Ryan North “…One of the biggest changes we made was to turn Kilgore Trout from a failed scifi novelist into a failed cartoonist…”
GdM – Please tell us a bit about yourself and your work.
Hi, I’m Ryan! If I were to drop in a bio about myself here, it’d PROBABLY say something like “Ryan North is the New York Times-bestselling and Eisner-winning writer whose recent work includes the non-fiction How To Invent Everything: A Survival Guide for the Stranded Time Traveller, the semi-fictional graphic novel adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, and the so-far-fictional Unbeatable Squirrel Girl series for Marvel. He’s also twice collaborated with William Shakespeare on choose-your-own-path versions of his plays. He lives in Toronto, where he writes for video games, television, and his long-running webcomic Dinosaur Comics, and he once messed up walking his dog so badly it made the news.” Probably that’s what it’d say.
GdM – Your most recent work is a graphic novel adaptation of Slaughterhouse-Five. What was your reaction to being asked to adapt Vonnegut, of all people?
Fear, mainly! I’m a huge fan of him and absolutely did not want to mess it up. You don’t want to be the guy who ruined Vonnegut. But once I got into the project the fear went away and was replaced with “okay, what’s the best way to make this work and solve all the little story problems that crop up when moving from one medium to another.” I basically imagined that I was an editor and I’d hired Vonnegut to write a comic called “SLAUGHTERHOUSE-FIVE” and he’d turned in the prose novel instead! So clearly it’s a great book, but it’s entirely unsuitable for comics, and my job was now to fix it and cover for him. What surprised me is how well that worked. SLAUGHTERHOUSE-FIVE slid so well into the new medium, and there’s lots of what Kurt does in the prose that works even better in comics. The way he describes the Tralfamadorian book, for example – paragraphs each describing a single urgent image, which, when taken together, form an image of life that is beautiful and deep – hey, that’s comics right there.
GdM – Vonnegut has a very tragicomic sensibility. Your own work tends to be more upbeat. What was it like adapting something with such a different tone to it?
It wasn’t that hard at all! I wouldn’t be the first writer to confess that, after reading Vonnegut, having to be careful what I write, because his style is so great and so infectious that you start sounding like him, start ripping him off. And normally you have to guard against that, but when doing an adaptation you can lean into it! There were places in the comic where I had to write things that weren’t in the book, places where the prose novel describes a conversation but doesn’t tell you what’s actually said. This works great in prose but less well in comics, so it was like a little prank Vonnegut was playing on me – and as much as you have to condense things to work in comics, I had to flesh these out some. I’m pleased when people tell me they can’t pick those segments out. I passed as Vonnegut!
He’s been great, and the book is great because of him. He’s so insanely talented. Just off the top of my head, one of the things he did with colour was have the characters change to orange once they tasted the orange syrup that they’d stolen. It’s such a simple, beautiful, instantly-intuitive way of showing what was going on in the narrative, how this syrup was affecting them – and he told that story entirely with colour. Gorgeous.
GdM – The Tramalfadorian notion of time feels like it was perfectly meant for comics, and it was pulled off brilliantly. Were there other elements of Slaugherhouse-Five that fit perfectly into comics? What did you and Albert Monteys do to use the medium to its fullest in this adaptation?
One of the biggest changes we made was to turn Kilgore Trout from a failed scifi novelist into a failed cartoonist. I liked it for the meta-joke: comics used to be seen as a juvenile, degenerate medium – especially at the time(s) the story takes place – so it let us humiliate this poor guy even more. But it also let us illustrate his stories as if they were these classic comic adventures (which Albert knocked out of the park, incidentally: even his colouring there matches the style at the time). And it works so well that it’s like they were meant to be seen that way. It was a little change – an easy one that I think anyone would make, given the circumstances – and it felt so natural and intentional. It was a very pleasant surprise!
But you’re right – the Tralfamadorian notion of time is really comics adjacent. There’s a scene where Billy reads one of their books, and Vonnegut describes it as a paragraphs, each urgently describing a single scene, which when taken together add up to something beautiful. Change “paragraph” to “image” and you’ve got a pretty great description of how comics works right there, so it was another easy change to show the Tralfamadorian book as a double-page spread of fascinating, inscrutable, wondrous comics.
