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Interview: Ryan North

Ryan North is the creator of the popular webcomic Dinosaur Comics, which has run for over two thousand issues using the exact same art and panel layout for each strip. A Kickstarter he launched for his book To Be or Not To Be, a choose-your-own-adventure-style version of Hamlet, raised well over half a million dollars, making it the most successful publishing-related Kickstarter ever. He also co-edited the short story anthology Machine of Death, which hit number one on Amazon.com the day of its release. A sequel, This is How You Die, is out now.

This interview first appeared on Wired.com’s The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast, which is hosted by John Joseph Adams and David Barr Kirtley. Visit geeksguideshow.com to listen to the entire interview and the rest of the show, in which the hosts discuss various geeky topics.

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You have a lot of projects you’ve been doing, but it all started with your web series, Dinosaur Comics. Do you want to tell us about that?

That’s a comic where it’s the same pictures all the time, and I change the words. It’s better than it sounds, is what I always say. That came out of me wanting to do a comic and not being able to draw, so I had this brilliant idea for a comic where it would be the same story every time with different pictures, and that’s the exact wrong project for me to be doing because I can’t draw. I thought, “Well, maybe I’ll flip this and have the same pictures and a different story would work.” Ten years later, I guess it did. I can at least keep remixing it, keep doing my own sequels.

How did you put together that very first comic? Where did the art come from, and what was your thought process behind it?

There was no thought process. If you look at the layout for Dinosaur Comics, you’ve got T-Rex in the top two panels, a close-up, and then in the last four panels the characters are standing on the panel boundaries—just super amateur-hour comic stuff, but I didn’t know any better. I also thought dinosaurs were like fifteen stories tall, which is why they appear that tall in the comic. There’s a lot of mistakes I made a decade ago that I’m now committed to, but it was fun, and I think it was the luckiest thing I ever did, hitting on this layout that was as flexible and as versatile as it is, able to tell different stories using these same pictures.

What was your background as a creator before Dinosaur Comics? Was that the first thing you had ever tried to create, or had you done other stuff before?

There’s a bunch of old stuff for me online. I used to have a page that was called “Ryan’s Page of Fun and Robot Erotica,” and all that was on there was this one picture of these two robots holding hands. When I was an undergrad, we got free web space with the university, and I had no use for it, so I just put up my page of “Fun and Robot Erotica,” and I updated that once every semester with new robot erotica, basically all through undergrad. Like an ASCII art version that I found, and there’s a Bjork video where she’s sort of robotic and there’s two lesbian robots kissing, which was a huge update for “Ryan’s Page of Fun and Robot Erotica” when that came out. There was a bunch of smaller stuff. Dinosaur Comics was the first project I did that was meant to continue on an ongoing basis, and I mean, originally I thought I would use these dinosaurs for a month, and then next month there would be new art, and I would change the art every month. But then when I finished the first month, I was like, “Man, making this new art is a lot of work. What if I didn’t do that?” Then I just kept with the art. Which is kind of a theme in my life. When I graduated school I had the choice between getting a job or doing the comics, and I was like, “Man, I just have to not get a job. I could be a full-time cartoonist.”

Dinosaur Comics has always been free to read online, but you made money selling t-shirts. Do you want to talk about that business model a little bit?

I can tell you that when I graduated school, I’d just finished this grad degree in computation linguistics, and I was like, “Hey, Mom and Dad, I’m going to do this comic, and it’s going to pay for rent. The way it’s going to work is, you’ll read the comic for free, and you can buy a shirt if you want to.” My parents were not too enthused with that business model. They said things like, “You’re wasting your education.” Things along those lines, which is what parents say, and I’m glad they did because I love and respect them. But, really, it worked because the model is that you have tons of people reading your comic, and you hope that a percent of a percent will like it enough to buy some merchandise, buy a book or a t-shirt. When I first started, I remember thinking, like every day, “I need three people to buy a shirt today so that I can pay rent and eat food.” And it would happen. I would try to imagine these three presumably topless people being like, “Yes, today is the day I buy a shirt.” It was sort of like walking a tightrope that I couldn’t control, but then you start putting faith in laws of averages and seeing that this is working and has worked, and you have faith that if you continue putting out work that people like, they’ll eventually want to own and share part of that.

What do the t-shirts actually look like, and what have been the most popular designs?

