What time is it? If you’re Ryan North, it’s time to enjoy the award-winning success of “Adventure Time” and get excited for “The Midas Flesh,” his next series from BOOM! Studios. The flagship title of BOOM!’s new BOOM! Box imprint, the December-shipping 8-issue miniseries teams North with his “Adventure Time” artists Shelli Paroline and Braden Lamb while also putting a new spin on the myth of the gold-granting king.
“The Midas Flesh” starts off with Midas getting his wish and turning everything he touches into gold. The problem? He’s standing on the Earth when he does so and thus the entire planet gets covered in the shiny substance. In the future, a crew of intergalactic adventurers — including a young woman named Fatima and a Utahraptor — come across the long dead planet in hopes of grabbing Midas’ body and using it against their evil pursuers.
Before launching “Adventure Time” at BOOM!, North made a name and career for himself doing web strips like “Dinosaur Comics” which actually spawned the idea for this new 8 issue mini-series. CBR News talked with North about adding another project to his already busy schedule, the benefit of shelving a script for several years and the strange twists and turns that the original Midas myth took.
CBR News: First off, congrats on your Eisner and Harvey wins for “Adventure Time.”
Ryan North: Oh, thank you.
What was your reaction when you first heard your book was nominated, and then when you actually won?
I guess excitement and, sort of being thrilled to have this happen. What I like about the Harveys and the Eisners is that “Adventure Time” was nominated for Best Children’s Publication and Best Humor. To me that was the greatest compliment of all because it’s saying this is an all-ages comic, it’s great for kids, but adults can like it too. My whole thing with all-ages comics is that you’re not writing for kids, you’re writing literally for all-ages. The fact that we were nominated in both of those categories was like, “Yes! I hit the note I wanted to hit. This is heartening!”
Why do you think that some companies shy away from the idea of doing all-ages comics?
I feel like there’s a stigma around them because there’s been a lot of, pardon me, not very good ones. [When you see] all-ages stuff, you think, “Oh, it’s just for kids,” because there’s been a lot of stuff that’s marketed as all-ages that seems to be written for a juvenile audience. I’m fighting that stereotype, that stigma around that style of comics. It’s not true. There’s stuff that’s for kids and stuff that’s all-ages.
“Adventure Time” seems like the perfect show to base an all-ages comic on because it’s got as many kid fans as it does adult ones.
What I love about the show and the universe is that it’s super fun and super cheerful, but there’s also sad things that happen on the show sometimes and there’s consequences all the time. It feels like, and is, a well-realized, cohesive universe. I feel like kids appreciate and notice when something isn’t talking down to them and addresses them like any other human being. That’s part of the magic of “Adventure Time,” that it doesn’t tone it down for kids which makes it for everyone.
Licensed comics can be tricky sometimes. What is the back and forth like between yourself and the show?
It’s actually been super easy for the most part. I wasn’t worried, but I was wondering how hard it would be. [Series creator] Pen [Ward], the “Adventure Time” people and Cartoon Network have all been super down with everything I’ve done. The hardest thing we did was, at the end of issue #4 there was a flashback to Marceline when she’s a little girl and I wrote 10 or 12 different versions of that scene. I was trying to hint at something and then I talked to Pen and what would have been on that page would contradict what was coming up in the show a few months down the road. We wanted to make it consistent so I changed it.
Then, as I was writing the flashback for Marceline, what was in that comic would have given away a reveal on the show yet again. So, I did a new version. Then it was fine, but that same week the writers went with a new version two seasons down the road that they wanted to use, but it would have been too similar to what’s in the comic. The whole thing is to not spoil anything that’s on the show which the flashback would have revealed. That was work, but the best kind of work. It’s there because everyone cares so much about the characters. You want any licensed work to feel like it’s in the same universe, that it’s coherent and cohesive.
From a tone or writing perspective, do you approach “Adventure Time” differently than something like “Dinosaur Comics” or “The Midas Flesh?”
Something that’s consistent in all of those is jokes. I have this grand theory of writing for humor and erotica. The theory is, if you’re writing it, your body will tell you if you’re enjoying it and doing the right thing. I’ve never written erotica, so I’m not sure if it’s true, but I’m pretty sure it is.
For comedy, I’m writing alone and trying to make myself laugh. The cheat there is that if I laugh, I have a pretty good sense that people who share my sense of humor will laugh at it too. That’s something that’s consistent across all of them, but of course there’s stuff you can do with Finn and Jake and Marceline that you can’t do with T-Rex and Utahraptor, partially because they’re stuck in the same poses all the time. The writing content changes, but the dialog and sitting alone trying to entertain myself is the core of what my writing technique is.
