The first wave of Newsarama’s Wide World of Webcomics concludes with a special in-depth talk with one of the most prominent webcomics creators online. Ryan North (www.qwantz.com) has not only entertained readers for years with the stock-panel ramblings of Dinosaur Comics, he’s also helped change the game for creators with such tools as the advertising service Project Wonderful and the transcription service Oh No Robot.
Most recently, a concept from Dinosaur Comics turned into the anthology Machine of Death, about a machine that can tell you how you’re going to die…but not when. Co-edited with Matthew Bennardo and David Malki and featuring illustrations from a ton of webcomics pros, the self-published anthology made national headlines when an online effort made it the number one book on Amazon, beating out Glenn Beck’s latest. Beck was not amused, but the rush of publicity has kept the book’s profile high, and earned it a hard-copy place in bookstores across the nation.
In a special in-depth interview, North talks about Machine of Death’s success, the future of web and newspaper comics, and even offers a few new entries to Dinosaur Comics’ popular feature on the probability of superhero origins. And head to the very end to see which creators we’re talking to next week on the site!
Newsarama: Ryan, since you've gotten all the attention for Machine of Death, has that opened the door for more prose/outside of comics projects for you? Do you see doing another anthology on this scale in the future?
Ryan North: Hah - doing stuff outside of comics is a door that I never tested to see if it was open or not! But yeah - it was great to see that book be as well received as it took so long (five years!) to put together.
I can tell you that the other editors of Machine of Death and I are working on something (prose-based) to follow it up! I've written a few non-comics stuff in the past but it's not really good, so I'd like to wait till I have something amazingly great before I try to get it put there.
Nrama: The book became almost a rallying point for webcomics creators, given the extent of the collaboration and push it received. You have so many disparate creators working in independent comics, online and in hard copy, but it seems like in situations such as this, they're really able to come together in collaboration. This is a long and overly-wordy way of asking: How would you characterize the sense of community among comic creators online?
North: “Terrific?” It was immensely satisfying, after being told for years by publishers that the book was great but wouldn't sell because there were no big names attached to it, to put the book out and have it go to #1 on Amazon. And that was helped by the contributors posting and tweeting about the book that day! If that's not a community coming together I don't know what is.
I've said this before, but I think one of the reason so many of the cartoonists I know have become friends is because the Internet is a much more cooperative space. If I did a newspaper comic, I couldn't recommend Nedroid (at www.nedroid.com, it is the best, this is me recommending it) because any paper that picked it up would have to drop another comic, and there's a chance that could be mine.
But online, if someone reads my comic and discovers Nedroid through a link I put up, worst case, they'll just read two comics now. I mean, there may be this hidden, hate-filled community of online cartoonists, but if there are, I haven't found it yet. We're all generally pretty nice people, it turns out!
Nrama: How do you get in the mindset of the dinosaurs? A lot of their musings, I gather, come straight from you, but I imagine there have to be moments where you go, "Hmm, how would T-Rex react to this...?"
North: T-Rex is a lot of fun: if you put something in front of him he'll have a reaction to it, which is great for a writer! But there are times where I write something and I have to stop and say "Nope, that's ridiculous, no way they would ever say that.”
The challenge is to stay true to the characters while also having them be entertaining every day, because it turns out. That just watching someone be true to themselves isn't that rad to watch.
Nrama: Do you see yourself doing comics with extended narratives in the future, say with new panels and so forth?
North: I've actually written a long-form comic about King Midas (basically, the premise described here) and I've got the first 24 pages written and plot for the next five or six “issues.”
But I need to figure out a way that I can produce it that makes sense: I'd like to pay any artist that draws it a decent page rate, and that means I'd like the comic to at least pay their wages, and that's tricky!
Nrama: When you're breaking the strip down panel-by-panel, what's the biggest challenge in figuring out the "beats" of the dialogue -- breaking up a longer rant, or which bit should continue into the next panel?
North: That's interesting, because I don't think I've ever started out with a long rant and then had to break it up. Generally I start writing at panel one and go from there, which gives me the beats for free, but then I need to figure out how to get the plot / jokes to fit in where I wanted.In earlier comics, my only priority was telling a joke in the last panel, but now I try to make every panel as interesting as possible, and that normally means at least a li'l joke there.
Panel 2 is the easiest panel to write: it's the shortest, and you get to be quippier than in the others! I also use the text of that panel as the random comic link at the top of the site (and it's the text that gets posted to Twitter as the comic goes up) so I try to make that interesting, but there's been more than a few days where it's something simple like "That's crazy!!" and people just have to deal.
Nrama: As people have become more aware of the Easter eggs, has it gotten harder to weave them into the strip? I remember the Homestar Runner guys saying that they knew people were just pressing "Tab" repeatedly…
North: It's complicated! You sort of have to go back and ask yourself, why am I hiding these Easter eggs? Why not just put them out there so everyone can see them and nobody is missing anything? But it's fun to have hidden stuff, and it's super fun to find something unexpected.
