not…People think of it like a recipe, like this is a recipe for a comic book. I’ve written it and now you draw it, you do yours, I’ll do mine. It’s collaborative. When I would write a script for Erica, she would say, well, what if we move this panel over here? What if we combine these two panels into one? What if we split this one panels into two? She’d have input on the visual part of the page because that’s where her skillset is and she’s the best at this. And when you are writing comics, you absolutely have the easy job because it takes 10 seconds to write on this page, Batman fights a thousand ninjas. It takes all day to draw. So you have to keep that in mind.
So your script’s not a recipe. Your script is something that is…. Ideally designed to get your artists excited about what you want to, the story you want to tell. It’s not meant for the public or something for the editor. It’s meant for them. But with danger, since we had collaborated for five years doing Squirrel Girl together, the process there was much more open-ended where we had conversations about the narrative back and forth. What are we excited about? What do we want to tell a story about? Let’s talk about that before you even get into actual narrative.
And then for the script, I would write a draft and send it to her and she would do her visions and send it back to me. So we ended up, when the final book came out, we were like, let’s put Erica as writer too. We wrote this together. And it was fun to work with her on that where she obviously has a lot of experience telling stories visually, less so writing them in a script format so we can sort of support each other and cover for each other’s weaknesses while elevating each other’s strengths, which made it….It’s a really interesting book to read because it feels like it was created by this third entity called Erica and Ryan that is different than Ryan different than Erica.
But it is absolutely a collaborative medium and that’s the joy I think of comics is that you imagine a story in your head, when you’re writing these scripts, and then when you get pages back from your artist, they are always different and always better than what I was imagining. And it feels like a cheat that I get to have my name on the cover of these books and these comics and these graphic novel because the final product is so much more than what I put into it in the script. Like I’m just, I’m starting with a story and I’m getting back a complete visual narrative. So it’s one of my favourite mediums to work in because it is so unexpected, the stuff you can get out of it and so collaborative.
That sounds so fun. I love it. Yeah. So I’m from a theatre background. And one of the things that I loved about it most was the collaboration. So it’d be devising pieces. And again, that thing of when you put more brains in the room and you end up with something you couldn’t have done by yourself, super fun. I love that.
Ryan North (06:04.926)
Yeah, and I mean, just speaking of comics for comedy specifically, when you’re writing prose you have no control over where your words are going to land on the page because in different editions it’ll be different, maybe top page, maybe the bottom page, maybe turn the page. In comics you do because that page layout is fixed. And so for comedy specifically, you can control when the punchline is going to land. You can have a delay if you want by making the reader turn the page to hit the punchline. It’s so great to have that level of control for comedy, a lot of timing control. Ina print medium I think it really helps the comedy sing because you can really hold the reader’s hand through the timing necessary to make the joke work.
Oh, that’s super fascinating. Right. I really want to come back to that because that connects to a question I wanted to ask you about in terms of elements. But before I forget, you used the term casting for you being cast for this comic. ‘ve heard that used in different contexts. I haven’t heard it used in relation to writing. Again, from your experience… What’s that process like? How do you get cast?
Ryan North (07:00.641)
Yeah, I’m not sure if it’s a term other people use. I’ve been using it. So doing work for, they’re called the big two Marvel and DC, the big comics companies in, in North America. And they are a business. And so they will say something like, we think we would like to put out a book about Squirrel Girl. So we need some people to make this book for us.
And we’ll need to figure out what type of people we want to be writing, what type of people we want to be drawing it, what it looks like, what it feels like. That process is finding the creative team for it. And I I’m sure there’s probably a technical word for it. I call it casting. Cause it feels like… you’ll be the writer, you’ll be the artist. Um, and it’s wild because it is a business decision by these companies.
And for me, the process has been like, it’s almost like a free friendship dating app, where I get to meet these really amazing artists and become friends with them through this work. Like he’s getting paid to make friends, which is great. I don’t know if it’s intentional. I don’t think it is, but I think the luck of it is that when you do have a similar creative vision, you probably align a lot of other things too. So it makes it very easy to become friends. Also, when you’re working on a book together, you’re, both of you are pulling in the same direction. I think it’s hard not to make friends when you’re working on a project together. It’s human nature.