One was a time traveler cheat sheet. There’s this rule of thumb in shirt design and graphic design in general saying you don’t put too many words on it. This is a shirt that had, I don’t even know the word count, probably like two thousand words. Basically all the low-hanging fruit of history. Here’s how you can build a compass. Here’s where you can find aluminum. All this stuff that you would like to know if you were sent back in time, and you needed to reinvent civilization, or at least make yourself a god in the past.

I guess the problem with a time traveler t-shirt though is that eighty percent of the time when you travel through time you end up naked, so do you sell time traveler cheat sheet tattoos or something?

I just have questions about the way you travel through time, because a lot of us don’t end up naked. “Oh no, circumstances made me naked again.”

Actually, I think the bigger issue might be that in most periods in history a t-shirt would not actually pass as period wear.

That’s true, but I also have a poster version you can hang up in your time machine that solves that problem.

You should have a time travel cheat sheet frock coat or something.

People say that.

Dinosaur Comics has become quite popular over the years, but how long did it take for that to happen, and what were some of the first signs that you saw that the comic was really starting to take off?

I can remember the first time someone bought merchandise from me, and it was stickers I made myself. It was a woman who had two kids. She bought them for her kids, it turned out. I emailed her saying, “Oh my god, I’m so excited that you bought these stickers, and here’s an envelope basically stuffed with stickers.” You ordered two, here’s two hundred. She’s like, “Yeah, they’re for my kids. I like your comic.” Before then I basically put the comic up in 2003, and this was 2003 so there’s no such thing as social networks, or really anything. I put it up and said, “Now it’s online. Now we play the waiting game. Wait for the Internet to discover it, and tell me how great I am.” When I started the comic in 2003, and when I graduated in 2006, it was around early 2006 that I started seriously considering this being something that I could do for real. There’s a readership here. I’m getting emails from people I don’t know.

I heard you say in an interview you had something like 70,000 people read the comic. Has it grown since then or is that about what it is?

That’s about what it is. I used to keep that number in mind, and I would go to a sports game, and they’d say, “The attendance today is 70,000 people.” I’d be like, “Each one of these is a reader. This is how big my audience is.” Which is super egotistical, but it was nice to sort of see that many people in a room and think, “I’m privileged enough to get to talk to these people once a day.” It’s pretty cool. It’s not the same 70,000. People drop in and drop out, and archive binge, and never read it again, but it’s nice to think about.

I don’t know if you have heard of the comic called Too Much Coffee Man. There’s one with a cartoonist in it, and somebody asks him what his fantasy is, and he’s like, “My fantasy is to be drawing my comic in a stadium with what I’m drawing up on the big screen, and every time I draw a particularly good line the whole crowd cheers.” It could be sort of like that.

I would hate that. The reason is, it’s funny, I told this story to an interviewer years ago, and what I said was, “I don’t find writing to be too difficult because what I’m doing is I’m sitting alone in a room trying to effectively make myself laugh. Write something that I think is funny and literally induce laughter in myself. Which is super embarrassing for anyone to watch because you are literally laughing at your own jokes.” I ended by saying, “Yeah, I’m basically just writing for anyone who shares my sense of humor.” When that reached press it became, “I’m writing for anyone who has a sense of humor.” Which is way more egotistical and kind of amazing. The other thing, along similar lines, they were like, “Where do you get your ideas?” And I said, “I have this giant text file of snippets of dialogue or things I’d like to explore, prompts, stuff that can help if I’m hitting a wall, and I’ll use that. I’ll stare at this text file, and I’ll come up with something.” This went through editorial, and it reached physical print, and it became, “I have this giant textile.” Like a rug on the wall that I would stare at, and it would give me ideas for comics. I love that image so much that that’s now the new official history, that I get my ideas from this textile that I keep around and update once in a while.

One of the ideas that you got was the idea for Machine of Death, and do you want to tell us how Dinosaur Comics led to that?

It was a comic where T-Rex proposed an idea, as is his wont. He was saying, “What if there was a machine that could tell you how you would die? Not when, but how.” And this how, if you got something like old age, that could mean you die alone, or surrounded by loved ones, or it could mean you get run over by an old man, or there’s an septuagenarian sniper who takes you out. Sort of that Old World sense of irony around predictions was baked into the premise. I put the comic up, and made a forum, and people on the forum were saying, “Hey, that’s a good idea. We should put together a book.” I was like, “Yeah, we probably should. Anyway, I’m busy. Talk to you later.” Then David and Matt came to me and they were like, “We really should do this.” I was like, “Oh, David Malki and Matt Bennardo, yeah, let’s do it. This is serious now.” We put the book together and spent several years trying to get a publisher to publish it, and no one wanted to. Then we published it ourselves, and it became the number one selling book on Amazon that day, which was really cool and exciting. Then publishers emailed us saying, “Hey, can we publish this book?” And we were like, “Where were you five years ago?” It was a good story, and it showed the value of indie publishing, and doing things when everyone says they’re a bad idea. People would say, “We love the book, but it will never sell because a) it’s an anthology, b) there’s no big name authors, and c) it’s genre fiction, science fiction, and those are three strikes.” But, they don’t have to be. You can have a good idea that everyone thinks is dumb, and it’s still a good idea.