Between “Dinosaur Comics” and “Adventure Time” you’re known for your humor writing. Does “The Midas Flesh” have a more serious tone?
There’s a lot of really cool, awesome adventure stuff happening in the story, but there’s also these really fun characters having the adventures so they crack jokes with each other and have elements of comedy in the story.
My first draft of “Midas” didn’t have any jokes in it — this was the first draft I wrote years ago. I wanted to write the coolest story I could and then I realized that the story was really cool, but the characters were cardboard people I didn’t like, which is not good.
In Isaac Asimov’s “Foundation” books he’s really great on plot and his characters tend to be really thin. In “Foundation,” the story is covering thousands of years and these characters are almost like chess pieces moving around and it’s the thinnest characterization you’ll see. But, they’re really cool stories. I feel like that can be done well. I feel like Asimov did it really well. What I had written years ago was not that good. The characters were not that good. So, I revised it and made it more fun. I like comic books that are fun.
What can you tell us about the main characters in the book?
Well, there’s a guy named King Midas who lives in Ancient Greece, although to him it’s just Greece. The first issue deals with Midas in historical times leading up to this wish he makes that comes true. The other part of the book deals with this crew in future times that’s coming across this gold planet with this crazy property where anything that touches it turns to gold. One of those crew members looks like a dinosaur which allows me to have a dinosaur in a space suit which I feel like every comic should have. It seems so obvious in retrospect.
The story of “The Midas Flesh” stems from a “Dinosaur Comics” strip you did years ago where the basic idea is laid out. You then wrote an early version of the script and eventually revised it for this series, but did you tinker with it before that?
I wrote it shortly after that comic. That’s really the first long form comic I’d ever written, ever. Which was good because when BOOM! came to me about writing “Adventure Time,” I could say, “Sure, and by the way, I know I can write long form comics.” It’s nice to have that confidence from this thing I tinkered with for six months and then shelved. It was half not knowing the right way to do it and not being satisfied with the story yet.
Then, several months ago when BOOM! came and asked, “Do you have any projects you’d like to do?” I was like, “Hey, here’s a completed script. Take a look.” I don’t think that was exactly what they were expecting, but they were happy. Since then I rewrote the entire script from scratch having been developing as a writer and a person over the past several years. You see stuff you do differently and the nice thing about writing a script and then shelving it is you can fix all the mistakes you made. So I’ve been writing it since then and making it more in tune with what I think a comic can be versus what 2009’s Ryan [thought], because screw that guy. He doesn’t know what he’s talking about.
“Dinosaur Comics” is a daily strip and “Adventure Time has more contained stories. How did you stay organized while laying out the eight issues of “The Midas Flesh?”
I have this giant text file of outlines saying, “This is what happens, this is what happens, this is what happens,” written in not quite a shorthand but like a breathless two-year-old telling you a story that he just heard. I sent it to my editor Shannon Watters and said, “This is the outline, so imagine this, but good.” It’s mainly written for me so there’s stuff that’s absent like themes developing. Mine is just plot. If you expect to see jokes or character moments, they’re not in this outline. So I have an idea of what will happen.
What I find useful when writing longer form comics including “Adventure Time,” is having an outline so you know this is where the story’s going. It’s almost like if you were building a city. These are some streets you’d lay down. Then, when you’re writing, you fill in the buildings. But, often, while you’re filling in your buildings you’re like, “Oh, maybe the school makes more sense here,” and by the time you’re done, your finished city won’t totally look like what you mapped out.
This is a terrible analogy because cities aren’t built this way. The point is, as the story’s being told and you’re filling in these details, your outline can change a bit. It’s nice to have that map so you know what’s being changed. It’s funny because the first “Adventure Time” story changed from the outline quite a bit as I was telling it and the third one was very, very close. BOOM!’s been great with that. They’re not as concerned with matching the outline as they are with it being a cool comic. That’s great; that’s what I want because I don’t feel like I’ve given them a bill of sale and then given them a different comic at the end.
When BOOM! first asked you about a new series, did they bring up the BOOM! Box imprint or did that come along later?
That came along later. I don’t know if they had that exactly in mind or not, but our conversation was, “Do you have any comics you would like to do?” And I said, “Yes, here it is.” It was very easy. People always ask how I got the “Adventure Time” gig or “Midas Flesh” and I wish I had a better story than, “We e-mailed and decided it was a cool thing to do.”
