You Can't Escape the Images
an interview with Ryan North

Conducted by Mike Meginnis

The thing I really get stuck on with Dinosaur Comics isn't the concept. I don't sit around wondering how you make it work, because I can see that -- it's sharp writing, smart dialogue, and a broad comedic range. The thing I can't get my brain around is the initial act of creation. How did you make your first dino comic? At what point did it occur to you that you need never change the art? About how long did you think it was going to last?

The initial seed was one of desperation, actually! I wanted to do a comic but couldn't draw. The idea of having a comic where the pictures didn't change was the only solution I could see. I bounced around that ridiculous idea in my head for a month or so until I convinced myself that it could maybe work. I sat down and came up with this.

It's pretty terrible. Notice how even the characters that are the same look entirely different. Check out T-Rex in the last panel! He's RAGING. Half the punchlines in the comic wouldn't work with that T-Rex in the last panel, and he's only a handful of pixels different. Plus, Utahraptor looks like a frog.

In any case, after making that comic, I stood up from the computer and walked around a bit, flipped a few tables, then came back and tried to make it less terrible. Putting T-Rex in the first two panels was the key: he gave the comic a narrative flow that wasn't there before and finally made the layout work.

I wrote about 18 comics over the course of that weekend and finally convinced myself that I could make the comic last for at least a month. In retrospect it's a dumb idea, but I thought when I started the comic that I wouldn't have any character continuity between comics, because that would make writing a lot easier. The T-Rex in Tuesday's comic would be entirely different from the one in Monday's comic. S-Somehow, I figured that would be easier that way? Of course it's the opposite: when you're stuck with the same images, the personality of your characters really comes from those images: T-Rex looks excited, so he's pretty excitable, Utahraptor looks sensible, so I tend to write him as the sensible one. Poo-tee-weet?

Of course, there are many good comics that are done without being able to draw, I just wasn't aware of them at the time. Joey and Emily's A Softer World was starting up at about the same time I was, and other comics like Reprographics and Lick My Jesus use photographs as illustrations. There's also comics with CG art, sprite/pixel art comics and so on, most of which don't really boil my potatoes, with a few exceptions (Pixel may well be more minimal than my comic!).

Has there ever been an idea you were really attached to, but couldn't make work in the comic?

There's been a few, I think. I find it pretty hard (though not impossible) to do really serious comics, mostly because of how wacky everyone looks. This comic took a long time to get it to fit in a way that worked with both the quotation and the images and the characters, but I'm really happy with the end result. It's one of my favourites! I actually ended up sketching out the flow for that on a blackboard in an empty classroom. I felt entirely like an eccentric professor, especially after I had to run upstairs to get a pen and paper to copy it down, and upon returning, try to convince a member of the cleaning staff not to erase it. PLEASE IT'S FOR THIS COMIC I DO ON THE INTERNET ABOUT TALKING DINOSAURS?

Ooh, I do have an example of an idea that I liked but didn't put in comic form: the list-formatted songs idea I had a few months ago that turned into an overnight meme! I thought first of the T-Rex, but realized this is an idea that would lose by being pushed into that format. It's not that it wouldn't be possible, it just wouldn't be the best presentation for the idea. So I went the Livejournal route, which I guess turned out to be the right choice!

Sometimes the opposite thing happens, and rather than fully realizing an idea in some other media, I'll just have T-Rex describe it. There's been a few comics where T-Rex has a book idea or a story in mind or something along those lines, and it's totally me realizing that to actually go through with this terrible idea I have would be a REGRETTABLE LIFE DECISION, but to have T-Rex work his way through it would be fun. Good times!

I think it's probably fair to call Whispered Apologies, in a sense, a scam to get various artists to work with you, but on their terms. But what else would you say you and the other writers are trying to accomplish with it?

Hah, well, I wouldn't call it a scam myself! It's COLLABORATION. Honest!

The real seed of the idea was when I was talking with a friend of mine and we came up with the idea of what WA pretty much is: Exploding Dog inverted. In that (amazing) comic, people send in phrases, and Sam draws a picture based on it - in our comic, people send in pictures, and we writes phrases to go along.

I was really hesitant with WA initially, because I was worried people would see it as the biggest ego trip ever, as if it was me saying "Hey, artists! You can't write, right? You know you can't. Don't even try! Well, don't you worry your pretty little head, Papa Ryan will take care of it for you. Yes, that's right. Papa Ryan." But people generally don't see it that way. Close call!

As a writer, it's incredibly flattering to have all these insanely talented artists send me panels to write for. It lets me do things that I couldn't do with T-Rex and explore different types of comic writing. It's a lot of fun to write for comics, and WA lets me do that with, as you say, a wide variety of artists on their own terms. At a higher level I think it is interesting to see the tension between art and writing and how they can work together or against each other, but at a more basic level, it's a chance for us to write more comics that hopefully are extremely awesome.

