IN-DEPTH: Ryan North

Computers have changed the way comics are produced, and in more ways than one. From coloring and lettering to fully computer-generated artwork, the digital age has transformed publishing.

With the introduction of the Internet, the comic book medium found a new way to deliver stories to readers, and was recently utilized by DC Comics with it's Zuda Comics division as well as Marvel with its various online initiatives. But before these publishers realized the Web's potential, many independent creators saw a way to get their ideas out there for the world to see, and see them they did.

Many web comics generate far more hits or views then the top ten mainstream comics see printed, and most of them are readable for free. One such web comic is "Dinosaur Comics," the popular strip created by Ryan North. The cartoonist not only produces his strip five times a week, but has seen it published in book form and as a line of t-shirts and merchandise. North also created of Project Wonderful, a web ad company for online comics.

CBR News spoke with Ryan North about "Dinosaur Comics," the web comics community, and what the future holds.

CBR: What inspired you to create a web comic?

RYAN NORTH: I suppose there's two answers, depending on what you mean by the question! If you're asking me what inspired me to create a comic, it's something I'd long wanted to do but couldn't figure out how to accomplish. I don't draw, so working in a visual medium like comics isn't the easiest thing to stumble into! But on the other hand, if you're asking me what inspired me do create a comic online, the answer is simple: it's the easiest medium to work with and it affords you a potentially globe-spanning audience for basically free. Sounds like a good deal to me!

You reference mainstream comics often, especially Batman, who has made an appearance or two as a disembodied head, in "Dinosaur Comics." Is that due to your being a fan of comic books? Did you read them growing up?

Batman is demonstrably amazing, so there's that. But actually, growing up, I didn't really read comics! We had the newspaper comics page and Archie comics at the supermarket checkout, but beyond that there wasn't a comics shop in my rural town, so there wasn't any way for me to read comics. I was familiar with Batman and company, I'm sure, but I only started reading comics for real when I got a job and a car. I guess it was something that had been building up for a while, because I remember with my first paycheck I stopped into a comics store and bought two books that seemed interesting: one was "The Dark Knight Returns" by Frank Miller and the other was "Peace on Earth" by Dini and Ross. They're two of my favorite comics, so I got pretty lucky with my selections!

"Dinosaur Comics" is done in a fixed art style, or a strip that has the same art each time. Was this something you did for the sake of speed in creating the comic? Or was it entirely due to your own artistic skills?

Hah! I'd like to say it was because I wanted to explore the possibilities of a visual medium while working within some constraints, and that I foresaw that be repeating the images I would create an instant and accessible in-joke for every reader who reads more than one installment, a joke the characters would always remain ignorant of, but yep - it was because I couldn't draw.

The first idea I came up with was one where the story never changed but the pictures did - basically, the exact opposite of Dinosaur Comics. That was clearly not the project for me, but when I flipped it around to static art with different narratives I thought "Hey! This just might be possible!"

When I started out I did about 16 or so comics just to make sure it was, in fact, possible, and then congratulated myself on having moved the medium in such a bold new direction. It would be a few months before I discovered David Lynch's "The Angriest Dog in the World" comic - a static art strip that predates mine by decades - and only a few months more until I had T-Rex adopt the Angriest Dog in the World as a pet, effectively marrying Lynch's continuity to my own. I'm pretty sure he's entirely unaware that we're married, however.

Where did the art originate from?

When I started I didn't have any art software on my computer, so it's crudely assembled poseable clip art (I can move T-Rex's body parts like his arms and mouth, I mean) smushed together in MS Paint. I really wish I had a better origin story here.

There are some readers who would think a comic with fixed art would make things easy. Would you say that is true?

Man, it's way easier to draw! But writing is where the hard work is, and I think that would take me as long as it does whether or not I was writing for the same panels or not. Each comic takes me about three hours from start to finish, and as you can imagine most of that is writing.

What people normally say is that it must be hard to come up with new ideas after five years of working with the same panels, but it's no harder now than it was four years ago. The panels are really flexible, and all it takes is a little narration above one panel that reads "MEANWHILE, ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THE PLANET:" to totally change the visual narrative of the strip! Plus, I have the advantage that I'm never facing a blank piece of paper: I've always got somewhere to start, and I know that no matter what the comic is probably going to involve dinosaurs in some capacity.

What made you choose to have dinosaurs be the leads in your strip?

They're fun to look at, they let me talk about people in general without having to talk about people specifically, and the only other really good clip art I had was astronauts. Actually, after the first month, I contemplated switching to astronauts and starting "Astronaut Comics," but the problem with astronauts is that they wear space helmets all the time: no facial expressions! I believe this is a problem shared by both clip art astronauts and those in real life.

