Jared: Romeo and/or Juliet! It is an amazing feat! How do you even set about writing something like this?
Ryan Q North: I tried to write a non-linear second person style book before I did To Be Or Not To Be and I got nowhere. I literally did not know where to start. It's like what am I doing? This is a waste of time. I should never do this again. And I stopped; and then, when I had the idea for To Be Or Not To Be, the backbone of the Shakespeare play gave me a place to start with, a place to bounce off of, a place where, if I wasn't sure what would happen next, I could at least have the canonical version of the play to see what Shakespeare did.
I start at the beginning. I start with what characters are we gonna play as? What are their personalities? How are we gonna have fun with them? And then I just start writing and, you know, when you're writing a regular book you are writing down one story, you're trying to make that story the best, but in a non-linear book, you're writing down a bunch of stories. You’re constantly picking out what's cool and what works and what doesn't and if something didn't work I would just cut it and I'd take really good jokes, put them somewhere else.
Jared: Does that mean you are surrounded by Post-It Notes?
Ryan: Oh, sure. You know in movies when you see someone's crazy, they'll have that sanity wall that's just pieces of paper stuck to a wall with strings between them? That's how these books used to be written, with an insanity wall, which is why those books tend to be a lot shorter and very skinny. I used computer software that put words in boxes and draws lines between those boxes, so it's the insanity wall but on a screen which makes me look productive instead of crazy. It gives me a spatial vision of the book so I know, like, Juliet is at the top, Romeo is in the middle and... you know, the further we get along to the right, the further we are in narrative time. It's a weird way to write a book but it's fun.
Jared: Did you have a process in mind when you began Hamlet? Or was it “let's kickstart this, see if this happens”, accidentally create the most successful Kickstarter of all time and then, "Oh shit, now I have to rewrite Shakespeare 20 times"?
Ryan: The book was written before I did the Kickstarter because Kickstarters are terrifying. I wanted to have as much control as I could which meant the book's already written; done. Then we're solid.
I had the idea when I was driving in my car for To Be Or Not To Be, I was turning over the, the phrase, you know, this famous to be or not to be speech and realised, hey, it's to be or not to be, like the Choose Your Own Adventure books when I was a kid. Then my next stop was, "Oh my gosh, I have to write this”. I was like what if we had, like, multiple characters so he plays Hamlet, he plays Hamlet’s dad and if he plays him, then you die on the first page or plot your own murder and instead of a play within a play - a book within a book… I was really excited.
I finally got home - it was a long drive, two hours - and when I got home, the first thing I did was Googled to make sure that that book did not already exist and no one had done the idea before. And they hadn't, which was great, and so, uh, I wrote it.
And then I did the Kickstarter; and then for Romeo, it's published through an actual publishing house, Riverhead. It was nice to go to them and say, "Look we did this through Kickstarter once and it sort of proves, perhaps against expectations, that there is an audience for non-linear second person Shakespeare funny books with a bunch of cool pictures in them." It's a much easier sell when you can say "we've done this once before and it worked." I feel like going to someone cold and being like "Here's what I wanna do," it's a much more difficult pitch.
Jared: After the success of To Be or Not to Be, why did you go to a publisher with Romeo And/Or Juliet?
Ryan: There were a couple of reasons. I wanted to see what it was like. I haven't actually had a book published like that before - which seems crazy, but I do a lot of self-publishing. I'm very good at reaching an online audience, as most of my work is online. But it would be nice to reach people who buy books in bookstores, it's hard to get books in bookstores unless you're a publisher, so I thought... "Let's see how the other half lives."
Jared: How’s the experience been so far?
Ryan: It's been great. I've had a great time too. It’s nice to have people involved in the book whose one job is one single aspect of your book. You have an editor whose job is to edit your book, and you have a cover designer whose job is just to design covers, and you have a copy editor whose job it is to find spelling mistakes and stuff like that.
Normally I'm all that - and there's stuff I'm good at and there's stuff I'm less good at. It's nice to have people who are good at everything doing the work for you. Just some supreme competency. I love competency.
Jared: Why stick with Shakespeare for the second book? I mean, isn't he played out? Aren't we done with Shakespeare?
Ryan: It’s funny because the plays are 400 years old and, in that time, Shakespeare has gone from being a guy who was ok at plays in his time but not thought of as the greatest guy, so his friends had to fundraise to publish his plays after he died. So he goes from being, like, a guy, to being recognised as a good writer, to being recognised as a great writer, to being recognised as the greatest possible playwright of all time across all possible timelines in all languages. And then he gets so ridiculously idealized that people start thinking maybe, just maybe, he wasn't even real! Maybe he didn't write those plays 'cause no one man could be so amazing as to be Shakespeare. And that's ridiculous, but when someone's so ridiculously canonised, you can have fun with that.
