For someone who entered college to study computer science, Ryan North has built a list of writing credits that’s hard to beat, including translating one of the 20th century’s iconic novels into comics form. Then, there are the Eisner and Harvey Awards. And, as if all that weren’t enough, this summer he’s taking one of DC’s darker characters… to middle school?
First, the particulars…
Your specialties (artist/writer/letterer/inker/etc.): Writer
Your home base: Toronto, Canada
Website: www.qwantz.com / ryannorth.ca
Fanbase Press Contributor Kevin Sharp: What attracts you to writing for the comics form specifically? What’s an appeal of this over, say, “regular” fiction?
Ryan North: The medium itself is so interesting, and so fun. We all love reading, but if I hold up a page of prose and a page of comics and ask you which one looks more interesting, your eyes are always going to go towards the comics first thing. The other benefit you have when you're working in comics, and writing comedy, is that you have full control over the page. Comedy is so much about pacing, about where the punchline lands, and when you're working in prose, you don't really control that. There could be a page break interrupting your joke, but in comics, you do have that control. you know exactly where on the page your joke is going to land.
And finally, what I love about comics is the fact that the medium is still young, and there's still things being explored about it. Whenever I pick up a book by one of my favorite artists, Jason Shiga, he's always doing something new in his books that I haven't seen done before in the medium. And that's a huge thing! The only other medium I can think of that approaches that is gaming, where a great game can only be fun and inventive, but also push the medium forward in a way that hasn't been done before. Who wouldn't want to be part of pushing a medium forward?
KS: Around what age did you become a comics reader? Were you exposed to them early on or were they a later discovery?
RN: The first comic I remember reading was a Wonder Woman comic I got in my stocking from Santa at Christmas. I must have been maybe eight or nine years old. It was just a random book, part three of seven in an arc, and I was completely lost but I really enjoyed it nevertheless. I didn't really read many other comics until I graduated high school and got a job and a car, and with my first paycheck I walked into the local comic book store and just grabbed books at random. I had this abstract interest in the medium, but not real knowledge about it. So, that would have been the year 2000. I started my first strip, Dinosaur Comics, which I still run, in 2003.
KS: What did your overall collection look like back then?
RN: Pretty bare! But in that first batch of comics I picked up, effectively at random, there was The Dark Knight Returns and Superman: Peace on Earth by Alex Ross and Paul Dini, two great books that super hold up today. There was a third book that wasn't great, and which I can no longer recall, but finding two terrific books at random right off the bat, that's a great sign.
KS: Was there a story that had a particular impact on you in those early reading days?
RN: Let's talk about Superman: Peace on Earth. It's structured almost like a picture book, and the story it tells is that of Superman basically deciding one day, "Hey, I'm Superman, why can't I solve world hunger instead of punching Brainiac?", so he makes a concerted and reasonable and rational attempt to do it. And it doesn't work. But in seeing that attempt, and seeing him fail, and seeing what he learns from it, it's such a kind and heartwarming and oddly optimistic story, and it really cemented for me the kind of stories you can tell when you have effectively the unlimited budget for visuals that comics gives you. Not to mention the visuals that Ross brings to the project; you can feel the warmth of the sun, and see Superman as both a god in some panels, and just a guy in a suit in others. It's still a great book.
KS: Why was the right story for you personally at the time?
RN: You have to remember that at this time, [the] early 2000s, I was coming to the medium knowing effectively nothing about it except what I'd seen in other mediums, and probably nursing the hangover of "comics aren't just for kids anymore" — which, of course, did little more than imply that they were largely for kids in the first place. So, seeing a story that was so mature and adult and thoughtful, while still being done like comics, gave me what felt like desperately needed proof and confirmation against my own biases that comics could be great, that comics could do anything, that there was more to this medium than what I thought.
KS: Did you know any other comics readers?
RN: I would buy a ton of books and then send the ones I liked best through the mail to my friend, Priya, who was also interested in comics but went to a school several hours away, and then we would discuss them, writing emails back and forth. It was like the shared comics education for the two of us. She's now a doctor, so clearly they didn't get into her quite as much as they got into me, but it felt really special to be able to explore this medium together with someone, not knowing what we'll find, and being rewarded so much more often than not for that exploration. And Peace on Earth was the book that made me think, “Hey, I gotta show this to Priya.” It was the book that I felt like I could give to anyone to make them give the medium a second look, against all the biases they'd been raised with.
