By Will Wellington
Ryan North has been rewriting the exact same mind-bogglingly versatile Dinosaur Comics strip since 2003. Recently, he has put his indelible stamp on the bustling universes of Adventure Time and Marvel by writing the primary AT comic and The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl. Recently, because life is the coolest sometimes, I got to exchange a few words over email with Ryan to ask him about his career and Adventure Time.
Will Wellington: You’ve really excelled as a wordsmith in a primarily visual medium. Do you think it’s more difficult for writers (as opposed to writer-illustrators) to make a name for themselves in comics?
Ryan North: I think if you can figure out a way to get past the problem of not being able to draw, you’re pretty much good to go. That’s not the easiest thing: there are way more writers looking for artists than there are artists looking for someone to tell them what to draw, but there are ways around it: my trick of reusing the same images, photo comics, etc. If you can write AND draw though, you’re golden!
Your writing tends to have such a breakneck pace, like it’s about to careen out of control. How do you maintain that energy in your writing? Is it a matter of process or a matter of form?
I think it’s a matter of just trying to write things you’d want to read, and I do like plots where lots of things happen. So if things start to slow down – if I find MYSELF bored with where things are at – I’ll try to figure out a way to pick the pace up again, to recapture whatever energy I had originally. My process is to sit at a desk and write down things I think would be fun to read, and I guess part of that is trying to pack as much good stuff into the story as I can. If that translates as fun, manic energy – I’ll take it!
I love the storyline in volume four of the collected Adventure Time where Finn and Jake lose their voices and have to speak in pictures. Much like the episode “Shh!” it made me realize just how much the voice work of the actors on the TV show contributes to my understanding of and compassion for their characters. Do you try to replicate the idioms of the voice actors as much as you can?
Oh, for sure. Whenever I was writing LSP I’d do it alone because I’d have to do her voice to make sure it worked. The greatest compliment I’ve gotten on the Adventure Time books are people who say they can hear the character’s voices in their heads when they read it. Awesome! That’s exactly what I was shooting for. I liked the story where they spoke in pictures too, because that was something that could only be done in comics. I wanted the Adventure Time comic to feel essential, like it made as much sense as a comic as it did as a show, and part of that was to make the book feel at home in that medium. I wanted to tell stories that could ONLY be told in comics, you know?
One of the most touching moments in your Adventure Time series so far is the reveal of the Tennyson quote on the inside of the Ice King’s treasure chest. Where did the choice to use this particular line at this particular moment come from? Are you a secret (or not so secret) poetry lover?
I have a couple of poems memorized, MAINLY because it’s such an old-school classiness thing to have. Like it’s “Oh, excuse me, I’ll just recite a poem to myself in my head while waiting for this bus to show up, because I am made out of PURE DISTILLED CLASS.” The Tennyson quote fit really nicely, but I have to admit I couldn’t remember the particulars of the poem so had to Google it to look it up. But the part there fit well with Ice King’s whole deal, so it was very convenient for me that Tennyson was writing Adventure Time preemptive fan-poetry way back when.
So much of your work involves the internet! How is that possible?! For me, the internet is the enemy of all productivity! How do you keep the internet from being a hopeless timesuck?
I work with three monitors: one showing writing, one showing email, and the other with support documents or something. So I too am easily distracted. But when writing I find it helps to take little breaks when you hit a wall, and hopping over to Twitter for a few minutes is a great way to get a new perspective when you return to your document. So basically this is me arguing that telling stupid jokes on Twitter is work and part of my “Process.” I’M WORKING.
I think the secret is to never turn off the part of your brain that’s working, so even when you’re goofing off you can still be productive!
I noticed you wearing a Scott Pilgrim / Toronto shirt in a recent tumblr post. What are your favourite Toronto comics and who are your favourite Toronto cartoonists? How has that city influenced your cartooning?
It’s true! I got that one at The Beguiling, a terrific comic store in Toronto. They put on TCAF, which is a terrific comic convention in Toronto too! I’m not sure how much Toronto has influenced things beyond “ensuring that I get to hang out with funny people so I can steal their jokes,” but it is a great city for cartoonists. Emily Horne and Joey Comeau of A Softer World live here, as does Kate Beaton and a whole bunch of other ridiculously talented people! It’s nice to have people doing the same thing you do, because comics can be a lonely way to earn a living, but thanks to the internet and also Toronto, there are always pals doing similar things nearby. It’s great!
Will Wellington lives in Guelph.
By Will Wellington