Why the website name "qwantz?"

Again, here's where I wish I had a better origin story: it's a randomly chosen domain name with no particular meaning. The best imposed meaning I saw was a fan who showed how the letters "qwantz" on a QWERTY keyboard form a crude T-Rex shape, if you squint hard enough. I think that's a better answer, so it is now official continuity.

You've had your early comics printed in book form in "The Best of Dinosaur Comics: 2003-2005 AD: Your Whole Family Is Made Of Meat." Were you approached by the publisher to do the book or were you looking to have the comics in print as well as online?

Putting out a book was one of those "I should probably get around to this" things on my list for a while, and this came about because the head of the publishing company was a fan, bought one of my shirts, and said "Hey, you should put out a book!" I said, "Hey, probably!" and we worked out a deal, and the book was done!

I really don't see much of a web/print split: both mediums are pretty fluid and someone can move from one to the other without too much work. When I want to put out a book, it's really just a matter of laying out the book, designing a cover, and all that other ancillary stuff: the hard part of writing the comics is already done!

Did you have much input into the design and look of the book? The cover is really original.

Thanks! I gave the book the subtitle, and an artist at the publisher came up with a few designs: like four terrible ones and the one awesome one we went with, with the big piece of meat on the cover. I have since learned that graphic designers do this a lot when they have a design they really want to run with, but still want to give the client the illusion of choice. It is a powerful strategy!

Like many web comic creators, you created a line of t-shirts for TopatoCo. What is the creative process for that like?

Interesting wording there, "created a line of shirts for TopatoCo" - I'm not really sure that's accurate! TopatoCo is a distribution company run by Jeffrey Rowland, who has his own comics at overcompensating.com and wigu.com. What TopatoCo used to do is just mail out the shirts for me: I designed them, I had them printed, I ran the shop, but he'd ship the orders. It worked well, but it relied on orders being forwarded from me to Jeff, and sometimes things got lost. Also, I was not the best at keeping track of stock.

It's since moved to a more boutique model, where I design the shirts, but TopatoCo prints them, runs the shop, and ships the orders. So I suppose you could say I designed the shirts for TopatoCo, but it's really more that a bunch of rad cartoonists designed shirts for their own strips and themselves, and TopatoCo puts them together in our own stores and also in one big store, so my readers can see the shirts from other comics too. Cross promotion! Or whatever! I'm making it sound more formal than it is, which is a bunch of cartoonist colleagues saying "Hey, we could make this better."

You have a book called "Happy Dog the Happy Dog" that spun out of "Dinosaur Comics." Do you plan on developing any other properties as well? Perhaps "Tiny Towne Adventures" or something along those lines?

Hah! I'd like to, but they do take time and I need to coordinate with an artist. I was really happy with how awesome "Happy Dog the Happy Dog" turned out, though, and something new involving Mr. Tusks, the dwarf elephant vice-mayor of the island nation of Tiny Towne, would be fun! Except when I write it down like that it sounds incredible dumb. Oh well.

You update your site five times a week. Do you ever have a problem coming up with a day's comic?

Some days are easier than others, but to try to smooth that out I have tons of text files with half-baked ideas, a few lines of dialogue, themes - the beginnings of comics. On mornings when I'm not feeling inspired I can flip through there and try to find something. Once or twice I got really lucky and found complete comics that I'd thought weren't funny and never run with, but with fresh eyes it turned out that they were solid gold. Sometimes after working on a strip for a few hours you're too close to it, and you can no longer see what was good about it in the first place. Having the luxury to drop that in a pile and start on something new is great.

Where does the inspiration come from daily? How do you keep yourself from creatively burning out?

There's not much danger of burnout because I really love doing what I do. It's the first thing I do in the morning and it's just so much fun: you wake up, usually discover some emails from strangers complimenting you on the strip, and then try to make yourself laugh by putting words into dinosaur mouths. Best job ever!

Inspiration itself comes from all over the place: my life, things I've read, my friends, ideas I've wanted to explore but haven't gotten around to yet - everywhere. Since the comic can go anywhere on any given day, I'm never too constrained about what I can talk about.

Have you thought of trying to do new additional web comics? Or is "Dinosaur Comics" a full time gig?

I actually have done one before! It was called "Whispered Apologies" and it's still online at whisperedapologies.com. That was a fun strip where artists would submit comic pages with empty word balloons, and then me and a few other authors would fill in the words. Some of the comics are just fantastic collaborations that neither of us would have come up with on our own - this one springs to mind as an example of that!

I ended up stopping it though because I didn't have the time to manage it properly - it's always something I'd like to come back to someday.

Do you make enough from your web ads, merchandise and the like to earn a living entirely on your creations? Did you ever expect to make money from your efforts at the beginning?

