i am other people: Ryan North

Ryan North is the creator of Daily Dinosaur Comics, and lives in Toronto, Ontario. He is also the mind behind Project Wonderful, an online advertising company, and Oh No Robot, a transcription archive service for webcomics. He started his comic in 2003, the same week Emily and I began A Softer World, and we became friends shortly afterward. You can find more information about his projects at his websites: Dinosaur Comics and Project Wonderful and Oh No Robot. (photo by Jenn Klug)

Joey: In a way, Dinosaur Comics is an expression of yourself, a public face for Ryan North. Reading the comic, you can see that it's a very carefully filtered expression, though. There's very little negativity or unhappiness in Dinosaur Comics, and of course that seems understandable. You choose to have the comic be a positive work. Dinosaur Comics is in a way a record of that positive facet of your personality, but I suspect it's not a record of the whole. When people meet you, they must sometimes expect to meet T-Rex. Do you feel like you have to fill that role when you're meeting new people? Do you feel like you have to always be upbeat and positive?

Ryan: I'm not sure I agree with "very carefully filtered expression": that phrase really implies to me some - dishonesty? Like I write a comic, and it reflects myself, and then I scrub out all the parts that I don't want anyone to see. If the comic is filtered at all, it's certainly not carefully filtered.

I guess I try to write comics that I'm interested in reading. It's true that T-Rex and Dromiceiomimus and Utahraptor are all friends, and the only real antagonists I have are some off-screen cephalopods and raccoons, and to a lesser extent, the Devil. I've struggled with a neat way to describe this before, and ended up by saying that it's a friendly comic. People get along. But that sounds boring! Itís a comic where one person is the straight man and the other is wacky and they get into scrapes about that, but that doesn't drive the narrative. There's conflict, but there's not really conflict that you'd normally see in a novel. The characters in Dinosaur Comics are for the most part friends, and when they fight, it's the same sorts of fights you have with your friends. Nothing too major, nothing that a multi-year arc is going to be fueled by. It bothers me that this still makes the comic sound really boring.

When people meet me, I don't think they're disappointed. I hope? At conventions you try to be on the whole time and make everyone's visit special, so that means a lot of standing up when you meet someone and smiling and shaking their hand. But it's not hard! Here's someone who's gone out of their way to come visit you and tell you that they think you're great. I can get up for that. It's not a role.

What about you? Your comic is often darker than mine, certainly, and I know you've had times where people have come up to you and said things like "JOEY I'm just like the main character in your book Lockpick Pornography", and you're thinking "Aw, but I hate what that character does."

Do you feel like people expect you to have a certain intensity that maybe day-to-day Joey doesn't have? Are they sad when you don't wear black because that's the only colour that reflects your really important feelings?

Joey: For a couple years after that book came out, yeah, a lot of people expected me to be a very angry and dark sort of fellow. But not with the comic. I mean, we're often pretty adventurous or funny with the comic, but we do a lot of dark comics too, so maybe that's why people don't have such straightforward expectations when they meet me. But you! Your comic is just so relentlessly good natured. I agree, it was a bit unfair of me to say that it seems very, "carefully filtered." Because that does imply that it's dishonest. That's jealousy. If you go look at my site, and go through all the times I've talked about a movie I loved, or a comic, or a TV show, you'll come across the words "good natured" again and again. It's like the holy grail. But you'll never find someone calling A Softer World good natured. I don't think we do a completely bleak comic, but good natured just isn't a way you could ever describe it. Or my novels. Not the way I want.

Ryan: I really like this "good natured" phrase; it's way better than my fumbling around with the word "friendly". Anyway, your ASW problem is very easy problem to solve! We register agoodnaturedworld.com and adarkandbleakworld.com and Carefully Filter the comics into the two sites. Tada!

Joey: Do you ever see an end to Dinosaur Comics? Or to Dinosaur Comics as it exists today? You write the comic every weekday. 5 comics a week, 250ish a year, for how many more years? 5 more years? 10 more years?

Ryan: I've written a few ending comics in my head: the most recent one was just a regular Dinosaur Comic, only in the last panel it said something like "150 MILLION YEARS LATER:" and then the last panel was duplicated a few times, making the comic really wide. The last of the last panels had a museum or something fading into the background, so it became clear that T-Rex was a reconstructed fossil, that last conversation never completed. Maudlin!