How did you guys get the book into the top spot on Amazon?

We just told people to buy it. It was that simple. We said, “We’ve been working on this book, and now it’s out. Go buy it.” It helped that we’d been working on this book for years, so there were some people who had been waiting for it for a long time, but it snowballed, and we got an email from Amazon saying, “We don’t know what you’re doing, but keep it up.” Which is great. It was a really amazing day and totally unexpected.

One thing that you did with it was really clever. It’s an anthology of about thirty stories, and each of them is illustrated by a prominent web comic artist, so that’s sixty odd people, all of whom have friends and Twitter followers, and many of them with lots of followers because they’re comic book artists all pushing the book, all having a stake in the success of this book.

You make it sound like we’re really smart business people, but we just said, “Let’s put a book together, and let’s put it online.” I wish I could take credit for all that.

Did you know that publishers were going to want recognizable name authors in the book, or were you so unfamiliar with publishing that that hadn’t occurred to you?

Completely unfamiliar. Sort of this naïve view that if you make an awesome book they’ll clearly want to publish it because it’s an awesome book, but obviously they have business concerns. We were so naïve about publishing that we just picked a day for the book to come out on Amazon, and we’re like, “Hey, everyone buy it on this day.” It turns out the day we picked was actually the day, it was a Tuesday I think, where publishing companies normally drop their new books, so it was in fact the day of the most competition for sales. We’re like, “We don’t know anything. We’re just a couple of dudes with a book we made.”

What would be the best day?

I don’t know. I guess if you could mobilize people, like a Sunday night. No one else is trying to sell books on a Sunday night.

One of the people you pushed out of the top spot on Amazon.com famously was Glenn Beck.

He got real mad. He called us out on his radio show. Said we’re part of a liberal culture of death. We actually sent his production company two copies of the book, and inside the book we put in little fake Machine of Death prediction slips that said, “Papercut.” I don’t think he ever read it. It was bizarre because we just finished this amazing day, and then we start getting messages saying, “Dudes, Glenn Beck just called you out. You have a celebrity beef now.” Which is completely surprising and bizarre.

Have you taken any shots back at him? Do you have anything you want to say to Glenn Beck on the air right now?

Does he still have a show? I feel bad for him. I feel like he kind of imploded.

He has his own network now, it’s called The Blaze. I was just in the office actually, it’s a weird story.

I wish him well. Sorry his book didn’t get number one.

Do you consider yourself part of a liberal culture of death?

I mean, if I am, I haven’t met any other members of it. Although, you could actually make that argument because you have Machine of Death. You have a sequel, This is How You Die, which focuses on death. You have To Be or Not to Be, and Hamlet has a lot of death in it. So, I could probably write an essay arguing that for him, but I think there’s some flaws in that hypothesis that are pretty evident. Also, I don’t know what a liberal culture of death is, like, do you just celebrate death? That’s a very short-lived culture.

Have you thought about doing a book called Machine of Life or Machine of Love or something?

We actually did consider that for a sequel, like a new premise, but the issue with those ideas was that they weren’t as interesting, and they didn’t seem to be as fun and as flexible. A machine that tells you who you’re going to fall in love with, and then prints out a list of names, cool idea for a short story, probably can’t be sustained for a series of short stories because the only conflict there is, “Oh, I love you, but apparently I’m going to fall in love with someone else at some point in the future, so how do I deal with that?” I’m not sure you have thirty stories in the same theme.

You mentioned the sequel This is How You Die. Do you want to tell us about that a little bit?

This is a weird thing for me to say, but I sincerely believe it’s a better book than Machine of Death. Normally people say that all the time, like the latest and greatest, but what we have with This is How You Die are thirty more stories with the premise of there’s a machine that tells you how you’re going to die, a machine of death. But, it goes in so many more different directions. There’s a choose-you-own-adventure-style story. There’s one with high fantasy, with orcs and stuff. There’s real-life, emotional, realist narratives. It’s a much more varied, deep, and impressive book, I think. The nice thing about being an editor for a book like this is you can talk up the book as much as you want because you’re not praising yourself. If I had written the book and said, “Yes, this is a very deep and engaging book,” that’s super egotistical, but I only wrote one story in it. I didn’t write all the stories. They’re really good.