I only feel bad when I get the occasional email saying "Hey I just read every Dinosaur Comic ever and wanted to email you to thank you and now I find out there's jokes hidden in the contact link? back to Page One for me." But they're never really mad; they're actually happy that when they go back and re-read a comic, there'll be something new there waiting for them. So that's great!
The downside is these Easter eggs are pretty well known now, and people expect them always in the same place. On my iPhone site (where you can't hover the mouse over the comic because there isn't one) (that's how you find one of them, the secret is out) I hid an Easter egg in a different place, and I get a few emails a month saying "Hey I love your mobile site but it's missing the Easter eggs; you should get on that."
And they're there! They're not even that well hidden. But it's no fun to look for something and not be able to find it, so I write these guys back and say "oh it's there, here's how you display it" and I always feel bad because I'm giving out walkthroughs for my own site.
A few years ago this guy was organizing an online treasure hunt and enlisted me to hide a clue (a single word, if I remember correctly) in one of my comics. I hid it so well that the guy organizing it couldn't find it even knowing it was there somewhere, and nobody after that has ever written in saying "Hey, what's with this one word?" so I think that's one Easter egg that nobody ever found. I think I may have ruined his treasure hunt, actually.
Anyway, I may use the same trick in the future for something!
Nrama: So, we write a lot about superheroes on the site, and you've had your musings about the nature of superhero creation recently. What would you calculate are the odds of creating, say, Daredevil or Green Arrow, who have...relatively down-to-earth origins? For that matter, what are the odds of a crossover between two universes occurring for any superheroes? Also, to answer a question I once heard at a Toys R' Us in 1992, could Vanilla Ice beat Hulk Hogan, or could Hulk Hogan beat the Ninja Turtles?
North: This question is actually twenty questions in one! Breaking it down:
1 - Daredevil you need to be blinded in a car accident, plus you need a radioactive substance that heightens your remaining senses. The odds of being in a car accident in a lifetime are pretty high (1 in 4), but you need to multiply that by the odds of being blinded by it (less likely), times the odds of being exposed to that radioactive substance that gives you superhuman sense, which right now is unfortunately zero. So Daredevil's out.
2 - Green Arrow was a billionaire who got pushed overboard a boat and found himself on an island, where he trained himself at um, arrows, right? So we've got about 1000 billionaires on the planet, and with a 0.001 chance of attempted murder on someone (here I'm assuming the variables are independent and that being a billionaire doesn't increase/decrease the odds of an attempt being made on your life) we can expect 1 billionaire to have an attempt on his life.
I'm going to assume generously that 100% of billionaires own boats and that 5% of their time is spent on them, so that's a 5% chance of a billionaire pushed overboard. Unfortunately the odds of surviving being lost at sea are much less, and depend greatly on where you are. But these numbers are still pretty good! I wouldn't be surprised if a Green Arrow shows up in - oh, the next 100,000 years?
3 - Vanilla Ice could easily be beaten by Hulk Hogan; I'm surprised you'd even ask me this question. This is the part of the interview where I take off the mic and flip the table. It’s so obvious Hogan would win
4 - By the same token, the Ninja Turtles have weapons that can defend against folding chairs with ease. Hulk Hogan would be easily beaten by the Ninja Turtle group, transformed, as they are, from the norm by the nuclear goop.
Nrama: I've been asking more and more creators about how they're responding to such changes as the iPad in terms of how to increase awareness and monetize their strips, but you were ahead of the game with things like Project Wonderful and OhNoRobot.
So I'm curious -- in this mad rush to increase the presence of digital comics, who do you think is doing a better job -- the larger print companies trying to expand their presence, or individual creators working with other creators and their fans? What do you see as the biggest advantage a smaller creator might have over a larger, more established company?
North: I'm not that familiar with what the bigger companies are doing, so I guess I can't really speak to that. I think the biggest advantage smaller creators have is accessibility: if a fan wants to write an iPad app, then you can let him do it, or you can say, "No, I'd rather keep control of that" or you can say "No, I'd rather keep control of that and offer to pay you to do that.”Complete strangers will help you out, just because they like your comic, and that is basically amazing. I mean, I'm sure there are people who'd love to write a Superman app for DC, but I don't know if you can just email DC the same way you can email one of us. Maybe you can!
Nrama: Something that also interests me -- and this is a bit of a 180 from webcomics -- is that while you have this oft-proclaimed death of the newspapers, and death of the funny pages, you have an unprecedented access to older comic strips through changes in printing and format brought on by technology.
You're seeing Little Nemo and Popeye at their original sizes; you're seeing comprehensive reprintings of strips like Peanuts; you're seeing reprints of acclaimed obscurities like Barnaby and King Aroo. This raises a number of issues -- why is the comic strip such a vital form?
