Interview: Ryan North on “Dinosaur Comics”
Canadian webcomic creator Ryan North’s Dinosaur Comics is another one of those projects that defies the norm in the comics world and succeeds despite all of the very good reasons why it shouldn’t. I mean, come on, folks: A series in which the art never changes, and readers just get day after day of a pair of dinosaurs chatting about heady subject matter in mid-stomp? Back in the day, no one would’ve predicted a comic like that would be around five days, let alone five years.
But that’s exactly what it’s done — Dinosaur Comics has not only survived, but thrived, in its five-year existence. It’s done so well, in fact, that North has been able to develop a complex history for his small cast of characters while also having his creation named among the Web’s best comics in one award after another over the last few years. Not content to simply make comics on the ‘Net, North has also lent his considerable programming skills to Project Wonderful, a robust online ad-serving system that allows users to bid on placement of their ads on participating websites. Much like Dinosaur Comics, Project Wonderful is a new approach to a long-established system that has left countless others slapping their foreheads and wondering why they didn’t think of something similar.
I had the opportunity to chat with North recently about Dinosaur Comics, Project Wonderful and a variety of other topics, including his recent experiments with online photo-sharing site Flickr and the multitude of other projects he manages to juggle on a regular basis.
COMICMIX: Before we even get started, what were you up to when you sat down to answer these questions, Ryan?
RYAN NORTH: I’m disgusting, man. Sunday morning, I haven’t showered yet and I’m covered in stink lines. I’m wearing the clothes I wore yesterday. I’ve just eaten a burger with bacon built into it, and I have crumbs on my chest. I am the sexiest man, Rick. Tell your readers.
CMIX: Okay, then… moving on. Of all the webcomics out there, I think it’s pretty safe to say that Dinosaur Comics is one of the series that changes the least from day to day — at least as far as the art goes. So what’s your creative process like? I would imagine it’s pretty different from some of the other creators I’ve spoken with…
RN: Way back when I started, I once wrote a comic in half an hour. That was a record for me that I’ve never come close to since! It usually takes me, these days, about 3 hours to write a comic, start to finish. I gather that this is a bit longer than usual, but for me, most of the time isn’t spent figuring out what I want to say, it’s spent figuring out how I want to say it. Usually about 1 of those hours is spent figuring out the punchline, and the other two massaging everything together so that it’s interesting to read and, you know… doesn’t suck.
Once the comic is done, it usually only takes a few minutes to write the hidden easter eggs (the title text, email text, and archive title) — for some reason I find this to be the easiest part. Maybe it’s because these bits are sort of outside the comic and sometimes make fun of it. I find it really easy to make fun of myself.
Creatively, I keep a few files of comic ideas: phrases, words, or cool things that I’ve heard about that I’d like to look into further. This way, when I’m stumped, I can look at these ideas and see if anything strikes my fancy. Some of my favourite comics are the ones that have really cool ideas in them that most people don’t know about — the recent one about the "Great Vowel Shift" was one of them: something I’d encountered while studying computational linguistics and always wanted to delve further into. Yay! Cool-but-obscure ideas that affect the world around us!
CMIX: I’ve been reading Dinosaur Comics for quite a while now, but after reading the wikipedia page for the series, I feel like I’ve been missing a lot. Apparently, the cast of DC are involved in some complicated love triangles, and there are a lot of relationship dynamics brewing under the surface. Or is there? What’s your take on readers’ desire to see so much character development and backstories for the DC cast as opposed to simply keeping every strip a one-shot affair? How do you balance those two aspects of the series?
RN: It’s funny — before I started out, I thought that every strip would be unique, with the character of T-Rex changing day-to-day to match whatever I needed. As soon as I’d done one comic I realized that was crazy — T-Rex has a personality right there in how he’s posed, and I just can’t ignore that. You can play with it, but you can’t ignore it.
But to answer your question, I try to keep the strip with as much continuity as I can. I remember who kissed whom when and where, and can make references to that once in a while. I like that it rewards readers who have been reading from the beginning to see something from four years ago referenced again, and it rewards me, too! Plus, if I didn’t remember who kissed whom, I’d get a thousand emails every time I messed up. So that’s a benefit, too!
I don’t really see my comics as being one-shots — certainly, they stand alone, and if I’m talking about threesomes one day, it’s unlikely I’ll still be talking about threesomes the next day. Maybe that’s a bad explain. I have a lot of theories about threesomes. But I think just due to the nature of the strip itself, it’s a lot harder to do really involved, multi-year arcs like Goats pulls off so successfully. The strip itself sort of manages these two "gag-a-day / continuity" pulls itself, and I end up in the middle sort of naturally.