Something we've been talking about recently in the Examiner mailing list is how various comics have developed over time. How do you think Dinosaur Comics have grown and changed?

It's really interesting (for me, at least!) to look at this, and you'll have to excuse me for going on and on about my own comic for a bit. BUT!

With most other comics, you can really see an evolution in the art as they go through the years: comics like Questionable Content have gone leaps and bounds in a really short period of time, and even Diesel Sweeties, which is computer-drawn, has evolved visually and even changed its basic layout recently. I think a visual evolution is an important part of a comic, and part of the fun. You can almost reference a Penny Arcade comic's relevance by which art period it appears in. You get to see your favourite artists get better and go in directions you couldn't see with the first comic.

That's all closed off to me, obviously! I was concerned when I started the comic that it would quickly become stagnant. Coming up with the Dinosaur Comics layout must have been one of the luckiest things I've done, because it's one of the more flexible designs I could have come up with. I've seen some other comics that have taken this "template comic" idea and run with it too, and not to disparage what they're doing, but often the layout is way more challenging than mine. The more stuff you have going on, the more stuff you have to reference each day or find a way to ignore, but make it too simple, too open, and you've closed the doors the format opens to you and reduced your characters to talking heads. It's a difficult thing to balance, I now realize! At the time I designed the comic, though, I thought it would be funny to have dinosaurs talking.

This is a bit tangential! I do think that Dinosaur Comics has developed and changed, and certainly in ways that I didn't expect. I look back at the earlier comics and it's weird knowing I wrote them and seeing them go in different directions than the 2005 Edition of Ryan would take them in. What surprised me, when it happened, were the additions to the cast. It only took me 10 comics to show the characters speak from off screen (to allow T-Rex/Utahraptor dialogue in the last panel), but it was over a hundred comics later before God (the first new character) showed up. It wasn't a conscious thing - of course I realized I could have people speak from off-panel - but I didn't want to do experimentation for experimentation's sake. I think that if the comic doesn't stand on its own, if there's no integrity to the characters and the audience, you're doing a disservice to your reader. You can experiment on your own, of course, but if the experiment doesn't work, or it's just a stunt, it probably doesn't deserve to go up. If you look at the filenames on the comics, you'll see they sometimes jump from something like comic2-446 (the '2' is a relic from this being the second template I made) to comic2-450 - in between are comics that I thought for whatever reason had a bad case of the suckies.

In any case! Having God show up once was a joke that I really liked, and I started realizing that not only having a God (not an author-in-his-own-comic God, but a oh-oh-I'd-better-behave-when-this-guy's-around God) as a character is a chance for a lot of ADVENTURES, it would also let T-Rex react to dialogue in the beginning of the comic, too. I'm making this sounds like I had this structural purpose for God when I introduced him, but it was actually me just realizing this as I went along. The character of the Devil showed up a bit later, and he's actually a lot harder to write for, because his dialogue comes from the bottom of the panel. He can't talk easily in panel 2 and 5, for instance, and if he IS talking, he can't say a lot. There's constraints upon constraints, but they do open other avenues of exploration.

Again: TANGENTAL. To answer your question more succinctly, I think the writing for the comic has become stronger, or at least I hope it has, and I think the newer cast members of God, the Devil, and the raccoon and cephalopod neighbours bring a freshness and new angle to the panels that I entirely didn't expect when I started. I actually see a lot more potential in each blank comic now, because there's so many directions it can go.

Seriously, cephalopods are from hell. Most people don't realize that an octopus totally has the fine motor skills to operate a gun or launch a nuclear missile. What can be done to safeguard our society from their unnatural powers of basic cognizance and extreme squishiness?

I fear there's not much left for us to do. We recently discovered that octopuses walk around disguising themselves as coral or snails, JUST FOR THE PRACTICE. They're up there with platypus for Freaky Animals: jet-powered, cannibalistic, intelligent, ambitious animals. I can see where the ancient mariners got their fears from.

There's an old Onion headline: "DOLPHINS EVOLVE OPPOSABLE THUMBS. 'Oh, Shit' Says Humanity". Replace "dolphins" with "squid" and "opposable thumbs" with "a sense of entitlement", and you'll know my fears.

One of the things that keeps me coming back to Dino Comics again and again is the sheer variety of ideas T-Rex presents. Some of them I'm familiar with already, some are totally out of left field. What are you doing with your time that leads to stuff like the medical facts strips, or the various philosophical discussions?

Up until a few weeks ago I was a graduate student (Computer science) (Computational Linguistics, actually, which is basically figuring out how to get computers to speak English), so some of the ideas came from courses I'd taken. But really the secret is that a lot of them are just things I'm interested in. Many of the philosophy comics were an excuse to learn more about them, as I have to research them before I write the comic so I'll have some idea of what I'm talking about. Others I just come across: my friend EXCUSE ME EX-GIRLFRIEND Priya gave me the secret for the Secrets of the Medical Profession strip while we were talking one day, and it's the sort of thing that you realize right away will be perfect for a comic. I actually got a lot of emails that day from nurses and so on, surprised that I knew the Secret!