Yeah, that totally makes sense. I want to come back to timing, which I think is a beautiful thing to think about in terms of, like you say, where those sort of punchlines land. And, for example, stand-up comics have their own vocabulary around comedy, whether they’re talking about bits or tags or so many different things. I feel like there’s less for fiction writers, which is my current chosen field. There’s the dialogue and then there’s how you’re describing what’s happening visually. And maybe there’s the event that’s actually comic for you. But I was super interested in the fact that you’re a linguist. For example, I watched your TEDx talk and I loved how you talked about the invention of language…. of talking and writing, and you had some really interesting insights. How do you think from a linguist and a writer’s perspective….how do you think about comedy for yourself, either consciously, or unconsciously?
Ryan North (09:31.585)
Oh, gosh, that’s a huge question. Yeah, I’ve had conversations with this with other cartoonists, where we’re trying to figure out what comedy is because…I can tell you that when I’m writing comedy, I like to write it alone. I close that door behind me so no one can see me because the process for me is trying to make myself laugh. I’m trying to surprise myself and I never write in public because it’s super embarrassing to be that guy at the coffee shop with your laptop open typing and then like chuckling at the joke you made to yourself. It’s mortifying, but that’s what the process is for me. And so what I’m reduced to is saying, oh, I’m trying to make myself laugh and hope people share my sense of humour.
And as quick side story with this, I was interviewed by my undergrad student paper and they asked a similar question. And I said something like, you know, I’m trying to write for anyone who shares my sense of humour. And that reached print and web as reading… writing for anyone who has a sense of humour, which is a very different thing to say, much more arrogant thing to say. But like, what is it…. there’s an element of surprise. There’s an element of twist. I think a lot of there’s a joke.
Do you know the Simpsons? Like the first 10 years of the Simpsons? There’s a joke on the Simpsons where this town has spent all their money on bear patrols because they saw one bear and then Homer opens his mail with Lisa beside him and there’s a big tax bill and Homer’s complaining about this tax and he says let the bears pay the bear tax I pay the Homer tax Lisa says, ‘that’s the homeowner tax dad’. And that is such a good joke because you can’t cheat on it. That joke is based off the concept of homeowner tax, which predates The Simpsons, and the name Homer, which was not chosen for this joke. This is 10 years into the show. And a joke like that I love because you can just see the craft behind it. You had no cheats. You couldn’t do anything to change the setup. You just had to take what was there on the ground and build something funny out of it. And that to me is the most impressiv form of humour when you can look at it as a writer and be like, the only way to get there is to do the work. You can’t find a shortcut here.
I’ll also say on the subject that my wife and her friend no longer will go with me to see stand-up because they say I ruin it for them. And the reason I ruined it for them is that I find as a guy who writes comedy, you’re always trying to figure out what the joke is when someone’s telling you a joke. And so…I will not laugh because I’ve gotten to the joke before the author of that joke did. I didn’t tell it to myself very well. And so like I’ve already spoiled my joke for me. Or I’ll laugh before the standup gets to the punchline, which is even more irritating because they haven’t heard the joke yet. And I’m already laughing at it because I can see where the twist is. It’s funny when I’m telling the joke to myself.
I think if you want to be writing comedy, I think what helps is to always, in the back of your head, like try to be funny. What’s the joke in this? What’s, the twist? What’s the unexpected thing? But I don’t think there’s, I’ve not been able to find a formula to be like, this is funny. Although I will tell you in my linguistics caree… one of the things in my thesis I considered was a, I was computational linguistics, which is using computers to explore linguistics. And one of the things I had was you could very easily use a semantic network to take input text and add puns to it, bad puns. Like, if the subject of the text is about bicycles, instead of saying ‘he said’ you could say ‘he spoke that to me’ and spoke is related to both those subjects. So it would automatically add bad puns to any bit of text. And I didn’t do it because A, it was too easy. And B, I was like, if you ran this backwards, you could remove puns from texts and as a responsible scientist, I don’t want to introduce this technology into the world of a filter that removes puns from any bit of text that you would ever see.