You got something like two thousand submissions, right?

Nineteen seventy something, I think. Almost two thousand from every continent except Antarctica, which was too bad.

What was their problem? Why didn’t the Antarticans get into this?

I think they were busy doing literal scientific research, but maybe next time.

I read the first seven or eight stories in the book. I really, really enjoyed the ones I read. It did seem that people kind of get the moves of the machine of death story, now it’s just about coming up with the craziest elaboration of the idea. For example, there’s the space marine story where the military has a more advanced algorithm machine of death—with the normal machine of death, you don’t know when you’re going to die, but this machine will tell you the date that you’re certain to live to, and the date that you’re certain to die by, and in between those two there’s a probability curve, and you know that you’ll die somewhere in that range, and what the steepness of the curve is.

That’s a really cool idea. There’s a part where they have different squads based on death predictions. Somebody realizes he can’t shoot the cancer squad because they’ll survive. If you have these elite military units, all of whom have Alzheimer’s, that guy is going to be really hard to take down. We told the authors when we were soliciting stories, “Read the first book if you want, and assume that everyone who will be reading the story has read the first book, so let’s go somewhere new with it, and see where that takes us.” Which is fun. It’s nice to have that sort of depth of exploration. Especially when it’s all coming from this idea that I threw off in a talking dinosaur comic. A very fruitful comic. I love it that this is an idea proposed by a fictional dinosaur that has bled into our own reality.

Your story in the book is called “Cancer,” and I actually ran it in Lightspeed, in a sort of promotion for the book, and so people can go read that now if they want. Do you want to tell people what it’s about?

“Cancer” is about these two women. Helen gets a prediction at birth saying “cancer,” and then as she grows up, she eventually gets retested, just as a matter of course, and gets a different prediction, and starts getting more and more different predictions, which should be impossible because the machine is always consistent. You always get the same prediction no matter where you go. The story is exploring how this is possible, what does this mean, and also the relationship she has with her partner, about how we face cancer, how do we face certain death? Or not even certain death, but uncertain death, possible death.

You mentioned choose-your-own-adventure-style stories. I think it’s important to specify that these are “choose-your-own-adventure-style” stories for trademark reasons.

They have a trademark, and I don’t want to get in trouble.

Do you want to tell us about To Be or Not To Be?

That is a book I wrote where the idea is you take Hamlet, and you make it into a choose-your-own-adventure-style book, and when you do this, you give the reader three playable characters to choose from: Hamlet, Ophelia, or Hamlet’s dad, King Hamlet, which, as him, you die on the first page and have to play as a ghost. You do cool things with the story. So, instead of a play within a play, what if there was a choose-your-own-adventure-style book within a choose-your-own-adventure-style book, fun things like that. Really, just have fun with the potential of the medium. The whole book came to me with the title. I thought, “Oh, to be or not to be, that’s sort of like a choice, almost like those choose-your-own—oh my god, I have to write this.” That was my process. It was a lot of fun. I launched it on Kickstarter, and it did really well.

How much better do you think this is than the original Hamlet? What are some of the main feature improvements that you’ve made to this story?

[Laughter] I will delicately answer this question by saying that the original Hamlet is contained within my book. You can follow the Yorick skulls to get the choices that Shakespeare made. I think it takes a special sort of person to claim that he has improved or fixed Shakespeare, and I’m not sure I’m there. But, what I did was I tried to change things in the story that I remembered being better than they were. I remembered Ophelia as being this really awesome character. I was like, “I loved Ophelia. She was so cool. She was the coolest lady.” Then when I reread the book, I was like, “She’s not cool. She gets used by people and then dies.” It was so disappointing. In my book, I try to make her as awesome as I remembered her being, which is my fix for Shakespeare. Also, you’re dealing with a play that was written hundreds of years ago, so obviously there’s going to be some social mores that are inconsistent with our modern, enlightened time, and you can have fun playing with those or bouncing off of them.

Your book has an actual pirate battle, right? I think that’s important.