I'm not sure how to end it, but I like to work these out in my head. Something like DC (or A Softer World) that has this loose continuity and can basically go anywhere we want it to, I'm not sure if it needs to end. It needs to end when it's boring, or you're repeating yourself, or it's no longer any good - but I don't think it needs an ending like a more narrative-heavy story needs an ending. Every comic is for the most part self-contained, so you've got hundreds of beginnings and endings to choose from there. Nobody's going to start hoping it ends soon because they're tired of waiting to find out if we ever do scale Mount Doom, you know?

I guess if you're looking for a number, I can tell you that when I redesigned my site, I changed my comic numbering scheme from four digits to six, so now file names are like qwantz.com/001234.html. Those six digits give me enough room to keep doing comics for the next 273 years, assuming I don't take weekends off?

i may be dead before then

Joey: What do you want the rest of your life to be like? Have you got a plan? Plans? Are there places in the world that you want to see, or things you want to do? You have a t-shirt that says "Not all dreams can come true" with a picture of an astronaut. It's a sad image. But I wonder, is that a trade-off that you've chosen? Stability over adventure? If you could sell your company tomorrow and make enough money to buy a ticket on a commercial space flight, would you? You could go to space. You could float and see the earth from above, but you would come home and have to worry about rent again.

Ryan: "What do you want to be when you grow up?"

I don't know what I want the rest of my life to be like. My parents went through this phase where they were asking me what my Five Year Plan was, where they'd make predictions for us at New Years and then revisit them the next year. It sounds horrible, but it was really just kind of ridiculous. They were doing this when I was in undergrad, so I predicted that one year later, I'd be one year further in my studies. I was not getting the point of the exercise.

It's true that I don't worry about rent now, but that's only been in the past two years maybe. When I graduated and started doing comics full-time, I had to sell three t-shirts a day to make rent. There were whole weekends where I'd only sell a single shirt, and I'd start to worry. I'd start buying cheaper and cheaper brands of macaroni and cheese. Now sales are a bit higher and I don't have to sweat the day-to-day much. I was about to say "I'm not rich", but I realized that's not what you're asking. You were asking about stability, and I guess I'm pretty stable.

To answer your question, hell yes I would get that commercial space flight ticket. But space has a special get-out-of-jail-free card with me. Anything for space.

You know as well as I do that, as cartoonists who do our work online, who pay someone else to handle t-shirt shipping, all we need to make our comic is a laptop and some internet access. We can work from anywhere and there's literally no business reason to stay in any city for any reason of time. I think it's one of the few jobs where you can do that. But I've lived in Toronto for the past four years and I only traveled to Spain to present a paper for my grad work. So I look back at that and I say, wow, there's not much adventure there. Even with no reason to stay in place, I haven't moved.

There's a reason for that, of course: I have friends here, it's easier to work in a single place, I've been trying to get to a place where I don't have to worry about money. It is the trap of saying "I'll travel when I can afford it" and then doing it when you're old and can't enjoy it as much, but for now it seems reasonable. Plus I really like it here?

To answer your question as honestly as I can, I've wanted since I was very little to not have to worry about money. I've never been poverty-level poor (I mean, there's been years where I've been officially beneath the poverty line, but that wasn't poverty: that was being a student and living the Student Lifestyle), but I've been in a place where you know you can't afford a better-quality food, where you can't do certain things because of money, and I'd prefer not to have those problems if I can. I sort of have troubles with money in general, with how it determines so much of our lives but with how we all try to ignore it, but I would like to be (and stay) in a place where I can pick up some new comics and games and not worry about how much they cost.

This is terrible; you're asking me where I want to be in the future, what I want my life to be like, and the only thing I can tell you is "Man, all I know is I don't want to be POOR."

So listen, you choose adventure over stability more often than I do. When you get an advance on a book, you tend to live it up for a few days, be really generous to your friends, and then it's back to same old Joey. You've slept in way more dumpsters than I have. How come you always make rent?

Joey: I guess, if we're being as honest as we can, I rely on people who have chosen stability over adventure. Earlier this summer, I stayed on your couch for a week, because I was essentially homeless, before flying off to Paris. I had no money for hotels or even hostels. I stayed with strangers. Slept on floors. When I traveled the US a few years ago, and came home penniless, I had to stay with friends for a couple months before I got back on my feet, and that's kind of a dick move. You've spent every penny going out for adventures, and you expect the people back home to be your safety net. I know that, but again and again I get restless, and I need to just sell everything and take off, and I tell myself that I won't rely on people to catch me afterwards, but of course, they're always there, and they always catch me, because they love me whether I'm stupid or not.

