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Tall Poppy Interview: Ryan North of Dinosaur Comics

2006_05_16RyanNorth_05.jpg
Can you still call yourself a webcartoonist if you don’t actually draw your own strip? Toronto resident Ryan North proves that the answer is a resounding “yes”. Three years ago, he launched Dinosaur Comics, the conversational adventures of T-Rex and his friends Dromeceiomimus and Utahraptor, where characters are rendered in archaic clip art and the panel structure never changes. Dinosaur Comics‘ popularity has been increasing ever since: Ryan’s site averages 70,000 hits per day and he supports himself financially through t-shirt and book sales. The former computer science student now spends his days answering fan-mail, working on several internet-related side projects, and talking to Torontoist over soup and sandwiches.


You are a computational linguist by trade, but you’re also a webcartoonist. Does being a webcartoonist take up most of your time?
Actually, when I graduated I started doing the comics full-time and didn’t tell anyone but my friends, because I was worried that if I missed a day people would be like, “What the hell? You’re not doing anything else, what’s the deal?” So that was fine, but I had this problem where I’d get up, start writing the comic at 7:00, finish it by 9:00 or 10:00, do a bit more stuff, and at about 2:00 every day I’d start getting really bored because I had nothing to do. It was like spring break for about a week, but then you’re like, “Oh my god, I’m wasting my life!”
So I started doing more programming: I made a webcomic search engine called OhNoRobot and recently, a site for RSS feeds called RSSpect. It’s really sweet because I can do the comic in the morning, which I love, and then spend the afternoon on personal projects, which I also love. I’m a full-time webcartoonist, but I’m also a programmer. If you’re allowed to be full-time and cultivate something else.
It sounds like a pretty good way to manage stress.
I’m usually a pretty stress-free individual in the first place. It’s certainly not more stressful than grad school. But it can be stressful. Some days you won’t sell any t-shirts and you’ll think, “Oh my god, how am I going to make rent?” but the next day you’ll sell more t-shirts and everything’s fine. You just have to take a long view to it: if things are bad one day, they’ll probably be better the next.
Is being a webcartoonist something you see yourself continuing, career-wise?
People have asked me that before, like my girlfriend! The way I look at it is that I could always get a job in programming. For now, I’m going to see where this takes me. But I’d like to stop the comic before it starts to suck.
I’ve heard from people that the way T-Rex talks and the things he speaks about are very similar to you, and that Dinosaur Comics is sort of autobiographical in a way. So, I guess the question is, is it even possible for you to run out of material?
[Laughs] Well, this is the problem, because sometimes I do autobiographical stuff where I’ll lift things from conversations I’ve had or things that have happened to me. But then sometimes I don’t!
There was one time last year where a newspaper on campus published a comic about T-Rex having sex with two women at the same time and I haven’t done that. People were congratulating me, “Ryan, way to go! You da man, cool guy!” and I was like, “Uhh…I…I just made that up”. I’m actually sadder for having imagined it.
So yeah, I guess I could run out of material. But it would be more like because I ran out of jokes. You can talk about stuff happening, but if it’s not funny it doesn’t make sense to write a comic about it. Because comics are supposed to be funny.
Dinosaur Comics in unique in the sense that it has a fixed structure. Is it easier to fit what you want to say into a repetitive frame system?
When I started the comic, I did sixteen all at once. I was worried that the structure would be too restricting because you have these dinosaurs and there’s a narrative implied in their motions. But what I quickly realized was that you could do stuff like say that one panel is taking place three weeks later, or “Meanwhile in the alternate universe…” So you can always toy with narration to change the fixed structure, which gives you a lot of flexibility.
I feel like I was insanely lucky when I made that template. The way the characters are framed adds a beat to it. Like the first panel is the introduction, the second panel you have to do something there that’s suggestive of the conversation, the third panel is another angle. So it really supports a conversational narrative, which is cool because I didn’t expect it.
As the comic’s protagonist, T-Rex is obviously the most popular character. Tell us a bit about Dromeceiomimus and Utahraptor, who don’t necessarily get the same attention.
Dromeceiomimus is a smaller, female dinosaur. Actually, she was originally male, but I wrote a comic that needed a woman in it so she became female. Apparently everything is male by default in my worldview. Dromeceiomimus is sensible and cute and tolerant. Utahraptor is more questioning and interrogative; he and T-Rex have more of a back-and-forth wordplay between them. They don’t insult each other, but…
It’s funny, T-Rex is the most popular dinosaur but Dromeceiomimus, it turns out, is the fastest whereas Utahraptor is probably the smartest with the largest brain to body mass ratio, so they’re three very unique dinosaurs.
Is there an underlying romantic storyline between T-Rex and Dromeceiomimus?
T-Rex and Dromeceiomimus dated for a while, and they’re still sort of quasi-dating in that I haven’t really specified whether it’s just maybe something on the side. Utahraptor maintains that he and T-Rex had a homosexual affair – though I’ve never talked to any gay people who call them homosexual affairs – in the bath and T-Rex can’t remember it.
So let’s say they turn Dinosaur Comics into a feature film and you’re brought in to cast the movie. Who plays who?
Oh easy. I would cast based on actors I like. So you’d have Patrick Stewart as T-Rex, and for Dromeciomimus….hmm, I can’t think of any female actors.
Your worldview IS masculine by default!