A few of the other ideas for the comic are just things that I've been thinking for years: I think I was ranting about the word "bicurious" (from which the Curiosity: Satisfied comics came) way back in high school, and the "I'm a machine that turns food into ideas" was a thought that fascinated me way back when I was a kid. So, I guess they come from everywhere. I'm worried the comic is a little misleading, actually, since I've gotten emails from people before convinced I've studied everything from philosophy to political science. I feel like a fraud when I tell them I actually do research in advance! It's a great way to learn about and share new ideas, though. I recommend it!

That sounds like a really interesting field -- Computational Linguistics, I mean. I've never heard of it, which I have to imagine is fairly common. What do you hope to accomplish in that field? What are some interesting things others have done in it?

Oh, I'm not surprised you haven't heard of it: it's a relatively new field that's separated itself from AI, after people started realizing in the 80s that maybe we wouldn't have talking robots by the year 2000, and MAYBE we should start looking at smaller problems before considering the one of "intelligence". There's lots of cool stuff going on in the field. A lot of what we'd like to accomplish (interacting with a computer like they do on Star Trek, for instance) is years and decades away, but there's some cool work being done today.

Many linguistic problems seem really simple but are actually quite difficult: picking the right word, for instance. If you want to communicate that someone messed up, do you say they made a mistake, or do you say they made a blunder? A slip? An error? All of these suggest varying degrees of culpability. So you might suggest that you simply assign a "niceness" score to each word, so you can know that "error" means a big mistake, while "slip" is a small one - this is called the semantic orientation of the word. But even this won't solve all your problems, because some words can be positive in some contexts, while negative in others: the phrase "happy mistake" is a positive one, even though "mistake" is usually pretty negative, and words like "accident" can be bad when talking about cars, or neutral when talking about accidentally meeting someone on the street or dialing the wrong number.

My work was on things called "light verb constructions", which show up in English and a lot of other languages: phrases like "take a walk", "give a smile", and so on, where you've really got two verbs in the construction ("take" and "walk", and "give" and "smile"). You can read my thesis if you're interested! There's over 100 pages there just dealing with this one type of construction. As I say, um, there's still a lot of work to be done. It's an exciting field because you're doing a lot of the foundation work for what will come in the future (and building on the even earlier foundations started in the past two decades). This is not to say we haven't had exciting results! But the real exciting results will be people like Data.

So now we sort of have some superhero back story on you -- your power of using language precisely toward the end of humor comes from the sort of intensive linguistic study that leads to 109 page thesis papers on phrases like "take a walk". Your humor, somewhat like that of Chris Onstad, depends a lot on a very powerful command of the little things in English. I am particularly fascinated by your use of the exclamation point. So! Talk about the exclamation point. I bet we'll both be surprised by how much you have to say about it. Also any other grammatical things that fascinate you would be awesome to hear about.

Well! I think the exclamation point gets a bad rap. People often seem hesitant to use it, as if they're worried that if they appear too enthusiastic people won't listen, mistaking the "!" for the crazed gleam in the eye of a man with a pile of seventh-generation photocopied papers approaching on a street corner. Run away! I've even heard people say things like "you should only use the exclamation point twice in your writing career", which seems pretty ridiculous, even without a literal reading. Why not write about things you're excited about, things your characters are excited about?

Punctuation (and the exclamation point in particular) IS a great tool for writing dialogue though, as it's one of the few ways to point to the cadence of the words and give the reader a much better idea of how a sentence is said. Basically, how you present a character's dialogue is going to affect how the voice sounds in the head of the reader, and that's especially important when you're writing character dialogue or comedy. Timing can be everything with a joke, and you don't want to lose that when someone finally reads what you've written down. As an example, you can see how "I love you." is different from "I love you!", "I love - you.", "I - love you!", and even the punctuation-free "I love you", and so forth. There's even more ways you can say this in real life that I don't think can be fully captured on paper! You've got to keep an ear for this when letting your characters talk.

I will admit, however, that I did sort of go overboard with punctuation in my first few comics! The first one I put up has T-Rex and Utahraptor saying "problem(s)", which is sort of ridiculous for dialogue, but I liked how it looked. (It was cleverly translated into "problem or problems" for the song that my friends Joey and Gilyan composed based on the strip). I threw in semi-colons and all the other punctuation I could think of, stuff I wasn't really seeing done often enough anywhere else, just because I could and because I couldn't see any reason not to. Generally I do use exclamation marks pretty frequently in my comic, but part of that comes, as I've said, from T-Rex's positions and facial expressions in the comic. You can't write dialogue for a guy who looks like this and not have him be pretty enthused about what's going on.