KS: Shifting from you as a reader to you as a creator, what’s the first “real” writing you remember producing? Something that felt like a serious project at the time — whatever age that was and whether or not you showed it to anyone else.
RN: There was several things in high school creative writing that I remember being very proud of, that I remember being intrinsically and objectively good. And I've been pretty decent about backing files up, so it's fully possible that I could go and dig up this writing! But I never have, and I've never really cared to, because I'm pretty sure that my image of what it was in my head can't be sustained against the reality of what it actually was to read, if I were to read it now, 20 years later. And I like being proud of it! I like thinking that I've written something that other people should read. I know some writers talk about the Suck Monster, who visits manuscripts when you're not looking, so that when you come back they now suck. The pride I had in this early writing is such that I don't want to see what the Suck Monster has done to it. So, if the core of this question is “When did you first feel like you could be a writer,” the answer is in my last year of high school. But then, of course, I didn't go to university to study writing, I went to university to study computer science.
KS: Given that path laid out in front of you, how did the idea of pursuing writing professionally enter the picture? That’s quite a plot twist.
RN: What happened was that in my last year of undergrad, I took a course in which we broke up into groups to do something interesting with the internet, and my group hadn't really done very much, so after a few weeks I decided I would put up a comic that I've been playing with over the weekend. [T]hat was my start into webcomics. I kept doing that comic, kept doing the writing, all through my graduate degree. A lot of writers talk about the moment where they make this big decision, where they take this plunge, and decide they're going to become a full-time professional writer. It usually involves leaving a job or stepping down from a position, but for me it was a lot simpler.
I had kept doing my webcomic through grad school, so when I graduated, I faced this choice between becoming a full-time cartoonist or getting a real job. And all I had to do to become a full-time cartoonist was fail to get a job. I don't know if you ever tried it, but failing to get a job is the easiest thing in the world to do. So, I sort of slid into it. But I'd always been interested in writing, and it was a bit of a struggle to decide whether or not to study computer science or creative writing. I was always really proud that I found a way to do both. It felt like a rejection of the idea that you have to choose the full course of your life by the time you're 18 and applying to university.
KS: Talk a bit about putting out those webcomics. Were you receiving any kind of audience feedback on your work? In other words, was there some outside impetus to keep on going or were you doing them mainly for the internal satisfaction of the work?
RN: For the first little while, it was just me and my mom reading the comic, and then she stopped reading it, haha. But I think you have to be doing something for your own reasons; if it's for external validation, then the second that dries up, you're going to crash and burn. It was about a year before I had any audience to speak of, until I started getting emails from strangers and merch orders and things like that. So, it was mostly for me, but heck, I'm not going to sit here and tell you getting an email from a stranger saying that they like your work and have therefore decided they like you too isn't nice. It's really nice! I love it! But it can't be the only reason you do something, because you're not going to get those emails every day.
KS: Earlier you mentioned Dinosaur Comics. Is there anything you’d want the Ryan of 2003 to know to make his professional path any smoother? Not to change the past, just maybe to learn a lesson the easy way instead of the hard way.
RN: I remember being in high school and hearing about this idea of freelance, of not having a job but of working independently all the time. And to me, it sounded terrifying. You would have to know people, nurture relationships, work the room, and do all these things that I wasn't good at and do not enjoy. So, I thought, "Well, I will just have a regular job and never freelance, the end." But what I learned over time doing freelance, because that is what being a writer is a lot of the time, is it doesn't have to be as slick and insincere as that may be sound. "Building relationships" is just "having friends," and "working the room" is something you don't have to do if you don't want to; you can just work with your friends, and then make new friends. And then before you know it, you got a room full of friends. So, I'd like to tell him that — maybe it would make him feel less anxious about not being a better freelancer. You're fine! Nobody likes the slick types anyway.
KS: When was the first time you got paid for your comics writing?