GdM – Given the opportunity, are there other Vonnegut novels you would want to adapt?
Honestly, given the opportunity, I’d love to work with Albert and go through all of them in chronological order. I’m not sure we’ll ever get that opportunity – even adapting one of Vonnegut’s work was a huge honour and clearly a career highlight – but that’d be my dream job right there.
Comics can be such a collaborative medium, and what I love about it is we all want the same thing – an amazing book – but all have different skills that still have lots of overlap. So Albert will notice things in the script that could be done better and do them, for example. It’s a team effort and it’s so gratifying and satisfying when it comes together as seamlessly as this book did. Albert’s such an accomplished writer himself that I was humbled he wanted to work with my script!
GdM – To change pace here, you’ve written 3700 Dinosaur Comics and your comic is old enough to vote. How do you keep the joy in something that’s lasted that long?
The joy of Dinosaur Comics is the freedom – it’s still the same six panels I started with in 2003 and still the same (almost) blank slate, but it’s so flexible that you can go anywhere with it. For a few years I thought part of the joy was showing how flexible comics can be, but now, eighteen years in, I think I’ve proven that? So now the fun is the same thing it’s always been, at its core: exploring an idea, a relationship, a thought, and making it as fun and as entertaining as possible.
GdM – Dinosaur Comics also seemed like a test ground for a few larger ideas—specifically your comic The Midas Flesh and the anthology Machine of Death. In a parallel universe what other Dinosaur Comics are being turned into other media?
Hah, you’re not wrong! Midas came out from it, the Machine of Death books, and if we want to follow a chain of causality, my book How to Invent Everything: A Survival Guide for the Stranded Time Traveller is at its core a fleshed-out version of the idea that first appeared on my Time Traveller’s Cheat Sheet t-shirt I sold as part of the Dinosaur Comics merchandise. (I believe that makes How to Invent Everything the world’s first book based on a t-shirt, but I’m not sure how to get Guinness to give me an award for that).
T-Rex did once have an idea for a calendar that had a single page for every day you were alive (statistically, of course) so that you’d carry this huge unwieldy mass of paper with you throughout your live, grumbling every time you moved houses, until the stack got smaller and smaller and less and less inconvenient to move. I never made that product for obvious reasons… but I’d still really like to own it.
GdM – You’ve riffed off Shakespeare three times with Chooseable-Path books. Now you’ve written Vonnegut. What other books would you like to springboard off of?
I like to refer to To Be or Not To Be and Romeo and/or Juliet as my collaborations with my buddy Bill. And you’re right, it’s now two hugely influential writers in English that I’ve been lucky enough to adapt into other mediums! It’s not something I sought out, but if I was looking to do more – I’d suppose a comic version of Hitchhiker’s Guide, maybe? But it’s not like I’m walking through bookstores like a hunter, looking for my next target.
GdM – What are you reading right now?
I’ve been doing a lot of reading for my next nonfiction book, which hasn’t been announced yet so I can’t say much about it except it’s going to be super great and everyone should read it!! But for pleasure I’ve recently read and enjoyed an arc of Charlie Jane Anders’ Victories Greater than Death and I’ve been loving Al Ewing’s work on Immortal Hulk. I also really liked Morgan Murray’s Dirty Birds, which is very fun, very Canadian literature. Also it’s got Vonnegut-style illustrations throughout, so definitely this-interview-adjacent.
GdM – And finally, what projects are you currently working on?
Right now there’s a Power Pack miniseries coming out from Marvel with amazing art by Nico Leon and wonderful, book-defining colours by Rachelle Rosenberg. There’s that secret nonfiction book that I’m very excited about, and a OGN that also hasn’t been announced but is perhaps… even more exciting? So all I can do here is tantalize!
GdM – Thanks so much for doing this!
Check Out Some of Ryan’s Other Articles
I’m funnier without context.
Okay, you want context.
I’m a mid-30s nerd, married, with two kids. Also two cats–Cathulhu and Necronomicat.
I like, in no particular order, tabletop gaming, board games, arguing over books, ancient history and religion, and puns.
I’m unconundrum on reddit.