Yep! "Dinosaur Comics" is my full-time job, or at least it was, until I started my "hey let's make advertising non-terrible" ad network Project Wonderful - but it's still "Dinosaur Comics" that pays the bills. I never expected it to end up this way - I didn't even know there were other web comics besides "Achewood" when I started my comic, and I certainly didn't think you could make a living at it.

But when I graduated grad school, I was faced with a choice: get a real job, or be an internet cartoonist! I took the way sweeter option and have NO REGRETS!

Web comics have a community feel about them, with creators linking to each other's websites and often praising each other's work and producing guest strips for each other. Is it fair to say many web comic creators do actively try to help each other out? Is there ever any of the opposite where competition gets the better of people?

I think it's fair to say that most web comic creators link to other comics that they like! I can count on one hand the comics I know of that don't link anywhere else. I think one of the reasons for this is that it doesn't hurt us to recommend someone else. If I love a comic I'll link to it, and if you like my comic you may share my tastes and like it too! And when that happens, it's not like I've lost a reader - odds are you'll just read one more comic now. It's not like we're fighting over finite space on a newspaper page. There is the argument that there is finite time in each reader's day, and eventually they'll stop reading comics they no longer enjoy if better ones come along, but that'd be true whether or not I was the one recommending new comics to them. There's tons of great stuff online!

So I do see it as being a very friendly atmosphere, and links generally aren't hoarded out or traded for favors - we just link to stuff we like. I honestly don't see other comics or cartoonists as "the competition" either: we're all doing stuff that's really pretty different from each other. If someone started a fixed-art comic where dinosaurs walked around talkin' stuff up, then I might start seeing this new guy as the competition. AND I WILL CRUSH HIM. OR HER. THEY WILL BE CRUSHED REGARDLESS OF GENDER IS WHAT I AM SAYING HERE.

Was your web ad service, Project Wonderful, a way to help other web comic creators with advertising? It's a really unique way of doing web ads.

Thanks! It was. Basically we sat down and looked at all the way online advertising sucked, and said "Okay, if we were inventing it today, knowing now what we didn't know then, what would we do differently?" Project Wonderful came out of that. We sell in terms of time (not clicks or displays) because Google sells in terms of clicks, and they've got the smartest people in the world working for them, and even they can't solve the problem of click fraud. That's where your competitor clicks on your ads knowing that each click costs you fifty cents - the internet's just not designed to be able to tell a malicious click from a real one, and this costs advertisers literally billions of dollars a year. So we sidestep the issue entirely and say "Hey, click on ads all you want: that's not what costs people money." Advertisers rent space by time, and we charge them down to the nearest 1/1000th of a second. That's fair!

There's a few things that we also do differently that are great for webcomics in particular but websites in general: we're really fair, quick, and we're incredibly transparent - you can even see what other advertisers have paid for an ad before you decide what you want to pay -plus, we're responsive. You send us an email and we'll actually read it, write back to you, and solve your problem. It's not really that amazing, but the bar for customer service is set so low online that we get fan mail from members about it all the time. They say "Oh, wow, someone actually read this?" and we say "Yes, we read email that is sent to us because we are not a terrible company."

Web comics have grown by leaps and bounds over the years, not only in popularity but in the number of offerings online. Do you think the shift in the way people have moved more and more toward computers for news, music and other forms of information and entertainment will one day see an all-digital future?

Nope! Just as photography didn't kill painting, just as television didn't kill theatre, digital media won't kill print. It'll trim it a bit and get rid of tons of cruft - which I think we're already seeing - but we've had print around for a long time and it'll be around for along time yet.

I do think that more and more people will be getting their media digitally, but I don't see it as an all-or-nothing proposition.

Have you ever received any crazy hate or fan mail resulting from any of your web comics?

I've gotten so few hate letters; it's amazing. I seriously get like one a year. But I've gotten tons of amazing letters from readers - people have T-Rex cakes, T-Rex and Utahraptor tattoos, Dinosaur Comics themed weddings, Dinosaur Comics themed text adventure games - it's just amazing. I've seen giant whiteboards set up to mimic the "Dinosaur Comics" layout. I've had someone turn a comic into a six-minute opera and then another group of readers turn that sheet music into a stage production! Basically I have the best and most creative fans in the world and I am incredibly flattered by it all. I don't think I deserve it, but I am really happy that it's there, and thankful for it.

Do you have any new upcoming projects?

Not really! "Dinosaur Comics" and Project Wonderful take up most of my time these days, but there's some exciting new stuff coming down the pipe for both of them. In particular I'm working on some new T-Rex merchandise that is the most adorable thing ever! Oh my goodness. SO CUTE.

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