RN: Indirectly, it was through Dinosaur Comics merch, but as for getting paid directly for writing... I believe it was an anthology called The Between Space that commissioned me to write two comics about the ambiguity of language — incredibly up my alley. I forget precisely how much I was paid, but I do remember thinking, "I just got paid to write." Of course, that was an outlier, and my first "get paid for a comics script" job was Adventure Time #1, in 2012, almost a decade later.
KS: Does your creative process today differ significantly when crafting a comic like Midas vs. something all-ages like Squirrel Girl?
RN: For me they were both hitting the same target, which is the all-ages target. And by that I mean literally all ages: something kids can read, but also something adults can read, and both feel like it's speaking to them. My secret to writing all ages is that everyone keeps their clothes on and nobody swears, and that's it. Everything else is the same! I think that kids can tell when they're being spoken down to — I always could — so it's something I try to avoid. I trust that kids are smart, they'll understand you when you want to say something complex. I also trust that they'll want to read something that's beyond what their parents think they should have, and so that's what I try to supply. There's bits in Squirrel Girl, little interesting computer science tidbits, that I didn't learn until I was in undergrad or even in grad school. But they're simple ideas that you can understand without needing a degree, so why not put them in a book that younger people will be reading? Let's show them the really cool stuff right off the bat! I want my readers to be interested in what amazing things we can do in the world, and what age they are doesn't super impact that.
KS: We don’t get much of a chance to talk video games on here, so I have to bring up your Galaga book done with a previous guest (Christopher Hastings). What was the origin of that project? It seems like such an outlier because there’s not much representation of vintage games in other media.
RN: Yeah, that was a very strange and very fun project! it began when Namco Bandai realized that they had all these '80s video game properties that nobody was really doing anything with, and so it couldn't hurt to produce a couple of web comics based on the properties and see what happens. I wrote a Dig Dug one-off in which he reached the kill screen and got to see the edge of the universe, and we also did this Galaga series.
KS: Do you recall your specific pitch?
RN: [W]e were going to imagine there had been a Galaga movie, and this was the comic version of that. so it was Galaga: The Movie: The Comic. We went big and told this fate-of-the-world story based on a single-screen shooter in which aliens are trying to invade. It was also the sort of thing where you think, "When else am I going to be asked to write a Galaga comic? Of course I will say yes."
KS: Recently, you took on adapting Kurt Vonnegut’s classic Slaughterhouse-Five for Archaia. I can imagine that being an intimidating proposal as an adaptor, so I’m curious what put the hook in that got you to do it. Were you approached by the publisher or vice versa?
RN: Yes, it was a very intimidating proposal! The way it worked is that the publisher approached me, first coyly asking if I was a fan of Vonnegut. I assured them I was, and then we started talking about doing an adaptation. Very exciting! Of course, if you're adapting Vonnegut, that's a huge responsibility and incredibly scary — you don't want to be the person who messes up Vonnegut — and so if I had had my way we would not have done his most famous and most seminal book, Slaughterhouse-Five. As much as you don't want to be the person who messes up Vonnegut, you definitely don't want to be the person who messes up Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five. But they convinced me it was a good idea, and I'm glad they did, because I'm so proud of the final result. Albert Monteys did an incredible job.
KS: How did you get paired with Monteys? Did you know him previously?
RN: They hooked us up! It was a perfect match; we love each other's work, and we clicked so well on that book, but it was something that I didn't know when I was writing the script. I think — I'm deciding right now — that the job of a good editor is also to cast the books in a way that makes amazing pages and cool friendships. This is my new demand from all creative work.
KS: On the nuts and bolts side, what was your first step to “take the engine apart” for adaptation purposes?
RN: I think the first thing I did was come up with a thesis statement for the comic. That's sort of what you have to ask yourself when you're doing an adaptation, which is, "Why does this book need to exist?" What are we doing here? And if we are going to take a prose novel and turn it into a comic, how are we going to make this different than just a story with a bunch more pictures added?
So, what I decided was that I wanted to make a book that was at home in the medium, that felt like it had been born there. If you had somehow never heard of Kurt Vonnegut and never heard of Slaughterhouse-Five, I wanted you to be able to pick up this book and think, "Oh, that was a really great comic!" instead of thinking "Oh, that was really great adaptation of an existing prose novel!"