Honestly, I really do think too much about punctuation. It's a sickness. I'm convinced that ?! is subtly different from !? (one is surprised shock, the other is shocked surprise), which in turn is different from the ill-conceived interrobang (basically the question mark and exclamation point on top of each other, a neologistic punctuation mark that was pushed for a bit in the 60s and early 70s and even made it onto a few typewriters before thankfully fading away.) I think that ! is different from !! too, but that more depends on the context of the phrases around the one in question.

Punctuation (or its lack) is also a visual choice too, and I group it together with the related techniques of capitalization and the visual aspect of words in giving clues to your reader about how to sound things out. For example, in my comic the characters of God and the Devil speak in capital letters without punctuation, and I think they'd be way less funny if it was otherwise. Their dialogue gets this run-on booming quality that I really like. It's powerful, but it can easily be overused. Have you seen those comics (mostly webcomics) where the author has decided to have each of their characters speak all their dialogue in a different typeface? I can see what they're going for, but it's an effect best used sparingly, in my opinion!

Finally, and this is only tangentially related to punctuation but more related to the visual aspect of words, but I've never understood why comics in the mainstream North American tradition write all their dialogue in capital letters. It's so common you don't even notice it. Why is this done? It certainly doesn't make things easier to read, and you lose all sorts of subtlety that you'd otherwise have. You can still put words in bold for emphasis, sure, but that's a different effect than putting words in caps. (It is! Honest!) Maybe it's a traditional thing? There's some webcomics who do it too (I can't think of any off the top of my head though; it's really not THAT big a deal). The problem I'd have with all-caps dialogue is that you lose one of my favourite techniques, which is to put the last word of a sentence in capital letters for a really good and unique EMPHASIS.

I've been complaining about that for years. It gets really ridiculous with some writers because they need a way to emphasize something, so they start using bold... then they realize emphasizing other things would be cool too, while they're at it... then some stuff is italicized and other stuff is bold and sometimes it's in a different color... and they *wonder* why comics are having trouble finding an audience! Nobody can tell what Cyclops is trying to say anymore!

As sort of a tangentially related question, then, what do you think webcomics and print comics alike need to do to attract a more "mainstream" audience?

I think the answer is different for web and print comics. Neither really have a problem with quality: there's so much great stuff out there, if you know where to find it. The problem, as I see it, is being able to find it.

I think print comics (and here I'm talking about North America), have been digging their own graves for a while now. They've moved to this direct-market arena where the only real place to buy comics is at a comic book store. This seems pretty reasonable until you consider that most comic book shops (not all) are typically marketed towards the superhero crowd, so many of these shops don't offer everything that's out there. It's great if you like superheroes, but if they're not what you're after, it does limit your options. If the local comic book shop doesn't stock non-superhero comics, where do you go? You don't pick up comics like you do magazines at a grocery store anymore. Some of the bigger book stores are getting better (Chapters here in Canada usually has a graphic novel section where you can find mostly superhero stuff, tons of manga, and some indie stuff), but it's the exception rather than the rule. By shifting comics out of casual bookstores and into this comic shop ghetto, all we've done is remove them from the public eye: you're only going to see them if you seek them out in the first place.

I think print comics either have to break out of the specialty shops (my comic shop in Ottawa was next door to a porn store, for crying out loud) and into mainstream bookstores, which, I know, is easier said than done. There's so much great stuff being put out by people other than DC and Marvel, smaller companies like Fantagraphics and Top Shelf, and it's a real shame it can be difficult to find in bookstores and even comic shops.

Not to say I don't still love Batman.

Web comics don't have these distribution problems, but we do suffer from an embarrassment of choice. Here I'm not certain if the idea of a 'mainstream' audience applies. I think the idea of a mainstream comes from media where the paradigm is one-to-many: i.e., you've only got a handful channels you can get on TV at home, so the next day at work everyone is discussing what happened on the two same shows. The lack of choice allows a mainstream, a homogeneity. Even with 500 channels, it's still mainly a one-to-many exercise: you're not going to start your own TV station one day because you feel like it.

But online comics are a many-to-many approach to entertainment, where anyone can start up a comic and anyone can decide to go read it. Each comic can build its own audience, find it own voice and appeal. From what I've seen and heard, it seems that comics with focuses and themes beyond "two guys and their wacky friends, featuring: hijinks" can end up appealing to an audience for the themes they have, rather than the fact they're a comic - they're reaching this non-hardcore audience, the people who wouldn't think of going into a comic shop, and getting them to read and enjoy comics. If I've got an interest in gaming, I might read Penny Arcade - it might even be the only comic I read. I'll recommend it to other gamers, and maybe eventually I'll check out some other comics PA links to and see if I like any of that, too. An audience is built off of the focus of the comic, and this has a positive effect for everyone. The stigma of comics being for losers evaporates ("But no, this comic's different! It's GOOD.") and a whole new audience discovers the medium.

Also fascinating: The semicolon. No one has ever been able to adequately explain to me what it does; I just know that sometimes I put it in a sentence and it works. Also in that category -- hyphens!