So there are different types of humour, there’s different types of comedy, puns could be made poorly programmatically, but as for why we laugh besides delight and surprise, and I laugh in recognition, I laugh when I see something really clever, but I wish I had a more shortened, succinct synthesis of what I just told you, because it’s a huge question, a huge subject.
No, that’s awesome. Yeah. I, I’m just feeling bad because I feel like I often don’t laugh at the right bit of the joke. Like I felt like I laughed before the punchline because I was totally distracted by the idea of bears paying tax. And then I was off in my imagination, imagining these bears…
Ryan North (14:17.569)
the bear infrastructure required for that? And are they paying in honey? Or where are they getting their money? Are these bears working jobs?
Exactly. So I was off on the bear sidetrack and then not in the right place for when the pun actually landed. And I feel like that happens a lot. And I don’t know why, but I am an absolute sucker for anything to do with animals or puppets. If you want to increase my comedy threshold…, like I love the squirrel characters. I love the talking dog. You give me a talking animal and you put dialogue in its mouth and instantly you’ll get like five times the love out of me. I don’t know why. And it’s ridiculous.
Ryan North (14:54.957)
Yeah. I’m like you for people in bear suits, especially like 1900s. It’s a collection of like, because it was a fad at that time to put on a bear suit. And then there are these photographs. And when you look at an old photograph, you see it differently than the people at the time did because you see how dated their clothes are, you see everything looks old-fashioned. So you have an expectation and a mood for these old photographs. There’s this gloom, you have to hold your pose because the cameras take a long time to capture the image.
All this stuff is so staid and so conservative. And then there’s just a guy in a bear suit in the photograph. It is so incongruous. It’s so hilarious. And it’s almost, it’s like a cheat code to get me to laugh. Like I just, I don’t know what it is about it, but just a guy in a bear suit is a classic. Yeah.
Amazing. Well, we know what to put on your birthday cards or whatever now. That’s amazing. And I had the same thing once in a theatre show, that I was watching. For some reason, they had this loaf of bread and they ripped it open so it had a mouth that could talk. And it started being like this Sergeant Major shouting out instructions. And for some reason that hit my sweet spot in a way that…because I don’t laugh out loud that much…. couldn’t control myself. They didn’t have to do anything else in the show. All they had to do was open up this Sergeant Major and start shouting. And no one else in the row particularly, thought it was funny.
Ryan North (16:21.473)
They would have loved you on stage though like that she loves it. This is great. This is a hit
So that’s fun the way that we’re all so individual.
And also that links to a question I wanted to ask you that you may not have an answer for, it’s totally fine. But I read that your work’s been translated into 16 different languages. It might be even more by now. And I was just wondering if there’s any, anything you feel like you’ve learned from that… from either, I don’t know if you’ve been involved in the process of just seeing the results…. that you’re like….Oh, that’s interesting that that’s how they did that.
Ryan North (16:54.121)
Yeah, there is a translator in Brazil who’s done a couple of my works. And out of all of them, he is the one who reached out to me to correspond. And I really appreciate it because he would ask questions of you know, what is the intent behind this? This feels like a joke, but I don’t get it. There’s some cultural context I’m missing and I need that to translate it.
And for…I wrote a book called Romeo and/or Juliet, which is a nonlinear version of Shakespeare. And he was translating that and he found a phrase, I wish I could remember it, but he was like, is this an extremely clever reference to this part of Shakespeare canon and also the Bible? Because that’s gonna be tricky to translate. And I was like, you are giving me too much credit. That was not meant to be anything with that depth. So don’t worry, you can do the easy version of the translation here and not have to worry about it.