Back to the story of “Midas Flesh.” The tale of this man with this crazy power has been around for centuries while other fables have disappeared. Why do you think it’s still kicking around and inspiring new stories like this one?
The actual myth is crazy. Midas wishes everything he touches would turn to gold so he gets the wish. Then he’s like, “Oh man, I’ve made a big mistake. Be careful what you wish for.” That’s kind of the theme. Then he goes back to this god and is like, “Hey, I made this mistake. Can you fix it for me?” The god says, “Sure, just dump the stuff you turned to gold into this river and it’ll turn back and you’ll lose your powers.” So he dumps his daughter, who he turned to gold, into the river and she comes back and takes a bath and his powers go away. So that explains why this river has golden sand on the shore.
That seems like a natural end point to the story, but it doesn’t end there. Midas angers another god and, as punishment, is given donkey ears. No one but he and his barber know the secret, but the barber can’t stand knowing this secret so he goes down to the river, digs a hole in the sand and whispers the secret into the sand, as one does. I forget how it ends, I think some plants spring up where he whispered his secret and eventually Midas gets his regular ears back. It’s the most thematically inconsistent and crazy story explaining why the riverbank is golden and why the ferns are there. It’s just a crazy story and I feel like it has survived to the modern age, but in a very modified way. It’s just the first part which is cool and cuts off the donkey ear part which is kind of nuts. Then use it as a metaphor for “be careful what you wish for.”
The thing about a lot of aphorisms like “be careful what you wish for” is if you say them at the right time, you sound really sage, but there’s usually an equal or opposite aphorism that could also be said at similar times and sound sage. “Be careful what you wish for” is a weird thing in the first place because, assuming we live in a rational universe where wishes don’t come true because we make them in our heads, it’s kind of weird to even worry about wishes. The message is: sometimes what you want will come true in a way that you didn’t expect. I think it’s just a funky way to clarify and simplify it as “be careful what you wish for.” It’s also a cool story because he has a superpower and the core of suddenly being granted a new ability ties in with a bunch of superhero mythology.
Like any superpower, Midas can be dangerous to himself and others. In this case he turns the whole Earth into gold by touching it.
Yeah and then he dies. He turns the Earth to gold and then all the air that comes into his lungs turns to tiny flecks of gold so he suffocates and dies. His body’s real well preserved because every body part turns to gold. It’s not a very good wish to make. Bad move, King Midas.
Since Midas is touching the Earth and turned everything to gold, would the crew in the spaceship also turn to gold if they landed?
If you touch Midas or touch something that he’s touching, you turn to gold. So, if the crew were to land and actually touch the planet, they would be turned to gold. It’s like electricity, so if the planet is electrified and you touched it, you’d be shocked.
I talked to a physicist friend of mine and worked out rules for how this transmutation could take place in a rational world. It was a lot of fun. It’s not hard science fiction, but it’s nice to have this theoretically background in your pocket.
It’s important to have rules. For one thing, it gives the audience something concrete to understand and for another, it tells them that you’ve taken the time to figure out the world which doesn’t always happen.
There’s a ton of fun to have, too. Rules are something a main character can bounce off of.
Back to the theme of being careful what you wish for, the plan for Midas is to grab his body and basically weaponize it. That seems like the kind of plan that could easily backfire.
Yeah, uh, spoiler alert. The flesh is this weapon that has already destroyed a whole planet. That’s a really powerful thing if you can control it.
Across the eight issues, does it mostly take place on or around Earth or do you spread out into space and other planets?
It gets broader. It starts with this one guy, Midas, and his wish sets off a series of events that gets bigger and bigger and more important and crazier as the story progresses because it’s this weapon that a lot of people would be very interest in controlling. It’s also really dangerous and hard to control. If you drop it, you’re in big trouble.
It sounds like the first few issues are in line with something like “The Thing” or “Alien” where it’s a smaller group uncovering a larger threat, but then you can open things up because you’re working in comics and it’s basically limitless.
That’s what I love about comics: it costs the same to draw a box as it does the Earth exploding. You can follow the story where it wants to go or where you want to take it and not worry about, “We’re never going to be able to film this.” You watch the “Star Trek” TV show and they have a bunch of human looking aliens and as soon as you watch the “Star Trek” cartoon or read the comics, there’s some freaky looking aliens for no other reason than why not?
You’re working with the “Adventure Time” art team of Shelli Paroline and Braden Lamb on “Midas Flesh.” How did you approach them about working on this book and was the process any different?