I actually have a REALLY soft spot for the semicolon; it gives you a distinctive break in a sentence that is sort of emulated by hyphens - but not perfectly! Semicolons are actually really easy to use; they separate two ideas (just like a period), only with less of an intense stop. You're using it correctly if the phrases on each side of the semicolon are a complete sentence!

Pretty much the biggest argument in webcomics seems to be the clash between essentially people who spell it "Art" and people who spell it "art", such as Scott Kurtz's diatribes against alternative comics, and the disagreements between the Penny Arcade guys and pretty much anyone who ever used infinite canvas or Flash. You seem to be in a sort of unique place on this spectrum, because on the one hand your comics are very conceptually driven, which has an "Art" connotation to it, but Dino Comics is unusually unpretentious, which is more of an "art" thing. I'm wondering what your feelings on this kind of argument have been?

I think these arguments are more ego-driven than anything else. At the basis of this is the sentiment "what I like/do is better than these other things", and so to express that they deny it a label of Art. I like Scott McCloud's definition of art (pretty much anything not related to eatin' food and havin' sex is art), and so I don't really worry about deciding what's Art and what's art and what's not - it all gets the label. As for the conflict between high Art and low art, again, the conflict seems based on What I Like Is Better, Stupidheads. I like 'low' art so these comics with big words are stupid, or I like big ideas so these comics about video games are pedestrian. There's room for both. There will always BE both, and neither is killing the medium.

Another big one is the business concerns of money-for-comics people (Scott McCloud's followers, more or less, of which only a small minority have succeeded financially) versus the donations/advertising/merchandise hybrid people. You've got some advertising -- though I'm not entirely clear that it's for money, since it's pretty much hidden and it seems to mostly link to things you like anyway -- and some merchandise, so it's fairly obvious where you come down here, but I'd like to hear your take on that one. We can pretend these questions have no effect on the art itself, but I think it's pretty clear that we'd be lying to ourselves.

Well, there's different approaches to money-for-comics. There's the Pay For The Comic approach (read a bit for free, then micropay a bit more to read the rest) which I guess seems reasonable, but only for completed works. Joey Manley's Graphic Smash and sites like it follow a slightly different model (at least when applied to daily comics), one which seems more popular: pay a small monthly fee, and get to read all the sites in their "family" of comics. The most recent installment of each comic is usually available, and sometimes the first chapter of the work.

Honestly, I've never seen the appeal of this model, at least for comics like mine. One installment likely just isn't enough to get someone interested in a comic, especially two-dollars-and-fifty-cents interested in a comic. It seem to me like you'd be shooting yourself in the foot - sure, you're getting a small monthly salary from people's subscriptions, but you've gone and limited your growth in such a severe fashion. People can't email their friends and say "hey, check out this awesome comic", unless they do it during that short period when it's up for all to see. Even if they like today's installment, will it be enough to make them come back again to this random website tomorrow and see if it's still good, if it's worth their time?

I don't think so. It's never happened to ME, anyway - the comics I love have all been after reading at least a handful of their comics in one sitting, getting a feel for the flavour of the comic and how I respond to it. I'll easily give a comic five minutes of time in one sitting without even thinking about it, but will I remember to come back every day for a week to give a padlocked comic the same attention? Probably not. It sucks, because there are some really fantastic comics on sites like Graphic Smash, and I wish they could find a larger audience beyond people with credit cards and a lot of faith. (Of course I am being a little unfair here, as there are advantages to this model: cross-promotion with other comics on the same site, for instance. But I do feel the negatives greatly outweigh the positives.)

So if you're giving away your comic for free, an option is to sell merchandise, and yeah, that's what I do! I find it amazing that we've created this situation where people can spend their time creating something they like, give it away online, and have people pay them for it, even though they don't have to. People want the comics in book form or on a shirt or on something else they can share. That's just incredible. In a sense it's not really THAT amazing (The Transformers TV show sold me on their toys long ago, but holy, they were some awesome toys), but I feel its a lot more honest for most webcomics, because the merchandise always comes second. The initial urge is one of creation: nobody (I hope) is getting into webcomics just strike it rich.

I do sell advertising - but yeah, it's not the focus. My guiding sentiment has been that people visit a website for a comic, everything else could be tangential. So I want to make sure that my comic is above the fold and fully visible when you visit the site. Because of this, the advertising isn't sold for much: you have to scroll down to see it. It's there if you want to read it, but if you just want to read my comic today, that's fine too. Actually, the more I think about it, the more I see it as a matter of trust between you and your readers. You're going to offend people if you put ads up all over the place, if you start accepting money for endorsements and links and stuff, because you're selling out - and you're not selling yourself out, you're just the conduit: you're selling out your audience. I've seen some comics where it almost feels like the comic was just a means to an end, and as an audience member I feel used even when reading the website for the first time, because I'm being treated like a commodity. I've been tricked, because it was never about the comic, it was about selling my eyeballs, my attention, to someone who's willing to pay. So to keep that trust, I don't treat my readers like dollar signs: the advertisement on my page is marked as such and won't get between you and the comic. It's there if you want it, and hopefully we'll still respect each other in the morning. We can still snuggle while the sun comes up. Wait, what?