CMIX: In addition to producing Dinosaur Comics, you’ve also been very active in producing software and related systems for webcomic creators, such as the webcomic search tool Oh No Robot, the webcomic-focused RSS reader RSSpect and the ad service Project Wonderful. Could you weigh in on where some of these projects are at these days? How are things going with them and what involvement do you still have with them?
RN: Well, I’m entirely involved since I’m really the only person working on them! I try to make applications that I myself find useful, and then when I’m done I can say, "Hey, maybe I can generalize this out to everyone else, too!" Oh No Robot came from me wishing there was a good way to search webcomics, and RSSpect came from me wishing there was an easy way to generate RSS feeds for websites. They’re both at the point where they’re pretty much stable and doing what they should be doing well, so they don’t take much day-to-day management. With Project Wonderful came the idea of "Man, online advertising sucks. What if we were designing it from scratch today? What would we do differently?" And so, after deciding how to reinvent stuff so it didn’t, um, suck quite so much, here we are!
Project Wonderful is the application with the most appeal outside of webcomics (I built it to be ideal for cartoonists, but it’s also (or so I claim) ideal for everyone else too. And that’s where I spend most of my time these days, adding new features, making things generally more awesome. I really like it: it lets me balance out the two different sides of my brain, doing art in the morning and software development in the afternoon. Good times!
CMIX: Do you have any favorite Dinosaur Comics strips? What about if someone asked you what DC was about – what strips do you think are the best examples of what DC is to you?
RN: I normally grab the one where God first appeared as my example comic (T-Rex decides he’s going to find God, and he was hiding behind the couch the entire time). I think I’m easily impressionable: when trying to think of my favourite comics, the ones that people sent me the most positive feedback on came to mind. I still really like the one where T-Rex does aid work in Africa to show up Utahraptor. I admire that commitment to winning an argument.
CMIX: Have you seen the animated version(s) of Dinosaur Comics that have popped up around the ‘Net? (For example, this one.) What do you think about them? Have you given any thought to going the animated route with DC?
RN: Yeah, they’re a lot of fun! I’ve been approached a few times for an animated show, but I’d want it to be good. A lot of the pitches were really terrible — one guy in particular wanted to reuse the animation every time, probably because it would make the show insanely cheap. I tried to explain that comics != cartoons, and that you can’t pull the same tricks in both. I can make panel #3 of Dinosaur Comics last 1 second or 5 minutes, depending on how much text is there, but in animation, every scene lasts for as long as it’s animated. It just doesn’t work! You can pull the "ha-ha their words don’t match their mouths" trick once, but it gets a lot less funny the 30th time you’ve seen it.
CMIX: By my calculations (and with some help from Wikipedia), Dinosaur Comics is just over five years old now. What do you wish you could tell yourself five years ago before you (or as you were beginning to) kick off the series?
RN: This is a good question! I don’t really have any cautionary tales to tell myself. I guess I’d tell myself that the future is going to be pretty awesome. Sometimes strangers on the Internet will email you to tell you that they love you, Past Ryan. This is a good way to start your day, Past Ryan! Be sure not to drink 2L of milk before going to bed, because that shit tears up your insides, Past Ryan.
CMIX: The haylookit experiment (in which you had flickr users tag things with the term "haylookit") and qwantzparty project on flickr are just some of the recent ways you’ve put your name (and in doing so, Dinosaur Comics) out there on the ‘Tubes. Why do you think you’ve had such success in developing an online community around your projects and generating that word-of-mouth attention everyone’s after on the grid?
RN: Wow, I really don’t see it as marketing myself! The haylookit and qwantzparty tags were really just me wanting others to be able to put stuff up on qwantz.com, too, or not needing my approval before they could post fanart, respectively! When people ask me "how do you get a comic to be successful" I generally tell them to keep at it, update regularly, always try to be better at it, and not be a dick about promoting it. A link to your comic in your forum signature is cool; signing up to tons of forums just to say "HAY CHECK OUT MY COMIC" is not. At least for me, anyway!
CMIX: What else are you working on these days? Are there any other projects you want readers to know about?
RN: Man, just Dinosaur Comics and Project Wonderful! These already take up 26 hours a day.
We get extra hours per day in Canada.
You can always check out new Dinosaur Comics over at www.qwantz.com, and if you’re looking to get into the online advertising scene, be sure to visit Project Wonderful. Dinosaur Comics is part of the Dayfree Press webcomics collective.
Want more interviews with webcomic creators? Check out the ComicMix Webcomic Interview Archive, and feel free to send your suggestions for interview subjects to: rick [at] comicmix [dot] com!