I forgot about that pirate battle until I got to that part in Hamlet’s story, and I was rereading the book just to check on stuff, and Hamlet shows up, and he’s like, “Oh, yeah, no, I was banished, but we ran into pirates, and they took me captive, and brought me back for no reason and then left. Here I am, anyway. Let’s get back to the business of the play.” And all the characters are like, “Yeah, sure, no problem. We accept this.” It’s so bizarre from a modern perspective because we’re used to movies showing us all the spectacle they can. We see every possible explosion in a story, and Shakespeare has this off-screen pirate battle that just gets dismissed in one line. I made a big production out of it, where there’s this climactic battle in a pirate ship, and you’re fighting the captain pirate, and it’s a lot of fun. It was nice to be surprised, to be doing a Shakespeare story, and then I get to have this pirate battle, and it’s totally justified because Shakespeare put it in there too, off-screen, or I guess off-stage.

How hard is it to write a choose-your-own-adventure-style story? Do you have to have all sorts of graphs and stuff like that?

I thought it would be harder, but I’d never written a novel before, and part of the reason that I hadn’t was that I was worried about getting fifty thousand words into a book, and realizing I’d made a mistake on word three that would mean throwing everything out. But, in a choose-your-own-adventure-style narrative, a non-linear narrative, you can explore different options and as they pan out or fail to pan to out, you can extend them or shorten them. If you have a path that goes five or six choices, and you feel like it’s done, that’s not a problem. You have a nice little mini-adventure there, and then you can move on to something else. In terms of creative process, I found it really nice. It was also really nice that I could work on Ophelia’s story, and if I’m getting stuck with that, I could switch to whatever Hamlet was up to, so it was very empowering. Ironically for a guy who doesn’t like to make choices, it made that very fun to write.

Did you have a graph, or software, or anything that you used, or did you just write it page by page?

No, I used software for it. I talked to this guy who had dinner with R. L. Stine, who wrote the Goosebumps series of books, and the Give Yourself Goosebumps, which are choose-your-own-adventure-style books. Apparently he used pieces of paper with thread between them, like conspiracy theory style, just a giant wall covered with paper and thread, which is a hot mess, I would think, especially when you’re changing things. I used Twine software that basically let me put words in boxes and draw lines between the boxes, and that lets me see the state of the story. With that, I can keep track of what’s going on, and where the choices are bringing you, and what the decision tree looks like, which is really important because you don’t want to get lost in your own book.

I thought it was interesting to read the book in ebook format just because that format seems so ideal for this kind of thing, because every time you make a choice you can actually click a hyperlink and it takes you right to it, and if you want to go back, it’s very easy to go back, as opposed to in the old days where you had to actually turn pages, and if you wanted to go back, you had to remember what page you were on before you actually turned to the choice you made, so it made it much more difficult to actually play through the book.

I put a lot of work into the ebook because I wanted it to be something that felt at home in the format, and not just a quick conversion. Structuring the book such that the back button unwound your choices was really nice because, like you say, if you die, you’re like, “Okay, back, make a new choice. Oh, died again. I’ll go back twice, make the other choice.” Which technically allows an efficient death-first search of any tree. So, when you do that, know that you are taking a computational approach to the book that is valid.

Were you always a big fan of choose-your-own-adventure books, and did you go back and study any of the old ones, or anything like that?

I read them when I was a kid, and I love them because you have a library, and you can have a choice between a book with one story in it, where you don’t get to make any choices, a.k.a, a baby book, or a choose-your-adventure book where you had tons of choices, and you were deciding what would happen. It’s that sense of fun and possibility that I wanted to capture. There are things that I wanted to do differently. I remember in the books I read as a kid . . . you realize when you’re writing a book like this that one of your enemies is that decision tree. Every choice you make has this combinatorial explosion to more choices. You need to trim that tree, otherwise you’ll never get anywhere with the story. In the books I read as a child, that tree would get trimmed by saying, “Go left or go right. If you go left, the Earth explodes. If you go right, Mars attacks and aliens invade.” The effects of my choices were so far beyond what the actual choices were that it felt like the choices were kind of meaningless. When you’re living in such a capricious universe, why make any choices at all when you can’t predict the outcomes? I wanted my choices in my book to feel grounded in reality. I also wanted to have things that would happen regardless of your choices. If an earthquake is going to happen at 3 p.m. tomorrow, no matter what you do today, that earthquake is still going to happen. I wanted to have the reader feel like their choices had meaning, and part of the way they have meaning is by having them have reasonable consequences.

You mentioned that you launched this book on Kickstarter, and you said it was very successful. It was actually the most successful publishing Kickstarter ever, so do you want to talk about that a little bit?