But this is getting a bit away from your question! I also sell merchandise; the t-shirts, stickers, buttons and books are where the comic pays for its hosting bills and for delicious treats for me. It's true that if you go too far in this, it can start to feel like the comic is just an advertisement for the shirts, a way of building a clothing brand, and I don't want to go down that path. But I do feel that putting a comic out there for free and letting people read it if they want is a much better way than the alternative, and it hasn't surprised me that micropayments haven't taken off, especially with all the barriers in way of their acceptance. I actually signed up as one of the early beta testers of Bitpass (the micropayment system Scott McCloud's involved with) but never found a use for it. I don't mean to say that the idea of micropayments belongs in fairy tale land, of course. I just believe that for a daily comic, your best bet for connecting with an audience is to remove all the barriers you can between them and your work, not to throw some up in front of it.

What is the most inconvenient time to have T-Rex suddenly interjecting with comments in your day to day life? He's so developed that by now I'm sure it's happening to you fairly often.

Oh man, too often. Usually during serious moments, when one is supposed to be Paying Attention and Empathizing? That's when T-Rex will say the most brilliantly inappropriate thing to me, and I'll have to pass it along. Sometimes these get made into comics pretty much word for word. Oh well!



I imagine there's been at least one instance of you starting out with the point of view that T-Rex usually gets -- the silly, underdeveloped one -- and being absolutely crushed when you realize that the Utahraptor position -- typically the more thoroughly considered, carefully applied version -- is obviously right? I go through this process on one thing or another pretty much daily.

What are one or two comics that came about as a result of this? How did you arrive at the conclusions you did?

Oh yes, this happens all the time. Often this happens during the writing of the comic, and the arguments developing in my head are totally reflected in T-Rex's and Utahraptor's dialogue. There's a few times when no conclusion is reached, but most of the time, T-Rex will be my starting position, and while writing for Utahraptor I'll try to reconsider my position and see how defensible it is. Any conclusions I get to come from that analysis! Usually I end up getting taken down a few notches. Other times I'll give T-Rex a viewpoint that I think is clearly ridiculous and let him flush it out a bit before Utahraptor tears it up. It's fun, and you get to explore new ideas from both sides! In a few cases something I thought was super dumb actually turns out to be pretty interesting as I explore it. I'm making this sound like it's all planned out, but I'm totally just making it up as I go along, trying not to be unfair or disingenuous.

On the other hand, sometimes T-Rex will voice the viewpoint I already believe is right, and I'll have Utahraptor try to poke holes in it. It's a dangerous thing to do, though, because since Utahraptor is usually the one who's more reasoned and in the right, sometimes people will assume that means that T-Rex is always wrong! I did one comic about age of consent laws, and I thought the only way I could do this was to head off the expected criticism at the pass, and put the "why are you talking about this? Are you a PEDOPHILE?" comment right in the comic itself . The comic was supposed to point out how that's not a helpful question and really only is a cover for policing ideas, but if you take T-Rex's "Well played!" punchline straight, it sounds like I'm totally supporting Utahraptor and censorship on that one. A nice guy wrote me to explain how you're not a pedophile for discussing how a line of age-of-consent is drawn in the sand by legal necessity, and I had to write him back and be like "Dude, I know! I'm TOTALLY on your side."

What are a couple of your favorite webcomics, and why?

Oh man, the thing with webcomics (at least for me) is that since we're all such accessible people online, the comic and its creator are usually pretty difficult to tease apart. If I really like a comic I find I'll also really like its creator, even before we've spoken! You have to stop and think, "Wait. I haven't actually ever spoken to David. Can I go around thinking we're best friends forever?" But then when you actually do get to meet and chat with these people, they turn out to be awesome anyway, so it all works out.

So! I really like Achewood and I think like you that Chris' command of language is top-notch. Nick's comics and shorts at The Perry Bible Fellowship are incredible and a total high water mark for comedy and pacing and I'm glad he only updates weekly because if he was daily he'd bury us all. Dale and David's A Lesson Is Learned But The Damage Is Irreversible is another member of the "Phew, I'm glad they don't update daily" club: not only are they both classy guys, but their comic is one of the best I've seen in print or online. The writing and illustration are both great and either could support the comic on its own, so to have both together is really special. I also really like Joey and Emily's "A Softer World" and think that it totally deserves all the good press it gets! Adam Reed's Nine Planets Without Intelligent Life is brilliant and, conversely, deserves way more press than it gets. It's one of the few infinite canvas strips that doesn't end up feeling onanistic and melodramatic, and I would marry it if it were at all possible. Finally, White Ninja Comics is pure pleasure. The visuals are deceptively simple, and the jokes are solid gold!