But there was an Adventure Time comic I wrote that had a secret code. And I’d assumed they gave the translator my scripts, but they didn’t. They gave the final comic. And so he had to work out the code on his own. And that was the first time he emailed me to be like… did I get the answer right? And I was like, Oh, my friend, let me give you everything I can here. Because translation is hard even without comedy. Like the idea of moving a thought between languages is tricky because words have different shades of meaning and….vven in English, if I were to say, you know, Danielle, you made a mistake or….. Danielle, you blundered…. or Danielle, you erred…. or Danielle, you goofed. All these have subtle shades of blame and responsibility that I’m putting on you. And if I say…. Oh, Danielle, you goofed on this one….. versus Danielle, you blundered here…. you would feel differently. But that shade of meaning has to be known, understood, and put in a different language to even get that across. So translating it poorly and you’re giving the whole wrong intent to that sentence.
So try and do that with jokes, with comedy, where so much relies on the cultural knowledge you have and the situation that you’re in is a really hard and really impressive job. I think translators often don’t get recognized for the work they do, especially in literature, especially in comedy, where even pulling it off feels like a miracle.
Like I remember looking at really old jokes at this time was trying to figure out…. like comedy doesn’t age very well, often…..Often you look at movies from the fifties and the jokes just seem weird or bad or dated or obvious. And I was going all the way back to ancient Greece and trying to find jokes there that still worked. There is an ancient greek joke the Hippocleides one. Do you know this… Hippocleides?
No, I’m so intrigued!
Ryan North (19:39.973)
All right Hopefully it works So the story is…there’s this father, Hippocleides s, and he has…he’s really worried about this daughter marrying well. And then the daughter gets involved with this Prince and they decided to get married. And so Hippocleides is so relaxed. He’s, everything’s going great for Hippocleides and there’s this engagement party and Hippocleides is drinking and he’s dancing, he’s doing like the ancient Greece equivalent of the lampshade on the head. Like he’s embarrassing himself. And the way the joke goes…It’s always great when the teller laughs at his own joke…. The way the joke goes is someone’s like… you know, Hippocleides, you’re gonna ruin this for your daughter. This is bad. You gotta stop being a crazy person…. And Hippocleides says… Hippocleides doesn’t care…. And the joke ends with, hence the famous expression… Hippocleides doesn’t care. Which I just love just being like, yes, that famous expression. It’s absurd. It’s like, it’s an absurd joke. Big, long buildup to just a weird twist at the end.
Oh, that’s amazing.
Ryan North (20:36.793)
I was so happy to read this thing that’s you know older than our civilizations and it still has the power to make me laugh.
Oh, that’s so mind-blowing and so lovely to think about. Because I do think of humour as being like a really primal mechanism in the sense I do think, like when I think of why I love it so passionately, I do think of all those situations where it’s helped me connect, or just break the tensions, or given me a lens that I am happy to look at things through as opposed to one that’s just too much. So it feels really primal, but like then you say then it has all these different shapes that it takes as it moves through the ages and culture changes. But that’s incredible to think back to that. That’s awesome.
Ryan North (21:20.917)
Yeah, no, I mean, I think one of the best things you can do, I think, is being able to laugh at yourself. Like if you picture someone who, you know, is carrying a big bowl of soup and he trips and spills it over himself. If that guy laughs, that is a hilarious scene. If he gets angry, what a mood change, right? Like you’re just like, I think less of that person. I don’t want to be around this scene. I’m now tense myself. But when he laughs, it diffuses the whole thing. He’s not upset. You can laugh at the absurdity of it. You can help each other clean it up. It’s such a great way to interact with people and I think I relied on it a ton, right? Like for making friends, for maintaining friendships, for just having a good time with each other. Getting together with someone who appreciates your sense of humour is great because you get to make them laugh. They get to laugh at you. Like it’s a bonding thing for sure.
Yeah. Yeah, totally. I love that. And I’d love to know, because again, correct me if I’m wrong, because the internet’s not always true, but it looks like you’ve really had such an interesting background in technology and science as well. Is there any way in which for you, you really love how that fits with comedy? Because I can definitely see things in your work, but I don’t want to sort of project that on.
Ryan North (22:36.697)
Yeah, no, I think one of the ideas I had very early on… so I started writing a webcomic called Dinosaur Comics in 2003. I still write it, but my initial idea with those first few Dinosaur Comics is…. I had this big idea, I’m 23 years old, and I wanted to prove to the world that you could be funny and still be smart, like still talk about cool things, actual facts, and…Of course, this has been proven so many times before me. I just hadn’t read it before.
