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North Kickstarts Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” With “To Be Or Not To Be”

by  in Comic News Comment
North Kickstarts Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” With “To Be Or Not To Be”

Ryan North is a very funny individual. Whether it’s on his long-running webcomic “Dinosaur Comics” or writing BOOM! Studios’ fan-favorite “Adventure Time” ongoing series, North makes people laugh on a regular basis. Now the writer is set to apply his humor to Shakespeare via a Kickstarter drive for “To Be Or Not To Be,” a choose-your-own-adventure-style retelling of the Bard’s classic tragedy “Hamlet.” North’s book will contain illustrations by fan-favorite illustrators and cartoonists from both on and off the web, including Kate Beaton (“Hark! A Vagrant”), Jim Zub (“Skullkickers”), Kazu Kibuishi (“Amulet”), Matthew Inman (“The Oatmeal”), Braden Lamb and Shelli Paroline (“Adventure Time”) and more. However, it’s not the most interesting aspect of North’s project.

Within three and a half hours of launching on Kickstarter, “To Be Or Not To Be” reached its initial funding goal of $20,000. Within the first five days, the project garnered over $100,000 in pledges, forcing North to come up with more stretch goals. As of the posting of this piece, the project currently sits at just above $145,000 from nearly 4400 backers with three weeks to go. North currently updates backers every $5000 with sample pages from the book featuring the choices for Ophelia.

CBR News reached out to North to get some insight into his ambitious illustrated Shakespeare novel, the origins of the idea, bringing fan-favorite cartoonists with disparate art styles onboard, the differences in writing a novel versus comics and plans for future choose-your-own-adventure Shakespeare adaptations. Spoiler alert: Hamlet raps.

Ryan, your “To Be or Not To Be” Kickstarter has had an incredible response so far, reaching its $20,000 goal in its first day. As we talk, it’s sitting at over $130,000 in pledges and counting. Before we get into specifics, did you expect this strong and rapid a response?

Ryan North: Nope! Not at all. We actually reached our goal in the first three and a half hours, which was entirely insane. I had put stretch goals up to $100k thinking, “Okay, best case scenario — at least I’ll be prepared” but didn’t think in my wildest dreams I’d be coming up with new stretch goals on day four because we’d already gone past everything else!

This is obviously a project you’ve been thinking about and working on for some time before bringing it to Kickstarter. When did the project begin and how has it developed over time?

It began almost a year ago today — the earliest file I have for it is dated November 12, 2011. I was driving home from my parents’ place and I was thinking — I guess about Shakespeare? — and it occurred to me how Hamlet’s big “To be or not to be” speech is structured like a choice, like in those old choose-your-own-adventure books — and then I’m pretty sure my thoughts interrupted themselves so I could think, “OH MY GOSH I HAVE TO MAKE THIS.”

I wrote the introduction first (that’s the first bit of the book I posted with the first Update on the Kickstarter) and went through there. The basic idea hadn’t changed since those first ten minutes of imagining what the book could be like: three playable characters, a book-within-a-book instead of a play-within-a-play, etc. Since then it’s just been a matter of trying to make the book be as awesome as I can!

For the book-within-a-book, you play as King Claudius, reading a separate choose-your-own-path volume inside the text of “To Be Or Not To Be”: you’re trying to make choices that don’t reveal yourself as a murderer, and you have to be careful, because Hamlet’s hovering over your shoulder watching you read. We’re going to change to a vintage font in this section, have a whole set of illustrations done by a single artist to make it seem like a separate book (Andrew Hussie of is doing the art for this part), have a separate cover inside — the works.

You’ve had a lot of experience getting people to laugh with “Dinosaur Comics” online and “Adventure Time” in print. WIth all the gravitas involved with Shakespeare, was there a challenge in finding a way to make that subject funny?

Not really, actually! Hamlet’s actually almost ideally set up for the make-your-own-choice structure: there’s a central goal (“Kill Claudius”) and the fact that Hamlet is (feigning?) madness makes working in any crazy choices you make while playing really easy. Plus, Ophelia is a really awesome character and I wanted to see her get to be as kick-ass as she could be. Plus, there’s ghosts. Really, the distance between tragedy and comedy isn’t as far as you might think!

