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Interview With Ryan North, Creator of Dinosaur Comics

To get a better understanding of where Dinosaur Comics fits in the Venn diagram intersection of dinosaur blogs and web comics, I talked with its creator

Photo of Ryan North, courtesy of the subject

Web comics may be a small genre, but a few have risen to widespread popularity in web culture, including XKCD, Indexed, The Oatmeal and Dinosaur Comics, also known as Qwantz. This last one is an odd fit; while it features dinosaurs, the jokes rarely touch on paleontology, and they border on absurd. It’s by most definitions a comic strip, but the art never changes. There’s always T. rex talking with his friends Dromeceiomimus and Utahraptor, as he nearly steps on a small house, car and a woman—memories of clip art from computers of old. To get a better understanding of where Dinosaur Comics fits in the Venn diagram intersection of dinosaur blogs and web comics, I corresponded with Ryan North, the mad genius behind the strip, via e-mail.

Why dinosaurs? And while the T rex. is a natural, why two other, more obscure dinosaurs? No Triceratops?

I wish I had a better answer than “I had some dinosaur clip art lying around.” I actually experimented with Astronaut Comics first, but you don’t get facial expressions wearing a space helmet, so dinosaurs it was! I went with the T. rex as the main character because he’s the celebrity dinosaur: If you know one, it’s him. He’s thought of as this peak predator, unstoppable, and I thought there was a lot of potential for comedy there. Although, in the first version of the comic I never released, there was a Maiasaurus in the first two panels, and if I’d gone with her, it would’ve been a very different comic.

Have you learned a lot about dinosaurs while doing the webcomic?

Yep! SO MUCH. My readers now keep me apprised of every new dinosaur development, so I’ve learned quite a bit. And I had a lot to learn: It’s embarrassing to admit, but since I use the same art over and over, the dinosaurs as they appear in the comic reflect my knowledge of dinosaurs when I started the comic. T. rex walking upright like a person … that makes sense, right? And they were big, like eight stories big, right? Yes, I’ll go with that.

I knew that the house and car and tiny woman were wrong, but with everything else I thought I was doing PRETTY OKAY.

What was your inspiration/reason for keeping the art static across all the comics?

Desperation, really. I’d wanted to do a comic for a while, but being wholly unable to draw kinda limited that ambition, until I came up with this workaround. It turns out there’s tons of people working in comics that can’t draw: A Softer World is a photocomic, others use video games or find other ways to get around it. I think the lesson here is that comics are awesome, and even those who really have no business doing them will love them enough to find a way!

A couple of panels from one of North's strips

If you were to change the art and mix things up, what new dinosaur would you add and what would his or her characteristics be?

I’d like to have someone airborne. I added Pteranodon and a Rhamphorhynchus to the top of the site in my last redesign, and if you scroll down, the page is set up so the pterosaurs are flying above the comic, watching the footer at the bottom of the page from above. So while they’re not IN the comic, they’re still interacting with it a little!

I think it’d be fun to have a super manly, ultimate Rhamphorhynchus hanging around, only despite all his tough talk he eats insects for dinner. Maybe I’d make her female though, to balance out the gender split in the comic.

Another question, the very pedestrian but still interesting: “Where do you get your ideas from?”

There’s a couple of answers to this. I used to worry that I had a finite supply of ideas, that I should hold on to each of them in case it was the last. But then I talked to other cartoonists and I realized, ideas are cheap, you can have a million ideas. The tricky part is the follow-through: making good ones work, making the best out of the raw material! So now I don’t worry about running out of ideas.

That said, there are days where I have no idea what to write. I keep some text files full of protostrips: stuff I started and then abandoned because it wasn’t working, snippets of dialogue, things I’d like to explore but haven’t yet. If I’m stuck I’ll flip through those and try to find something that works! You can treat that like a buffer: I fill it up when I can, and when I can’t, I can dip into it for a starting point.

What did you do before you started Dinosaur Comics, and how did that inform the genesis of the strip?

I was actually a student. I started the comic in undergrad (computer science), continued it through grad school (computational linguistics), and when I graduated I had the choice between getting a real job or seeing if this comics thing could work. No offense to real jobs, but comics seemed a lot more fun. Being as familiar as I was with computers, doing the strip online wasn’t even a decision, though in retrospect I’ve talked to many cartoonists whose default choice is to work in print and going online is a “Big Decision,” or at least a conscious choice. But for me there was no choice, because online I can reach millions of people. I can’t print that many comics on my own!

Being online works really well for any creative work, but especially comics. You have to recognize as a creative person that not everyone’s going to be into what you’re doing. Let’s say 1 in 10 people likes my comic: that means if it’s printed in a paper, 90 percent of the audience will say, “What is this? The pictures don’t change. That’s terrible and now I am physically angry.” Anyone who publishes it is going to get letters about it. But online, that one in 10 can self-select, and when they find my site they say, “Oh man, this is great, this is unlike anything I see in the paper. I’m gonna show this to my friend who shares my sense of humor.” I’d rather have that reader, who loves it, than ten times the number of readers who don’t like it, who read it just because it’s there.

Which web comics do you read?

So many! I link to a ton beneath my comic, operating on the, “if you like my comic, you may like the same comics I like too!” theory. My favourite is Nedroid, which is so good-natured and hilarious. I proposed to my wife with a Nedroid comic that Anthony and I collaborated on. I guess what I’m trying to say is I REALLY LIKE THIS COMIC, YOU GUYS.

Do you foresee any changes coming to the strip anytime soon? What’s next for you?

I don’t know! The comic itself has changed a lot (look at the earlier comics and compare them to the ones I write now and it’s like they’re written by a different author), so I expect I’ll continue that slow evolution over time. Every day I try to write a comic that I myself would like to read, and it’s worked out pretty well so far. I’ll have another book collection coming out soon; the advantage of the books is you can give them as a gift. Our society hasn’t yet evolved to the point where we can say, “Hey, check out this URL,” and pass that off as a present, so until we reach that point, books it is.

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