But really, all the comics on my links page are super cool and you should read every one twice a day! I could spend pages and pages writing about why each of those comics is exceedingly awesome, but that would be CRAZY.

Since I've related your work to Chris Onstad's, I'm curious what you think of it. I own a Phillipe for America T-shirt, so you could define my feelings on Achewood as pretty positive.

I think Achewood's so great. Chris has a very personal way of writing each of his characters, so they're all really distinct and can be thrown together in all these fun ways. It was actually Achewood that inspired me to do my own comic: it was the first webcomic I ever saw, and my reaction was "Holy, you can do this? People do this? This is great!". And I've got Drew to thank for introducing me to Achewood: he had a little link in his mailing list that said something to the effect of "Achewood just keeps getting better and better". It's true! I think Chris and I have similar feelings toward comics, as I know he'll not put something up if he's not happy with it, and sometimes he'll take comics down after putting them up, if he reconsiders. That's classy; I respect that. If I met him I would give him a high five, JUST LIKE THAT.

Say you get to choose any artist you want to work with for a project whose length, content and style are all of your choosing. Who do you work with? What do you do?

Oh, wow. I'd like to write more longer-form comics, for sure. I worked with my friend Rosemary on Space Rex (T-Rex in space, basically), which was a really short story, but cute and fun. I've also tricked my friend Allene into illustrating, in her delightful childlike style, a long-form children's book of terror I wrote called "Happy Dog The Happy Dog", which should seriously be the best thing ever.

But in this fantasy land where everyone bends to Ryan's will and has infinite free time, I would probably work with David Hellman, because his art is brilliant and gorgeous, and his panel layouts are both inspired and well-reasoned. He's doing impressive stuff, not only by the standards of online comics, but for comics in general. He and I would work on a story about zombies and time loops.

On the other hand, I bet Alex Ross could draw some pretty amazing dinosaurs. He and I could do a story where Superman goes back in time to the age of dinosaurs, and then hangs out with Batman (who is already there, having figured things out in advance) in the age of dinosaurs.

I'd also like to work with Eddie Campbell, but he wouldn't need my help - he's a great writer and illustrator all by himself. We could give each other high fives though! That would be pretty okay!

So, what kind of comics did your generation in Canada grow up with? Was it as spandex-centric as the stuff they tossed at me as a li'l USA dork?

I never really read comics until I was out of high school, actually! My brother collected a few Wolverine and Batman comics when we were kids which I'd read after he was done with them. I would buy the ubiquitous Archie comics at grocery stores, but I quit in disgust when they halved the size of their 'double digest' and increased the price! But once I was out of high school, I got a job in the summer before University, and suddenly had money. With my first paycheque I wandered into a comic shop and picked up Alex Ross and Paul Dini's "Superman: Peace On Earth", and I still think it's one of the more beautiful and inspiring comics I've ever read. It was a revelation! Hey, comics don't have to be monthly, they can have their own self-contained stories, they can be adult!

But even so, the comics I could find were pretty spandex-centric. I grew up in Ottawa, and the comic stores there were almost entirely superhero stuff. I could get things like Maus and Eddie Campbell's stuff, but I was only vaguely aware of the indie comics scene until I moved to Toronto and found The Beguiling, which is probably the best comic shop in Canada and has their whole first floor dedicated to non-superhero comics. It's so great.

Not to say I don't love superheroes. Batman and I are getting married. Don't tell anyone; it's going to be a SURPRISE.

It's been suggested by writers for the Examiner that work like yours deemphasizes the visual side in favor of the "literary" side of comics, because after you see the same clipart dinosaurs in the same configurations so many times, you tend to stop noticing them. But I'll put forward my own opinion here, which is that while you're deemphasizing the visual side in the case of your comic specifically, Dinosaur Comics provides a sort of incidental case study proving that it's impossible to separate the two sides. As a novelist I can comfortably say that comic dialogue and prose dialogue are substantively different for a host of reasons, both practical and conventional. In short, Dinosaur Comics without the pictures would be a totally different experience -- even if the pictures aren't really that interesting or important on first glance. You can deemphasize but never eliminate. They're a visual organizing principle that places constraints and supports on/under your work. What would you say to this general line of discussion?

People saying "Yeah, Dinosaur Comics is good, but it's not REALLY a comic" has actually closed a few doors to me, which came as a bit of a surprise initially, since I never thought to question if Dinosaur Comics was a comic or not. For some though, it seems that not changing the images is the most aggressive thing you can do to them, personally, in the medium. Oh well! At a basic level, I don't really see what the controversy is about, besides one person wanting to define what a "comic" is for everyone else, and another person disagreeing with that definition. For me, the fact that is uses sequential images juxaposed in sequence (Scott McClouds's definition, I know!) is enough to make it a comic. I've found that you can't escape the images, even if they repeat. You can deemphasize them, but they never fade away completely, and they do inform what's going on. A comic, as you say, is a world apart from just writing dialog. Obviously, this:

T-Rex: Well, polygamy seemed like a good idea at the time!

is different from seeing it in a comic. As I said before, the positions and facial expressions on the dinosaurs inform their characters, and I really think that if you change their positions even a little, several of the comics wouldn't work: too much of the dialogue depends on what's going on in the frame.