Hamlet is seen as the greatest work in English literature and here I am, adapting it into a game book where you can decide what happens next and I will put two swords on a hinge to make giant scissors and then cut someone's head off if you so choose. Part of the fun is that it feels like you're breaking the rules, it feels like you're doing something you're not supposed to 'cause it's Shakespeare and he's very serious and very dour and the truth is - he's not. These were plays written for entertainment, the same way we go and see the Avengers movies 'cause they're supposed to be entertaining and... we lose sense of that when the plays become homework.
When you're literally assigned to read Shakespeare as homework, that's gonna suck the life out of any book. It's gonna make it hard. But I feel like doing these books In this format kind of recaptures the sense of fun that’s in these story lines. I was worried initially that there'd be, you know, these dusty old Shakespeare scholars who were like, "Who are you to desecrate the Bard?" but they're not. They, they recognise that I haven't destroyed all extant copies of Romeo and Juliet when I wrote Romeo and/or Juliet. They're still there.
Jared: That’s a fantastic idea, bringing the dusty canon back as the entertainment it was meant to be. Is there anything else you would love to save in that way?
Ryan: Part of the conceit of Romeo and/or Juliet and To Be Or Not To Be is that these are the original texts and Shakespeare plagiarised them. He did one run through my book and then plagiarised it to write his plays, so it's meant as a joke but it's also the most egotistical thing in world to be like, "Oh yeah, Shakespeare plagiarised me."
The first edition of To Be Or Not To Be said “by Ryan North, William Shakespeare and You” - that was the idea, and my friend was like, "Hey, uh, congrats, you're getting top billing about William Shakespeare," and I was like, "Well, I designed the cover so clearly I put myself first".
So with all that egotism aside, I wouldn't say it's as much saving the work as adapting the work and bringing the work to a new audience, which is great. I'm not sure what else I'd like to do with that. I'd love to do something with Back to the Future but...
Ryan: ...Bob Gale is still alive.
Jared: Oh. And that's a sacred work. If you think the Shakespeare scholars might be difficult, they’ve got nothing on Back to the Future fans.
Ryan: It wouldn't be another movie, it would be something different that does not take away from the original. I mean, you have to respect the text and I feel like no one wants Back to the Future IV. The original trilogy stands so well on its own and you'd worry you would make it retroactively worse.
I feel like telling a story in a different medium - it's already something that's apart and aside from what the original thing is. Like, if you write a bad novelisation of Back to the Future - and they did, it's amazingly horrible - that doesn't affect the film, it just makes it a really entertaining, horrible book.
Jared: One of the amazing things about Romeo and/or Juliet is the incredible cast of artists. What’s it like working with a crew that talented?
Ryan: I mean, it helps that I’ve known them for ten years; a lot of these people are friends and colleagues. When I was writing these books, one idea was - well, I read these books as a kid and whenever you got to an ending, it always kind of felt bad - like you just lost reading a book.
So instead of these endings all being sad, let's have a picture, let's have them each illustrated so that it's fun instead of just sad. There’s a hundred plus endings in each of the books and so I needed a hundred plus illustrations. A first I thought, "Oh, I'll pick a friend and say ‘You need to draw me a hundred pictures’," but that's a lot to dump on someone. It's too much to dump on anyone, but the idea of having a different ending, each ending done by a different artist, really excited me.
I like the idea of seeing different takes on the same characters, seeing how they draw different things and making this sort of gallery book. That also makes it easier for the artists as they're just each drawing one thing; it makes it harder for me 'cause now I'm wrangling a hundred different humans - but I had a spreadsheet. And I used the clever technique of giving the artists a deadline. But that was a secret deadline.
Jared: Oh my god!
Ryan: A secret deadline that wasn't real.
Jared: Well, now that you've revealed it, you'll never be able to do that again.
Ryan: Yeah. It meant that, when anyone missed a deadline, it wasn't the end of the world and I could say, "No problem, take another two weeks, I'm so easygoing."
Ryan: Worked out very well, so that's a good management tip for you.
Jared: Speaking of working with artists, can we talk about Squirrel Girl for a second? Mostly because it's the most amazing thing ever. How did it come about?
Ryan: I got an call from my editor at Marvel, Wil Moss. And he said "Hey Ryan, uh, hypothetically speaking, if you were to write a Squirrel Girl comic, what would it look like? Give us a pitch. Yes, it's Friday and talk to me on Monday," and so I took the weekend and I thought all about Doreen Green, and by the end of the weekend I knew that I really wanted there to be a Squirrel Girl comic, and I wanted to be the guy writing it.
The nice thing about Squirrel Girl is that there wasn't that much about her already written: she'd only appeared in a few comics. So I could read 100% of what existed for Squirrel Girl and then go in my own direction. So what I put together for Wil was a couple of pages where I said I wanted to do an accessible story, where I said “let's make it all ages, let's make it funny, and you don't need to have 60 years of Marvel knowledge to understand it”.
Which was clever on my part, because I'm pitching this as making a really accessible comic but the truth is, I didn't have that 60 years of Marvel knowledge to draw on. It was my only way to get out of it - to say “let's make it so you don't need to know this stuff”, but luckily Wil said, "Great. Tell me more.” That's where Nancy Whitehead comes from and she's become one of my favourite characters, I like her so much.