With “Adventure Time,” Shannon set up the team. She said, “Braden and Shelli are going to be drawing and you’re going to be writing. Let’s have some fun.” For this book, it was me saying I wanted Braden and Shelli mainly because they take the scripts I write for “Adventure Time” and make them way better than they are.
On the show, they do this thing where the writer and storyboard artist are very close, often sitting right next to each other. We said, “Let’s do the same thing. I can write something and you can say it works better here. Let’s do that and not treat this as word of god.” And it’s been really good. When I get back pages from them, I’m surprised because I’m seeing what I wasn’t expecting on the page. They not once made a change to the script or the layout that made it worse. This is like a dream team for me. I love when collaboration produces something that you can’t do on your own. That’s the magic of collaboration, doing stuff that surprises the both of you.
It’s nice that [writing and penciling] are such different, but fundamentally related disciplines. We’re both trying to tell a story. I’m doing it with words and they’re doing it visually, but since they’re so different, it doesn’t feel like anyone’s stepping on anyone else’s toes. It’s not like we’re two writers working on a script and fighting over what the best line is. We’re working in complimentary ways. It’s great, I love it and I feel like we have a really good thing going, so I didn’t want to break that up.
You have many projects going on right now from “Dinosaur Comics” and “Adventure Time” to “The Midas Flesh” and “To Be or Not To Be: That is the Adventure.” How do you keep yourself organized throughout the day as far as writing goes?
I always write “Dinosaur Comics” first thing in the morning and it takes about two or three hours. Then, the rest I go where it takes me. Here’s the secret: when the projects are so different, for the most part, if I get stuck on one I can work on something else and it feels like a break. So, if I can’t figure out this comic, I go write “To Be or Not To Be” for a while. It’s completely different and the result of that is when your breaks become other productive work, you can produce more stuff.
Your Shakespearian Choose Your Own Adventure-style book “To Be Or Not To Be: That Is The Adventure” is now out. What was that experience like and are you currently working on the sequel?
It’s going great. The books are shipped out to the backers and some are on Amazon now, so it’s in real release. It’s almost done, there are just a few things I have to do including making a pizza that looks like Hamlet and eating it. I started working on the sequel which is another choose your own path of Shakespeare called “Romeo and/or Juliet.” I’m about 10,000 words into that. It’s really fun so far.
Actuall writing a Choose Your Own Adventure type book sounds like a difficult thing to put together. Has that been your experience?
No, it’s so easy. I was talking to a novel writer and I said that this is my first novel, the first long form thing I’ve written. I contemplated writing a novel before, but what scared me was this idea of being 100,000 words in and realizing on word five I made a mistake that breaks everything that comes after that. That’s a big fear of long form work, you don’t want to make a mistake and find out after you’ve built most of it. The non-linear structure of a Choose Your Own Adventure-style book means that that’s not a risk. I can always go back and change it or make the mistake and see where it takes me. If it’s interesting, I keep it and if not, I cut it out. It quite elegantly solves that problem.
I found it really fun to write because all that matters is that the story you’re working on is good. You sort of put faith in the fact that, of the over a hundred different distinct storylines in this book, one of them will be super amazing and connect with a reader on a really good level. If you’re writing a regular novel you only have that one story to connect with every one of your readers, so it’s a much trickier thing to pull off. Anyway, the author said that that’s all true, but novels are very flexible things and you can usually fix something without throwing it all away, which is nice and reassuring.
Since people are still buzzing about New York Comic Con, I wanted to ask what your past con experiences have been like? Do you get a lot of kids coming up with their “Adventure Time” stuff?
Yeah, it’s really great. I can’t draw, but over the years I practiced and figure out how to draw a pretty passable T-Rex for when people want me to sign their books. Then this six-year-old little girl came up to me, asked me to sign her “Adventure Time” book and I realized I need to figure out how to draw Finn or Jake. So, my first Finn and Jake were not the greatest, but since then I can draw a pretty passable Finn, a decent Jake and a pretty crappy Beemo. The kids coming up, sometimes they’re in costume, sometimes their parents are in costume which is amazing. It’s also great because, for them, the space between writers and artists and the show and the comic isn’t really there. So, they’re talking to you like you’re the one who single-handedly creates every episode of the show and also writes and draws every comic. That sort of enthusiasm is amazing. When they say, “I love this episode,” you don’t say,”I didn’t work on that,” you say, “I really love it too.” That way, everyone’s happy and it’s a really positive experience.
“The Midas Flesh” #1 from Ryan North, Shelli Paroline, Braden Lamb and BOOM! Studios debuts in December.