KS: I assume there was significant rereading of the novel, as well.
RN: Once I had that idea established, the next thing I did was buy a copy of the book with really thick margins, reread it, and make tons of notes all over the place: stuff that I thought we absolutely had to include, stuff I thought we absolutely didn't have to include, things like that. The job of adaptation is partially a job of compression, because you don't have as much space in a comic for words as you do in a prose novel of similar pages, so you need to get the writing down to their very essence. I was helped here by Kurt's style, which is already so clear and unadorned that he's practically already writing in poetry. This made it less a matter of "How do I compress down this sentence to make it fit on a comics page" and more matter of "Which are the phrases I absolutely have to include, and which can be left out and told visually instead?"
KS: Can you share a specific example?
RN: I was always looking for a comics-native ways to tell the story. There's a section early on in which Vonnegut describes all the things that this character, Weary, is carrying. In the book he does it as just this paragraph of items in a list, and your eye passes over it and gives you the impression of "Oh hey, this is a lot of stuff." But on a comics page, you couldn't just list items, because it then becomes this ugly, boring word balloon. So, what we did instead is have the character of Weary be a paper doll, and all of his accessories are around him ready to be cut out and put in his hands. It gave you the same emotional reaction that the prose list did, but did it in a way that could only be done in comics. It was that sort of translation in the adaptation that really interested me, and I think helps make the book be as well received as it was. It argues for its own existence in that way.
KS: Your comics writing resume includes Eisner and Harvey Awards, Shuster nominations, and more. What’s a special memory from your professional path so far that maybe still makes you smile?
RN: At the Eisner Awards, we won two awards that night: one for Squirrel Girl, and one for Jughead, which I had written along with my friend Chip Zdarsky, who couldn't be there that night. The Squirrel Girl award came first, and I got to give a very sincere speech thanking everyone. Then, the Jughead award came up, and I got to read the speech that Chip had prepared just in case, without having preread it first. It was extremely embarrassing — I believe Chip called me his "special little boy.” I love that I got to read that out to a gala full of peers. I will forever be Chip Zdarsky's special little boy.
KS: How about a passion of yours totally unrelated to writing or comics? Could be something you study, practice, collect, whatever…
RN: As you may have guessed from me having two degrees in this stuff, I am very interested in computers and computational machinery, and linguistics. My graduate degree was in computational linguistics, which combine them both in this really fascinating way, and I still like to keep up to date on the latest discoveries in that field. if you go to my personal web page, ryannorth.ca, I have a list of all my publications there, and you can scroll down it. It's tons and tons of comics, but then, at the very bottom, there's also a list of my research papers and a copy of my Masters thesis. I love that I've managed to combine both of my major interests in that way, and it feels like such a flex to have it there beneath these Eisner-winning comics like Squirrel Girl and Jughead and Adventure Time.
KS: How about a comic/graphic novel from any era that you look at with admiration?
RN: I mentioned Jason Shiga earlier, and he's honestly great. One of his recent books is called Demon, and if you're looking for a story that shows you how to take a premise and then escalate it every installment until it is as huge as it could possibly be, but feels so earned and so wild at the same time, I can't recommend Demon highly enough. It's only a slight spoiler to say that it starts with the premise of someone who, every time he dies, he wakes up in the body of the person nearest to him. From there you get a story that very soon is a battle for Earth itself. It's so great, and so fun, and so gross at the same time. I really love it, and him.
KS: Finally, let us know what you’re working on now and what’s on the horizon in 2021.
RN: This year saw the release of the Power Pack miniseries that I wrote, which just finished this month, and has a trade paperback coming out in a few months, called Power Pack: Powers That Be. And then on June 29th, there's Johnny Constantine: The Mystery of the Meanest Teacher, which is a middle grade graphic novel written by me and drawn by Derek Charm, one of my Squirrel Girl colleagues. You may think it's impossible to take a character like John Constantine and turn him into a middle grade protagonist. I may have once agreed with you! But we did it, and it's incredible!
I'm very excited for that. You should definitely check out both of these books. This is my considered and objective opinion.