So I was like, I’m going to be the first to be smart and nerdy. And of course, there’s a lot of funny and nerdy. And there are a lot of people doing that. It’s not at all unique to me. But it was something I wanted to explore because I felt like there is, or at least there was this idea of…anything funny is less than anything serious. Serious works of art are not funny. Real authentic works of art are staid and important and you don’t get to laugh at them. And it’s not true. Like so much of the stuff that is important to humans is funny. And I realized you know 20 years later after this, into my career, it’s actually a lot harder to do comedy.
I was talking to my friend, Chip Zdarsky, who also writes comics, and he was saying… look, if I want to write a serious, sad scene, I can write a scene that will make 90% of people reading it cry. That is not hard. If you want to write comedy, to get even half of the people reading that to laugh is so much harder. It’s such a harder trick to pull off to get to the laughter than it is to make people feel bad or feel sad or realize that….You know, there are a lot of bad things in the world today and we should feel bad about that. It’s harder to do the comedy part.
So that’s, I mean, that is a very self-aggrandizing thing to say for a guy who works primarily in comedy in that mode. But I hadn’t realized before that, that this was a harder thing to do. I had this sort of internalized idea that comedy is lesser, that, you know, you started doing comedy and then you can move into doing serious stuff because you need to, comedy is the baby version of this and the serious stuff is where the actual adult things happen. And it’s not, it’s not true. Laughing is something we all do, even in art.
I love that for you as a mission at 23. And I still think that’s fantastic because still like even when I think about…I don’t know what your like school experience was like, but sometimes even when you hear standups talking about being the class clown, it still often sets comedy against what was happening in the lesson. Like the comedy was a relief from that, or the person that’s not paying attention. Not that that’s not valid. But I think often comedy and smartness…. in the way of like learning books, science, studying… isn’t always put together.I see also why you’d be like, I wanna bring these two things together that are sometimes put in opposition. That’s cool.
Ryan North (25:35.857)
Yeah, and I think I think in learning to like… comedy is emotional. And when you have an emotional association with something you remember it better. I went to a party last night. And it was a friend’s house. And I am bad with addresses. I will not remember addresses at all. But her address was 911 something street. And the emotional reaction to the number 911, I will remember that address for a while because I reacted to it.
And comedy is the same way. Like it’s an emotional thing. I think it’s a very… it’s not a logical thing a lot of the time. It’s a feeling and you remember feelings.
Yes. That’s perfectly said. I love that. And a bit of a left-hand turn, but I wanted to ask you about the fact that from the outside, it looks like you’ve taken a really entrepreneurial approach to your career. From things that I’ve read about you online, it looked like there was an early and very successful Kickstarter and you’ve made tools to help other web comic artists. And so I wondered if you could speak a little bit to, with the benefit of hindsight, how you’ve put together your career, or how you’re thinking about your career now, whichever is easiest to come at.
Ryan North (26:51.177)
Yeah, so I started writing, like I said, in 2003, and it was a different internet then, probably a better internet then… people still visited websites. There were three major sites with screenshots of the other two on them. And it was an era in which you as an individual could build something like a tool. I built the transcription service for web comics I built an advertising site for web comics that could work and could function on their own… didn’t need to be tied into any other tools. No social media connections.
I graduated grad school with my master’s degree in comuterss and linguistics and then I started doing web comics. For most writers, it’s a big step to quit your day job, right? To be like, this is what I’m going to do for my career. And for me, I just graduated and failed to get a job, which was much easier… to become a full-time cartoonist. At that point, I just didn’t get a job anywhere until I became a full-time cartoonist. And to do that, to support myself doing that, I sold merchandise. There were t-shirts based on my comic, Dinosaur Comics.