It went really well. We asked for $20K to get the book out, and we got that in three and a half hours, and then we broke $100K at the end of the first day, and by the end we had broken $580,000, which was way more than I was expecting. I had made some wild promises like, “If we reach half a million dollars, I will literally explode,” thinking, we’re not going to do that, and then we did, and I had to literally explode. So I went to the Oxford English Dictionary and it turns out “explode” can be transitive. So what we did was I literally exploded something. We 3D scanned my head, made a 3D printer version of it, turned that into a bomb, and blew that up in an alleyway.

Do you have any idea about how many of the backers were fans of yours already and how many had never heard of you, but they just liked the idea?

Kickstarter actually gives you reports saying, here’s where people are coming from when they find your project. Over twenty-five percent of people were people who had come directly from Kickstarter itself. So these are people who didn’t know me, any of the artists, or the project. They just happened across it and said, “Oh, that looks cool.”

Did, like, Miley Cyrus retweet you or something? How did it get so huge? Did it get picked up by news outlets or anything? How did it get so big?

I don’t know. There was coverage in The Guardian and on the CBC, which is awesome, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. There was some media coverage of it for sure, but it’s hard to tell what the greatest effects were. I’ve never listened to a thing on the radio and said, “Oh, I’ve got to get to my computer right away to back this on Kickstarter.” I think it all helps, obviously. I wish I had a formula that’s like, “Here’s the buttons you have to press to have a really successful Kickstarter project.” I think a lot of it comes down to luck, and a lot of it comes down to the strength of the idea, but there’s always luck on top of that. It helped that I have ten years of producing work behind me, so I’m not just some random guy saying, “I’ve got a great proposal. I just need your money and it’ll be fantastic.” I’m a guy saying, “Hey, we’ve had this relationship for years. Here’s a new thing I’m doing, maybe you want to check it out?”

Have you gotten any feedback on the book from actual Shakespeare scholars?

I guess not Shakespeare scholars. I’ve had Shakespeare enthusiasts who are all very happy. I thought there might be some blowback like, “How dare you do this to Shakespeare,” but people I think recognize that the original Hamlet book still exists. It wasn’t a Kickstarter to destroy Hamlet and replace it with To Be or Not To Be. People are excited. They see it as a way to experience the book in a different format. The fact that the original story is contained within it is great. It sort of reassures people that it’s still there.

For the prequel, Poor Yorick, there’s not that much about Yorick in the play, right? So did you just have to make up pretty much everything for that one?

Oh, there’s one paragraph. There’s just one paragraph about Yorick, which is—I wish I had it memorized, I could recite some Shakespeare to you—but it’s “that fellow of infinite jest. He hath bore me on his back a thousand times, where are your gambles now,” that sort of stuff. Basically I took that as the premise, and you start out as Yorick who is poor, physically poor, he has no money. He gets this job to entertain the king’s kid, the kid Hamlet, and unlike most choose-your-own-adventure books, where the goal is to survive and on all these alternate paths you die, in Poor Yorick, your destiny is to die so that Hamlet can hold up your skull thirty years in the future to contemplate his own mortality. In Poor Yorick your goal is to die, and there’s only one path in which you survive, and that’s the bad ending. It was fun to invert that dominant paradigm for non-linear, second-person narratives, and play with it a bit.

You’ve also been working on comics based on the Adventure Time TV show on Cartoon Network. How did you get involved with that?

I wish I had a better story. They emailed me and said, “Hey, do you want to write this comic?” and I said, “Yes.”

Do you want to say, what are some of the storylines in some of the comics that you came up with?

The first arc is with the witch, who’s like the big bad guy in the show, and the second arc, they go to the future where everything is messed up, and interact with Queen Bubblegum instead of Princess Bubblegum, and it’s lots of fun. The third arc has BMO getting a virus, which is suboptimal for poor BMO. The fourth arc has a dungeon crawl with Ice King. We’re just starting the fifth arc now.

What sort of response have you gotten from Adventure Time fans? Has anyone been like, “Hey man, you don’t know Finn and Jake.”

The first issue was reviewed really well, and so I started trying to seek out negative reviews. The worst I found was a guy who hated the comic, but he hated it because he couldn’t hear the voices, and they were static pictures, and all these other properties that are intrinsic to comics as a medium, so he rejected the very idea of an Adventure Time comic, and I was fine with that. I was like, “Dude, if you hate the very idea of a comic, then you’re not going to like this when it’s a comic, and that’s fine. There’s no way I can win you over.” But, it’s been super enthusiastic. I’ve had people email me saying that got into the show because of the comic, which is super flattering. It’s been great.