And then I fleshed it out some more, I said absolutely gonna have Galactus in it 'cause I love Galactus and, um, we took it from there and then eventually I was writing an issue. And Erica [Henderson] is so great on art. She sent some sketches very early on that were just meant to show different possible uniforms, like what she could be wearing, and they were all so good that I kept them open on another monitor when I was writing so that when I got stuck I could look to those images Erica had drawn and be like, "Oh yes, of course, this is who that person is. I understand Doreen Green. It's these pictures right here."
Jared: Moving backwards in time, Dinosaur Comics, which is wonderful and has been going for, is it really ten years? That makes me feel old -
Ryan: Yeah, well, it's actually 13, so get used to that feeling.
Jared: Good God. I know there were a few projects in between, but what's the transition like from creating a web comic, and going from that to the mighty Marvel Universe?
Ryan: So the way you do that is you do it for ten years and... you're just doing a web comic 'cause you enjoy it but you don't realise this but secretly your comic also acts as this really long form, hopefully entertaining visual resume because it shows that you can meet a deadline, especially a self-imposed deadline (those are the hardest to meet) and it shows hopefully you know your way around a joke. And then you do it long enough, the people who read your comic when they were younger are now editors at comic book companies.
I got an email from Shannon Watters, saying, "Hey, Adventure Time. If we were to write a comic, what would that look like if you were to do that?" and so I put together a pitch, same way I did with Squirrel Girl, me and Shelli Paroline and Braden Lamb, the two artists on that book. We did that for 35 issues and when that ended that was basically about the same time Wil emailed me, so it worked out really well
Ryan: Yeah, so that's how you do it I guess?
Jared: Again you have revealed all of your secrets. First we had the secret deadline and now we have the ten year long game of doing your job really well.
I do have a dinosaur related question, which comes from my wife, who actually left me two notes. The first is not a question, it is an instruction: “Don't forget to tell Ryan Q North that I love him”. So now I've told you that.
Ryan: Oh wow. Well, thank you.
Jared: That's gonna make the rest of this very awkward. But also, the question. We are both dying to know which is your favourite dinosaur? Not in your comic but, you know, actually a dinosaur.
Ryan: So not allowed to be one in my comic?
Jared: No, an actual, real dinosaur.
Ryan: But it can't be T-Rexes?
Jared: Oh, it can.
Ryan: Not my T-Rexes, just T-Rexes in general.
Jared: That’s fair. Yes. It can be an actual T-Rex.
Ryan: Every six year old loves T Rexes, but every six year old loves T-Rexes for really excellent reasons, which are they are awesome animals. So, yeah... T-Rex.
Jared: This is really unrelated to anything, but, you know that time in the 19th Century when they dug up the frozen mastodon? Imagine you’re at a Victorian dinner, probably inside one of their giant hollow dinosaurs, and you have a frozen mastodon steak in front of you. Would you try it?
Ryan: 100 per cent yes. I'm assuming that, you know, the steaks are gene sequenced and all the science that we could do on the steak has been done. In that situation, yes, I am absolutely down to eat that animal.
Jared: And a final question – how’s Chompsky?
Ryan: He's good. He's on the balcony right now and we went for a skateboard ride and went to the park this morning. He's a good dog. He enjoys going on adventures, he's down for whatever, which is nice. We escaped our hole together so all is well in the land of Chompsky.
Jared: There are horror stories about social media, but then, you see a moment where people come together to help rescue a dog, well, not rescue, I don't even know how you'd describe the situation…
Ryan: For people that don't know what we're talking about, if you Google “Ryan North hole”, I think you can find the whole story, or rather, the “hole” story. Oh, yes. There it is.
Jared: Just as a… a… moment of inspiration, do situations like that - when you start playing games with the entire internet - do those eventually translate into things like To Be Or Not To Be and Romeo And/Or Juliet? Or are those just everyday life for Ryan Q North?
Ryan: That makes me sound like this, you know, magical person who's just stumbling around and having wonderful things happen to him.
Jared: Well, we have Twitter evidence of that, so you know. Yes.
Ryan: I'll take it.
I think it comes from the same instance of looking at things and seeing what fun you can have with them before they become a problem. I could have easily called the fire department - but that's really embarrassing - and be like, "Hey guys, it's me again, stuck in a hole.” And, I would have done if I was stuck there for a long time. But I had Twitter out, it seemed like something fun to do and there was a chance - that turned out to work - that someone might actually get me out of this hole without having to call the fire department.
There’s that cheesy thing about calling it “not crisis, but opportunity”, but I think it's more “trying to have fun with something”. At least, that’s kind of the way I approach things, and it's worked out pretty well so far.
Romeo And/Or Juliet is out now from Orbit (UK) and Riverhead (US), The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl is also out now (it is ongoing), as is Dinosaur Comics (which is perpetual and infinite) and To Be Or Not To Be (not ongoing, but still out). Chompsky is a dog.
Ryan is on Twitter if you want to tell him you love him, or you can just pass him a note, like Jared's wife did.