And I was living…outside of the university, fabulous student lifestyle, you know, mac and cheese for lunch every day. And to keep myself going, I needed to sell three t-shirts a day. That would be enough to pay for food and rent. And I would see every sale because I was doing them by hand. And I remember starting out thinking this is going to be impossible. Like I, who buys three t-shirts a day, but there are enough people out there who would buy a t-shirt…presumably topless people until that moment… like today it’s changing. I’m going to buy this one shirt.
And there were some days where I sold those three shirts in the morning. And I was like, this is great. Everything else is gravy. There was a weekend where I sold no shirts and I was like, my career is over. What’s happening? And it was, it was fine on Monday. It was just random fluctuations. But a lot of it’s the, you know, the indie punk do-it-yourself era of, of being online and, and doing that. And I think there’s great value in knowing how to do things yourself, especially in computers. And I have not had a real job since 2003 when I graduated.
But yeah I guess I’m sort of struggling to find the moral to this story beyond I did it myself and I was lucky enough that it worked.
Yeah. But it looks like you tried lots of things too. That were self-generated and created. And figured out. I’m sure there were things that you just didn’t know how to do and you went and figured it out. I’m sure it’s like the first Kickstarter…. You don’t immediately know how to do it.
Ryan North (29:28.569)
Yeah, tons of stuff, tons of stuff. And I had the advantage. You don’t realize it’s going to be a full-time job for that month. That Kickstarter was great. It was for To Be or Not To Be, which is another non-linear Shakespeare book, the first one I did, Hamlet. And I asked for $20,000 and we got it in the first hour. By the time it finished, it would have raised $580,000, which was the highest publishing record on Kickstarter at that time. I will tell you, since this was my first Kickstarter and I was a little baby, I had not factored in the weight of the book because we kept making the book better as the Kickstarter went on. Higher quality paper, heavier weight, this changes shipping. It’s five hundred eighty thousand dollars, which sounds like a lot of money, but we spent I think it was 80% of that money on shipping because these books were bricks because they were beautiful. They were the most fancy books we could make. So it was a learning experience. I don’t regret it at all and I was pleased to make the best book I’ve ever seen. But a lot of being an entrepreneur is learning from mistakes and rolling with the punches. You’re relying on yourself. You’re hoping things go well and pivoting when they don’t.
Yeah, I love that. Pivoting when they don’t is a skill in itself. And I love…. from the outside, it also looks like you seem really happy to embrace different ways of storytelling and different media. Whether that’s podcasting or graphic novels or nonfiction… that you have a really broad range, which is impressive. So do you think about yourself as a storyteller, a writer? How do you think about yourself and what mediums you want to choose next?
Ryan North (31:31.273)
That’s a great question. I remember being in my 20s having a real issue with labels, because I’m 23. Come on. But I was like…what bothered me at the time was that calling myself a writer felt like a cheat because there’s no process to it. Anyone can call themselves a writer. And so I felt like… I don’t want to do that. I want something that I feel like I’ve earned somehow. Now I don’t care. You can call me a writer, cartoonist, you can call me whatever you want. It doesn’t bother me. But the label was the thing I was twitchy about for a while.
But the real reason I’ve done so much in different media is that. Because so much of what I do is…. I control it. I decide what the next project is going to be. And because Dinosaur comics supported me for so long, it gives me the freedom to experiment because if the next project fails, it doesn’t mean I’m out on the street. It means, okay, that didn’t work, but it was a fun time.
And also when I was younger, at the time I really had a thing with originality where I wanted to make sure that anything I’d done had not been done before. And that’s a crazy way to live your life because so many things have been done.
Dinosaur comics is the same pictures with different words. So every day the comic uses the same six images for 20 years. I discovered six months into dinosaur comics…this has been done before by filmmaker David Lynch. In college, he had a comic called The Angriest Dog in the World. Same three panels of his angry dog. Never changed the pictures, only changed the words. Had I known that I would never have started dinosaur comics and would have never had my entire career and I’d probably be a software developer. But because I didn’t know about it, I thought I had this original idea. And I was so tied to everything has to be completely fresh, never done before.