What are traditional syndicates missing out on in terms of exploring the potential of the online market? While hardcopy collections of older strips have become a reprint boom, do you feel there's money being left on the table -- or at least potential readers -- by not having more comprehensive archives of older and/or defunct strips online?
North: The way most webcomics are set up is that you give the comic away and then sell other things: shirts, collections, etc. I'd love to have the complete run of Little Nemo online at full size - that would be amazing and gorgeous.
And I'd argue that it'd drive sales to the print collections already out, but you know what? Maybe the syndicates have it one step better, and their plan is to sell the book, and when sales drop, put it all online to sell the book some more. I'd like to think that, but I think it's such a 180 from where they started out from - where everyone pays for everything - that I'd be really (happily) surprised to see it happen.
I think it would be brilliant to take all those long out-of-print comics they've got, put them online as if they're a webcomic, and see where it goes. There's really no risk: hosting is almost free, the comics are already owned by the syndicates, and the material would be completely novel to a new generation. But I'm not holding my breath on it happening.
Attention syndicates: Please make this happen.
Nrama: You're extremely liberal with allowing people to reprint/repost the strips -- continuing from the previous questions, do you feel reprint permissions and/or pay/limited archives are something that hurt established "traditional" strips online?
North: Gah. There's so much that's going on here that's wrong (in my opinion) and again, it comes from where you're starting from. My starting position is that I want my comic to be read. I want it to be read because I'm proud of it, and I know that some readers will love it enough to buy some merchandise and support me, so I do all that I can to get it out there: you can embed it in your sites, share it however you want, whatever.
The other position is "this comic is a product that has taken time and money to create, and cannot be given away". And if you start from that position, then it's really hard to let someone embed it on their site without linking back to you. It's not natural to say "hey, do whatever you want with this!" because all you can see is a lost sale every time the picture is downloaded, no matter how ridiculous that point of view is.
I remember (this has probably changed by now, I hope) that the syndicate sites wouldn't allow you to embed the image on your own site - in other words, to read Garfield you'd have to actually visit gocomics.com.
I imagine the argument is that every hit is eyeballs for their ads, but when you approach it from my point of view, all you're doing is putting obstacles between readers and your work, and why would you want to do that? This isn't artsy pie-in-the-sky optimism: when you give the comic away for free, you want it read because readers are what keep you afloat.
In conclusion: I suppose we're just approaching it from different angles. I've found that putting the comic out there, with complete archives, for free, has been a really awesome way of doing things.
Nrama: What are some of your favorite comics and/or creators, both online and in print?
North: So many; I link to most of them on my site. In print I love Eddie Campbell (Alec, From Hell) who does really good character stories, and Michael Kupperman (Snake 'n' Bacon, Tales Designed to Thrizzle) who is hilarious.
Online, I've already mentioned that I love Anthony Clark's Nedroid, but I didn't say that I worked with Anthony on a comic that I proposed to my wife with! She said yes, and probably that was all Anthony's natural amazingness.
A Softer World and The Adventures of Dr. McNinja are also great.
Nrama: What are some of your favorite new webcomics of the past year or two?
North: Axe Cop is terrific (written by a 5-year-old, drawn by his 29-year-old brother), and I suppose Katie isn't that new anymore but she's still one of my favorites.
Nrama: You mentioned Kate Beaton (whom we’d love to have for this series!), who, like you, is from Canada. What would you say is particularly unique about the creative environment in Canada? There are a lot of unique and compelling creators who’ve come from there, from Bryan Lee O’Malley to Seth and Chester Brown.
North: I don't really see a difference between being a cartoonist in the US and Canada - at least, being a webcartoonist, which is where my experience lies. It's a very independent career path (a lot of it is self-publishing, building everything up yourself) and you can do that in a lot of places, if you're lucky.
That said: Canadians cartoonists are awesome and I have yet to meet a dud.
Nrama: You had a gap of five years between the first and second print collection of Dinosaur Comics -- do you see a similar gap for a third collection, or are those collections something you feel should be more infrequent?
North: Oh, the next one will take much less time! I kind of wanted to find a format for the book that better than the first (this new book is in color and contains all three secret texts from the comics) but now that I've got that format, I'd love to get a complete collection out ASAP. The books are so pretty, by the way. So pretty.
Nrama: What's next for you?
More comics! Comics for everyone!
Thanks for joining us for the first wave of Newsarama’s Wide World of Webcomics! Next time, we’ll be talking to more amazing creators, including Chris Hastings (Dr. McNinja), Vitaly Alexius (Romantically Apocalyptic), Hans Rickheit (Ectopiary), Meredith Gran (Octopus Pie) and Danielle Corsetto (Girls with Slingshots). Be there!
- Wide World of Webcomics Part One: Ethan & Malachai Nicolle's AXE-COP
- Wide World of Webcomics Part Two: Pay Attention to LUCY KNISLEY
- Wide World of Webcomics Part Three: Daniel Lieske's THE WORMWORLD SAGA