Yeah, well I almost said the word ‘actress’. Don’t people find that sexist now?
But anyways, Brent Spiner as Utahraptor and……Michael Dorn as Dromeceiomimus?
So essentially Dinosaur Comics: The Movie will be a big episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation!
Exactly, and they’re all men. And God would be played by LaVar Burton and the Devil by Wil Wheaton.
So would Michael Dorn be in drag?
Oh, absolutely! I assume that he’d turn up to the casting call in full drag.
Speaking of a feature film adaptation, Dinosaur Comics: The Animated Series is competing at the Palm Mobifest Mobile Film Festival in Toronto soon.
That came about by accident, actually. My friends Joey and Gilyan made a song out of the first comic I did for my birthday and I put it up on the website. Then Jason Eppink took the song and made a flash animation, which made it to the finals at the festival. It’s being shown next Wednesday at the Isabel Bader Theatre, so I’m going as the writer and ‘creative dude’.
It’s kind of absurd, I feel like it became a finalist because there was online voting and people went from a link on my site to vote for it. So people who don’t know the comic will this it’s this bizarre video about dinosaurs talking about stomping on things. It’s going to be really surreal for them, they’ll have no context!
You were recently involved in the arrest of some 15 year old girls in Ravenna, Ohio. What happened?
A friend of mine who goes by the name “Posterchild”, because some of what he does is technically illegal, made these three cubes and painted them so they looked like the question blocks from Mario Brothers and put them up in Windsor. The politics behind it was that public spaces can be grey and uniform, especially in a town like Windsor. Why is it that you can put up an advertisement in a park or street, but you can’t put art there? His idea was that instead of putting art in a gallery, he’d put art in the streets. People react and respond to it: you get the public engaged in their environment. I put up a website a year ago with instructions, and people made their own blocks all over the States, Australia and the U.K. I found one in Toronto, it’s up in my living room right now.
On April 1st this year, these girls in Ravenna made some boxes and people who saw them called the police. The anti-terrorism squad got called in to diffuse them, as if they were bombs.
[Torontoist and Ryan snicker]
I shouldn’t laugh. I ended up updating the site, warning that if you don’t know what the Mario Brothers are, a big box with a question mark on it might seem like a bomb. From what I heard, the Mayor of Ravenna was pissed that they had wasted the bomb squad’s time and money and wanted to find a way to make the girls pay for it. They were trying to find something they could charge the girls with and throw them in jail, but they couldn’t because there wasn’t a law prohibiting it. Since the press was watching the story, the town said that they wouldn’t charge the girls if they wrote a letter of apology to every law enforcement agency involved saying that they wouldn’t do it again. The girls said they were making t-shirts for themselves and some teachers that had been supportive with a question block on the front and the phrase “NOT A BOMB” written on the back.
When the story broke, I started getting 4-5 e-mails a minute. The story ended up getting reported on all the major cultural websites, and I even got an e-mail from Jack Thompson, the video game crusader, who called ME a jerk. But he’s belligerent and crazy.
You run another comic called Whispered Apologies, which is a collaborative project. Tell us about it.
The idea was that people would submit art without any words and then we would write for it. I’m more interested in how you can have this finished piece of work with two authors who haven’t necessarily spoken to each other. Usually with Whispered Apologies, the writers don’t know who they’re writing for. There have been times where friends have written for each other and not realized it. It gives them the chance to work with each other without the knowledge of it, and allows for a new angle that’s often totally accidental. You end up with these comics that have tension between the words and the images.
It’s an experimental project. I was amazed by the response, I thought I’d be doing it weekly but we have so much art that I think we have 500 comics backlogged that we have to write for.
A lot of the time, the participants in Whispered Apologies are people who are quite well known in the webcomic community. And it does seem to be a tight-knit community!
It really is. We’re all just people who put funny things online, and we’re pretty modest about it. But the problem with the webcomic community, as far as I can tell, is that the artists are all pretty laid back but whenever there’s a conflict, it’s the people who aren’t artists but who follow the community who want to create drama. It gets sort of tiring when people want to cause conflict when there really isn’t anything there. It doesn’t happen that often, but you can always see it coming. Like, “Here it goes…another argument about micropayments”.
So what’s it like being Internet Famous?
It’s weird having more readers. It started with just me, my mom and my friend Mel reading it. Now there’s 70,000 people a day looking at the site, and you have a louder voice that people react to. Being Internet Famous is alright: you can just turn it off by going outside where nobody knows who you are and think “Okay, I’m really not that great, I’m just a guy who has a website”. So if you want to be famous, go for Internet Famous. If you want to get a big head, go online and if you want to feel normal, go outside.
Last but not least: summarize your entire being in one or two sentences.
Ryan North is an awesome dude, period. Also, handsome. No wait: Ryan North is awesome, comma, oh-so handsome.
Can you do that in a haiku?
Yeah! 5-7-5? *long silence* No, I can’t.

Ryan North will be holding a release party for his new book, The Best of Dinosaur Comics: 2003-2005 AD with Bryan Lee O’Malley of Scott Pilgrim later this month.
Saturday, May 27th @ 8PM
Rocco’s Plum Tomato (New Room)
585 Bloor West, Just west of Bathurst
FREE

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