You’ve also been working on a Galaga comic, based on the ’80s coin-op arcade game. What’s that been like?

They came to me and said, “Do you want to write a Galaga comic?” I was like, “Does Galaga have a story? I don’t remember Galaga having a story.” I look up Galaga, and there’s no story. You’re shooting space bugs. But, that gave me free rein to do whatever I wanted, so I invented this narrative about these space bugs coming, and there’s these two women on Earth who are trying to protect them. Their ship is basically built out of giant pixels, so the ship looks like it does in the game. There’s all these cute little tie-ins to the actual game.

Is there a huge Galaga fan constituency that’s been waiting for more Galaga stuff since, like, 1982?

I don’t know. If they have, they haven’t contacted me. But, what I have seen is people saying, “Oh my god, this Galaga comic is way better than it has any right to be.”

In other news, how have things been going with the Every Topic in the Universe Except Chickens project?

Going well. The idea there was sort of this modest proposal that Wikipedia has this problem with vandalism, and so why don’t we just give up one article to the vandals, the chickens article because dudes already know about chickens, and the rest of Wikipedia will be totally safe and totally fine. What happened with that was that people started to vandalize the chicken article, as I should have foreseen, and it remains semi-protected to this day, which I probably should have foreseen. I ended up linking the comic to a previously vandalized version of the article so people could just look at it and not have to vandalize it themselves. Wikipedia has tremendous readers and does terrific work, and I don’t want to be like this guy who’s just messing with Wikipedia all the time, so I feel a little bit bad about it, but it could be part of the solution.

In your Wikipedia entry here, there’s a couple things I really wanted to ask you about. It says, “Many other individuals hold the name Ryan North, and Ryan North the web comic author sarcastically tried to stop those other people from using his name in a series of satirical emails.” What’s the story with that?

That adjective “sarcastically” shouldn’t be there. It’s been there for years. I don’t know who put it there. But, what I did was I emailed other people named Ryan North, this was years ago in undergrad, one of my early internet projects. I emailed them saying, “Hey guys, I’m the real Ryan North, so just so you know, it’s me. Let’s just keep that in mind.” Then I would publish the responses I got. It was fun. Some of them got the joke. One guy got really mad because of the presumption that I would email him, just so mad. The funny coda of that was when I moved to Toronto, I looked up other Ryan Norths, and found one who lived literally like five blocks from me. I found him on Facebook. I was like, “Ah, Ryan North, I should contact him.” I look at his Facebook, and he’s like eighteen years old, super young, and his on-again-off-again girlfriend is pregnant with their child, and he’s posting about how much he loves her, and he’s so happy for this, and I was like, “This guy’s got enough going on in his life right now. He doesn’t need some weird thirty-year-old dropping a line being like, ‘Hey, we have the same name. Hope you’re happy with your wife and baby. What’s going on?’” So I did not contact him. I did contact one Ryan North, and he claimed to be me from the future, like jokingly, and I was like, “Oh, hey, give me some advice for the future. Tell me what the future is like.” We were just joking around. He writes back this very serious message like, “Stay the fuck away from women named Sharron. They’ll ruin your life.” Like, “Whoa, Ryan, let’s be cool.” So there are dangers to cold-emailing people to joke around with them is the lesson there.

That one guy who was really, really angry with you, did you email him back and say it’s just a joke? What happened with that?

I think I just posted what he wrote on my website, and was like, “Ha ha.”

It also says that you once got yourself in trouble with the authorities by sending prank emails.

Yeah, who hasn’t?

What sort of trouble? Have you done hard time?

No, no, I lived in the Village of Osgoode at the time, and Osgoode had a list of every email address for the people working for the Village of Osgoode, like a list of contact emails. This was 2000, so email was kind of new and fresh. What we did was we took their name and their position and would email them, and there was someone who was like, “My name is Matt Joe, and I’m the party planner for Osgoode.” I was like, “What the hell’s a party planner?” So, I emailed him saying, “Hey, Matt, I’ve got this party I’m trying to plan. How much dip should I get? How many chips should I get?” Stuff like that. Jokey stuff. I also emailed the person in charge of finance, and told her she puts the fine in finance. That was my mistake because she felt threatened by this email, and talked to the police, and the police talked to Hotmail—this was in 2000, remember—Hotmail gave them my IP Address, they talked to my ISP, got my address, and then the police came to my door. I was out, so my mom answered. The cop was like, “Hey, your son’s been sending emails to Village of Osgoode people.” She was like, “I don’t know what’s going on.” So the cop sort of thought it was funny, but the takeaway from that was that I was not allowed to email people in Osgoode anymore unless it was for real. So that was the end of that little adventure.