Ryan: I think that's great! It's the kind of move you can pull a few times with each of your friends before they get cheesed off. If one of my friends wants to go to the States to have an adventure and he comes home and he's got no money and a scar down his cheek, man, he can sleep on my couch! I wanna hear what happened. I can tell myself that I'm not really in a position to run off to Paris for a month, that I'm not that guy at least at the moment, but I'm really glad that I have friends who are. Coolness by proxy!

This is sort of tangential, but I remember when we were both starting out our comics, and your hosting company pulled a move on you where they suddenly wanted tons of money - I forget how much, but it was this ridiculous multi thousand-dollar sum, and there was no way you could afford it, so you asked the internet for donations and you got more than enough to cover for the crisis. I thought that was great: it's the sort of thing that you can only do once, but it made me feel that there was this big safety net of strangers online, people who had stability, who would step up if we ever screwed up really badly. I'm not sure if it would work today, now that people have basically made business models out of asking for money online, but it was fantastic at the time.

I'm not sure if I told you this, but a few years ago I got a hosting bill where my company had forgotten to charge me for overages for basically a year, and they calculated I owed them $60,000. It was hilarious and insane. They took down my site and called me up at 6 pm and said I owed them sixty thousand dollars. It ended when I laughed at their figure and told them I was a student and could pay them exactly zero dollars, and they said they'd call it even if I never hosted with them again.


Joey: Your career is on computers, and probably a large part of your life is, too. Does anyone else have your passwords? What happens if you die tonight? Will your family be able to get into your email and sort out your affairs? Do you want them to? Have you got a goodbye Dinosaur Comic in your will?

Ryan: I've got nothing. I've come close to setting up a dead man's switch: a program where if I don't check in on it once every week or so, it assumes I'm dead, and goes into action. My final Dinosaur Comic gets posted, friends get pre-composed goodbye emails, enemies get a final "HEY SCREW YOU I'M DEAD BUT I'M STILL KINDA CHEESED AT YOU" message, and important passwords get emailed to my family. But I keep thinking, what if it goes wrong? What if it goes off prematurely and starts trying to tie off the loose ends in my life when I'm still around? It's a risk I haven't taken yet. It might make a good subject for a comic though!

Anyway if you're asking for my passwords they're all "ryaniscool" now.

Joey: What do you do for a living? Are you an entrepreneur or a comic writer? Would you define yourself by which paid you the most, or do you identify with one or the other for another reason? And is the answer you'll give me different than an answer you might give someone else in a different context? Do you feel like one is more important than the other? Or one is more how you'd like to be remembered?

Ryan: People ask me "What do you do for a living?", I say "cartoonist". If they press, I say I do comics online. "Cartoonist" is a good career label. I've never said "I'm an writer" because "writer" is just so tainted by all these 16-year-old kids still hacking their way through language but reaching for the authenticity they think the label provides. You want to be a writer, the easiest way to do that is to call yourself one. But cartoonist doesn't attract that! There's no prestige. People hear "cartoonist" and they think the guy who writes Garfield, the guy who draws Archie comics so that Archie looks exactly like how every other artist has drawn him since the 1940s. The result is that most cartoonists really love the art and what they're doing. They love it enough to be lumped in with all the pablum that people think of when they hear the word.

I'll tell you this: I hate the word "entrepreneur". It's like "writer" but one thousand times worse, because "writer" doesn't attract the con men type, the people who will call themselves entrepreneurs because they've invented another pyramid scheme that only requires you to fill out surveys online. Work From Home! A Secret Money-Making System For Success! Make Over $100,000 A Week! BE AN ENTREPRENEUR! Hey, no thanks. I actually got into a big hours-long argument with my dad about it (he thinks "entrepreneur" is a noble adjective), and we could only come to a common ground by inventing a new word, "e prime", which refers to the real entrepreneurs, the people doing real work and changing the world with just their own actions. Entrepreneurs are the scam artists, the insincere ones looking for a fast buck, and e primes are the real deal.

I mention all of this only to say that I have issues with labels? So the short answer is that if there were three otherwise-identical people in a room, one holding a big placard that read "CARTOONIST" while the other two had "ENTREPRENEUR" and "WRITER" signs, I'd really want to talk to the cartoonist. And if I'm remembered as a cartoonist, as the guy who made the dinosaurs say the funny words, I'm happy with that.

Click here to comment on this interview.