More subtle is the fact that the panel layout does exert a force on what kind of stories I can tell. I was worried initially that it would be entirely restrictive (how many exclamations could I come up with for T-Rex in panel 2, for example?), but there is some flexibility. I can add narration (a "LATER", for instance) at the top of a panel to create some temporal distance in the narrative, or even use entire panels as title cards. But this flexibility IS limited, and it does mean that there's some things I can't do. This in turn means that each Dinosaur Comic is connected to the others, not in terms of narrative, but, at some level, in terms of pacing. I try to mix it up as much as I can, putting punchlines in panels 3 and 4 instead of at the end, and experimenting (as long as the experiment is a success) with other ways of using the panels. The "Choose Your Own Adventure" comics and the one about the impossibility of being immortal through art are good examples of this, I think.

That's something I wanted to get at, too, so I'm glad you brought it up. One of those irritating misconceptions I think people have about your strip, along the lines of that silly "it's not really a comic" line, is that, since you don't have to draw anything new -- other than that one time, with the goatees -- you're able to just throw these things together in like fifteen minutes. So, to disabuse them of that notion, what's the process really like? What goes into producing the comic on a day to day basis?

Oh man, that goatee comic series was a disaster to write for! I thought, "I know, I'm brilliant! I'll mirror the panel layout, thereby giving me six NEW panels to work with!", but the mirrored layout is terrible. Look at it - the way the characters are interacting with each other isn't intuitive from a storytelling perspective at all. I've tried to revisit the mirrored template a few times since then, but it's always been bad news.

It usually takes me 2-3 hours to write a comic, which may not sound like much, but it's a lot for a few paragraphs of text! Often I'll have an idea I want to explore and go from there, researching it if I don't know anything about it. Sometimes (though much more rarely), I'll make comics out of conversations I've had with friends or things that I've written before (the 'songs in pedantic language' comics I wrote in high school and re-discovered recently). Drawing this inspiration occasionally from real life does get me in trouble sometimes, when people assume that stuff that happens to T-Rex happens to me as well. I did a comic where T-Rex got to totally kiss two women at the same time (of course, this was one that ran in the school paper) and I had people congratulating me afterwards. I kept asking why, why am I getting all these high fives?

Often getting a draft out is pretty quick (deciding where I want to go with the topic and how I want to get there), but I'll easily spend a huge amount of time re-writing the last 3 panels, changing punchlines and setup until I find something that works. The original punchline for the raccoon comic was something insanely terrible, like T-Rex saying "What's the deal... with RACCOONS?". It's only after some introspecting over what would be the most messed up thing for a raccoon to say did I come up with "WE WERE NOT MEANT TO BE".

Usually I'll have three or so comics going at once, reshaping each of them a bit at a time until I think they're no longer brutally dumb. Sometimes I'll get lucky and be happy with a comic soon after I've first written it, but I've got a few from years ago that I've pretty much abandoned. I guess the trick to appearing to be a better writer than you actually are is to not show people the sucky stuff!

I like to ask webcomics people what books they would like to mention that they like. So. What books would you like to mention that you like? I noticed a Vonnegut reference in one of your early answers, which I think is awesome, because Vonnegut is THE MAN.

Vonnegut is so good! I love his books, especially Timequake, his last. It's this great blending of the first draft of the novel, the final version, and autobiography. Michael Chabon is another one of my favourite authors - he has such a wonderful phrasing and understanding of people (and comics) that I can only read his books and goggle. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay is a great introduction to his work - not only is it a book that features the golden age of comics, but it's won one of those Pulitzer Prizes I've heard so much about. It's also one of the few books that's made me cry. I love it.

Are you a rocker? Do you rock out?

Heck yes! I spend the better part of my day rocking out! Sometimes "rocking out" gets translated to "answering email and writing comics alone in an empty room" though. I'm not quite sure how that happens.

It happens so often sometimes.

Finally, a question totally unrelated to everything else we've talked about. There are a lot of little ideas, sayings, memes, etc. that have been accepted as common sense by English-speaking cultures at large. For instance: Be careful what you wish for, you might get it! What are a couple of simple phrases of your own formulation that you would elevate to this status, if you could?

Oh man. ALL OF THEM. But to pick a few, I'd really like it if more people would say "Curiosity: Satisfied", if only because that means more hot make-outs all around! I also like the phrase "We can sexy", which, if it were said more often, would certainly lead to more adventures! Besides, come on, we CAN sexy.

Burnsauce (used to emphasize a particularly good burn) has actually been catching on, as near as I can tell. Although it seems likely that many people came up with it at the same time, so I will not be retiring to my solid gold car just yet.

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