And it helps when you have this brain worm in your head to be doing stuff in different media, like to play with these different forms that… obviously podcasts have been done before, but I’ve never done a podcast before. And so you get to learn about the different forms and learn what works there. It was a podcast based on Squirrel Girl. So I knew the characters, but in comics, action is easy to see. In podcasts, all you’ve got are sound effects and you can only get so far by someone saying…’Wow, he just threw a punch and it hit really hard. What do you think about that professor?’
And so it’s a whole new challenge of how do you do an action hero in an audio medium. So you get to listen to a bunch of other podcasts and see how they did it and learn about the form and all this cool stuff. It’s interesting, to explore different media and see what works there and what doesn’t.
And to make things fit in that media, I did a graphic novel adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, and that was the same sort of thing where here is a prose novel and you’re putting it in a graphic novel. And the worst version of that is just, we put in these narration boxes of the text and now there’s pictures of what the text is showing you… because that’s not a comic, that’s an illustrated novel. But you have to figure out what works in this media, what doesn’t, and adapt it to that form, which is again, it’s a whole different set of challenges.
Now with the terrifying thing that if you do it poorly, you’re the guy who messed up a modern American classic.
Oh my goodness, I can imagine that pressure.
I’d love to know, are there any elements of writing that are your absolute favourite? Where if you know that’s what’s coming up, you’re like, ooh. Or conversely, any that…. maybe not at this point in your career…. but there’s still the spots that you have to pay extra attention to on a craft level.
Ryan North (35:21.277)
Yeah, I will say that for me, what I like about writing comedy, and this may be unique to comedy, actually, it’s probably unique to comedy and erotica…. Where when you’re writing these, either comedy or erotica, your body tells you when you’re doing it right. Like I can tell when the comedy is working because I’m laughing. And for erotica, same way, different reaction. But for a serious dramatic scene, unless you’re like really trying to make people cry, it’s hard to know. Like you don’t get that physical reaction of… I just laughed at this. Okay, I know this is good. Ship it. Like this part is working.
So right now I’m doing a comic for Marvel called Fantastic Four, which is a science fiction series. Less comedy, more big sci-fi concepts and the challenge there is I’m coming from Squirrel Girl. I am used to at least two or three jokes in every page. And I know, well, if nothing else, if this plot is garbage, at least we have three chuckles on this page. We’re doing good with our chuckle prompts. With Fantastic Four, you don’t have that crutch. You don’t have the ability to tell yourself… at least I have these three jokes that’ll work. And so that is challenging for me to read it and convince myself that it’s doing what I wanted to.
You can still tell when you write something, you know what you’re going for. I always give it a night, like sleep on it and read the next day with fresher eyes, and see if….I call her the suck fairy. She comes overnight and makes the things I write suck… see if the suck fairy visited. But yeah, it’s, it’s a process. I think I’ve never written, well, that’s not true…. I was afraid of writing a romance for Romeo and or Juliet because I’d never written a love story before. And it turns out that was not hard at all. I thought it would be, but a lot of writing for me is falling in love with the characters. And when you have these two characters you love, it’s not that… I didn’t find it that hard to make them also see those things in each other and make it feel like these people are there. Also, they’re Romeo and Juliet. So like Shakespeare’s done a lot of the legwork there. If you ignore the fact they’re teenagers and as an adult, you’re like…. no, their parents were right.These kids in the space of three and a half days, met each other, had sex and died. Like they shouldn’t have been alone together. Shakespeare was right.
Gosh, I didn’t realize it was that quick.
Yeah, it’s three and a half days. It’s a weekend story. These kids are irresponsible. Their parents are right.
I had no idea. Okay. That, changes how I think about it, but yeah, I’ve got lots of food for thought there now.
So before we wrap up, I’d love to know….and sometimes it’s quite hard on the spot to think…., but whether there are recommendations for other creators too, that you’d love us to check out who write comedy that you really enjoy and it can be in any medium.
Ryan North (38:21.397)
Oh my gosh. Wow, that is a hard question.
I know it’s so hard sometimes to think of them. Or it could just be anything that you’ve enjoyed, it doesn’t even have to be comedy. And the reason that I’m asking is then, one, I make a note and I go and read and watch them alll, it’s really great. And I’ve heard from listeners they love that too as well.