This is a choose-your-own-adventure type of book. How exactly does that work with Shakespeare?

I want to say — super well? Every 5k we raise, I post another excerpt from the book, so you can judge for yourself on the Kickstarter page. But there’s tons of benefits: For instance, there’s little Yorick skulls next to the “canonical” choices that Shakespeare made while plagiarizing my book for Hamlet, so you can read through the actual play in the choose-your-own-path format if you wish. This is actually a cool feature, because I find if you’re unsure about people’s motivations in the play, they become a lot more clear when you’re the one making those choices! It also gives you a nice path to follow if you’re afraid of dying.

The book’s written in modern English, but there’s several big speeches in Hamlet that are just too beautiful not to include. When those pop up, Hamlet has to decide whether to say them in Original Old-Timey Language, or in some different format. Some of them are in rap. Hamlet has a pretty tight flow.

One of the cool aspects of the Kickstarter drive is your promise to bring on more artists from both online and print comics as stretch goals are reached — and they were, in about 48 hours. Kate Beaton (“Hark, A Vagrant!”), Jim Zub (“Skullkickers”), Bradon Lamb and Shelli Paroline (“Adventure Time”), the list goes on. How did you get these artists onboard and how will their work be utilized throughout the book?

Most of them were emailed before the Kickstarter launched! There was nothing fancy to how it was set up: I sent them a copy of the book, told them I was planning a Kickstarter and asked if they’d be willing to let me commission an illustration from them. One illustration will be included with each and every death: I wanted death to be something special, instead of a downer, so when you die you get to see an illustration of that death by one of these amazing artists!

It’s been super great to have such talent here. I’m honestly humbled to be working with them all!

There are a lot of talented artists with very disparate art styles contributing. How do you feel the different styles will help enhance the book?

What I said to the artists was, “I want the book to be a showcase for awesome art”. I’m letting them do whatever they want: straight up illustration, comics, whatever. They’ve got the page and the events leading up to the GAME OVER and they can go nuts! I have them submit a sketch before we go to final, just in case there’s any problems, but it’s all been super smooth. Kate Beaton did those amazing character illustrations you can see in the Kickstarter video: those are used so the artists know what the characters are supposed to look like, but they’ve got artistic license to go wherever they want with it. As long as they’re recognizable, we’re set!

You’ve mentioned that there may be more surprise artists contributing to the book — anything you can reveal about who else might be coming onboard?

Nope! Because then it wouldn’t be a surprise.

As a writer best known for your work in comics, what has the experience been like writing a book that doesn’t actively involve sequential illustrations?

Really fun, actually. I mean, “Dinosaur Comics” isn’t exactly what you’d call the most graphically-centered comic in the world, but it’s been fun to write and force everyone to imagine what I’m saying, instead of just the artists.

I think writing is writing, though. Different mediums (prose, plays, television, comics, whatever) have different restrictions inherent to the format, but those are restrictions you can play with. And a choose-your-own-path book is really freeing to write: you’ve got multiple plotlines going on all at once, so unlike most authors, I don’t have to worry that my one book isn’t amazing. In a sense, I’m writing dozens, even hundreds of books at once. Surely one of those will be amazing for each reader, right?

Speaking of your other work, “Adventure Time” has really taken off. What’s coming down the line for Finn and Jake’s comic book adventures?

I don’t want to give to much away, but a new four-issue arc starts after the stand-alone Issue 10. It’s a BMO and Marceline-centric arc: two characters who haven’t really hung out that much on the show before. It’s going to be pretty intense.

What else do you have planned once you finish “To Be or Not To Be?” Possibly more Shakespeare choose-your-own-adventure adaptations?

That’s actually exactly what’s happening! One of the stretch goals was that if we’d reach $100k, I’d commit to writing a sequel in the future. Four days into it and that goal was reached. I’m not sure what exact form it’ll take yet, but most likely it’ll be another Shakespeare play. It’s lots of fun to see the other directions these famous stories could’ve gone in, and I really loved writing “To Be Or Not To Be,” so it’s super exciting!

The Kickstarter drive for Ryan North’s “To Be Or Not To Be” ends Friday, December 21.

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