How about your connection to the arrest of this group of fifteen-year-old girls in Ravenna, Ohio?

I used to host a site for my friend, Posterchild, who was a street artist. He painted Mario blocks, sort of put them up around the urban environment to make it a bit more playful, more fun. He said, “Hey, do this yourself. It’s very easy to make your own Mario blocks.” These five young women in Ravenna made their own Mario blocks, and the mistake they made was probably first, being in Ohio, which doesn’t really have much of a culture for urban art, and unexpected art in public spaces is new there, and the biggest mistake they made was they put, rather than hanging up the block, the last block, they just put it down in front of this, I think it was a courthouse, so people showed up, and they found this box with a question mark on it in front of the courthouse. I guess they’d seen like ’60s Batman cartoons as well, so they brought in the bomb squad to check this question block “bomb” outside the courthouse, and of course there was nothing inside. The women were held overnight, and they had to write a letter explaining why this was a bad idea to the police chief, sort of like a slap on the wrist. I wrote them, and I was like, “I’m really sorry.” They were like, “No, it’s stupid cops, man.” So, I like that Wikipedia says I was once connected to the arrest of five women in Ravenna, Ohio because it makes me sound really dangerous to know. But it was a happy ending.

You mentioned your Time Traveler Cheat Sheet, and that featured prominently in a TEDxTalk that you gave. How did you get involved with the TEDx phenomenon?

I pitched a talk to them, and they said sure. It was funny because I really wanted it to be a good talk, and this was just after the Kickstarter, and I think they were expecting me to talk about crowdfunding and blah, blah, blah, which is not that interesting a topic most of the time. I was like, “No, I’m going to talk about friggin’ time travel, and I’m going to talk about where language comes from, and I’m going to talk about the greatest mistake we’ve made as a civilization and where and when to fix it.”

What was the biggest mistake humanity ever made?

You really should watch the talk for the full argument, but it basically comes down to the time between when we could’ve invented language, talking, and writing—writing specifically, the time between we could have invented writing—and when we did, there’s a big gap there. Writing is what allows ideas to be stronger than the bodies they’re contained within, to survive the death of the host, this is what writing gives us. These advances we’ve made with writing have been huge. The time we spent without writing has also been huge. If you were to travel back in time and talk to these people forty-five, fifty thousand years ago, and teach them how to write, you would easily change the world, and I would hope and argue probably for the better. We’d all be thousands and thousands of years more advanced than we are.

One thing that really struck me in that talk is that I always thought that pasteurization was some really complex process, and it’s basically just boiling milk. I don’t think you should get a process named after you for just boiling milk, I mean, come on.

Well, if you’re the first to do it, and he wasn’t actually the first, it had been invented in China hundreds of years ago as a way to preserve wine. But, it had a huge effect on the world, right? It’s not just milk, but any liquid food, you can kill the bacteria, which makes it safer to drink, and makes it decay a lot more slowly. These are huge things, so I’ll give him the credit for being the one who did it and got people to take him seriously. “I boiled the milk. It’s better now.” They’d be like, “Why is it better? It’s the same milk. I don’t see a difference.”

That does it for our questions. Are there any other projects you’re working on, or any events, or anything you want to mention?

We’ve talked pretty much about everything I’ve done. I’m working on a sequel to To Be or Not To Be. It’s another Shakespeare book, but that’s not going to be ready for a while yet. I just started it. Just the same Dinosaur Comics, Adventure Time comics, Galaga comics should be good for a while yet.

Great, we’ll wrap things up there. We’ve been speaking with Ryan North. His new books are This is How You Die and To Be or Not To Be. Ryan, thanks for joining us.

It was my pleasure. Thanks so much.

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The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy

The Geek's Guide to the GalaxyThe Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy is a science fiction/fantasy talk show podcast. It is produced by John Joseph Adams and hosted by:

David Barr Kirtley, who is the author of thirty short stories, which have appeared in magazines such as Realms of Fantasy, Weird Tales, and Lightspeed, in books such as Armored, The Living Dead, Other Worlds Than These, and Fantasy: The Best of the Year, and on podcasts such as Escape Pod and Pseudopod. He lives in New York.

 

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