Ryan North (38:37.581)
Gosh, there’s so many. If you’re interested in comics, there’s a cartoonist named Jason Shiga, and he does less comedy and more like heavy sci-fi, but in every one of Jason Shiga’s books, I have seen something done with the medium that I’ve never seen done before as a cartoonist. That’s one of the joys of working in comics is such a young medium that we don’t know where the walls are. We don’t know where the limits are. Like when you’re writing a novel, there’s hundreds of years of experience with this. We kind of know what a novel can do and what it does poorly and what does well. We don’t have that knowledge for comics and you can do stuff that has not been done before in the medium. Same with video games. What I love about writing in video games is that it is young. The limits…. We don’t know what they are yet.
For comedy, the one that’s coming to mind and this is easy because he’s a friend of mine, Chip Zdarsky writes some very, very good comedy books. He did one for Howard the Duck a comedic character at Marvel. But he has, I think this is with me too, we both have this.
kind of humanist centre to the jokes where there’s a good-naturedness to it. You’re not laughing at someone’s failures, you’re laughing with them a lot of the time. I’m not sure if I’m explaining well, because whenever I say it like that, it sounds like it’s almost educational. It’s like your vitamins, or eating your vegetables….you should be having this good comedy, not that bad comedy, but it doesn’t feel like taking your medicine, it just feels really affirming. In a fun way.
Yeah, no, I don’t take that as being educational at all. And that was definitely the sense I got from all of the work that I’ve read of yours and how the characters operate. Like I know it can sound cheesy to some people when we say things like…. oh, it felt really warm. There was friendship at the heart of it….but it’s so important. I mean, I’m not a teen, but I really look for that too. I don’t actually enjoy….Quips can be fun, but a lot of the hard sarcasm, meanness, undercutting is not my favourite. I love it when we see a character like Squirrel Girl going full out for something and still bumping up against stuff and being clueless in some ways and super smart in other ways. I’m like, yeah, because that’s what it’s like to be a human for me. So I love that warmth and I think humour is a nice way of expressing it.
Ryan North (41:07.181)
Yeah. It was, it was funny when I was adapting Slaughterhouse Five and writing Squirrel Girl at the same time….Because I thought I could do both in the same day… and I was, so that’s what happened….. I was doing a Slaughterhouse Five, World War Two, touches on the Holocaust. And then I would do that in the morning and be like…. all right, now to write my talking squirrel comic in the afternoon. It was like, why do I feel so depressed? But even in Vonnegut, there’s this humanist centre to what Vonnegut is doing in the midst of all this horror. He’s still being like, there’s people here and that’s what’s important…their relationships at the core of it. And I mean, you look at Squirrel Girl, that is a story of the superhero who…rather than punching people, she’s like…. how do we solve you? Like, how do we make things better? What are you upset about? And can I help you fix it? Which I think is the core of what superheroes are like. We think of the punch and we think of the lasers out of the eyes, but the core of it is…. here’s someone who’s always going to make the right decision. Who’s always there to help. And that is the aspirational thing. Like that’s the same with Superman. It’s the same really with Batman as dark as he is. They’re all people who don’t want to see anyone else get hurt. And that’s, I think, what the heroism is.
I love that. That’s a beautiful way of putting it. So everyone go read that. And so Ryan, in all seriousness, I really do recommend to people who haven’t, they should go and check out your work, where would people find you?
Ryan North (42:24.259)
Yes, you can find I have a website RyanNorth.ca that has links to everything I’ve written all the way from like my master’s thesis which is actual hard science to all the joke stuff in Squirrel Girl. It’s all there and you can see there’s some free stuff to read online. You can read my web comic and if you’re curious at all RyanNorth.ca is your home for everything Ryan North.
Excellent, that’s great. Thank you so much for your time. It’s been so fun talking to you. I have learned so much and I’m definitely going check out your recommendations as well. Thanks so much, Ryan.
Ryan North (43:12.093)
Awesome, thank you. It was a pleasure.